I want to begin with those often-quoted words scribbled down by Marx 170 years ago: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ This famous statement poses the question of the role of knowledge within the relations of power. It’s a role we should consider within the housing movement when engaging in what is not an academic debate, but a struggle for survival.
1. The Housing Crisis
In the lead up to the recent Labour Party leadership elections, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) was contacted by some people making a film for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. They asked us if there were any policy changes in housing we wanted to see brought in. We said ‘Yeah, one or two . . .’ In terms of policies, the failures of Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act to guarantee affordable housing are obvious; the abuse of viability assessments by property developers to reduce the quota of affordable housing is another; the use of payments in lieu to councils to trigger the otherwise ‘exceptional circumstances’ under which affordable housing can be built off-site is another; the definition of what ‘affordable’ means as up to 80% of market value is another; the misuse of Special Purpose Vehicles by bankrupt councils to redevelop existing council estates is another. I could go on, but these are technical details in a more systemic problem, which is that Labour councils across London are doing the dirty work of Tory housing policy. It’s very simple, but the policy ASH would like to see changed is that Labour councils stop knocking down council housing and start building it instead.
Now, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a nice bloke. He has good taste in hats, and he doesn’t sing ‘God Save The Queen’. But in Southwark, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Camden, Haringey, Newham, and across Greater London, the councils at the forefront of the social cleansing of an entire class from our city are Labour councils. As we know, over 50,000 families, upwards of 150,000 people, have been forcibly evicted from London boroughs in the past three years – some to outer boroughs, most out of the city altogether, all to make way for luxury developments far beyond the pockets of the local communities.
So far, the model of resistance to these evictions has been PAH, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, an organisation founded by five people in Barcelona in 2009 and which today has 240 branches across Spain. However, there is a difference between the housing situation in Spain and that in Britain, and particularly in London. PAH, as its name indicates, was designed to resist the eviction of individuals who defaulted on their mortgages following a 180% increase in house prices in the previous decade, the subsequent collapse of the Spanish economy, and the mass unemployment and homelessness that followed.
Of course, there have also been mass repossessions by banks on defaulted mortgages in the U.K. since the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007 and the financial crash that followed. And people continue to struggle to meet both mortgage and rental payments due to unemployment, zero hour contracts, rising rents and utilities payments, and huge benefits and working tax cuts and sanctions. The work of eviction resistance groups across London is testimony to the need to continue this struggle. However, the Spanish situation is not the situation that shapes the so-called ‘crisis’ in housing in London.
One of the chief architects of this ‘crisis’ is Tony Blair’s former policy chief, the Labour peer Andrew Adonis, who himself grew up on a Camden council estate, and who recently defected to the Tories to chair George Osborne’s newly created National Infrastructure Commission. In March of this year, Adonis published a Report commissioned by the Peabody Trust. It contains the findings and recommendations of the Institute of Public Policy Research in response to the shortage in London housing about which we hear so much in the media and politician’s speeches these days. Titled City Villages: More homes, better communities – a title which should alert us as to the Middle-England mentality of its authors – its findings are as follows.
The Report begins by arguing that the population of Inner London in 2015 is insufficiently dense. The comparison it makes is to 1939, when the pre-war densities of Inner London were at their peak. Although the population of Greater London has surpassed that of 1939, Inner London remains 1.7 million residents short of its former levels. ‘Rediscovering just half of this former housing capacity in Inner London’, Adonis concludes, ‘would supply the whole of London’s projected housing needs for the next 17 years.’
Before I move on to the recommendations these figures are put forward to justify, let me make a few observations about these findings. First, and most obviously, Inner London in 1939, particularly in the South and East End, was notorious for the overcrowded terraces that post-war modernism sometimes over-hastily swept away as ‘slums’, but which should hardly be a model to which we should aspire today. Moreover, the Inner London boroughs the developers have their claws into – the traditionally working-class boroughs of Islington, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lambeth – are the most densely populated in London, with populations of, respectively, 14,735 per km², 14,201, 13,850 and 11,358. Only Kensington and Chelsea, that invasive finger of Tory voters, slides between their cheeks with 13,016 per km². So the population density findings of the Adonis Report are not only arbitrary in their comparisons to an earlier typography, and questionable, at the least, as an aspiration, they are also incorrect statistically in identifying their target boroughs.
If we were to take the same blanket criterion, we could point out that the borough of Westminster, at the very centre of London, has a far lower population density (11,109 per km²) than these boroughs, and is only slightly higher than that of Camden (10,675 per km²) and Southwark (10,432). Moreover, 11,457 of the properties in Westminster are currently registered to off-shore companies, and therefore presumably stand empty. Perhaps, if Lord Adonis is seeking Lebensraum for his ‘city villages’, he should consider building in Whitehall and Pall Mall. It’s not as if their current inhabitants don’t have second (and third and fourth) homes already paid for by the state.
I’m joking – unfortunately – but I’m making this point to show that the justifications for what the Adonis Report argues are necessary measures to address a housing ‘crisis’ are nothing of the kind. On the contrary, they are driven not by the economic necessities consequent upon this crisis but by the political ideology driving its creation, which the recommendations of the Report make clear. For what identifies the Inner London boroughs chosen for demolition and ‘densification’ is not their insufficiency of population, but their plenitude of council estates.
2. Estate Regeneration and the Dismantling of the State
The Adonis Report estimates that there are around 3,500 housing estates in Greater London, with an estimated 360,000 homes – all of which stand on land currently in the hands of local authorities. What the Report doesn’t say is that equates to upwards of a million people. Yet its recommendation is that all existing council estates be re-categorised as ‘brownfield land.’ Brownfield land is a term used in town planning to describe former commercial or industrial land that has become contaminated by chemical or industrial waste, and requires ‘cleaning up’ before being redeveloped. Greenwich Peninsula, formerly the site of two gasworks and numerous other factories, and now owned and being redeveloped by the Hong Kong investment vehicle Knight Dragon, is an example of such a site. By applying this category to London’s council estates, the equation is clear. What requires ‘clearing up’ is another kind of industrial waste – that of the overwhelmingly working-class residents of the homes Lord Adonis, peer of the realm, intends to demolish.
These recommendations, made in March of this year, are now housing policy. Brandon Lewis, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, adopted them lock, stock and eviction notice in a talk he gave at the London Real Estate Forum in June. Behind his concern for tackling what he confidently asserts to be ‘the deprivation that blights the lives of residents in these estates’, the leap from insufficient population density to redevelopment of brownfield land to the demolition of council estates was, for him, a hop, a skip and a jump.
Then the grim reaper himself, George Osborne, our learned Chancellor of the Exchequer with a 2.1 in Modern History, endorsed this recommendation in July in his policy paper to Parliament. Titled ‘Fixing the Foundations: Creating a More Prosperous Nation,’ it promises, among other things: automatic planning permission on all ‘suitable brownfield sites’; stronger compulsory purchase powers to create such brownfield land; the devolution of planning powers, including power over land, to the London Mayor; the power for the government to intervene when local authorities fail to follow their plans for meeting its housing quotas; and bypassing due democratic process on national infrastructure projects that include housing.
Finally, hereditary millionaire Zac Goldsmith – by the grace of God not our next Tory Mayor – had clearly received the memo from Conservative Campaign Headquarters when, at his first Conservative Party Conference this month, he said he would provide ‘more homes, better communities’. ‘Contrary to what some believe,’ announced this champion of the truth, ‘there is no shortage of land, and specifically there is no shortage of brownfield land. Just consider’, he invites us, ‘the three and a half thousand or so 1950s and 1960s estates, many of them poorly designed, many of them coming to the end of their lives.’
We have considered them, and the plans the Tories have to hasten that ending. Let me repeat, it is this situation, rather than the repossession of mortgages, that threatens every Londoner living on a council estate, and which eviction resistance must respond to. If the extent of these plans is in doubt, the Adonis Report includes a map of the Borough of Islington, home of our putative saviour, in which all 150 council estates are marked in red, indicating their potential for redevelopment as brownfield land.
These evictions are not driven by a collapse in the housing market, as happened in Spain, but by its opposite. London house prices continue to rise as the land they stand on becomes more and more rare, and the jackals of international finance bid for its possession. The demolition of existing council housing and its replacement with homes that are beyond the reach of most Londoners, but will instead stand empty as deposit boxes for foreign investors, only serves to drive up the price of the land on which they stand. Given which, what possible motivation is there for developers to build new, genuinely affordable homes, when the rocketing prices of the land they own relies precisely on the lack of housing? Housing plots for over 600,000 homes, four times the number built in Britain over the past year, are currently being landbanked by the largest nine house builders in the UK, three quarters of those by Taylor Wimpey (184,730), Barratt (142,123), Persimmon (92,404) and Berkeley (43,233). This is not, as we are constantly told, an unfortunate side effect of abstract economic forces beyond our control; it has been carefully prepared and legislated for by a government in the pockets of international finance.
Neo Bankside, a £400 million development whose 217 apartments – over a quarter of which are owned by off-shore companies – are on sale from £1.25 million to over £20 million, is a prime example of the fallacy of the ‘trickle-down’ economics that is supposed to build affordable housing in London. This runs something along these lines: what does it matter if the so-called ‘super-rich’ own multi-million pound properties in Central London if the wealth they create pays for the homes the rest of us need to live in (preferably in the outer suburbs)? In practice, however, not only has Neo Bankside not built an affordable housing quota that was already reduced to 27.5% by a viability assessment that underestimated its eventual sales value by nearly a half, but the property developers, Native Land/Grosvenor, paid Southwark Council £11 million to build that quota off-site on council-owned land that was sold to them for the purpose, in the process demolishing a children’s home and day nursery.
Since September 2010, property developers have similarly paid or promised £965 million to local authorities in lieu of affordable housing. The question is, where will those off-site quotas be built? And the answer is that the funding for the building programs of London’s bankrupt councils is in practice paying for the demolition of existing council housing stock and its replacement with further homes for the private real estate market. Once the Government’s new Housing and Planning Bill is passed, developers will no longer even be obliged to include homes for social rent within their affordable housing quotas, but can confine themselves to building starter homes capped at an ‘affordable’ £450,000. This is the mechanism by which Tory housing policy, funded by international capital, is being driven through Labour Councils to demolish the council housing that stands on land which Lord Adonis does not shy away from calling ‘some of the most valuable in the world’.
Beyond even this economic incentive, however, there lies another, which is in its service, but whose agenda is far bigger than even the vast fortunes being made in London’s property market. For the policy of demolishing London’s housing estates is also the keystone in this Government’s crusade to dismantle the welfare state built by Labour after the Second World War. It is clear by now that the Tories want to erase everything the housing estates of the 1960s and 1970s stood for – the National Health Service, state benefits, pensions and education, publicly owned utilities, transport and industry – everything, in fact, that might remind the people of Britain that there is another social contract than the one currently being forced upon us.
To this end, not only must the greatest source of working-class housing in London be reduced to rubble and their often significantly lower quality replacements priced at a level few Londoners – let alone working class Londoners – will be able to afford, but the very idea of council housing must become impossible to conceive again. These plans, which are already a reality, to evict an entire class of people will see the greatest change to the demographics and physical shape of London in generations.
3. Solutions to a ‘Crisis’ (some don’ts and dos)
So, what is to be done?
Two long, sustained and informative articles about London’s housing ‘crisis’ have been published recently: Oliver Wainwright’s ‘Revealed: how developers exploit flawed planning system to minimise affordable housing’ in The Guardian, and Rowan Moore’s ‘London: the city that ate itself’ in The Observer. Both are well-argued and fairly objective investigations into what they are united in depicting as the inexorable economic logic and political failings of the current situation. However, in neither article will one find more than the slightest hint towards solutions to the problems they spend the remainder of their many pages analysing. Far from compelling outrage and a willingness to combat these forces in the reader, it might be argued that these articles serve precisely what they claim to be exposing, by painting what is contingent as somehow given, irreversible and unchallengeable.
This, it bears being repeated, is precisely the function of ideology: to make existing economic and social relations seem part of the natural order of things. But there is nothing natural, necessary, irreversible or unchallengeable about what the property barons, politicians and investors feeding at the housing table are doing to our city. Let me say again: London’s housing ‘crisis’ is not a result of faceless economic forces; it has been carefully prepared and legislated over a number of years to serve the interests and fill the pockets of those who benefit from it. If by ‘crisis’ we mean something that is out of our control, then there is no housing ‘crisis’. There is – in actuality rather than in the ideology of our society – a class war being waged through housing, and so far it is all going to plan. The so-called ‘crisis’ is well in hand. The sooner liberals with an unshakeable faith in democracy, market forces, common sense, human decency and all the other illusions of their political class wake up to this reality, the sooner we can start coming up with ways to fight back.
We can start by stopping doing what these articles perhaps unwittingly perpetuate, which is analysing this so-called crisis in the terms put forward by those who created it – of viability assessments and affordable housing quotas, trickle-down economics and the free market of demand and supply – as if this were the ground we should be fighting on. It isn’t. If we accept ideologically driven arguments about population densities as a measure of who is and isn’t allowed to live in London, if we accept that the housing shortage is caused by a rising population rather than the carefully-managed mechanics of foreign investment, if we accept that austerity is driven by economic necessity rather than political expediency, we will continue to lose this class war. An enemy that is free to choose his own ground has already won half the battle. We need to start putting forward our own terms, choosing our own ground, rather than fighting for the scraps our masters let fall from their table. Only then will we be in a position to win this war. Then we need to get out there and win it.
If estate regeneration is the key mechanism in what I’m calling the ‘London Clearances’, then community consultations, steering committees, council meetings, architect-led workshops, and all the other hoops we’re being asked to jump through – are so much rope with which to hang ourselves. A drowning man will grab onto any strand without asking himself what it is tied to. Not only do these procedures, enforced on estates by the same councils that are intent on demolishing them, achieve nothing either to mediate or to stop that demolition, they soak up, in addition, what energy and time and fight residents have to oppose the forces intent on evicting them from their homes. They are less than useless because they are more than harmful.
We should accept as a principle, once and for all, that asking the people and institutions that are trying to steal our homes to provide us with the means to stop them doing so is a delusion that needs dispelling, and quickly. We have only ourselves to rely on. The negotiating and delaying tactics employed by ASH, either through proposing architectural alternatives to demolition or through garnering public support for a campaign, are useful only insofar as the time they win is put to gaining the knowledge of how to fight and forming the resistance to do so. But they should never substitute for, or detract from, the realisation that only mass collective resistance will save London’s council estates and the hundreds of thousands of people who currently live on them.
In response to the Tory Party’s explicit policy of social cleansing, it is important for the survival of council housing that we change the structure and form of our resistance. We need to stop reacting to evictions and start stopping them at their source. By the time the bailiffs turn up, the battle is already lost, if not that day then on another. And the war we are fighting is made up of thousands of such battles. Huge resources of time and people are being spent on what are often individual evictions, or where estates are far down the eviction process. The Sweets Way Resists campaign stands in for many others in this respect. When the campaign started there were no more than twenty families on the estate, and that number quickly reduced to ten. At its recent eviction, 6 months later, a single remaining resident was being defended by nearly a hundred squatters and activists.
Yes, the act of resistance is an end in itself. And I do not mean to undermine or to criticise the victories hard won by these campaigns in finding new homes for evicted individuals. Nor do I underestimate the inspiring communities that have formed around that resistance and their efforts to organise and politicise themselves. Nor am I unaware of the need to find homes for the squatters who are invariably the foot soldiers (they would say the ‘cannon-fodder’) at the forefront of these campaigns. However, our resources are limited, not only in people and the time they have to devote to the struggle, but also in our knowledge of how to fight it. It is critical to our survival that we adapt our models of resistance not only to current but also to future circumstances.
When confronted with such an impending disaster, it’s always dangerous to say: ‘This is what we need to do!’ But at ASH we believe that at the forefront of the tasks facing the housing movement should be the creation of a network whose primary agenda is to establish contact with as many of the 3,500 housing estates the Adonis Report identifies as subject to redevelopment as possible. The first time residents realise their estate has been earmarked for regeneration is often after they have gone through the consultation process. This is always conducted under the misleading promise of refurbishing their homes—an option that is invariably found to be financially ‘unviable’. This is also usually the first time residents make contact with us or other support groups. By then, however, which typically occurs several years into the regeneration process, much of the information subsequently used to justify the demolition of their homes has been gathered. To combat these tactics, we need to start contacting estate communities in advance and forewarn them what the Housing and Panning Bill means for them. Then we need to set about setting up and supporting eviction resistances not with individuals facing bailiffs, but with entire communities facing years of struggle for their homes.
Against the enormous forces arrayed against us – the economic power of international finance, the political hegemony of the main political parties, the ideological hegemony of the media, and the increasingly heavily armed and unaccountable security and police forces employed to fight this war on the ground – we have one thing on our side. Housing, a place to live, a home, shelter – is one of the few things we all need. It unites us all. It is – if I can put it this way – a cross-ideological imperative. It is up to us to use the possibility for united action this imperative offers us to politicise the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Londoners who are threatened by these plans for the social cleansing of our city.
I said before that resistance is its own end. On the campaigns we have worked with, just as with many other resistance groups across London, we have seen estate communities that have been left fractured, alienated and demoralised by decades of systematic mismanagement at the hands of local councils come alive again through their struggle, and in that new, collective life become politicised into direct action. It is not activists who will win this war, but the people whose homes and lives are threatened by the London Clearances.
Architects for Social Housing