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This summer I stayed on Dartmoor for a fortnight, and while there I visited the small village of Lydford. Walking from one end to the other in a few minutes, I found it hard to believe that a thousand years ago this was one of the four administrative centres for what is now Devon – second only to Exeter in population, more powerful than Barnstaple and Totnes. But while these estuary towns expanded with Britain’s maritime empire and the industrial revolution that brought the railways carrying goods and people to and from London, Lydford, located high up on the edge of the moor, declined. Today it has a population of just 450. But once it was the most important and feared town on Dartmoor, casting a shadow over its residents even darker than those that still fall on a winter’s night. I returned to the village and the surrounding area several times during my stay, and reading about its history got me thinking about the ongoing relationship between land, class and architecture. For though many things in this country have changed almost beyond recognition over the last millennium, this relationship has not.
It has become an orthodoxy these days to locate wealth and power in the immaterial world of the stock exchange, of financial markets and the long lines of numbers telling us how much we collectively earn or owe, save or spend, as though the hedge-fund managers have convinced us that these abstract figures have a material referent in the world outside the markets of international capital. But as our current housing crisis is showing, real power still resides with the owners of the land on which all but the most wealthy of us must pay all our lives to live; and those we pay are still overwhelmingly the descendants of the same class that has owned the land since the Norman Conquest nearly a thousand years ago. To understand how this state of dispossession can be the inheritance of the British working class and – more to the point – how we must go about overthrowing it, it is important that we locate the current exercise of power by our ruling class within the material history of its acquisition and retention. In this history, Lydford played a small but important part.
1. A Saxon Town
On the western edge of Dartmoor, about seven miles north on the old road from Tavistock to Okehampton, on a promontory of land between two fast-running streams, lies the village of Lydford. The etymology of the name is contested. Some say it is from the Anglo-Saxon hlid, meaning ‘cover’, and refers to the Lyd River, which rises on the moor to the east, and as it runs south of the settlement is all but covered by the bedrock through which it has cut a path over the millenia. Here the once-famous Lydford Bridge looks down onto the rocks 100 feet below. Others say that it derives from hild – as in the Scandinavian women’s name Hildegaard – meaning ‘battle’, which the river does as it noisily fights its way south through the Lydford Gorge. But whatever the origins of the name, it is undoubtedly the defensive position presented by the meeting of the Lyd to the south and its unnamed tributary to the west that led to the settling of the town in the angle between them.
It is possible, therefore, that Lydford was once a Roman fort, an outlier of their most south-westerly encampment of Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter); and there are traces, too, of an even older, Bronze-age fort in Lydford Forest, on the far side of the stream. But Lydford first entered the historical record in the Burghal Hidage (composed 911-919) during the Anglo-Saxon colonisation, when Alfred the Great divided the old Saxon Kingdom of Wessex into four fortified settlements or burhs. For the safety of their inhabitants, no village of farmstead was settled more than twenty miles from a burh – from which we get the name of our current administrative division of land into boroughs. In Wessex these were Escanceaster (Exeter) to the east, Halwell (near Totnes) to the south, Pilton (near Barnstaple) to the North, and to the west, facing the Cornish Britons they had driven into the toe of Britain, Lydford. To complete its defences, the Saxons built ramparts above the already high river banks; and to the north-east, where the town opened onto the moor, they raised a stockaded bank of earth between the two, effectively enclosing the town on its promontory.
During the brief reign of Edward the Martyr (975-978), a Royal mint was founded in Lydford – one of four in Devon – producing coins struck from locally-mined silver between the late-10th and early-11th Centuries. Judging by the horde in the coin museum in Stockholm, it seems most of these ended up in the hands of the Danes, who extorted a levy or Danegeld from the Saxons. In 991 alone, Æthelred the Unready paid 22,000 lbs of gold and silver to the Danes to dissuade them from invading – unsuccessfully, it turned out, because in 997 Lydford was sacked by Viking raids, its inhabitants robbed and killed, their homes burned to the ground.
2. The Norman Prison
Worse was to come, however. Twenty years after the Norman Conquest the Domesday Book of 1086 recorded that 40 homes in Lydford were demolished by King William the Conqueror, presumably in retaliation for whatever resistance to the invaders the residents put up. In 1068, employing a tactic used by every invading army from the legions of Julius Caesar to the international property developers of today, they had erected a rampart topped by huge posts enclosing the west corner of the town. With the already existing defences this formed a ringwork enclosure within which five timber and mud-wall buildings represented the first Norman colonisation of the town.
By 1195, however, following widespread lawlessness and disorder across the region, and with the town in economic decline, this Norman fort had been abandoned and – on the direct order of the recently returned King Richard I – replaced by a far more formidable and lasting structure. Built in the very centre of the town, on the high street running roughly south-west to north-east alone it centre, this was the Norman keep. A square building 52 feet wide of two or three floors, the slate and granite walls are up to 11 foot thick on the ground floor. The entrance to the keep was on the first floor, where a door opened in the north wall onto a rectangular bailey 60 yards long by 40 yards wide. This was protected by raised ramparts topped by a defensive wall and an outer ditch that on its north side ran down to the stream.
In the 1260s, under Richard Earl of Cornwall, the second son of Edward II, Lydford keep was rebuilt. The top floor or floors were demolished and rebuilt better and slightly thinner as a result, though still wide enough to contain the staircase that runs through the north wall to the upper floor and from there to what were most likely the crenellated ramparts around the double-pitched roof. The arrow slits in the bottom walls were filled in with stone, and the entire ground floor was buried in a mound of earth, giving it the appearance of a motte-and-bailey castle. By then this was an antiquated design, but still heavily symbolic of Norman authority and power. The original keep had been divided on its ground floor by an internal cross-wall that runs north-south, with the slightly larger side to the west; and the eastern side was now subdivided into two small rooms by a short wall running west-east, giving the ground floor three rooms, one large and two smaller. The subterranean level now became a true dungeon, lightless and airless, into which prisoners were dropped into the smallest room through a trapdoor in the floor above.
The entrance level, which until the 18th Century was a single square room, with wooden floorboards resting on the internal shelf formed by the thicker walls below, was also used as a gaol, with access to a privy in the north corner of the west wall. This floor too was later divided into three rooms on the same plan as the ground floor. On the floor above, reached by stairs through the wall to the west of the entrance, was the courtroom, with the residence of the constable of the keep partitioned off to the east. Of superior construction and with ceilings twice as high, this level had two privies built into the north corners of the west and east walls – the latter allowing the judge to piss on any prisoner below unfortunate to use it at the same time. It also had a central fireplace, most likely in a dividing wall running north-south that was rebuilt in the 18th Century. At this time the arrow slits on this floor were widened into windows, and benches built into the walls behind them.
There exists today a widely-held misconception that a castle is built to protect those over whom it stands guard, which in this case was the residents of Lydford. In reality the exact opposite is true. A castle, and especially a keep, is not a weapon of defence but of offence, built not to protect the people but to threaten and control them. Rather than keeping attackers out, it is primarily designed to imprison people within its walls; as proof of which, the door to this keep was barred from the outside. That said, the keep and bailey were also designed to resist any thoughts of liberating its prisoners in the minds of the townsfolk; and on every floor a number of arrow-slits built into the walls allowed defenders to shoot crossbow bolts at would-be attackers with relative impunity. Although two of these slits open onto the bailey to the north in case its defences were ever penetrated, the majority open to the south and east – which is to say, onto the town itself and its people. In times of civil unrest or even rebellion, this is where the lord of the manor, constable of the keep, bailiff, sheriff, gaolers, judges, executioners, rector, clergymen and any passing nobility would hide from the anger of the people – before setting their men-at-arms on them in bloody retaliation, with raised taxes to follow.
Referred to in contemporary documents as a domusfirmead custodiendos prisones (strong house to watch over prisoners) and the castelli de Lideford (Lydford Castle), and paid for by Crown revenues extracted at the point of a spear from the labourers of both Devon (who paid £32) and Cornwall (£42), the keep primarily served as a courtroom and prison for those same labourers who broke the laws of Forest and Stannary under Charter to Richard I. It would go on to serve this function for the next 600 years, until it was finally superseded in 1809 by the Dartmoor prison in Princetown.
Founded as a small settlement in 1785, Princetown was named after the Prince of Wales by his obsequious secretary, Thomas Tyrwhitt, Lord Warden of the Stannaries and Rider of the Forest of Dartmoor. Hoping to curry favour and funding for his new development – from which, like all property developers, he planned to raise revenues for his own pocket – this is a model of ‘patronage’ that survives to this day in the public funds handed out to housing associations and private developers by government ministers, city mayors and council leaders alike. The Princetown development failed, however, and the prison blocks that were built in their place to hold French and American prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars were left to ruin when the wars ended in 1816. But in 1850, under the reign of Queen Victoria, they were repaired to imprison those subjects of Her Majesty who could no longer be transported to Australia in large numbers, where 164,000 convicts would be sent in the 80 years between 1788 and 1868 (over 2,000 every year). Today, Princetown is still a prison, with a recent history of rebellion, overcrowding, budget cuts, bad food, violence, murder, suicide and Human Rights abuses of its 600 inmates. Let to the Ministry of Justice for a tidy sum, Dartmoor prison is part of the holdings of the Duchy of Cornwall.
3. The Laws of Extortion
‘Stannary’ comes from the Latin stannum, meaning ‘tin’, the mining of which in Devon is first recorded in the 1st Century B.C. By the latter half of the 12th Century, a hundred year after the Norman Conquest, Dartmoor was the largest producer of tin in Europe. Stannary laws, therefore, referred to the collection of taxes levied on each block of finished metal pounded and smelted from the ore. The blocks were all tested by an assay master who chiselled away a coign, from the French for ‘corner’, before giving it an official stamp, thereby giving rise to the term ‘coinage’ to describe the process and ‘coins’ to its product. These taxes were finally abolished in 1838, and in 1896 the Stannary court that had enforced their collection went with them; but in the intervening centuries the Norman keep served as both court and prison.
To earn himself incarceration in this dungeon, a man or woman had only to fall into debt, fail to pay whatever taxes the Parish Church, Lord of the Manor, Earl of Cornwall, and King of England levied upon him, resist the men-at-arms who came to collect it, carve off his own coinage from the metal he mined from the earth, or trespass upon the land of another mine owned by the descendant of a close friend of William the Conqueror. Few prisoners ever emerged from its walls. The conditions in the gaol were such that many prisoners preferred execution to rotting in its pits. There is no record of what those handful of working men and women of Dartmoor Forest who lived to tell the tale experienced in the damp underground cells, where rats swam in the rising water whenever the rain fell – as it often does in Dartmoor; but in 1508, during the reign of King Henry VIII, Richard Strode, the Member of Parliament for Plympton Erle in south-west Devon, was incarcerated within its walls for three weeks. He had had the temerity to complain that the Dartmoor rivers were becoming contaminated by the tin mining. In response, the Stannary courts at Lydford, Barnstaple, Totnes and Exeter each fined him £40 and then threw him into the prison at Lydford. According to his own account, he was imprisoned in one of the undergound pits. His gaoler was bribed to keep him in leg-manacles and fed on a diet of bread and water, presumably to hasten his end; but a counter-bribe by the wealthy Strode – who was himself a tinner – brought him healthier fare. Strode later described the keep as ‘one of the most hanious, contagious and detestable places in the realm’; but thanks to a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer he was eventually released, and in 1512 Strode persuaded his colleagues to pass the Privilege of Parliament Act that grants MPs impunity from prosecution for Parliamentary activities.
For those who didn’t have Strode’s connections or riches, this didn’t stop ‘Lydford Law’ becoming a bi-word for summary justice. In his 1644 ballad A Lyford Journey, William Browne of Tavistock wrote:
I oft have heard of Lydford law, How in the morn they hang and draw, And sit in judgement after. At first I wonder’d at it much, But since I find the matter such As it deserves no laughter.
In the same year, the third of the English Civil War, the doomed King Charles I appointed the Royalist turncoat Sir Richard Grenville – another bloody Norman – to secure the tin supplies of Cornwall and Devon to finance the Royalist campaign. In the course of doing so Grenville used his position to extort money for himself, arbitrarily imprisoned numerous men, and summarily executed many more. One of these was an unnamed man who was hanged at Gallows Hill, a raised mound to the east of the town of Lydford.
After the West Country Rebellion of 1685, the keep was the site of one of the ‘Bloody Assizes’ which, under ‘Hanging Judge Jeffries’ – the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench – condemned around 1,400 rebels to be burned at the stake, hung from a gallows, transported to the West Indies as cheap labour, or just left to rot in dungeons like Lydford gaol. After his bloody task was completed, George Jeffries was rewarded by King James II, who made him Lord Chancellor and elevated him to the peerage as 1st Baron Jeffries ‘for the many eminent and faithful services to the Crown’. I’m happy to report that after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Jeffries – who was arrested, disguised as a sailor, in a Wapping pub – was himself incarcerated in the Tower of London (another Norman prison) where he died the following year. His remains, recovered by his family and interred in the Church of St. Mary Aldermanbury in the City of London, were destroyed when his tomb took a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during the Blitz. As Trotsky wrote: ‘The revenge of history is more powerful than the most powerful People’s Commissar for Enlightenment’.
4. The Laws of the Land
Besides breaking the laws of Stannery, residents of Dartmoor could also be imprisoned for breaking the laws of the Forest. A forest, from the French word forêt, was a Norman invention. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon weald, meaning ‘woodland’, a forest was (and largely still is) a legal term denoting uncultivated land set aside for hunting by the Norman feudal nobility. A mixture of open woodland, heath, pasture, commons, farms, villages and towns, the Royal Forest of Dartmoor was also, however, subject to the Rights of Common that gave leasehold farmers or commoners with land adjacent to the forest certain rights. These included the right to cut peat for fuel; to take stone from the moor for building; to cut bracken, fern and heather for thatch and animal litter; to graze pigs, sheep and cattle on its land; to collect fallen timber and kindling for firewood; and from 1219, under writ of King Henry III, to burn such wood into charcoal for the furnaces of the tin miners. In 1337, under Edward the Black Prince and the first Duke of Cornwall, the rights of pasturage were limited to between sunrise and sunset, with those farmers found trespassing after dark subject to a fine of 3d, the failure to pay which would, once again, land them in Lydford prison.
To get an idea of how the feudal system worked in practice, let’s look at the manor of East Lydford in Somerset – not the same place as its namesake in Devon, for which I can’t find the same details, but representative of revenues from land ownership after the Norman Conquest. In 1066, the year of the Conquest, East Lydford was held by Alward, a thegn or aristocratic retainer of King Harold II. By 1086 it was held by Roger de Courcelles, and rated for geld – or land tax – at 4 hides. A hide, from the Anglo-Saxon hid – which shares its root with hiwan, meaning ‘family’ – was a unit of land measurement originally intended to represent the amount of land sufficient to support a household. It was traditionally taken to be 120 acres, but was in fact a measure of value and tax assessment, including obligations for food rent (feorm), maintenance and repair of bridges, roads and burhs, manpower for the army (fyrd) at a rate of one armed soldier from every five hides, and, eventually, the geld or land tax. In 1086, under King William the Conqueror, the hidage assessments were recorded in the Domesday Book, and there was a tendency for land producing £1 of income per year to be assessed at 1 hide.
In the manor of East Lydford, 3 hides and half a virgate (a quarter of a hide or roughly 30 acres) were held in demesne – that is to say, retained for the owner’s own use, but which 6 serfs were obliged to work with 2 ploughs. The remainder of the land, 3½ virgates, was tilled by 6 villeins (from which we get the word ‘villain’: feudal tenants entirely subject to the Lord or the Manor, to whom they paid dues and services in return for land) and 3 bordars (a lower class of serf in the hierarchy of the manor, holding just enough land to feed a family, around 1-5 acres). They did so with 1½ ploughs, although there was land for 5 ploughs. Only 40 acres of meadow are mentioned in the Domesday Book, but the number of stock – 1 horse for riding, 6 cows, 13 pigs and 160 sheep – suggests a large amount of unrecorded pasture, probably on Lydford moor. The income from the whole manor at the time of Domesday was valued at £14 5s, with the principal coming from leasing summer and winter pasture to tenants (for those too young to remember, there were 12 pence (d) in a shilling (s), and 20 shillings in a pound). In 1394 there were twelve tenants, comprising one freeholder, one holding a virgate, three holding ½ a virgate, five holding a fardel (around 10 acres), one holding ½ a fardel, and one holding a single close. In 1398 one of the tenants – a nativus or serf born into bondage with the land – had his daughter sold for £1. The following year – possibly fearing the same or simply to escape the brutal conditions of their bondage – two other nativi fled the manor – a crime which could, and most often did, land them in a prison like that in Lydford.
To return to our town in Devon, the deer in Dartmoor Forest were at all times off limit to the Anglo-Saxon commoners, being the exclusive preserve – along with boar, wolves, hare and rabbit – of the Norman nobility, who retained – and largely retain still, along with their fox-hunting rituals – the freehold on the land. The punishment for poaching was to cut off the offender’s hands, castration, blinding or hanging – though to a serf with a starving family this was sometimes worth the risk. From these Sumptuary laws came the clear division within the English language between pig and pork (from the French porc), lamb and mutton (mouton), cow and beef (boeuf), and deer and venison (venaison): the first, Anglo-Saxon term, denoting the animal they peasants farmed; the second, French term, denoting the meat only the Normans were permitted to eat.
5. Class War on Dartmoor
But the Normans didn’t have it all their own way. In 1514, with England’s coffers emptied by Henry VIII’s invasion of France the previous year, the Lydford keep was attacked ‘unlawfully and riotously, in the manner of an invasion’ by John Thomas Coole and fourteen other men, who broke through into the bailey and, under the nose of the bailiff, drove off forty oxen and steers and ten geldings. These had been taken from the same John Coole in lieu of taxes on their tin mining – no doubt increased to pay for the King’s war games with his French cousins. Coole and his men were declared outlaws and subsequently lived on the moor, avoiding capture by the authorities and living off cattle rustling until they were pardoned in a general amnesty in 1523. Who says crime doesn’t pay?
The most famous outlaws to defy the tyranny of the nobility, judiciary and clergy were the Gubbins. This may have been the family name of the gang leaders, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary Gubbins refers to miscellaneous items, paraphernalia, odds and sods; but also worthless sharings of fish, from the 16th-century ‘gobbon’, meaning a piece, slice or gob, which was in turn derived from the Old French word gobbet, which was a piece of flesh or food. But it can also refer to something unspecified whose name is either not known or has now been forgotten, much like the meaning of the word itself. This band of outlaws – the Gubbins – who have passed into local legend and were recorded in several fictional accounts during the 19th Century, apparently lived during the 16th Century in Lyford Gorge, which runs south from the village for several miles. Almost impassable in places except to those who knew its ways well, the gorge still contains several caves in which hunted men could shelter. Men-at-arms in armour had little chance of penetrating its depths, and little incentive to brave its slippery paths, raging cauldrons of water, precipitous cliffs and easily loosed boulders, not to mention the deadly arrows of the outlaws who sought refuge from the King’s laws in its lawless depths. As William Brown wrote in A Lyford Journey:
And near hereto’s the Gubbins cave, A people that no knowledge have Of law, of God, or men: Whom Caesar never yet subdued; Who’ve lawless liv’d, of manners rude; All savage in their den.
The reference to Caesar suggests that the Gubbins may even have been Britons, who in the eyes of the Normans were even lower down the social scale than the Anglo-Saxons. But for a testimony of the class hatred felt by Church, Crown and State for these outlaws, perhaps the most eloquent account is that written by Thomas Fuller, Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge University, in his History of the Worthies of England (1662):
‘The Gubbings land is a Scythia within England, and they be pure heathens therein. It lyeth near Brentor, in the edge of Dartemore. It is reported that some two hundred years since, two strumpets being with child, fled hither to hide themselves, to whom certain lewd fellows resorted, and this was their first original. They are a peculiar of their own making, exempt from Bishop, Archdeacon, and all authority either ecclesiastical or civil. They live in cotts (rather holes than houses) like swine, having all in common, multiplied, without marriage, into many hundreds. Their language is the drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian; and the more learned a man is the worse he can understand them. During our Civil Wars, no soldiers were quartered amongst them, for fear of being [drawn and] quartered amongst them. Their wealth consists in other men’s goods, and they live by stealing sheep on the More, and vain it is for any to search their Houses, being a work beneath the pains of a Sherriff and beyond the powers of any constable. Such their fleetness, they will outrun many horses; vivaciousness, they outlive most men; living in the ignorance of luxury, the Extinguisher of Life, they hold together like burrs; offend one, and all will revenge his quarrel.’
I particularly like ‘drosse of the dregs of the vulgar Devonian’, an epithet worthy of our Latin-quoting, pickaninny-calling Foreign Minister in its contempt for the working class. But still more do I like the information that these outlaws ‘held together like burrs; offend one, and all will revenge his quarrel.’ Denigrated here as characteristic of unthinking nature – burrs, swine and the incestuous – this is the very model of working-class solidarity in the face of the class war waged against them. By the middle of the 17th Century it seems the clan had ceased to exist, either converted to Christian servitude by Jesuit priests hiding in the gorge from Cromwell’s Roundheads – too scared, as this account records, to venture in – or hunted down and killed by Restoration Cavaliers looking for someone to blame for their exile from power. But according to the 1851 census there were still nine families named Gubbins born in the Tavistock area alone, most of which were agricultural labourers and miners; and apparently residents with this family name live in the Parish of Lydford today.
6. The Way of the Dead
On all this the church in Lydford looked unmoving. A Saxon church had been founded at the south end of town in 641, dedicated to Saint Petroc, a missionary who had arrived from Wales via Ireland in the 6th Century and set about colonising what is now Cornwall and Devon with the dictates of Saint Patrick. For several centuries after the Norman Conquest the church rector had a French name, and dutifully served his Norman paymasters, absolving the constable and his gaolers of their many and bloody sins, preaching duty, forbearance and servitude to the poor – who paid one-tenth of their produce in tithes to the church at the end of a soldier’s polearm, promising them escape in the afterlife from the earthly tyranny over which the Church and it patrons of robber barons presided. But perhaps the most revealing image of the contempt in which the Church held the common people, serfs, villeins and bondsmen that were regarded as little different to the cattle that came with the land, is that of the path or way after which this article is titled.
Called the ‘Lych Way’, from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘corpse’, the Way of the Dead led to the Church of St. Petroc in Lydford from the Ancient Tenements in Dartmoor Forest, which lay along the West Dart, East Dart and Wallabrook rivers on the far eastern side of Dartmoor. To give you an diea of their size, a document from 1300 notes that one of these tenements housed 25 villeins with 12 ferlings of land. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon furlang, meaning the long furrow a Medieval ploughman could dig with his oxen, a firling is a quarter of a virgate, or roughly 7½ acres. Granted grazing rights in the forest, many of these farmsteads still survive today in the farms and hamlets of Babeny, Bellever, Brimpts, Brownberry, Dunnabridge, Dury, Hartyland, Hexworthy, Huccaby, Lakehead, Merripit, Pizwell, Prince Hall, Riddon, Runnage, and Sherberton. Despite their distance from Lydford to the west, they fell within its parish boundaries, which meant that parishioners had to travel on foot across the moor to their parish church of St. Petroc. Today the Lych Way still survives and can be followed between Lydford and Bellever, 12 miles away over the moor. This was one of the closest tenements to Lydford; others, such as Hexworthy on the far side of the West Dart, were a further 3 miles away, which meant adding 6 miles to the journey.
Undoubtedly the harshness of their lives made the farmers of Medieval Dartmoor tougher and more enduring than anyone alive in Modern Britain, but it still seems incredible that this journey could have been completed in a single day without leaving the parishioners exhausted. Dartmoor is a raised plateau of rolling hills and tors with the occasional steep river valley to cross; but its surface is an uneven bog of grass tussocks and marsh through which even a well-worn path requires careful passage. And yet throughout the year and in all weathers, the tenant farmers and miners, their pregnant wives and labouring children, had to walk over hill and heath, around woods and across streams, through mud and snow, in howling wind, burning sun and pouring rain, rising hours before dawn and returning long after sunset, there and back for between 24 and 30 miles – and this on their so-called ‘day of rest’, all in order to consume a wafer of wheat-paste for their famished stomachs and have their parched foreheads dabbed with water by a priest whom their labour kept in a soft bed in the rectory just across the road, dressed in fine-woven gowns and warm furs against the cold, fed on a table stocked from the animals they themselves raised and farmed by the sweat of their labour, through the wombs of their women and the lives of their children, and which the church stole from them in the tithes it collected under the shadow of the gallows.
In 1260, nearly 200 years after their subjugation by their Norman overlords, and around the time the second keep was being built with their taxes, Walter Branscumbe, the Bishop of Exeter, graciously granted his impoverished and exhausted ‘flock’ – as the Church likes to call us – permission to undergo his cult’s bizarre rituals in the church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, which lies in a valley on the eastern side of Dartmoor Forest. Funerals, however, still had to be conducted in the parish church of St. Petroc. The reason for this was simple. No Lydford rector was willing to relinquish the additional revenue this ritual allowed the Church to extract from the poor. Those fortunates who had escaped forever the tyranny of Church and aristocracy therefore had to be carried, on backs or in carts, across the moor to be laid – for a price – in the graveyard at Lydford. It was this that gave its name to the final journey every tenant on Dartmoor would make, The Way of the Dead.
As an illustration of the fees extracted from this shakedown of the bereaved, in 1747, when a certain John Weeks was found drowned in the West Dart River, four men were each paid 1s 6d to watch over his body the first night; three men were paid the same the next night; and an allowance of 1s 6d was set aside for the fuel consumed during their watch. In addition, the Lydford coroner was paid 13s 4d to establish that John Weeks was not a suicide, which would have removed him from the church racket; to which end one John Elliott was paid 2s 6d to testify to a story about how he had slipped and fallen into the Dart, rather than thrown himself in. A further 2s was paid to one John Potter for dragging the bier and digging the grave. And, finally, the Rector, Hugh Tonken, was paid 6s – four times the night watch – for performing the funeral rites. Under the direction of the Church of St. Petroc, therefore, and the orders of the Norman prison, the death of a commoner generated £1 15s 10d for the town worthies. Based on the relative value a wage labourer would use to buy a commodity, that’s equivalent to about £3,379 in today’s money. Not bad for a corpse. Who says the dead can’t pay?
And the living too. A survey of the Borough of Lydford made in 1650 and preserved in the Office of the Duchy of Cornwall records that:
‘The Quit Rents, or Rents of the Assize [i.e. the Lydford court], of the said Borough doe amounte to yearly the sum of £3 1s 4d; part of which said Rents (viz. £3) is paid to the Rector of the Parish of Lidford in lieu of all the tithes of the Forest of Dartmoore.’
As if this wasn’t enough to fatten their already bulging wallets, the dispensation granted by His Grace to attend mass in Widecombe only extended to the Ancient Tenements. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, when new tenants settled to the south, they applied for but did not receive this ecclesiastical indulgence, and so had to march the 30 or more miles to Lydford and back every Sunday to receive the bread and water sacraments. And every tenant of Dartmoor, no matter where they settled, was still required to walk to Lydford prison three times a year when the Stannery and Forest Court sat in judgement over misdemeanours both ecclesiastical and civil. And, of course, it was here that the Rector conducted the marriages and other state-sanctioned extortions by which the Church locked its ideological and economic manacles around the limbs and minds of the poorest members of the English population. That we continue to participate in and indulge these practices today, and permit the continued existence of the evil institution that supports and perpetuates its power over our class, is not the least barrier to overthrowing the oppression and power of the ruling class.
7. A Royal Tax Haven
In 1239 King Henry II gave Dartmoor Forest, including Lydford town, to his brother Richard, the 1st Earl of Cornwall. This turned Dartmoor from a ‘forest’ into a ‘chase’, which meant that the King could keep beasts of the chase on another man’s land as well as his own, with the power to hunt them over that land, and that such game was protected even from the owner of the land. It also meant Dartmoor fell under the jurisdiction of Common Law and the four Manor Courts, one of which was located in Lydford prison, thereby greatly increasing its power.
However, in 1300, on the death of Earl Richard’s son Edmund, the 2nd Earl of Cornwall, who had no male heir to inherit, the estate reverted to the Crown. Then in 1337, by Great Royal Charter, King Edward III gave the whole estate to his own son, Edward the Black Prince, and raised the Earldom to a Duchy. Under this charter the manors of the Earldom passed to the Duchy, and its severance from the Crown afforded the Duke certain rights and responsibilities in the county of Cornwall which continue to this day, including the right to appoint the county’s Sheriff, and, of course, to the profits from the county courts, the stannaries and the ports. Ever since its creation, the Duchy of Cornwall has been a source of revenue for the Crown Prince and heir apparent, who inherits it at birth, and who since 1301 has traditionally been given the title of the Prince of Wales, accurately reflecting his royal role as invader, coloniser and thief. But it is also a right of passage to the Prince’s accession to Thief in Chief, or the King of the United Kingdom as he will one day be known. Demonstrate to his sovereign that he can keep the local people under his heel, extract the maximum amount of surplus value from their labour without starving the population that produces it or driving them to rebellion, send the proceeds of their labour back to the crown – and one day, when the heir apparent accedes to the throne and breeds more thieves to rule over and steal from us, his own son will do the same for him.
Little has changed since those days. Today the Duchy totals 135,000 acres, nearly half of it in Devon, but with other large holdings in Cornwall, Herefordshire, Somerset and almost all of the Isles of Scilly. The consent of the Prince of Wales is still required before Parliament can even debate a draft bill affecting his prerogatives or interests – including, therefore, his hereditary revenues, personal property and other interests in the Duchy of Cornwall. And the property of anyone who dies in the county of Cornwall without a will or identifiable heirs, as well as assets belonging to dissolved companies registered in Cornwall, pass to the Duchy. Lydford remains in Royal possession as part of the estate, and even today the Duchy office at Buckingham Gate in London contributes to the salary of the Rector of Lydford Church out of its huge income from the estate.
In 2013 the current incumbent – His Royal Highness The Prince Charles Philip Arthur George (née Mountbatten-Windsor), Prince of Wales, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Australia, Companion of the Order of Canada, Queen’s Service Order, Privy Counsellor, Aide de Camp to Her Majesty the Queen, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland – received a private income of £19 million from his financial investment portfolio, farming, residential and commercial land and properties in the Duchy of Cornwall. In the same year the estate was valued at £763 million. Clearly short of a bob or two, in addition to this private income he also received £1.1 million from the British taxpayer. Out of this income Prince Charles covers the costs of 125.5 full-time positions, plus 8 personal staff, including secretaries, chefs and stable staff, 15 estate, farm and garden staff, and the 10.5 full-time staff waiting on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry – a total of 159 full-time servants for him and his two brats.
Although Prince Charles has paid income tax on his Duchy of Cornwall income since 1993 – having deducted amounts which he considers to be ‘official expenditure’, which includes the salaries of his 159 staff – the Duchy is treated as a crown body by the UK government, and is therefore exempt from paying either corporation tax or capital gains tax. I repeat, this is an estate valued at £763 million. At the same time, it is regarded as private for the purposes of transparency, and the official expenditure of the Prince of Wales is not audited by the National Audit Office. And ever since the Sovereign Grant Act was passed as law in 2011, revenues from the Duchy of Cornwall will pass to the heir to the throne regardless of whether that heir is the Duke of Cornwall. Now you know why the coat of arms for the Duchy of Cornwall is sable with 15 bezants, or gold coins, arranged in rows of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
8. Our English Heritage
In 1932 the Duchy of Cornwall transferred the keep in Lydford into the guardianship of the Office of Works. It is now under the management of English Heritage, which calls it a ‘Castle’ and maintains the immaculately cut lawns that cover the motte and ramparts. Sitting atop its grass-grown mound looking down onto the pretty Church of St Petroc, Lydford Castle can seem like a picturesque place, romantic even in the late evening sun. In the church a rather nice booklet compiled by the Rector and titled Lyford Lives – purchased for £1.45 or simply pocketed for free – does its dutiful best to whitewash the bloody deeds and extortionate functions of both buildings with a nostalgic, ecclesiastical and royalist account of history. But stand on the keep’s entrance floor as the sun sets and look down into the windowless pit into which prisoners were thrown, and the horror and power this building exerted over the population of Dartmoor for six centuries begins to materialise out of the rising dark. This is architecture as weapon in the class war; architecture as threat of retribution; architecture as corporal punishment; architecture as safety deposit box for theft; architecture as symbol of aristocratic power; architecture as embodiment of the king’s divine right over his subjects – their bodies, their labour and their lives in saecula saeculorum; architecture, above all, as ownership of the land, from which all other power and rights derive.
Today, just 0.3 per cent of our population – 160,000 families – owns two-thirds of the 60 million acres of land in the United Kingdom, making us second only to Brazil as the country with the most unequal land distribution in the world. More than a third of that land is still owned by the Royal family and the aristocracy. Those who own it, who inherited it from their fathers and will bequeath it to their sons, are mostly the descendants of Normans, or at least Anglo-Normans – the Beauchamps, D’Arcys, FitzWilliams, Harcourts, Lyons, Mandevilles, Percys and other inbred aristocrats from the ninety or so families that tied their banners to William the Bastard’s mast and fought with him at the Battle of Hastings, then administered the feudal system he enforced on England when they won. Under the Norman yoke, half the country was placed into the hands of 190 aristocrats, and a quarter of it was owned by just 11 of them. But that wasn’t the end of the theft.
Until the 13th Century, common waste, moor, woodland and pasture, though belonging to the lord of the manor, could not be taken out of common. But as the demand for land by the sons of landless farmers increased, so the lords became more tempted by the prospect of more rent. In response, in 1235 the Statute of Merton, agreed between King Henry III and the feudal barons of England, made it legal for parts of the waste to be enclosed on the condition that there was sufficient land remaining for the commoners to pasture their oxen and stock. Enforcing this conditional clause, however, was all but impossible for an illiterate and impoverished peasantry.
The so-called Tudor Clearances that began in the late-15th Century were similarly driven by the profits of aristocratic landowners. A declining population meant there was a smaller workforce of agricultural labourers to till the soil, and as a result land values fell. With wool at a premium and requiring relatively less labour, sheep farming offered greater profits to landowners. In order to enforce enclosure of common land, lords increased rents to evict commoners from their homes, and harsh penalties were introduced against anyone who continued to use their lost rights of common. The poverty and suffering among the common people that followed led to a series of rebellions, including Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1459; Robert Kett’s Rebellion of 1549; the Midland Revolt of 1607, in which thousands of Levellers pulled down hedges and fences and filled in ditches; and the actions of the Protestant radicals during the English Civil War, when enclosures were ignored and freehold land reclaimed, cultivated and built on by the Diggers, who in their manifesto wrote:
‘The earth (which was made to be a common treasury of relief for all, both beasts and men) was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and slaves; and that earth, that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.’
Finally, between the mid-18th and late-19th Centuries, the Parliamentary Enclosures saw 5,200 enclosure bills enacted in law, enclosing 6.8 million acres of land in England alone and another 1.7 million in Wales. The primary justification for this was that the common open-field system of farming, which had been around for nearly a thousand years, was unable to adapt to modern farming methods, and that enclosure would improve agricultural yields. Not only that, but it would morally improve the feckless and idle tenant farmer by driving him into wage slavery in the factories of Britain’s rapidly expanding textile industry. Writing in 1758, on the very cusp of the Industrial Revolution, the agriculturalist Thomas Hale argued that:
‘The advantage that a poor man has by keeping two or three sad creatures of cattle of any kind upon the common land, are not nearly equal to what he and his family would find by being sure to know where to get constant employment as labourers. The privilege is indeed a source of idleness: and that can never be for private or public advantage.’
In reality, the motivation for land enclosure wasn’t public advantage but private profit. In his excellent article ‘A Short History of Enclosure in Britain’, which was published in The Land in 2009, Simon Fairlie writes about why small holdings and allotments cultivated by spade at the turn of the 19th Century, despite being more productive than large farms cultivated by the plough, were nevertheless enclosed by large landowners. It was generally acknowledged that rural labourers could not live and support their families on their wages alone, and relied for their subsistence on access to enough land to keep a cow and cultivate a garden. Not only that, but those with access to the tiny amount of land required to do so hardly ever needed to apply for so-called ‘poor relief’ administered by the ever-generous Church. So what possible reason could there be for further enclosure of common land?
In response to these arguments, economists advising the Whig government of the day, drawing on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) – just as monopoly capitalists blabbing about a free market continue to do today – argued that nothing should be allowed to hold back the ‘invisible hand’ of economic self interest, and that the only way to alleviate the poverty of the poor was by increasing the nation’s capital – what we would now call its Gross Domestic Product. More specifically, landowners pointed out that following enclosure rents always rose – even to three or four times as much – not from any improvement in the land but from the eviction of commoners. A similar thing happens to land prices today when secure tenants are evicted from the council homes that were rather inconveniently built on it. But while rent contributes to GDP, it is an unreliable indicator of productivity.
To take an example, even if twenty 5-acre farms, each cultivated by a family of commoners, were more productive than a single 100-acre farm cultivated by machinery-operating rural labourers, this would not mean that the landowner would get more rent. Since each of the 5-acre farms might support a family, the surplus it generates for tenants to pay in rent would be relatively small. The single tenant farmer, by contrast, hiring zero-hour labourers as and when he needed them, might have a lower overall yield from his 100-acre farm, but he would have a larger net profit; and it was from that profit that the rent he paid the landowner was derived. The less productive large farm may produce a smaller yield, and therefore contribute less to national productivity, but the profit to the landowner is greater. Even with the so-called ‘poor rate’ he would have to pay in taxes to support the twenty families driven off the land and into the workhouse as a result, it was more profitable for landowners to enclose the commons, evict the commoners and rent the privatised land to single tenants of large farms. The use value of the land for the cultivation of crops, or even as homes for the rural labourers that produced the food, was subordinate to the profits the owner of the land extracted from its exchange value. The same economic logic and class relations apply to the programme of estate demolition that today is replacing hundreds of thousands of council homes across England and Wales with high-value properties for capital investment. Their use value as homes for those in need of housing is almost nil; the profits they yield to developers, investors and landowners is enormous.
As a result of this long history of theft, today the Duke of Northumberland – whose ancestor, John Dudley, had revived the Statute of Merton in 1550 when he led the government of the young King Edward VI – owns 130,000 acres; the Duke of Westminster owns 133,000 acres – the most lucrative of it in Mayfair and Belgravia; the Duke of Atholl owns 146,000 acres; and, of course, the Dukes of Cornwall and Lancaster – better known as the Prince of Wales and his mum – own, respectively, 135,000 and 45,500 acres, with the Queen also owning an additional 74,000 acres from the estates of Balmoral, Delnadamph and Sandringham. In Scotland – where the Highland Clearances, like the Tudor Clearances before them, evicted tenant farmers to make way for sheep – things are even worse, with a mere 432 landowners – among them the Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry with 240,000 acres – still owning half the privately-held land. Outside the Royal family, Britain’s 24 Dukes own nearly 1,150,000 acres of land, all of it held in trust, which means the recipient avoids paying inheritance tax – as the 7th Duke of Westminster recently demonstrated when he paid zero tax on his £9 billion share of the Grosvenor estate. And no list of England’s great thieves would be complete without the Church of England, which still owns 105,000 acres of rural land in England and Wales and a property portfolio worth almost £2 billion. Finally, the Crown estate – which is inherited by our reigning monarch – in addition to an urban portfolio worth £9.1 billion, 15,500 acres from the Windsor estate and 287,000 acres of agricultural land and forest, also owns 55 per cent of the UK’s foreshore plus the entire seabed out to the 12 nautical miles limit – some 23.6 million acres in total. Valued in 2016 at £12 billion and producing a £304 million net revenue profit – 25 per cent of which will be paid to the UK monarch for the next 10 years to cover the costs of refurbishing her London residence – there really is no other organisation in the world that resembles the Crown estate as a legal entity.
As I said at the beginning of this article, to understand how this state of dispossession can be the inheritance of the British people we must situate the current exercise of power by our ruling class not in some unassailable right of inheritance, but within the violent and bloody history of its acquisition and retention – militarily, legally and politically. More to the point, it is in the face of this enforced expropriation of our putative birthright from the population of our disunited Kingdom that the revisionism of parliamentary politics is most clearly revealed as the ineffectual irrelevance that it is.
The Way of the Dead is the path of the landless over the land that has been stolen from them, and the poor have walked it since the concept of owning land first emerged in the Neolithic in response to the invention of animal husbandry and agriculture, which reached these isles around 6000 years ago. But the wholesale theft of the land a thousand years ago by our current ruling class represents a level of dispossession unparalleled in our history – with which, nonetheless, the huge majority of the sleepy, docile, subservient and loyal subjects of Her Majesty appear quite content. This is our English heritage. But until we take this land back the only way we can, the claims of equality of rights and opportunity under the laws of this stolen land are as meaningless and empty as the promises of salvation made by the rectors of Lydford Church to the rent-paying tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall.
Simon Elmer Architects for Social Housing
Architectural drawings by Geraldine Dening.
My thanks and acknowledgments to Tim Sandles, whose Legendary Dartmoor has been a source of information and pleasure throughout the writing of this text. And although I don’t share his understanding of history, Canon Martyn Batemen’s Lydford Lives has also been useful. In addition to Simon Fairlie’s article, my account of the history of enclosure – including several quotes – is drawn on the potted history contained in John Wright’s always fascinating A Natural History of the Hedgerow (2016).
I remember Corbyn at the Brighton love-in,
He was talking so brave about ‘faith’,
Promising salvation on regeneration
While Labour councils demolish estates.
Those were his excuses, but this is London,
We are fighting for our homes on the streets,
Where sound-bites are swallowed by believers in lies,
Labour voters and estate residents.
Ah, but you got away with it, didn’t you, Jay?
You lied through your teeth to the crowd.
You talked all day, but I never heard you say: ‘Stop demolishing! Start maintaining!’ ‘Stop demolishing! Start maintaining!’
Or anything to save this old town . . .
I remember Corbyn at the Brighton love-in,
He was famous, his name was a chant.
Blaming the Tories, the same old story,
But Labour councils can do what they want.
And nodding his head at council tenants
Who still hope for a Labour government,
He raised his fist, said: ‘Have faith and wait,
‘In five years I’ll be in 10 Downing Street!’
Ah, but you got away with it, didn’t you, Jay?
You lied through your teeth to the crowd.
You talked all day, but I never heard you say: ‘Stop demolishing! Start maintaining!’ ‘Stop demolishing! Start maintaining!’
Or anything to save this old town . . .
This doesn’t mean for our sins I want the Tories to win,
But neither will I be voting Labour.
I remember Corbyn at the Brighton love-in,
If that’s all, then he’s not the Messiah.
On Wednesday afternoon the Labour Party Leader gave his closing speech to the party faithful in Brighton. And to our surprise, the man who for two years has resolutely refused even to refer to the estate regeneration programme being implemented by Labour councils across the country, but most especially in London, Jeremy Corbyn finally mentioned the ‘R’ word. Labourites who have opposed the programme but equally resolutely refused to condemn their party for implementing it have reacted with typical understatement. ‘I knew he’d come good!’ declared one supporter on the ASH Facebook page. ‘Can you now acknowledge we were right about Corbyn?’ demanded another. ‘A yes/no vote on demolitions is now Labour Party policy!’ said a third. And the rapture wasn’t confined to social media. ‘Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on Labour councils over housing’, ran the headline to Aditya Chakrabortty’s article in the Guardian’s online housing section (obviously the editor wouldn’t dare put it the paper, but we thank Aditya for including a link to our article on Mapping London’s Estate Regeneration Programme). ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s bold pledges will halt social cleansing of estates’, declared the excited Dawn Foster the next day. So what did Corbyn actually say about estate regeneration and housing, and what will his words mean in practice? In the absence of anything resembling analysis in our national press, here is what ASH heard in the Labour Party Leader’s speech.
The disdain for the powerless and the poor has made our society more brutal and less caring. Now that degraded regime has a tragic monument: the chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower, a horrifying fire in which dozens perished. An entirely avoidable human disaster, one which is an indictment not just of decades of failed housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world, it is also a damning indictment of a whole outlook which values council tax refunds for the wealthy above decent provision for all and which has contempt for working class communities.
Indeed it has. And high in the list of that brutality is the estate regeneration programme that threatens, is currently being implemented against, or which has already privatised, demolished or socially cleansed 237 London housing estates, 195 of them in boroughs run by Labour councils, which vie with each other for the title of ‘least caring’, and among which the councils of Hackney, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Haringey could give the Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council a lesson in disdain, privatisation, failed housing policies and the inequality they produce. But it’s good to hear Corbyn discard the Tories’ contemptuous terminology of ‘hardworking families’ and ‘ordinary people’ and finally – if belatedly – refer to the ‘working class’.
Before the fire, a tenants’ group of Grenfell residents had warned – and I quote the words that should haunt all politicians: ‘The Grenfell Action Group firmly believes that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord’. Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions. It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace.
If Corbyn, like his fellow liberal Jon Snow, had not spent the past two years ignoring the estate regeneration programme that is at the heart of London’s transformation into a Dubai-on-Thames for the world’s dirty money, he would know that every resident campaign in every estate undergoing demolition and redevelopment could produce a similar testimony of inept and incompetent local authorities, bad political decisions and a failed and broken system of democratic accountability. That they would overwhelmingly be speaking about London’s Labour councils, rather than the Conservative government, poses the question of how the Labour Party will undertake the task of replacing the leadership, housing policies and neo-liberal ideals of its own councils, none of whose cabinet members would look out of place in Kensington and Chelsea council. Unfortunately, it’s a question neither Corbyn nor his followers have seen fit to answer since he became Party Leader two years ago. And judging by this speech, which fails even to identify Labour councils as the primary implementors of this system, it doesn’t apear that Corbyn will be enlightening us anytime soon.
The poet Ben Okri recently wrote in his poem Grenfell Tower:
Those who were living now are dead Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower. See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.
Leaving aside this terrible mangling of T. S. Eliot’s beautiful lines from The Waste Land, we’ve already commented at length on Labour politicians using the dead of Grenfell Tower to score political points against the Conservative Party, as has been done by RBKC Labour councillor Robert Atkinson, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP David Lammy, Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan and, in this conference, by Labour MP Diane Abbott, who in her own speech didn’t shrink from praising the Metropolitan Police Force two months after the murder of Rashan Charles by a constable in her own borough. If he wants to see how the poor live, rather than cynically using the dead for political point-scoring, Corbyn should visit some of the 195 estates being privatised, demolished and socially cleansed by the Labour councils he continues to refuse to identify as every bit as complicit as the Tories in the regeneration programme that killed the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Dreams don’t flower, and they don’t change the world; facing up to the material realities of working class life and coming up with a political programme of change does.
We have a duty as a country to learn the lessons from this calamity and ensure that a changed world flowers. I hope the Public Inquiry will assist. But a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background. And houses should be homes for the many not speculative investments for a few. Look at the Conservative housing record and you understand why Grenfell residents are sceptical about their Conservative council and this Conservative government.
As ASH has repeatedly argued, the housing crisis is not a crisis of quality but of affordability. While we welcome Corbyn’s description of a home as a ‘right’ – something Southwark Labour council has denied residents in the Aylesbury estate they have condemned to demolition – the criteria of a ‘decent home’ is regularly used – by Lambeth Labour council, for example – as a standard beneath which housing estates deprived of maintenance for decades are judged to be worthy of demolition. If Corbyn isn’t aware of how open his terminology is to abuse he should be, for it is to its precise definition, and not to his fluffy statements about ‘the many not the few’, that Labour councils will have recourse when defending their actions. It is not only residents in London’s 11 Conservative-run boroughs that are sceptical about what will be built on the land their demolished homes once stood on. If you want to know what will happen to the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, look at the Heygate estate, look at the Ferrier estate, look at Woodberry Down, all of them former council housing in Labour-run boroughs. The housing record is a cross-party list of shame, and to blame the regeneration of council estates as speculative investments for the few on the Conservative Party alone deliberately misrepresents the implementation of, and political responsibility for, this programme.
Since 2010, homelessness has doubled. 120,000 children don’t have a home to call their own. Home ownership has fallen. Thousands are living in homes unfit for human habitation. This is why, alongside our Shadow Housing Minister John Healey, we’re launching a review of social housing policy – its building, planning, regulation and management. We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action and bring it back to next year’s conference.
As we wrote in our analysis of John Healey’s contribution to the Labour Party Manifesto published before the last election, Labour’s housing policies are directed at building properties for home ownership for the middle classes built on the land cleared of demolished council estates, with the increasingly unaffordable category of ‘affordable housing’ replacing the lost homes for council rent. If Corbyn is now admitting that his party’s housing policies are not only inadequate to stop the increase of homelessness and slum housing but are contributing directly towards that increase, then we welcome that admission. But waiting until next year’s conference for a radical programme of action is a farcically inadequate response to the figures on homelessness he quotes. What we need and demand is the immediate cessation of ALL estate regeneration schemes being implemented by Labour councils that result in the loss of homes for council rent. It is not only with what Labour promises to do that Corbyn should concern himself, but also with stopping what Labour is currently doing, and has been for some time, to the homes of working-class residents.
On the same day that Corbyn made his speech to his adoring audience in Brighton, back in London Lewisham Labour council announced the demolition of Reginald House and the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford. Corbyn’s promises are too late for them. There are well over 150 London estates threatened with regeneration by Labour councils alone. Even if Corbyn is elected Prime Minister in five years’ time, it will be too late for them too. Until the Labour Leader gets off his soap box, stops grinning at that ridiculous and facile song sung by middle class idiots who do not live in council housing, and calls an immediate stop to every single estate demolition scheme being implemented by a Labour council, we will continue to hold him responsible for leading a political party that will forever be known as the Number One demolisher of working class homes in the history of this country. Corbynites patting themselves on the back because their Messiah finally deigned to mention what his party are doing after two years of silence should wipe the smiles off their faces. Labour is and will continue to be the party of privatisation, demolition and social cleansing – to coin a phrase – ‘for the few, not the many’.
But some things are already clear. Tenants are not being listened to. We will insist that every home is fit for human habitation, a proposal this Tory government voted down.
It’s true that during the reading of the 2016 Housing and Planning Bill the Labour Party proposed an amendment that would require landlords to make their properties fit for human habitation; and it is also true that the Conservative MPs, 128 of whom at the time were landlords, voted against this motion, arguing that it would force our poor impoverished landlords to raise their rents even further than they already have. However, since the government had a majority of around 100 on English Votes for English Laws, and the vote was therefore no more than a formality, it’s doubtful that this proposal by Labour, who counted 50 landlords among their own MPs, was anything more than a gesture – rather like Corbyn’s conference speech this week. What the Labour Party didn’t oppose in the reading of the Bill were the changes to planning laws that were made explicitly to accommodate and extend the estate demolition programme in which it was and is complicit.
As for tenants not being listened to, it’s a bit rich, to say the least, for Corbyn to be speaking about the Conservative-run borough of Kensington and Chelsea and it’s criminal neglect of the safety and concerns of the residents of Grenfell Tower, when across London the similarly expressed concerns and ballots of residents whose estates are threatened with demolition are being similarly ignored by equally arrogant and unaccountable Labour councils. If Corbyn had the least intention of listening to estate residents – which include both tenants and leaseholders – he would listen to those in Haringey, where Corbyn was once a councillor, and where 21 estates are threatened with demolition; to those in Hackney, which has recently extended its demolition programme to 19 estates; in Lambeth, where 6 estates are targeted for demolition; in Tower Hamlets, where 9,000 former council flats have been handed over to Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association; in Newham, which shares the distinction with Kensington and Chelsea of being the borough that has forcibly evicted the joint highest number of families from London. These voices, and many others, have been raised in appeal and anger, and have uniformly been ignored. If Corbyn wants to start listening, he should start now.
And we will control rents. When the younger generation’s housing costs are three times more than those of their grandparents, that is not sustainable. Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections.
Indeed they do. Which begs the questions why the cities under an elected Labour Mayor have not introduced such controls and protections for tenants. Instead, in Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and the Labour leaders of Manchester and Salford city councils bitch and argue over how to tackle homelessness without upsetting the developers; while in Greater London Sadiq Khan invents ever new definitions of ‘affordable housing’ (there are 13 so far) that no-one but the middle classes could hope to afford. Targeted by the London Mayor at 35 per cent of new developments, and with GLA funding to the tune of £2.17 billion between 2016 and 2021 available for both registered providers of social housing and private property developers on developments with 40 per cent, so-called ‘affordable housing’ now includes:
Shared Ownership properties eligible for Help to Buy to households with an income up to £90,000. In London this equates to a 5-year interest-free government equity loan for up to 40 per cent of the price of a property worth up to £600,000, and requires a mortgage from a commercial lender of at least 25 per cent and a deposit of 5 per cent. Until purchased outright the shared-ownership property remains the property of the housing association or developer, the mortgagor has no more than an assured tenancy, and interest on the loan must be paid after 5 years.
London Living Rent, a Rent to Buy product set at a third of the borough’s median household income. This equates to £680 per month in the borough of Haringey, £770 in Hackney, £895 in Lambeth, £950 in Southwark, and £1,170 in Tower Hamlets. London Living Rent properties are available to households with an income up to £60,000 who will be required to purchase the property within 10 years or it will be sold on a shared ownership scheme.
Affordable Rent, which can be set at up to 80 per cent of market value – not including service charges – by the Homes and Community Agency, a quasi-autonomous, non-departmental organisation that acts as the government’s social housing regulator.
No funding has been made available to build homes for social rent to house the hundreds of thousands of council tenants that will be evicted by Labour’s estate demolition programme; and not a single such home was built in London in the 12 months up to August of this year. And that’s just the affordable housing component, of which just 4,934 properties were completed in the same period. The vast majority of properties on new developments are for private sale, and start at around £660,000 for a 2-bedroom property in Inner London. If this is what a Labour politician in one of the most powerful public offices in the land considers sustainable, what can we expect in rent controls from the same party if and when Corbyn comes to power?
In fact we don’t have to wait that long. In an article published today, John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, has already rejected what he calls ‘old fashioned rent caps’, and has interpreted Corbyn’s speech as ‘Labour’s commitment to back councils to regenerate estates and build much needed homes.’ That didn’t take long, did it? And just in case we get carried away by the headlines in the Guardian he adds: ‘These are not rules to tie the hands of councils who are regenerating now under the pressure of Conservative constraints and funding cuts.’ So . . . not ‘declaring war on Labour councils’, and not ‘halting social cleansing of estates’. More like business as usual.
We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers, and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said, ‘Use it or lose it’. Families need homes.
Indeed they do, once again. Why, then, has Corbyn maintained a religious silence over the use of compulsory purchase powers by Labour councils to buy and then demolish the homes of tens of thousands of working-class – and, for their sins, Labour-voting – families in council estates across the country, even when, as in the case of the Aylesbury estate, no less an advocate of neo-liberalism than the current Secretary of State – an ex-banker turned Tory politician – ruled that doing so violated their human rights and discriminated against them on the basis of their ethnicity? Sajid Javid quickly changed his mind, of course; but it poses a question over Corbyn’s sincerity when a Conservative Minister stands up for council estate residents and a Labour Leader does not.
After Grenfell we must think again about what are called regeneration schemes. Regeneration is a much abused word. Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out. We are very clear: we will stop the cuts to social security.
Indeed it is abused. And by nobody more than the Labour councils responsible for turning this word into an excuse not only for the demolition of homes, but also for the eviction of market-traders and local businesses, the closure of libraries and nurseries, the social cleansing of communities, the colonisation of high streets by corporate retail outlets, the banking of land by building companies, and the transformation of UK housing from homes for people into properties for capital investment and speculation. London’s housing boom and the homelessness it has produced is inseparable from the estate regeneration programme that clears the land for new developments that are little more than what even the former London Mayor, the facile and corrupt Boris Johnson, called ‘deposit boxes in the sky’. Without the commitment to stop this programme, stopping cuts to social security is like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.
But we need to go further, as conference decided yesterday. So when councils come forward with proposals for regeneration, we will put down two markers based on one simple principle: Regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators.
Indeed you do, Jeremy. And although, as a principle, this is welcome, in practice it won’t go nearly far enough. Regeneration under Labour councils is always for the benefit of the private developers and property speculators, never for the local people. The reason for this is not, as John Healey and every other Labour politician speaking about estate regeneration says, because of the borrowing constraints and funding cuts imposed by this Conservative government, but because they choose it to be. Not a single Labour council has been able to explain where the rent and service charges paid by residents for the maintenance of their homes and estates has gone, and why, therefore, as Labour councils consistently argue, they no longer have the money to maintain the estates under what should be their stewardship and care. And although the Conservative government’s constraints on Labour councils’ former ability to borrow against their assets undoubtedly limits their ability to build council housing, it does not make it impossible. On the contrary, ASH has demonstrated on five estates that even with these constraints on borrowing, and even with the twenty years of rent and service charges blown on the salaries of Labour council officers earning a quarter of a million quid a year, it is still possible to refurbish and maintain council estates as well as increase their housing capacity by up to 45 percent. That our proposals to do so have been rejected by Labour councils in Lambeth, Hackney and Hammersmith and Fulham is proof that the maintenance and refurbishment of existing homes and an increased housing capacity on the land they are built on is not what Labour councils are looking for in estate regeneration.
Far from having to wait for the election of a Labour government, there is nothing stopping the Labour Party changing its policy on estate regeneration right now. That it doesn’t do so is not because of the Tories, as it constantly says, but because it does not want to; and if it does not do so now, the Labour Party will not change its policy in the future. Claire Kober is lying in Haringey town hall; Lib Peck is lying in her new £104 million Lambeth town hall; Philip Glanville is lying in Hackney town hall; John Biggs is lying in Tower Hamlets town hall; Peter John is definitely lying – over and over again – in Southwark town hall; Steve Bullock – John’s fellow off-shore investor in the redevelopments for which he writes the compulsory purchase orders – is lying in Lewisham town hall; Robin Wales is lying in Newham town hall; Sadiq Khan is lying in City Hall; John Healey is lying in the Houses of Parliament; and Jeremy Corbyn – yes, even Labour’s saintly Leader – is lying at this conference about estate regeneration. But then the entire Labour Party is lying – to residents, to constituents, to its own supporters. Behind the pygama party meetings of Momentum activists and the cuddly socialist rhetoric of this Party conference, the spirit of Tony Blair is alive and well in Labour, and runs through the party from top to bottom. Corbyn is not the crumpled father figure he’s been adopted as by the party faithful looking for their own version of Uncle Joe, but a canny career politician with 35 years on the back-benches of Parliament behind him. But perhaps his current role, after all, is to be a smiling, fuzzy-bearded puppet, brought out to entertain the children and keep their dreams of the ‘Parliamentary Road to Socialism’ alive, while the adults get on with the wide-awake business of capitalism.
First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before. No social cleansing, no jacking up of rents, no exorbitant ground rents.
We’ve heard this before, many times, and it’s called the ‘Right to Return’, which is nothing more than the right to pay the exorbitant rents and properties prices on the new development if you can afford them. It’s in the London Mayor’s Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Demolition, and it’s in the guarantees that – as they have with those made by Lambeth Labour council – become promises that become the principles of every Labour council’s booklet on regeneration handed out to gullible residents. But the reality is the Ferrier estate, where 1,732 homes for council rent have been lost; the Heygate estate, where 952 have been lost; the Woodberry Down estate, where at least 467 – and probably far more – are being lost. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Corbyn’s speech to make us think that his own promise will be any more honoured than those made to the thousands of residents socially cleansed from these and a hundred other estates by Labour councils.
Short of a massive investment in public spending on council housing that we would welcome – but which would require a Labour government breaking the monopoly of the top house-building companies (Taylor Wimpey, Barratt, Persimmon and Berkeley) over UK construction, and reversing the unchecked privatisation of public land and housing by local and city authorities – the only way to avoid ‘social cleansing’, ‘jacking up rents’ and ‘exorbitant ground rents’ is for Labour councils not to demolish estates in the first place, or stock transfer them into the hands of predatory housing associations, or decant and refurbish them for private ownership. None of this is even mentioned, let alone acknowledged, by Corbyn in his speech. And he is smart not to, as his party of corporate entrepreneurs, lobbyists for the building industry, off-shore investors and businessmen-on-the-make would never vote for such measures in a million years; and to pass it through Parliament, let alone implement it at council level, Corbyn would have to reconstitute 95 per cent of the membership of the Labour Party. Momentum may affect to believe that they are transforming Labour into the party of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, but those of us who fight them on the ground, who read their reports, who see the effects of what they are doing – and who listen carefully to their speeches – know better.
And secondly, councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place. Real regeneration, yes, but for the many not the few.
Contrary to what the understandably excited campaigner from Haringey wrote when he called for a ballot of residents on the 21 estates threatened with demolition by the Haringey Development Vehicle, a yes/no vote is very far from being Labour Party policy. It’s a loosely worded promise, made in a conference speech, to introduce ballots for estate residents into a motion to be presented at next year’s conference for consideration by the National Policy Forum. Who those residents are, and whether – as has already been argued – it should include those residents, or at least buyers, eager to purchase a property on the new development, will have to wait for the text of the motion. But until it’s passed by the National Executive Committee, and then enforced on councils by a Labour government should it manage to be elected in five years’ time, Labour Party policy is to demolish council estates and replace them with properties for capital investment and home ownership by people on £90,000/year and more.
Alan Strickland, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration in Haringey’s Labour council has already responded to Corbyn’s speech by saying that ‘we do not expect to start using yes/no ballots’ – the complexity of regeneration apparently being too difficult for residents to decide on, while being perfectly clear to a Labour councillor getting pissed on champagne with Lendlease and Terrapin Communications in Cannes. This isn’t surprising, as it’s the same argument used by that other property developers’ poodle, Sadiq Khan, in his Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, where he wrote that ballots ‘risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways over many years into a simple yes/no decision at a single moment in time’. Perhaps the Labour Party should cancel the next General Election because the question of who should govern the country over the following years is too complex to be reduced to an answer of Tory/Labour – even though that’s precisely what it tells us the vote is every five years.
In any case, ballots, though welcome, are not the panacea for estate demolition they are being presented as by Corbyn. In 2001, with a 76 per cent turnout, 73 per cent of residents on the Aylesbury estate voted against demolition and for the maintenance and refurbishment of the estate. They were simply ignored by Southwark Labour council, whose Leader, Peter John, in response to Corbyn’s speech remarked: ‘We will carefully consider introducing ballots for any future estate regeneration projects, but we currently have none planned.’ On Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill estates votes of 80 per cent and above against demolition and for refurbishment have been similarly ignored by Lambeth Labour council. And even if a Labour government – should Corbyn ever actually come to power – actually enforce the results of ballots on reluctant Labour councils, who would present the terms of that ballot to residents except those same councils, dutifully served by the various private consultancy and architectural firms they currently employ with public funds to dupe residents? Ask the residents of the Excalibur estate in Lewisham, or of Robin Hood Gardens estate in Tower Hamlets, how they feel now about having finally voted, after years of pressure from the council, for the demolition of their homes. The balloting of residents is every bit as managed and manipulated as a General Election by the parties with the resources to do so, against which the warnings of campaigners are as effective as a protest in Trafalgar Square. Indeed, we’re a little surprised at the response of a social cleanser like Strickland to Corbyn’s empty promise, given how easy it has been for him and his fellow estate-demolishing Cabinet Members for Housing across London to manipulate residents to vote for Labour councils to make them homeless.
But if ballots are so open to manipulation, what would make them work in the best interests of residents? How about Labour councils that maintain and refurbish the estates under their jurisdiction, as they are paid to do by residents’ rents and service charges, instead of demolishing them? How about estate regenerations that increase housing capacity on their land through resident-voted infill and roof extensions that leave the existing homes and communities intact, as ASH has shown is possible with our designs for Knight’s Walk, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Central Hill and Northwold estates? Corbyn’s speech makes no reference to either these duties or these alternatives. Even in the realm of vague promises for future changes to housing policy, his speech makes it absolutely clear that for the Labour Party, regeneration always means demolition and redevelopment.
As a lesson in how to stop Labour supporters questioning their Leader about the party’s record of estate demolition – which we imagine it was designed to do – Corbyn’s speech has worked a treat. In effect, it’s been little more than an invite to add our voices to the chorus of ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ But unless Labourites stop chanting Corbyn’s name and start demanding genuine policy rather than the populist soundbites on housing he delivered in this speech, a Labour Party in government will be no different from the Labour councils already in power. Seeing the look on Sadiq Khan’s face when his new best mate said regeneration means social cleansing was worth the price of admission alone. But if you’ll excuse us, we won’t be joining in the singing.
But you will say: ‘Isn’t it a good thing that Corbyn has finally acknowledged that estate regeneration is not always everything it’s cracked up to be? Can’t we hold councils to account with his words, even if we don’t believe he believes them? In the face of the housing disaster overwhelming us, isn’t this a victory of sorts? Can’t we take some hope from his words?’
No. And the fact so many of us have is a measure of how little we demand of our leaders, how unaccountable are our democratically elected representatives, how politically naive we’ve become under our two-party system, and how incapable we are even of imagining an alternative.
As I turned to camera and explained why I had just pursued first Sadiq Khan and then Jeremy Corbyn in opposite directions down the same Islington street, asking them questions they both resolutely refused to answer about their support for the estate regeneration programme being implemented by London’s Labour councils, a Labour activist stood behind me and held up a ‘Vote Labour’ placard, as if this would somehow compensate for the silence of the Party’s Leader and future London Mayor. At this point Sid Skill (not his real name, unfortunately) stepped forward and held up, in front of the Labour placard, an A3 sheet of paper bearing a list of about 40 names printed in red, below which was written in large black capital letters: ‘JUST SOME OF THE ESTATES SOCIALLY CLEANSED BY LABOUR COUNCILS IN LONDON’.
It was 26 March 2016, the elections for London Mayor were six weeks away, and we – that is, members of Architects for Social Housing, Class War, the Revolutionary Communist Group, several film crews and a bunch of press photographers – had just ambushed a publicity stunt designed to heal the public rift that had opened that week when it was revealed that the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, had appeared on another list of names, this one leaked to the press and identifying the MPs designated as ‘hostile’ to Corbyn’s leadership. I don’t think this was the first time I had seen the list Sid and L.G. had compiled and posted on ASH’s Facebook page, but it may have been the first time I had seen Sid use it as a weapon to combat the lies of the Labour Party. As I spoke to camera I held up another sheet of paper, this one bearing a map of Islington – the constituency of the Labour Leader who had just run away from me – on which every council estate had been outlined in red. I had taken this map from a report published in March the previous year by the Institute of Public Policy Research titled City Villages: More homes, better communities, which we had just exposed as the basis to the housing policies of both the Labour and the Conservative candidates for London Mayor. In this report the editor, the onetime Labour Peer Andrew Adonis, had argued that the greatest source of brownfield land available for redevelopment in London is what Yolande Barnes, the Director of Research at Savills real estate firm and co-author of the report, estimated are the 3,500 existing council estates on which roughly 360,000 homes are built and in which over a million Londoners currently live.
It’s hard to say exactly when ASH had the idea of mapping London’s estate regeneration programme, but this is as good a moment as any; and I recall it here to distinguish our purpose in creating this map from a purely academic exercise that is content with recording the actions it maps but does nothing to oppose them. ASH’s map of this programme is first and foremost a weapon in the fight against the propaganda war waged by the political parties whose housing policies are based on this programme, the London councils implementing it, the housing associations receiving public funds to profit from it, the public think tanks employed to justify it, the estate agents that produce the viability assessments that demand it, the builders, property developers and architectural practices getting rich from it, and the press that promotes the lies and silences the truth about it. That’s a lot to place on one map, so we decided to make it as big as we possibly could. This article is how we went about creating it.
Within a year Sid’s list had increased to 109 estates, and when he posted the latest update on the ASH Facebook page at the end of April 2017 I asked him if I could steal his format (he said ‘yes’) and add those estates I knew about that were not already on the list, bringing the total up to 130. As chance would have it, it was six weeks to another election – the big one this time; and on Monday 2 May I posted the new list on ASH’s social media pages with the announcement that we would be updating it every Monday leading up to the General Election. By ‘we’ I meant Sid, myself and L.G., whose knowledge of London’s estates, in my experience, is unequalled, and whose knowledge of whether one of them is threatened with regeneration is not taken from council websites but from visiting the estate, recognising the tell-tale signs (lack of maintenance, shut down community centres, evicted local businesses, closed garages, restricted parking, fenced-off playgrounds, threatened public gardens, and a sudden increase of estate agents, ethically-sourced coffee shops and artisanal bakeries in the area), and above all from talking to the residents. It was she who was mostly responsible for compiling the initial list. But once we had announced our intentions publically, numerous followers of ASH on both Facebook and Twitter began contributing their own knowledge about the threat to estates they lived on or near or otherwise knew about.
As a result, by the following Monday we’d identified 14 further estates threatened with regeneration by Labour councils, and the list was drawing virulent attacks on its veracity by numerous Labourites on social media. Leading the defence of the Labour Party’s complicity in estate demolition was Tom Copley, Labour’s Deputy Chair of the Housing Committee at the London Assembly, who over several days of vitriol accused ASH of ‘making stuff up’, of ‘lying’, of having ‘no credibility’, of deliberately ‘misrepresenting’, ‘misinforming’ and ‘misleading’ residents, of being ‘stupid’, of having a ‘burning hatred for Labour’, of being a ‘front for the ultra left’, of ‘not giving a damn about people living on estates’, of holding a ‘pathetic vendetta’ against the Labour Party, of ‘talking out of our backsides’, of ‘scaring’ people, of being ‘irresponsible’ and of ‘poisoning the complex debate about regeneration’. Finally, ASH was denounced as an ‘anti-Labour campaign, not a pro-estate one.’
We knew then that we were onto something. All these petulant attacks on us were gleefully re-tweeted by various members of Lambeth Labour council – whose plans to demolish six estates ASH has resisted over the past few years – including Florence Eshalomi, Lambeth and Southwark’s representative at the London Assembly; and Edward Davie, the Progress Chair of Lambeth’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee, who that same Monday had ignored residents’ questions when ratifying the Labour Cabinet’s decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate. And as always, Hackney’s Twitter-addicted Labour Mayor, Philip Glanville, couldn’t help joining in. The ostensible cause of their glee was that I had mistakenly added West Hendon estate to the list, which is of course in Conservative-run Barnet. This, in the judgement of Labour’s Tom Copley, was sufficient evidence to dismiss our list as ‘shonky’. When Tom ecstatically exposed another ‘mistake’ – that Imperial Wharf estate is in Conservative Westminster! – we gently reminded him that we were referring to the council estate in Harringey, not the luxury riverside development in Chelsea (though he’s clearly more familiar with the latter). I deleted West Hendon from the list and replaced it with the question: ‘Your estate next?’ Tom had nothing to say about the remaining 143 estates.
Undeterred by these childish insults and the accompanying smear campaign against ASH, we continued searching the less well-known estates in the outer boroughs of London – Merton, Hounslow, Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham and Redbridge – as well as returning to look at Tower Hamlets, Camden and Hammersmith & Fulham, and within two more weeks the list had increased to 155 estates. Organising a Lambeth hustings on estate regeneration the week before the General Election took up our remaining time, so this is where the list stayed until the poll booths opened on 8 June. A month later, following the decision by the Labour council to ratify the Haringey Development Vehicle that threatens, to our knowledge, 21 estates in the borough, the list was increased to 170 estates that are threatened by, currently undergoing, or which have recently undergone regeneration by London Labour councils.
2. The Map
That’s about where things stood when the Institute of Contemporary Arts offered ASH a residency over the week of 14-20 August. One of the many criticisms we had received from Labourites was that the list only included those estates threatened by Labour councils. ‘What about Tory boroughs?’ they angrily demanded. ‘We bet they’ve got just as many!’ It’s an idiotic argument – as if the actions of one party excused the other – and one typical of the rationalisations of Labour supporters; but we accepted the challenge readily, confident that Conservative councils don’t threaten anything like the number threatened by Labour councils. This is not only because there are more Labour-run boroughs in London (21 to 10) and generally speaking more estates in Labour boroughs (though this last factor is largely irrelevant considering just how many estates London contains – 150 identified on the Islington map alone – which means that any council, whether Conservative or Labour, has more than enough to demolish should they so choose), but because we know from our years of resisting and exposing it that estate regeneration in London is overwhelmingly a Labour programme led by Labour councils, who have pioneered the methods of implementation which Conservative councils merely observe and copy. Even we, however – with our ‘burning hatred’ for the Labour Party – would be surprised to discover just how numerically true this would prove to be when we decided to extend the list to include estate regeneration schemes in every London borough – whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat – and set about locating them on a map which we decided to create during the ASH residency at the ICA and display as part of the exhibition of our design alternatives to demolition over the weekend of 19-20 August.
We announced our intentions on our social media networks and invited collaborators to help us, and at a preliminary meeting we were joined by Nicholas Fonty from JustMap. We had previously considered several typical maps, including, initially, the A-Z map of London, which proved – fortuitously, as it turned out – too expensive for our limited budget. What we did have, however, was lots of space, the ICA having generously granted us a week’s use of its Upper Galleries, whose walls from skirting to cornice measure about 4 metres. Since the map was to be made out of foam board into which we would be able to press brightly-coloured pins with extra-large heads, we decided to construct it out of twelve A0-size boards laid horizontally, three wide by four high, composing a map 3.56 metres across and 3.36 metres high at a scale of 1:16,000. When we considered how the coloured pin-heads would stand out against this enormous expanse, we realised that the map would work best if it was printed not in colour but in grey tones – which would, additionally, cost a fraction of the price. As always, necessity was proving the mother of invention. Rather than an A-Z map, therefore, whose purpose is identifying street names, we chose the most recent Ordinance Survey map of London. This meant that every block in London, including the footprint of the larger estates, could be identified. So up to date was the survey that some recently demolished estates – such as the Heygate in Southwark, into which we ceremoniously placed the first pin – were recorded as a white expanse of cleared land, while others, such as King’s Crescent estate in Hackney, showed the partial demolition of the central blocks preparatory to their redevelopment. The only problem this presented – the extent of which we would only realise when it came to inserting the pins – was identifying the exact location of the estates in a map without street names.
With the help of software provided by Nicholas, Geraldine printed out the twelve A0 Ordinance Survey map sheets, adding a grid reference around the edges that could be used to cross reference the list of estates we would exhibit alongside the map, and thereby enable viewers to identify the location of any given estate. We had anticipated spending the entire week creating this map, researching each estate, compiling what information about it we could find, and deciding on the best way to display it. As things turned out, however, our decision to open up the exhibition to the work of other collaborators with ASH meant we spent a large amount of the week simply putting the exhibition up. This began with me physically constructing the map itself – thickening the foam boards sufficiently for them to take the pins (the cost of thicker boards being beyond our budget) and mounting the maps on them – which took me the entire first day of our residency. The following day, while L.G. and I began sticking the red pins into the already identified estates in Labour-run boroughs, Nicholas and some other volunteers who had come to help, Harry Tuke, Barbara Brayshay of Living Maps, and Leslie Barson and Deirdre Dee Woods of Granville Kitchen, searched for estates in London’s Conservative-run boroughs.
After some discussion, we had previously agreed that the outer limits of the map would be the M25 motorway. Greater London has several definitions, but since we were mapping council-led regeneration schemes, and we did not yet know how far out they reached, it was necessary to include the extent of every London borough. Although many of these, particularly in the south-west, stop a long way short of the M25, in the case of Havering to the east the borough’s borders extend beyond the motorway and just off the edge of the map. We felt, though, that the strong line of the motorway worked to identify and define our frame of reference visually, and Nicholas had outlined every borough with a darker line, both to help identify its limits and to convey the terms of reference for the map as a whole.
Given the political nature of the programme we were mapping, it had seemed obvious to us that each estate should be identified visually according to the political party of the London council implementing the regeneration scheme. Accordingly, we chose red pins for estates in the 21 Labour-run boroughs, blue pins for estates in the 10 Conservative-run boroughs, and yellow pins for the estates in the single Liberal Democrat-run borough of Sutton. As it turned out, this political identification of the councils implementing estate regeneration – which for us was the primary and obvious purpose of the map – had the most powerful and unexpected effect on viewers, who were shocked at just how many red pins there were, both comparatively and overall. That no one, as far as we’re aware, has done this before was not the least surprising aspect of this mapping project.
The next thing we had to decide – although in practice there was little order to our decisions – was what qualified as an estate ‘regeneration’ and within what time frame. Estate regeneration can mean its refurbishment, as in the example of Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, which the Grenfell Tower fire has exposed as carrying its own threat to residents. What is less well known is that prior to the application of external cladding that circumvented the building’s fire stops, the carrying out of internal refurbishment that ran an exposed gas pipe down the escape staircase, and the conversion of the housing offices into nine new properties, Lancaster Green, the only local green space available for the residents of Grenfell Tower, was used for the development of the Kensington Aldridge Academy, and that the refurbishment that killed them was offered to residents as some sort of exchange for this loss of public land. Even when it seems otherwise, regeneration always comes at the expense of residents.
In order to serve its purpose, however, our map had to have a narrower focus. We could, for example, have included the public land being handed over to developers in sweetheart deals – such as Croydon Labour council, for instance, is doing with Queen’s Gardens in the Taberner House development. But we decided to restrict the definition of ‘regeneration’ to London estates under threat of, currently undergoing, or which have recently undergone 1) privatisation (typically in a stock transfer to a housing association, such as Hackney Labour council did with the Northwold estate, which is now facing partial demolition at the hands of the Guinness Partnership); 2) refurbishment (usually with the prior decanting of residents who – as happened with Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, which is now being marketed by Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association to Canary Wharf bankers – do not return); or 3) demolition (either partial or full); when all three forms of ‘regeneration’ result in the loss of homes for social rent and the corresponding social cleansing of all or part of the existing estate community.
As an example of the latter, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of so-called estate ‘regenerations’, we need look no further than Woodberry Down in Hackney, where 1,980 council homes are being demolished and replaced with 5,557 new properties, of which 3,292 will be for private sale and 2,265 will be so-called ‘affordable’ housing, the latter comprising 1,177 properties for shared ownership, with 1,088 flats promised for social rent. I emphasise the word ‘promised’, because Genesis housing association, which Hackney council has given the responsibility for delivering the affordable housing quota on the new development, has been outspoken about the lack of government funding for flats for social rent. And they’re right to do so. £4.1 billion of the £4.7 billion allocated for affordable housing by the Homes and Communities Agency between 2016 and 2021 is reserved for Help to Buy properties for shared ownership, which in the case of the Woodberry Down development start at £660,000 for a 2-bedroom apartment. In any case, of the 1,465 new units built in phase 1 of the redevelopment, a mere 110 flats are for social rent.
As for the time scale of such estate ‘regenerations’, it’s hard to identify exactly when the current programme began, both qualitatively in terms of the motivations, methods and political dimension of estate regeneration, and quantitatively in terms of the huge increase in the number of estates being regenerated and the equally huge number of homes for social rent being lost as a consequence.
But at one end of the time scale is the so-called ‘Five-Estate’ regeneration scheme in Peckham that demolished the Sumner, Willowbrook, Camden, Gloucester Grove and North Peckham estates. Completed in 2004, the regeneration resulted in a reduction in housing across the five estates from 4,532 council flats to 3,694 new builds, a net loss of over 800 homes. But the new developments also saw a tenure shift from 4,314 homes for council rent to 2,154 council-rented, 915 housing association and 625 leasehold. In its reduction of the overall number of properties and the relatively large number of homes for social rent built on the new development, this regeneration scheme, which began planning in the 1990s, clearly belongs to the outer limits of the current estate regeneration programme, which invariably justifies the huge loss of homes for social rent with a dramatic increase in the number of properties for private sale on the new development. By contrast, in 2002 the Liberal Democrat/Conservative collation council announced the demolition of the Heygate estate in Southwark, and by 2010 the newly elected Labour council had agreed a deal with property developers Lendlease to sell the land for £50 million (around one-fifteenth of its value), demolish 1,214 council homes and replace them with 2,535 properties, with the promise that 25 per cent will be ‘affordable’ and a mere 82 for social rent. Clearly by now something had changed in what was meant by estate ‘regeneration’.
At the other end of the time scale, in the Liberal Democrat-run borough of Sutton another five estates – Chaucer, Collingwood, Rosebery Gardens, Benhill and Sutton Court – are currently undergoing viability assessments – most probably conducted by Savills real estate firm, who are the go-to agents for London councils looking for the lowest number of homes for social rent on new developments (they produced the assessment for the Heygate) – in order to establish the options for their ‘regeneration’: refurbishment, stock transfer to a housing association, partial or full demolition and redevelopment. As with a hundred other designated ‘sink estates’, the money to carry out these assessments is being supplied by public funds as part of the government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy.
As an example of why the first of these options – refurbishment – is unlikely to be the one chosen, in 2002 Lewisham Labour council proposed that the Excalibur estate in Catford be stock transferred to a housing association. In 2004 Savills dutifully produced a report saying that none of the existing homes were up to the Decent Homes Standard. The following year the council estimated the cost of refurbishment at £65,000 per home, and concluded that it would be too expensive to bring the homes up to this standard – what with all the Labour Government’s cuts and all. Finally, in 2010 the Homes and Communities Agency informed the poor cash-strapped council that it would not provide funding for a stock transfer, and Lewisham council promptly announced the full demolition and redevelopment of the estate as the only financially viable option. In 2011 the council granted planning permission to London & Quadrant housing association – which was no doubt involved from the start of the regeneration – to build 371 new properties on the cleared land, a more than 100 per cent increase in housing density; with 143 allocated for private sale, 35 for shared ownership, 15 for shared equity, and 178 designated as ‘affordable’. The Excalibur estate’s 178 council homes are currently being demolished phase by phase, the council tenants evicted and the 27 leaseholders offered a paltry £140,000 compensation for their demolished homes. Those who refused this offer have had their homes purchased by Compulsory Purchase Order issued by the Lewisham Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock – who just happens to be another co-author of the IPPR report City Villages. This is what ‘more homes, better communities’ means.
4. The Data
The next task facing us, of course, was finding this information for each estate. Those not familiar with estate regeneration may be surprised to learn that no record of the estates threatened by this programme is available: not from the Department for Communities and Local Government, not from the Greater London Authority, not from the London Housing Commission. And while the websites of local authorities will sometimes contain some information about the identity of the estates on their regeneration programme, it is always vague, misleading, incomplete, inaccurate or simply withheld altogether. In none of them is the number of homes for social rent lost to the scheme provided.
As an example of which, King’s Crescent estate in Hackney, following a partial demolition, is currently being redeveloped as the new Clissold Quarter. On the estate regeneration page for this scheme on Hackney council’s website it says that the regeneration of the estate will provide more than 760 homes, including for shared ownership and private sale. That’s all you get. A visit to the estate, however, will further reveal – on the hoardings advertising the development – that 376 of the new properties will be for private sale (‘to pay for the redevelopment’); 115 properties will be for shared ownership (‘for local people’); and that the regeneration will ‘increase’ the number of homes for social rent from 195 to 274 – a total of 79 new rented council flats. A further visit to the website of the architectural practice that designed the new development, Karakusevic Carson, will roughly confirm these figures, listing the regeneration as providing 765 dwellings, 490 new builds, and the refurbishment of 275 existing homes, with the tenure split between 50 per cent for market sale and 50 percent ‘affordable’. So, new homes, more homes, an increase in affordable homes, and the refurbishment of the existing homes. What’s not to like? This is how estate regeneration is presented by the people implementing it – by the architects, the developers, the councils, the mayor.
If you dig deeper, however, and look at the Greater London Authority’s planning report, very different figures emerge. King’s Crescent estate originally consisted of 632 council homes, which genuinely were ‘for local people’. But between 1999 and 2012 Hackney council demolished 357 of these, leaving the 275 ‘existing’ homes, of which 80 are owned by leaseholders. Far from being an ‘increase’, the 79 new flats for social rent are small compensation for the demolition of 357 council homes, of which 82 were owned by leaseholders. In total, the ‘regeneration’ of King’s Crescent estate has resulted in a loss of 196 homes for social rent. In their place, properties on the new development start at £480,000 for shared ownership of a 2-bedroom flat, £630,000 for private sale of the same, and go up to £1,313,000 for a 3-bedroom duplex. What has been universally described as an ‘exemplary’ regeneration is in fact a model of social cleansing whose truth has been concealed by the council, builders and architects, the Greater London Authority, the architectural press and the Royal Institute of British Architects, not to mention the line of dignitaries – from Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to the Duke of Kent – who have traipsed through the building site, hard hats on their heads, soft muffs on their ears.
So how do we find this hidden information, how do we record it, and how do we convey it? When we were making the map for the exhibition at the ICA, these were largely questions for the future. Our task was to identify as many estate regenerations as we could that fell within the definition we had selected, and then locate them on the map. But we also compiled a list of these estates, grouped into boroughs and cross-referenced to the map’s grid lines. Finding this information, however, is difficult. Council websites are a starting point, however restricted the information made available to the public. The websites of architectural practices will offer much of the same – which is to say, very little. Property developers, housing associations and Special Purpose Vehicles set up by Labour councils, protected by the cloak of ‘commercial sensitivity’ even when demolishing public assets, have no obligation to provide any information. Where they exist, planning applications, either to the local or Greater London Authority, offer more, but these require considerable time to decipher. If you’re lucky, a journalist for the local rag will have dug up some basic information, though there is no guarantee of its accuracy. If you’re luckier, a local housing campaigner will have done the research for you; if every borough had the blogs of Southwark’s 35% Campaign, Southwark Notes or Municipal Dreams, our task would be very much easier. The online map produced by Concrete Action has been useful; and Our Tottenham has proved invaluable in tracing the full reach of the bulldozers that will precede the Haringey Development Vehicle, which the Labour council has done its best to hide from public scrutiny. ASH itself has produced case studies of more than a dozen estate regenerations in London, so we know what we’re talking about when we say how laborious and time-consuming the work is.
And academics? I said before that the fact no one has previously mapped the political party of the councils implementing London’s estate regeneration programme wasn’t the least surprising aspect of this project. But even given the collusion of such apologists for social cleansing as the London School of Economics – whose report on Kidbrooke Village in Greenwich omitted to say that the 4,398 properties in the new development are being built on the ruins of 1,906 council homes and the social cleansing of 5,277 council tenants from the demolished Ferrier estate – what we find most incredible, if not exactly surprising, is that no salaried investigator, grant-funded PhD student, tenured academic, Research Councils UK researcher or Greater London Authority employee has undertaken this task, and that it has been left to ASH, an unfunded organisation of voluntary workers, to research the data on estate regeneration and create this map. In truth, it’s not surprising at all, but we’ll come to that later. The problem we face is how to overcome the active suppression and withholding of information about London’s estate regeneration programme.
Which is where you come in, and the purpose for writing this article. By far the most reliable, accurate and up-to-date source of information on an estate regeneration comes from the campaigners fighting to resist it. By the time we put the last map panels up on the gallery wall late on Friday evening we had stuck appropriately coloured pins into 195 estates in the 21 Labour-run London boroughs; 37 estates in the 10 Conservative-run boroughs; and 5 estates in the single Liberal Democrat-run borough: a total of 237 London estates under threat of, currently undergoing, or which have recently undergone privatisation, demolition or social cleansing. Given the time restraints of the exhibition, some of these estates will have been inaccurately identified for one reason or another; some other estates are yet to be identified; and many more will join them over the ensuing months and years. There is no definitive version of this map for the simple reason that it can only ever be accurate at one given moment, while estate regeneration is an ongoing programme that is set to increase in numbers and reach. Our own project, because of this, is equally ongoing.
We want to take this opportunity, therefore, to appeal to the public – residents, housing campaigners, council employees, architectural workers, even journalists and academics – to send us information about any estate regeneration scheme they can identify and, where possible, provide some of the data for it. As an example of what we’re looking for, the list of estates we displayed next to the map at the exhibition contained the following information: a) The borough in which the estate is located; b) The political party of the current council; c) The name of the estate; d) The grid reference to the map; e) The status of the regeneration (undergoing viability assessment, currently threatened, awaiting planning permission, on site, or completed); f) The form of its regeneration (stock transfer to a housing association, refurbishment, partial demolition, full demolition); g) The number of existing homes; h) The number of homes that will be or have already been demolished; i) The net loss of homes for social rent; and j) The number of new properties being proposed or already built.
This is the basic data we’re after. In addition, where possible we’d also like 1) The street address and postcode of the estate, which particularly helps in locating the smaller estates; 2) The completion year for the construction of the estate; 3) The identification of the tenure of the homes now or at the moment of their demolition (council rent, housing association rent, assured shorthold tenancy, property guardianship, leasehold, freehold, or vacant); 4) The number of existing homes refurbished; 5) The tenure split for the proposed or newly built properties (private sale, private rent, shared ownership, affordable rent, council rent, or social rent); 6) The name of the existing or previous social landlord (local authority or housing association); 7) The name of the development partner (housing association, property developer or builder); 8) The name of the architectural practice responsible for designing the new development; 9) The sale price of the land; 10) The value of the redevelopment contract; 11) The amount of public money granted for the regeneration; 12) The public body issuing it (council, GLA, HCA, DCLG); and 13) The new name – where a new one has been coined (Oval Quarter for Myatts Field North estate, Kidbrooke Village for the Ferrier estate, Orchard Village for the Mardyke estate) – for the new development. It would also be useful to have the link to the primary source of this information, whether a planning application, article or blog post.
Finally, our intention is to make this data as widely available as possible, and to this end we intend to make an online, interactive version of the ASH map. At present, however, we do not have the technical skills, financial resources or the free time to do so; so we also invite people with all three to collaborate with us on producing such a version. We will be looking into crowd-funding for help with the finances required to complete the research for and production of this online map; but if anyone is in receipt of funding or would like to award us the grants that have so far eluded our applications to various trusts, it would certainly be of help to our work. If you are able and would like to help us assemble this data, please send us as much information as you can by e-mail, if possible grouped into the alphabetical and numerical categories we’ve provided, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Uses and Abuses
It was only on the Friday evening before the ASH exhibition opened, when we had lifted the last panels into place and saw the archipelago of red, blue and yellow pins dotted across the expanse of Greater London, each one an indictment of greed, the power of money to overcome human rights, and the collusion of our democratically elected public representatives in the social cleansing of Inner London, that we were struck by the obvious. No one wants to see this map: not, certainly, the London councils responsible for implementing the estate regeneration programme; not the Greater London Authority and Labour Mayor whose every statement and publication about regeneration this map refutes; not the builders and property developers getting rich on the redevelopment of the cleared land; not the housing associations to whom billions of pounds of public housing and government funding is being transferred to build properties for private sale; not the real estate firms producing the viability assessments that justify the demolition of tens of thousands of council homes in the middle of a housing crisis; not the so-called ‘independent’ think tanks being paid by political parties, builders and housing associations to justify the eviction from Inner London of hundreds of thousands of residents; not the academics who produce reports commissioned by developers dutifully recommending developments like Kidbrooke Village as the model for London’s future housing; not the architectural practices selling this vision of London to the residents their designs will banish from it; not the architectural press, not one of whose journalists turned up to the opening or reported on the ASH exhibition; not the mainstream press which did likewise, and which continues to refuse to publish the truth about estate regeneration, even in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire; not, certainly, the so-called housing movement, 99 per cent of which is made up of supporters of the Labour Party; not the so-called ‘grass-roots’ fronts for the Labour Party, whether Axe the Housing Act, Defend Council Housing, the Radical Housing Network, the Socialist Workers Party, the People’s Assembly, Momentum, or all the other groups that claim to oppose estate demolition while suppressing the role of the Labour Party in implementing it; not the unions who unreservedly support and finance the Labour Party no matter what consequences its policies and practices have for working class homes; not the Labour Party itself – neither the MPs who unceasingly complain about Tory cuts while doing nothing to oppose the Labour councils demolishing the homes of their constituents, nor the Labour Party Leader, who in the two years of his leadership has steadfastly refused to make a single comment about the programme his party is implementing; not the constantly changing housing ministers – Government or Shadow, Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat – all of whose policies, published in the election manifestos, are based on the continuation and expansion of the estate demolition programme.
For what these people will see if they look at the ASH map is this: that London’s estate regeneration programme has nothing to do with freeing up land for the new housing that Londoners need; that it is designed above all to demolish the housing estates in Inner London; that its primary purpose is to clear the enormously valuable land on which these estates are built for redevelopment as high value property for capital investment, property speculation and home ownership; that it has already demolished thousands of council homes, privatised thousands more, currently threatens tens of thousands, and will, if unchecked, demolish the homes of hundreds of thousands of Londoners, who as a consequence will be forcibly relocated either to the outer suburbs of London or outside the capital altogether and into an unregulated private rental market; and, finally, that this is a cross-party programme to which every London council has subscribed, whose methods and procedures have been pioneered and are overwhelmingly being implemented by the Labour councils that are responsible for over 80 percent of London’s estate regenerations, but on which the housing policies of all the political parties holding power in London’s councils are founded.
So who is this map for? Well, for a start, it’s not for academics. Estate regeneration isn’t the topic of a conference debate; it isn’t archive material for a peer-reviewed book; it isn’t a contribution to a university department’s research rating; and it isn’t the subject of government grant-sponsored research into ‘gentrification’: it’s a struggle for survival. Presenting the government and municipal bodies that are implementing the estate regeneration programme with government-funded studies into the results of what they are doing won’t tell them anything they don’t already know. They designed and adapted the programme precisely in order to achieve these ends, and the supposition that they are not aware of what those are is a naive and dangerous fallacy that only serves to exempt them from responsibility.
Nor is the map necessarily for the residents whose homes are threatened, and who, understandably, are focused on the struggle to save their own estate from the bulldozers. Behind the heroic rhetoric in which they are sometimes wrapped by campaigners (myself included) eager to politicise their struggle, residents of council estates are no different from other tenants and leaseholders in London, and in general have a limited interest in opposing the economic and political structures driving estate regeneration. That’s not surprising, since their opposition to it has been forced upon them by necessity, not chosen out of political conviction.
But in truth this map is not ‘for’ anyone. Rather, its only practical use, as far as I can see, would be similar to the way that the original list of 40 estates was used by Sid Skill: as a propaganda weapon in the class war being waged through housing. By this I don’t mean some variation on the popular and entirely ineffective tactic of pointing to something like this map and shouting ‘shame on you!’ at a councillor or developer – which, rather like academic studies intended for property developers and housing associations, assumes that such people don’t already know exactly what they’re doing, and do have a sense of shame about doing it. No, the only use I can see for this map that ASH has already spent so much time researching and creating is to inform people who are not already aware of the existence, extent and effects of London’s estate regeneration programme, and who by being made aware will – without immediately being dragged into the black hole of the Labour Party and its affiliates – come up with a way – which we ourselves have so far been unable to find – to stop it.
For the truth – to which this map is the testimony and warning – is that at present there is no way to halt the spread of the estate regeneration programme across London and, in time, the rest of England. Knowledge may be power, but only when it informs and is aligned to political action, which should not be confused with the electoral campaign of a parliamentary party, the research profile of academics, or what increasingly resemble the social gatherings of activists. After two-and-a-half years of campaigning it’s still unclear to us who this new group of people may be. We’ve met a few of them along the way but nowhere near enough to constitute anything more than a commentary on what’s happening. We offer this map as a rallying point.
Simon Elmer & Geraldine Dening
Architects for Social Housing
From the 14-20 August ASH had a residency in the Upper Galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. During the week we hosted several talks on aspects of London’s housing ‘crisis’, including a presentation by Co-ops for London, a workshop by Achilles Fanzine, and an ASH meeting on the terms of reference in the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire. During our residency we created a wall-size map identifying the site of every London estate regeneration, and on the weekend we exhibited both this and the design alternatives to demolition ASH has produced in the two-and-a-half years between March 2015 and August 2017. And since the estates the ASH designs are made to save from demolition are occupied by the people that are always absent from architect’s masterplans, we also invited individuals and groups with whom we have collaborated to exhibit photographs and films documenting some of the estates threatened by the London programme of estate regeneration and the campaigns by residents and other groups to resist the demolition of their homes. This is a record of the exhibition at the ICA.
Completed in 1972 as part of Cotton Gardens estate, with 33 bungalows for the elderly and residents with disabilities and flats in low-rise blocks, Knight’s Walk was facing full demolition by Lambeth Labour council in 2015. ASH’s proposal of up to 80 new flats through infill and roof extensions forced the council to reconsider alternative options and helped save half the homes on the estate from demolition.
A combined 760 homes on estates built, respectively, in 1961 and 1974, and currently under threat of full demolition by Hammersmith & Fulham Labour council, which has chosen to honour the agreement between the previous Conservative administration and property developers Capco, ASH’s design alternatives propose up to 250 new flats through infill and roof extensions without demolishing a single existing home.
A 1975 estate in Crystal Palace currently condemned to full demolition and redevelopment by Lambeth Labour council. ASH’s design alternative proposes over 200 new flats, the partial sale of which would generate the funds to refurbish the 456 existing homes, none of which would have to be demolished, thereby keeping the existing community intact while increasing the housing capacity of the estate by 45 per cent.
An annual event organised by ASH over the past three years and hosted by estates across London that are threatened with regeneration, Open Garden Estates aims to dispel the myths about council housing propagated by the press, councils and government, encourage the public to visit estates threatened with ‘regeneration’, and help make links between the campaigns to save them from demolition.
860 homes built in the 1950s and managed by a housing co-operative since 1994, Patmore estate is threatened by the Vauxhall, Nine Elms & Battersea ‘Opportunity Area’ being implemented by Wandsworth Conservative council with the support of the London Labour Mayor. ASH is currently proposing new uses for disused aspects of the existing housing blocks as part of the co-op’s vision for the future of the estate community.
A council estate of 580 homes built in the 1930s and extended in the 1950s and recently stock transferred to the Guinness Partnership housing association, Northwold estate is now under threat of partial demolition and redevelopment. ASH’s alternative designs for infill and roof extensions for 245 flats match the total increase in the number of properties planned by Guinness, but unlike their proposals without demolishing a single existing home or evicting the current residents.
An independent and anonymous network of people who work in architecture and the built environment, Architectural Workers draws attention to and criticises both their own working conditions in architectural practices employed in estate ‘regeneration’ and the collusion of the profession in the social cleansing it produces.
A long-term project by Alessia Gammarota, these photographs take a broad view of London’s housing ‘crisis’ from the inter-related perspectives of squatting, council housing, regeneration, estate demolition and homelessness.
Photo-collages by L.G. documenting campaigns against estate demolition, council-led gentrification and the social cleansing of working-class communities from London, this work was first shown last year as part of the Resist Festival at the London School of Economics.
An ongoing collaborative map of London community resources, campaign and projects based on public workshops organised at community events and festivals, its goal is to highlight available community resources and current projects and connect campaigners fighting for a fairer London.
Photographs of London’s Council Estates
Photos by Alessia Gammarota and ASH of estates across London undergoing regeneration (from left to right, top to bottom): West Hendon (Barnet), Alma (Enfield), Mardyke (Havering), Silchester (Kensington & Chelsea), Broadwater Farm (Haringey), Gascoigne (Barking & Dagenham), Patmore (Wandsworth), Aylesbury (Southwark), Carpenters (Newham), Alton (Wandsworth), Central Hill (Lambeth), and Thamesmead estates (Greenwich and Bexley).
Posters and banners by anarchists who campaign and protest under the name of Class War to draw attention to and oppose the class dimension of estate demolition, while also identifying and holding to account the individuals responsible for the social cleansing it produces – whether architects, property developers, builders, estate agents, housing association CEOs, councillors, regeneration officers, council leaders, mayors, ministers or party political leaders.
This is an ongoing project to locate and document every London estate under threat of, currently undergoing, or which has recently undergone ‘regeneration’: whether privatisation (typically in a stock transfer to a housing association); refurbishment (usually with the prior decanting of the residents who, as with Balfron Tower, do not return); or demolition (either partial or full), with the resulting loss of homes for social rent and the social cleansing of the existing estate community. Red pins indicate estates in the 21 Labour-run boroughs, of which by the time of the exhibition we had located 196; blue pins in the 10 Conservative-run boroughs, which have 37 estates; and yellow pins in the single Liberal Democrat-run borough of Sutton, which has currently submitted 5 estates for viability assessments with public money from the Estate Regeneration National Strategy: a total of 238 London estates. ASH will be turning this map into an online, interactive version which we will publish together with the data we are collecting on each estate, including the number of homes demolished, the number of homes for social rent lost as a result of ‘regeneration’, and the number of properties and the tenure split (private, shared ownership, affordable rent or social rent) on the new development.
For help with the exhibition we would like to thank Rosalie Doubal, who invited ASH to exhibit at the ICA and who responded to our numerous requests during the week of our residency with charm and patience. We’d also like to thank Fran Cancino and the Architectural Workers for their work over the week on the designs for, respectively, the Patmore estate and the Northwold estate; Alessia Gammarota for visiting and photographing some of the estates at our request, even while she herself was facing homelessness; L.G., whose knowledge of London’s estates is unmatched, for help with compiling the list of estates threatened by London’s estate regeneration programme; Harry Tuke for help with identifying some of the estates threatened by Conservative councils; and Nicolas Fonty for help with printing the ASH map of these estates, with collating the data on them, and – together with L.G. – with the task of putting the hundreds of pins identifying them into the wall map.
Architects for Social Housing
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I’m writing to you today after visiting your residency at the ICA and immersing myself in what was one of the most shocking yet liberating experiences of my recent life. These two juxtaposed emotions were delivered in equal parts by the realisation that the unrelenting destruction of the vital social fabric of our city is being consistently chosen over what appears to me an unquestionably better alternative, namely the rejuvenation and not the ‘redevelopment’ of our London estates.
For the last four years I have progressively become more interested in the history, landscape and, more recently, the defence of social housing in the UK. Whilst during this time I have consistently sided with the main conviction of your organisation – that rejuvenation and adding housing stock is always better than ‘redevelopment’ – I find myself harbouring this position more strongly than ever before. I have been working for a homeless charity for the last year and have come face-to-face on a daily basis with the brutal implications of our societal failing to provide enough affordable housing for working people in this city. It has sharpened my anger at council ‘initiatives’ that will ultimately lead to a net loss of social stock (most recently the horrendous £2 billion gamble unfolding in Haringey) and the advancement of so-called ‘affordable’ housing over genuinely affordable housing tied to local wage rates.
I think this is why your exhibition today struck such a strong chord with me. Whilst I have studied various community produced plans in response to council-sanctioned estate regeneration (including Cressingham Gardens’ People’s Plan in Brixton, StART’s Community Land Trust plan in Tottenham, and plans of various spaces threatened by Camden’s Community Investment Plan), the plans presented in the ‘Design Alternatives to Estate Demolition’ section of the exhibition spoke to me like nothing else has as of yet. Your plans for Knight’s Walk, West Kensington & Gibbs Green, Central Hill, Patmore and Northwold estates all seemed inherently sensible ways for providing critically needed affordable stock whilst keeping and improving the already existing housing and facilities on these estates. It struck me time and again that the plans you put forward are without doubt favourable to any plans the councils that these estates sit within seem to be set on. I left filled with a sense of bemusement and resentment that councils seem to be consistently ignoring such accessible and sensible plans that have genuine resident input in favour of technocratic formulations that more often than not run against both the desire of residents and the pressing housing needs that all (particularly London) boroughs face.
Now to the purpose of my email. I left the ICA today with sense of purpose I have not felt before. While estate regeneration has been a topic close to my heart and I have been yearning to get involved and combat this oppressive and short sited policy, I have felt at a slight loss in how to channel this desire. I’m not a resident of a council estate or housing association property and, in some ways, I have felt disingenuous in getting directly involved with a resident-led campaign such as Save Cressingham Gardens. After witnessing the exhibition today, reading the literature produced by ASH (particularly your outstanding report on the reasons for the Grenfell Tower fire), and researching your extensive contribution since 2015 to defending social housing in the UK, I feel that I have found the organisation I would like to channel my energy through.
In a nation of 65.5 million people the membership of the Conservative Party is a tiny 134,000, a fraction of the well over half a million current members of the Labour Party. Yet the Conservative Party is one of the most successful political parties in Western democracies. Conservative Prime Ministers led UK governments for 57 years of the 20th Century and for 7 of the 21st. It currently has 8,857 councillors in local government – a extraordinary 1 for every 15 party members – out of a total of 20,830 seats; and, despite implementing the most draconian cuts to government expenditure in living memory while simultaneously presiding over the highest wealth inequality in Europe, has just been voted to the government of the UK for the third time in seven years. So how do they do it?
The obvious answer is that its members – which account for only 0.2 per cent of the population, or one in every 500 of us – and those who support them run the country: the financial institutions of the ever-increasing number of billionaires and property developers that bankroll the Conservative Party; the media institutions of the tax-avoiding press barons that run its propaganda and give it unlimited and biased coverage in the press, together with its members’ almost total domination of the BBC; the judiciary of Oxbridge alumni that protect it from prosecution no matter what its crimes while changing the law to accommodate its wars both abroad and at home; the privately-educated civil service that runs the country for it whatever party is in government; the police, security services and armed forces that protect it from and spy on us; and the roughly 25 per cent of the electorate and roughly 11 million people that are all that is required to vote it into power every five years.
The only time in recent years that another political party has taken the government of the UK away from the Tories – that being New Labour under Tony Blair and his inner-circle of unelected mandarins – was when it offered a more effective government with the same purpose, objects and values. Appropriately, the Constitution of the Conservative Party lists its purpose, objects and values as ‘to sustain and promote within the Nation the objects and values of the Conservative Party’ – a tautology worthy of the self-preservation society that it is. The purpose of the Conservative Party, in other words, is to promote the aims and values of those who constitute, finance, promote, accommodate, protect and run it – which is to say, the ruling class of the UK.
To describe the electoral and parliamentary system that permits this ruling class to remain in perpetual control of the UK as ‘democratic’ is as ridiculous as the belief that this system will ever permit itself to be voted away through the same electoral process the ruling class has kept in place for 900 years in order to maintain its control over who governs this violently United Kingdom. On the contrary, to participate in this electoral system by voting for this or that political party is to grant your personal acquiescence – as a dutiful subject of Her Majesty – to this spectacle of democracy, and in doing so give democratic legitimacy to a system of government that has maintained and perpetuated the rule of, by and for the few over the past millennia and more, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future unless we change that political system.
When we ask ourselves how and why it is that such a tiny percentage of the population can continue for decade after decade, century after century, to govern the rest of us, keep ownership of the land they steal from us, charge us whatever they want for living on it, appropriate the wealth produced by us at the point of a gun, and imprison those of us who propose an alternative social contract to this vast and self-perpetuating system of theft and wage slavery – the first and most obvious answer is: because we keep voting for them. The first step in the movement towards overthrowing this system is to stop voting its representatives into power. It is only in the vacuum of democratic representation towards which we are moving at an ever-increasing speed that the seed of political revolution will bear fruit. The fact this suggestion doesn’t sound as absurd, unwelcome and impossible to you as it would have even as recently as ten years ago shows that this seed has already been planted.
And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The Parliamentary Party and the Progress councils fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the unions, both affiliated and unaffiliated, standing before his throne. And the books were opened, including the Electoral Register. And the voters were judged according to how they had voted, as recorded in the Register. The boroughs gave up their constituents, and the wards and the parishes gave up their electorate. And all were judged according to their voting record. Then the non-voters and the ballot-spoilers were deleted from Momentum’s mailing list. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Electoral Register was also deleted from the list.
Then I saw a new Government and a new Party, for the old government and the old party had disappeared. And the Blairites also were gone. And I saw the Holy City, the new London, coming down out of Momentum dressed like a young bride for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying: ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more homelessness or food banks or delays on Network Rail or NHS queues or hard Brexit. All these things are gone forever.’
And the one sitting on the throne said: ‘Behold, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me: ‘Write this down in our Manifesto, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.’ And he also said: ‘It is finished! I am Estate Demolition and Affordable Housing – the Beginning and the End. To all who are poor I will give freely from the ever-so-slightly raised taxes on the rich. All who are victorious will benefit from the Trident nuclear programme, and I will be their God, and they will be my voters. But cowards, critics, doubters, unbelievers, ballot-spoilers, those who practice free thinking, extreme leftists and all who did not vote for us – their fate is in the electoral wilderness!’