The Intellectual Bloodstain: Academia and Social Cleansing

From a talk given outside the London School of Economics and Political Science on Thursday, 29 September 2016, as part of Resist: Festival of Ideas and Actions.

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‘All the water in the sea is not enough to wash away one intellectual bloodstain.’

– Isidore Ducasse (1870)

It’s an honour to be speaking here outside an institution of higher learning that counts among its staff such scholarly luminaries as Angelina Jolie, whom I’m looking forward to hearing lecture here in the Autumn term in the MSc on ‘Women, Peace and Security’. I don’t know what pedagogical principles Visiting Professor Jolie will be following, but my own view is that the only point in talking about subjects like resistance in an institution such as the London School of Economics and Political Science is to expose its ideological role in the relations of power against which resistance forms. I’m here today, therefore, not inside the institution but outside the New Academic Building, to talk about the London School of Economics, and about the responsibility and culpability of academics and intellectuals in the violence of London’s housing crisis.

I’m going to talk about a very particular intellectual bloodstain, whose source, if you look carefully, you can see seeping out of the doors behind me, and down the steps you’re sitting on over there. It’s a bloodstain that points specifically to a council estate regeneration project; and if you know anything about such projects you’ll know that ‘regeneration’ means the eviction of residents from their homes, the demolition of the estate they live on, and the redevelopment of the land, supposedly in order to address the chronic housing shortage in London. The particular regeneration I want to focus on is that of the Ferrier Estate in South-East London.

1. The Ferrier Estate

The Ferrier Estate, whose construction was completed in 1972, was located in Kidbrooke, east of Blackheath, in the London Borough of Greenwich. In 1999 the regeneration of the estate was initiated by Greenwich Labour Council, which has held a majority in the borough since 1971, so can pretty much do what it wants. In 2004, following approval by the Central Government of Tony Blair, the Council began to decant residents, 50 per cent of which were from ethnic minorities. In 2006 the Berkeley Group was awarded the redevelopment contract on the £1 billion project. In 2009 planning permission was given by the London Mayor, Boris Johnson, and demolition of the estate began in 2010. By then, 1,500 households had been evicted from their homes, and the remaining 400 households were being threatened with court action. The motivation for this timetable was that the second phase of redevelopment had to begin by March 2011 if Greenwich Labour Council was to receive a £21.5 million grant for the scheme from the Coalition Government’s Homes and Communities Agency. It did, and by 2012 the demolition of the Ferrier Estate had been completed.

A total of 1,906 council homes were demolished, of which only 174 were owned by leaseholders, so by far most of the 5,277 residents were council tenants. These demolished homes are being replaced by a new development called Kidbrooke Village, which when finished will contain 4,398 new apartments. Of these, 2,490 will be for private sale, 1,358 for private rent, and 550 for shared ownership; which means that no homes – not a single home out of the 4,398 apartments in Kidbrooke Village – will be for social rent (with those promised in Berkeley’s planning application being converted into ‘affordable’ rent): a net loss of 1,732 homes for social rent from the borough. This raises the question of where the residents of the former Ferrier Estate ended up; and the answer is that all but a handful of the more than 5,000 residents on the Ferrier Estate have been evicted from the area. To put this loss of homes for social rent in context, in July 2014 – and things can only have grown worse since – Greenwich Borough had 14,994 households on its housing waiting list. If you didn’t know better, you would think Greenwich Labour Council would be desperate to hold onto what council homes they have, rather than demolishing 1,732 homes for social rent.

Okay, but you might argue that these homes were run down after decades of no maintenance by a council that nevertheless continued to collect rents from their occupants, so maybe it was better to replace them. So let’s look at what’s been built in Kidbrooke Village.

Since work started on the new development, 1,224 apartments have been completed, the cheapest of which is on sale for £412,500 for a 1-bedroom apartment. A 2-bedroom apartment is going for £540,000, a 3-bedroom apartment for £770,000, and a 4-bedroom townhouse is on sale for £900,000. By comparison, a 70 year-old leaseholder on the former Ferrier Estate – which is to say, someone with no hope of getting a new mortgage, even if he could afford such prices – was offered the grand sum of £94,000 in compensation for his 4-bedroom home, roughly one-tenth of the cost of an equivalent-sized apartment in Kidbrooke Village. Again, to put this in context, buying a £450,000 1-bedroom apartment requires a salary of £77,000 per annum and a deposit of £97,000. That’s the cheapest housing you’ll find in Kidbrooke Village – which, again, raises the question of for whom if has been built and what function it serves. And the only answer we can arrive at from these figures is that in place of the 1,906 council homes demolished by Greenwich Labour Council, the Berkeley Group is supplying housing that only the upper-middle classes, buy-to-let landlords or property speculators could possibly afford to buy, and not for use as homes but as real estate investments. Equally certain, the people who made up the overwhelmingly working-class community that once lived there won’t be buying the apartments on the new development.

This is not the gentrification of an up-and-coming area according to the gradual demands of the market. This is not local authorities trying to build the homes that Londoners need and can afford to live in. This is not property developers injecting the private investment needed to kick-start the regeneration of a run-down neighbourhood. This is the social cleansing of an entire community, over 5,000 people, evicted from their homes and dispersed across the borough of Greenwich and beyond.

In an article published in October 2008, Councillor Peter Brooks, the Deputy Leader of Greenwich Labour Council, when questioned about the role Greenwich Labour Council was playing in this process, responded:

‘Kidbrooke Village could be a key place to live and work in London, so I suspect that a different type of person will want to move in.’

Now, as we know, the middle classes don’t like to use the word ‘class’, as it forces them to confront their own position within its ranks; so instead of saying a different ‘class’ of person they say a different ‘type’ of person. Councillor Brooks continues:

‘I do understand that communities have been torn apart, and I think that’s the part of it that you regret. But what I am trying to do is form a new community.

I suppose it’s nice to know that the man who oversaw the demolition of over 1,900 council homes and the eviction of a community of over 5,000 residents in a borough with 15,000 people on the housing waiting list at least ‘regrets’ it – small consolation though that will be to the old community he destroyed. But let me remind you that, in his role as Deputy Leader of Greenwich Labour Council, this is the ‘type’ of person that has been given the responsibility for solving the housing shortage in London. He goes on:

‘It is unfortunate that we have had to move people to do this. I wouldn’t like it, I suppose, if I lived here. Yes, there has been a lot of scattering of the community. But there’s not much in reality that we can do about that, other than offer them the opportunity to come back.’

This opportunity to ‘come back’ is, in fact, all that residents are offered, whether council tenants or leaseholders. It has subsequently been called the Right to Return, and you’ll find it brandished over and over again by councils implementing the demolition of estates – I always think rather like a rapist waving a condom in his defence. ‘Yes’, the council says, ‘we’ve demolished your homes, evicted you from the estate, broken up your families, scattered the community you built over 40 years – but at least you’ve got the right to come back!’ In fact, the only residents coming back are the kids who, understanding exactly what this right means for them, visit Kidbrooke Village at night to engage in what the State calls ‘anti-social behaviour’.

In July 2014, two years after the Ferrier Estate they called home had been demolished, at a London Assembly investigation into the respective benefits of refurbishing council estates versus demolishing and redeveloping them, Roy Kindle, himself a former member of Greenwich Council, reflected on this Right to Return:

‘Ten years ago residents on the Ferrier Estate were told that they would have the right to come back. What Greenwich Council didn’t mention is that they would need to win the Lottery to do so.’

2. Kidbrooke Village

That’s the reality of estate demolition. But now we come to the reason I’m here on the steps of the London School of Economics. In July this year, the LSE produced a report, not – as one might expect – on the demolition of the Ferrier Estate, denouncing its destruction of a working class community, but on Kidbrooke Village, where a 4-bedroom house costs £900,000. The report is called New London Villages: Creating Community, a title which, before it does anything else, opposes the negative image of ‘estates’ with the positive image of ‘villages’. This is described as an ‘independent report’, produced for the Berkeley Group by the London School of Economics. That is, the LSE produced a report about a housing development built by the Berkeley Group on behalf of the Berkeley Group. The authors of this supposedly independent report are:

  • Kath Scanlon, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE in the Department of Geography and Environment.
  • Emma Sagor, Research Officer in Public Policy at the LSE.
  • Christine Whitehead, Professor of Housing in the Department of Economics at the LSE.
  • Alessandra Mossa, Research Fellow at the LSE and former architect and urban planner.

I don’t know, but I’d be very surprised if these four academics at the London School of Economics, who have produced a report on behalf of the Berkeley Group about a housing development built by the Berkeley Group, were not also paid to do so by the Berkeley Group. I’ll leave it to you to judge how independent that report is.

New London Villages: Creating Community, also comes with a preface by Anthony William Pidgley, CBE, co-founder and Chairman of the Berkeley Group. To give you an idea of what ‘type’ of person he is, his total annual ‘compensation’ – which is made up of his salary, annual bonus and stock options – is £21,489,000. So I think it’s safe to say he can definitely afford to buy a 4-bedroom home on Kidbrooke Village for £900,000, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s bought one or two for his kids as an investment. The Berkeley Group, which is the seventh largest home builder in the UK, is currently sitting on sites – a practice called land-banking – sufficient for 43,233 homes. We’re constantly being told by developers, councillors and politicians that London is ‘full’, that there’s nowhere to build homes, and so we have to demolish existing estates to build the homes we need. This is a lie. In the UK the top nine house builders are sitting on land sufficient to build 600,000 homes, including Taylor Wimpey (which has land for 184,730 homes), Barratt (142,123 homes), Persimmon (92,404 homes) and the Berkeley Group (43,233 homes). Why do they land-bank? For the same reason someone sits on their gold: the less land there is available for building, the higher the prices they can charge for the homes they build on it. Land, not materials or labour, determines the value of real estate, and the less there is of it the more it costs. For this reason, the Berkeley Group, which has seen fit to demolish 1,906 council homes on the Ferrier Estate alone in order to acquire the land on which they stood, has built a mere 3,355 homes in the UK in 2016. This is why London has some of the most expensive land prices of any major city in the world – more expensive than New York, comparable to Singapore and Hong Kong – and therefore the most expensive house prices in the world: not because of abstract market forces, but because of a property boom driven by international investment in London real estate dressed up as a housing crisis and accommodated by our almost non-existent corporate laws that means half the world’s dirty money runs through the capital. So the next time your councillor tells you they simply have to knock down your housing estate because there’s nowhere to build in London, quote these figures back at them.

In the preface by the Chairman of the Berkeley Group, the company that commissioned this ‘independent’ report from the London School of Economics, Mr. Pidgley says of Kidbrooke Village:

‘There is something for everyone here, for each and every part of society. Everybody has been involved, from all walks of life, regardless of the profession they work in.’

‘Every walk of life’ is another one of those middle-class euphemisms for ‘class’. Earlier we had the Deputy Leader of Greenwich Council describing Kidbrooke Village attracting a ‘different type of person’; next we’ll have the former residents of the Ferrier Estate described as ‘people from humble backgrounds’. I suppose someone who earns £21.5 million a year can’t be expected to have much of an idea of what people can afford to spend, so let me assure Mr. Pidgley that working class people, people of a different ‘type’, people from a ‘walk of life’ he’s never set foot on, people who don’t work in a ‘profession’, cannot afford the properties in Kidbrooke Village.

The report by the four academics at the London School of Economics was commissioned through LSE Consulting, which is part of LSE Enterprise, the global business arm of the London School of Economics. This company draws on what it calls ‘world-class research’ by the LSE to undertake consulting and commercial research for governments, public and private sector organisations. So this is a private company that sells supposedly independent research by the London School of Economics in support of projects by governments, by councils and by property developers like the Berkeley Group – projects like Kidbrooke Village. It is this relationship that I’m here to talk about today, and the academic, scholarly and intellectual integrity of the report that came out of it, which is divided into three chapters.

Chapter 1. Why Villages?

The first question mark over the integrity of the LSE report is the trope of ‘urban villages’. As I said, the report opposed the positive value of a ‘village’ to the negative value of an ‘estate’; but where does this opposition come from? According to the report, London has always been a ‘city of villages’. To an extent that’s true, as it is of any city which, unlike those in, say, North America, has expanded over centuries, swallowing up the surrounding villages as it has grown in size. But it hardly describes the financial capital of the world and home to 9 million people that London has become today. No doubt in reaction to this, London as a ‘city of villages’ is a very popular characterisation in West and North London, especially among that ‘type’ of person from a ‘walk of life’ that can afford a second home in the Cotswolds. It has less purchase on reality in East and South London, among that class of person that is trying to scrape the money together to pay their rent or resist the demolition of their estate.

One of the sources the report sites for this image of London as a ‘city of villages’ is the Urban Villages Forum, founded in 1993 in response to Prince Charles’ views on architecture. The only other source it sites is a map of London made in 1941 as part of a masterplan of how a post-World War II London would be rebuilt. Of course, one of the reasons the report is looking at a description of London from the 1940s is because the council estates whose demolition it was commissioned to justify were built after the Second World War, when the newly elected Labour Government initiated a program of mass council home building that continued through the next three decades under different political parties, but largely, and certainly in London, in working-class boroughs run by Labour councils. How things have changed.

What the report doesn’t mention in this nostalgic look back to a pre-welfare state England of village pubs, cricket greens and jars of Bovril, is that the trope of London as a collection of city villages has a much more recent provenance. One of these is Policy Exchange, another supposedly independent Conservative Party think tank, which in January 2013 published a report titled Create Streets. Arguing that post-war multi-storey housing estates should be demolished and replaced with low-rise apartments and housing built on the traditional street plan, this report had a considerable influence on the London Plan and its vision of London’s future. One of the other sources for the image of London as a ‘city of villages’ is a report published in March 2015 by the Independent Public Policy Research – a report in fact commissioned by the Peabody housing association – titled City Villages: More Homes Better Communities. This is one of the key sources, referred to by successive Tory Housing Ministers as well as the Labour London Mayor, of the argument that the greatest source of land available for building the homes Londoners need is the land on which existing council estates are built. And a third, but certainly not the final, source of this vision of London’s future, is a report by the real estate firm Savills titled Completing London’s Streets: How the regeneration and intensification of housing estates could increase London’s supply of homes and benefit residents. Delivered directly to Cabinet in January 2016, Savills, which is advising Labour councils across London on their estate demolition programmes, as well as writing housing policy for the London Mayor, recommends demolishing the council homes of over 400,000 Londoners and replacing them with privately built housing developments modelled on the trope of – you guessed it – ‘city villages’.

For reasons we can only speculate on, but on whose results we can certainly pass judgement, none of these reports, published over the past three years, are mentioned in the LSE report as sources for the image of London as a ‘city of villages’. That’s not just bad scholarship – that’s lying. The authors are pretending they have developed what they call their ‘conceptual framework’ for the future of London’s housing needs, when in fact they’ve been handed it by government-sponsored think tanks, housing association-commissioned reports, real estate firms, and the property developer that paid them to produce the report. This isn’t just bad scholarship, this is intellectually fraudulent and morally indefensible, and LSE Research Fellow Kath Scanlon, Research Officer Emma Sagor, Professor Christine Whithead, and Research Fellow Alessandro Mossa should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be considerably more than ashamed, but we’ll return to that later.

Having been given this trope of ‘city villages’, these four academics, in their own supposedly independent report, are now compelled to come up with a definition of what they call the ‘New London Village’, which they have decided are the following:

  • Small and intimate: with the scale of the buildings suitable and the density sustainable.
  • Unique: with a spatial identity and sense of place, with community events in which residents create collective memory.
  • Designed for social interaction: with public spaces and facilities for the community.
  • Locally driven and responsive: with residents managing and determining the future of the community according to a long-term vision.
  • Functional: with residents having access to public and private services.
  • A mixed community: with a range of ages, incomes, tenures and backgrounds.

Chapter 2. Is Kidbrooke a ‘Village’?

For those whose attention spans don’t extend to the report’s forty obsequious pages, the LSE produced a short film that was published not only on the LSE website but in the online pages of The Guardian, where it received much praise by the paper’s resident housing hack and Labour apologist, Dave Hill. In this film, Kath Scanlon, the lead author of the report, says the Ferrier Estate was built in the early 60s, rather than the early 70s. This suits her argument – which is to say, the arguments of the Berkeley Group and Greenwich Labour Council – that the homes were run-down and no longer fit for use. But if that were the case for modern buildings forty years old when they were demolished, the Victorian terrace conversions in which half of London currently lives would have to be torn down too.

Clearly happy to peddle deliberately inaccurate information, the LSE academics – who in their written report devote a single paragraph to the existence of the Ferrier Estate – identify its decline not with its lack of maintenance by Greenwich Labour Council, or with the cuts to the support networks of residents, or with the more general class war that has been waged by successive governments over the past 3o years, but with the ‘uncompromising’ design of the estate, its ‘poor construction quality’, its ‘isolation from the surrounding neighbourhoods’, and, finally, the identity of the residents, for which it finds yet another euphemism, the by-now familiar ‘vulnerable and troubled households’. Before you can say it, that well-worn phrase of land-grabbers is wheeled out, and the Ferrier Estate is branded, without any data to substantiate this claim, as a ‘byword for anti-social behaviour’.

Since the academic authors of this report are salaried researchers in housing, they will presumably be familiar with David Cameron’s campaign to ‘Blitz’ one hundred so-called sink estates for precisely the same unsubstantiated reasons they give here to justify the demolition of the Ferrier Estate. They do not, however, question the use of this emotive and stereotypical language to stigmatise working-class communities and demolish their homes – which, like the trope of ‘city villages’, they have taken directly from government propaganda – but simply repeat it, without basis other than the place-myths about council estates and their communities cultivated by politicians, councillors, property developers, architects, the media and the entertainment industry. To call this scholarship is ridiculous: it is unquestioning, uncritical, willing subservience to paymasters, and its authors should be denounced by the academic community.

I won’t bother, because of this, to summarise their completely predictable deliberations on whether Kibrooke Village meets the criteria provided for them by its developers, but will instead look at what is at stake in these criteria:

1) The idea that post-war council estates were not built on a ‘human scale’ – intimate, walkable, everyone their own front door onto the street – is one we regularly hear used as justification for their demolition. In the judicial inquiry into the compulsory purchase order on the Aylesbury estate held in April, May and October 2015, the legal firm employed by Southwark Labour Council repeatedly used this idea of a ‘human scale’ to denigrate the estate on which 7,500 residents have lived at any one time over the past forty years. The question, of course, is what is meant by ‘human’ in judging a suitable scale. For the socialist architects who designed these estates, the human was collective, and its scale that of the community the estates formed. By contrast, for the capitalist purveyors of city villages, the human is the individual homeowner, and its scale his purchasing power, and anyone who doesn’t fit this consumer model of citizenship is – as we are experiencing – not welcome on this land. To affirm that a buildings are or are not on a ‘human scale’ is the kind of conservative judgements you’d hear passed in the Daily Telegraph, and has no place on a supposedly independent academic report on the success or otherwise of a housing development.

2) The idea of a ‘unique identity’ conjures up all the horrors of the Middle-England villages beloved of West London second home-owners; but having wiped out the collective memory of the socially cleansed community of the Ferrier Estate, however easy it has been for the Berkeley Group to build a luxury housing development in its place, the LSE academics will find it isn’t as easy to create either collective memory or a community out of non-domicile real estate investors and buy-to-let landlords.

3) By the report’s own admission, the only public amenities provided in Kidbrooke Village are the OneSpace community centre – the last remaining building, which is soon to be demolished, from the Ferrier Estate – and the ubiquitous Sainsbury’s supermarket. The latter is, perhaps, the most representative environment for ‘social interaction’ under monopoly capitalism, but even an LSE academic is unlikely to conclude that it will create either a unique identity or a sense of community. As for public spaces, there are none on what is now privately-owned land.

4) ‘Locally driven’ depends on who the locals are. The locals of the previous community have been socially cleansed from the area, except when exercising their nocturnal Right to Return; and to talk of Kidbrooke Village as being ‘locally driven’ is an added insult to the complete disregard with which the wishes of the former community were treated by Greenwich Labour Council and the Berkeley Group. Now, in a move characteristic of estate demolition’s transferral of public responsibilities into private hands, Kidbrooke Village is run by the Berkeley Group, so the only vision of the future is theirs.

5) As we have seen, the ‘function’ the housing in Kidbrooke Village serves is primarily as an exchange-value, either for property speculators, real estate investors or buy-to-let landlords. Their use-value as housing is secondary, and the demographic of the users has been specifically selected to place as little burden on public services as possible.

6) Describing the tenancies on Kidbrooke Village as an equal mix of ‘social/affordable, private rented and owner occupied’ is another lie. Following the Government’s Housing and Planning Act, there no longer exists any provision for building homes for social rent on new housing developments. Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 that made this a requirement has now been superseded by the provision of affordable housing at up to 80 per cent of market rate, the quota of which is determined by viability assessments produced by firms such as Savills. But in fact that’s the best concession we can hope for. In reality, in place even of this affordable housing quota, developers can now build Starter Homes – that is, state subsidised housing for private sale – that are expected to make up around 20 per cent of new housing developments. None of this is mentioned in the report by the London School of Economics. Instead the authors find that, with a few reservations, Kidbrooke Village does, in fact, all things considered, meet the criteria of a New London Village. No surprise there.

What they do mention is that Kidbrooke Village, when it is completed, will double the housing density of the Ferrier Estate. But they provide no study of what effects this will have on the local area, or whether the infrastructure of roads, schools, clinics, hospitals, shops, nurseries, public transport and so on has been supplied. The Community Infrastructure Levy that was part of the Section 106 agreements has disappeared with it, so presumably Greenwich Council will be expected to meet the drastically increased demands on support networks. That is, of course, if the increased density of housing brings with it a comparable increase in residents. Although there is no record of how many apartments are being bought by buy-to-let landlords, the report estimates that 65 per cent of the ‘units’ have been sold to occupiers, which means 35 per cent, over a third, were purchased by non-domicile investors in real estate. Perhaps this is what the authors mean when they say Kidbrooke Village is the kind of ‘mixed community’ to which London should aspire. If it is, we’re well on the way to achieving it.

‘Mixed communities’, like ‘human scale’, is a phrase repeatedly used to justify demolishing the homes of the working class. In fact, as anyone who has lived on a council estate knows, these are some of the most – and rapidly becoming the last – mixed communities in London, racially and economically. Certainly no-one who could afford the prices of the Berkeley Group’s luxury replacements lives there, but there is still a mix of working-class and lower middle-class families. Above all, council estates are overwhelmingly home to London’s non-white communities. To speak of the professional, international, middle-class clientele at which Kidbrooke Village has been marketed as a ‘mixed community’ is another of those lies with which estate demolition is polished up and presented to the public. Kidbrooke Village is an instrument for the social cleansing of Greenwich Borough, economically and racially. Indeed, Greenwich Labour Council has never denied that the purpose of its estate demolition programme is to change the demographic of the borough and raise land values. In a document published in 2000 they wrote:

‘There is little doubt that the Ferrier Estate has stigmatised the area. Whilst a rolling programme of piecemeal development seems sensible to facilitate the logistics of decanting a large number of tenants, it simply will not generate the values needed. We believe that a complete demolition of the Ferrier Estate and a new comprehensive quality scheme is essential to remove the stigma of the current estate and its effect on land values.’

Behind Berkeley Homes’ promotional videos of middle-class families and professionals cavorting on the village green lies the invisible sign that everyone can read: no unemployed, no single mothers, nobody on benefits, nobody without private health insurance, no elderly without a pension, nobody who relies on social services, nobody from a poor ‘background’ – as the report refers, yet again euphemistically, to the class of people who most certainly won’t make up the ‘mixed community’ its authors somehow find here. Only the rich need apply. Welcome to Kidbrooke Village.

Chapter 3. What could the village model offer London?

Since the LSE report steadfastly refuses to address the presence of the white elephant standing in the middle of the living room of every one of these luxury apartments – that is, their complete failure to meet the housing needs of the local community – the authors instead focus on the ‘quality’ of the housing in Kidbrooke Village. Now, as a recent report by the charity Shelter has shown, 43 per cent of homes in Britain fail to meet their newly launched ‘living home standard’; and, unsurprisingly, 73 per cent of these are in London. But 56 per cent of London homes fail the living home standard not on the criteria of their condition, the amount of living space, the stability of tenure or the surrounding neighbourhood, but on the fifth criterion – their affordability. We don’t have the figures for London alone, but across Britain the homes of 41 percent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and 31 per cent of skilled workers, fail to meet the standard of affordability.

To conceal this failure – which estate demolition schemes, driven by the 20 per cent plus profit margins of developers, completely ignore – central government, local authorities, property developers and architects are united in insisting on the need for ‘high quality’ homes. This, however, is just another euphemism for their unaffordability. Needless to say, the LSE report concludes that Kibrooke Village does, indeed, consist of ‘high quality’ housing; and at the prices the Berkeley Group is charging it would be surprising if it didn’t. Yet once again the authors of the LSE report uncritically adopt this framework, without the slightest interest to question what it may be concealing, whom it may be serving, or who is paying for its acceptance as the orthodoxy on housing. It is not surprising, therefore, to see the report also parroting the property developers’ language of ‘densification’ and ‘placemaking’. To read a critique of these terms it is not to the London School of Economics and Political Science that readers must turn, but to the blog of Architects for Social Housing.

Finally, the authors of the LSE report come to their conclusions. Since the questions they asked about Kidbrooke Village were formulated by the property developer that built the development, and since the Berkeley Group has commissioned the report in order to reach those conclusions, no-one will be surprised to hear that – yes, the London School of Economics and Political Science does indeed find Kidbrooke Village to be exactly and precisely the kind of housing development London needs to solve the housing shortage. In fact, so enthusiastic are they about its potential for London, the authors of the report recommend the following actions:

  1. There are currently 33 sites, each with approval for building 1,000 or more homes, in the London Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment; and they estimate that among these there exists the potential for more than a dozen ‘New City Villages’. They call this ‘having a clear vision’.
  1. Private developers such as the Berkeley Group, rather than local authorities such as Greenwich Labour Council, should lead what they call ‘community development’. Not satisfied merely with building new housing developments, private companies are apparently now qualified to create our communities.
  1. Council estates on public sector land should be demolished and redeveloped as ‘New London Villages’, built on the model of Kidbrooke Village and, presumably, socially cleansed on the model of the Ferrier Estate.

And that’s it. In the forty-page report there is nothing – not one fucking word – about the fate of the existing communities whose homes, with a wave of their hands from the window of their ivory tower, the authors of this report, commissioned by the Berkeley Group and bearing all the cultural legitimacy bestowed by the London School of Economics and Political Science, consign to the bulldozer – their families torn apart, their communities scattered, their lives and futures thrown into the unending nightmare of temporary accommodation and an unregulated private rental market.

3. The Intellectual Bloodstain

This shameful, intellectually fraudulent and morally indefensible report is not the only example of the intellectual bloodstain we are increasingly seeing left by academics involved with housing. In April 2016, at a conference titled ‘London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms’ that was held at the University of East London, the organisers, Dr. Paul Watt and Anna Minton, invited Councillor Guy Nicholson, Cabinet Member for Regeneration in Hackney Labour Council, to speak. He turned up dressed in a red cashmere scarf – perhaps meant to be symbolic of Labour’s commitment to the working class – and swanned back and forth at the front of the stage, declaiming the usual rubbish about Government cuts and the Housing and Planning Bill and how it’s all the fault of the Tories. I had the distinct impression he was talking down to us. But when he started on about how Hackney Labour Council had to demolish the estates in which thousands of Hackney residents live in order to give them better homes I’d heard enough. I reminded him that at last count Hackney Labour Council had overseen the demolition of 18 council estates, including 400 homes on the Colville Estate, over 400 homes on the Haggerston West and Kingsland estates, 503 homes on the Nightingale Estate, and 1,980 homes on the Woodberry Down Estate, so the Housing and Planning Bill had nothing to do with Hackney’s housing shortage. I asked him how former council residents were meant to afford the new developments, why Savills real estate firm are writing the financial model for Hackney’s regeneration programme, whether his membership of the privately-funded right-wing Labour cabal Progress contributed to his eagerness to demolish the homes of the working class, and suggested he had no interest in re-housing Hackney’s residents in better homes but only in getting the land their current homes are built on.

In response to my interruption I was told to ‘shut up’ by a member of Momentum, the pro-Jeremy Corbyn Labour faction; and Loretta Lees, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leicester, said we should ‘behave like adults’. I think she meant me specifically, but then she has published a book called Gentrification, and academics have a habit of withdrawing into codes of behaviour when the things they write about come off the page and into their world. The rest of Councillor Nicholson’s presentation was similarly interrupted by other people in the audience, who, unlike the academics on stage, recognised a liar when they heard one. When it was the turn of the Focus E15 Mothers to speak, they tore into Councillor Nicholson for telling them to support what the Labour Party are doing in London, and asked him where his Party was when the Focus E15 Mothers were being forcibly moved out of Newham borough by the Labour Council and threatened by social services with the confiscation of their children for making themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ by refusing temporary accommodation outside London.

One of the Focus E15 Mothers, who has been living with her three children for two years in a single room in Boundary House – the temporary accommodation in Welwyn Garden City to which Newham Labour Council sends homeless mothers from their borough – recognised Councillor Nicholson from the previous week. She’d seen him while protesting outside the Property Developer Awards held at the Grosvenor Hotel in Mayfair – which, given the amount of work he’s put their way, isn’t surprising. What was surprising is that he’d been invited to this conference. Like every Labour cabinet member I’ve ever had the misfortune to be in the same room with, Councillor Nicholson seemed completely indifferent to the strength of feeling against him in the room. But to my asking why a social cleanser like him had been invited to spread his lies on a platform supposedly set up to debate the possible responses of activists to London’s housing crisis, the organisers of the conference responded that they wanted to hear ‘all sides of the conversation’.

Now, this is not a new argument. It has been used by numerous supposedly grass-roots organisations – such as Axe the Housing Act and Defend Council Housing – that are in fact Labour Party fronts, and which because of this regularly invite Labour councillors and MPs to speak at meetings, marches and demonstrations, where they invariably dominate the platforms and, more importantly, the press coverage of the event the next day. And like Councillor Nicholson, their message is always the same – that it’s all the fault of the Tories. I have written elsewhere on this blog about the role of Labour activists in seeking to relieve the Labour Party of all culpability in council estate demolition. But as we have seen with the Ferrier Estate – which is typical in this respect as in many others – estate demolition is a collaboration between Tory Government and Labour Councils. Both political parties support it both in principle and in implementation. Central Government changes the laws and supplies the motivating funds, and local authorities, whether Labour or Tory, do the dirty work.

To characterise this process, as academics invariably do, as a ‘conversation’ is to ignore the respective strengths of the voices on either side of the struggle. I say struggle, and not debate, because debate is what academics do, and this isn’t an academic debate – although academics are getting quite a few papers, conferences and books out of it. Nor is this a conversation, which implies a roughly equal access to speech between two sides. The Conservative and Labour Parties have unlimited access to our State propaganda of media, press and entertainment industries to spread their lies and justify their violence. Local authorities, in contrast, allow residents three minutes to speak at their council meetings, and ignore everything they say. Their so-called community consultations are a sham, and they ignore everything residents say that doesn’t fit in with their wishes, denounce those that oppose their plans as troublemakers, ban them from attending meetings, and finally threaten them with the law. This is not a conversation. This is a struggle by residents fighting for their homes to make their voices heard above the lies of politicians, councillors, property developers, real estate investors, property speculators, builders, estate agents, architects, journalists and academics.

Despite this, later that same month, at a conference titled ‘Can we afford to lose social housing?’ organised by Professor Loretta Lees and Dr. Hannah White at Cambridge House, the organisers again decided to invite a social cleanser to speak, this time by the name of Councillor Richard Livingstone, the Cabinet Member for Housing for Southwark Labour Council. Before accepting our invitation to join him on the podium, ASH complained to the organisers about a demolisher of social housing like Councillor Livingstone being invited to an academic conference to discuss the future of social housing; and we were told, once again, that they wanted to hear ‘all sides of the conversation’.

Though slightly less debonair than his Hackney counterpart, Councillor Livingstone similarly argued that the housing crisis is all the fault of the Tories and their cuts to Labour Council budgets and their Housing and Planning Bill, and has nothing at all to do with the numerous estate demolition schemes Southwark Council, under changing political administrations, has been pursuing over the past fourteen years, and which have resulted in the loss of thousands of council homes from the borough, including, most famously, the Heygate Estate, where 1,200 council homes were demolished, and the Aylesbury Estate, where 2,700 homes are under threat. And like his counterpart in Hackney, he didn’t get far in his speech before residents from the Aylesbury Estate started heckling him about his description of their home as a ‘sink estate’, and members of the 35% Campaign reminded him that Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Labour Council, had described council estates as ‘symbols of inner-city neglect, with crime, anti-social behaviour, health inequalities and unemployment the only things that flourished there’. I limited myself to pointing out that the Housing and Planning Bill wasn’t yet law, and therefore couldn’t be blamed for a single one of the thousands of council homes lost to estate demolition schemes in Southwark. I also questioned how he had the cheek to talk about Tory Government cuts when the Labour Council had erected a £140,000 razor-wire topped wall around the first redevelopment site of the Aylesbury Estate, even though families are still living there, and were paying a security firm hundreds of thousand of pounds to guard it.

Councillor Livingstone tried to look offended when I called him a social cleanser and a liar, but I don’t think anyone believed him. The trouble with lying for a living is that, to back up a lie you need to tell another one, then another lie to back up that one, and so on until eventually all you can do is lie, over and over again, lie after lie after lie. People who find themselves trapped in this descending well of lies have a certain look etched into their face, and no matter how much they try to smile and grin and even laugh, all that comes through is their lying mug. As anyone unfortunate enough to have met him or who has seen his photograph will know, Councillor Livingstone has just such a face.

As speakers from local authorities always do, Councillor Livingstone turned up to the conference minutes before his talk and tried to leave immediately afterwards; but we pointed out that as a putative representative of the residents of Southwark he had a duty to listen to what they had to say, and demanded he stayed to hear them. He got an ear bollocking for the rest of the afternoon for his troubles, but his suffering didn’t extend to listening to our own presentation at the very end of the day. When asked for his response to ASH’s alternative design proposals to demolition on Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates, Councillor Richard Livingstone, Cabinet Member for Housing in Southwark Labour Council, was found to have slipped quietly and unnoticed from the room.

But the following week we wondered whether we had, in fact, given our presentation. In the report on the conference that was published on the Cambridge House blog, the organisers removed any reference to ASH’s presentation, along with any criticisms of Councillor Livingstone from the floor. Instead, they rewrote the entire discussion in line with his lies, blamed Southwark’s housing shortage on Tory cuts, and refused to mention the Labour Council’s estate demolition programme. So much for hearing ‘all sides of the conversation’. When I wrote to the conference organisers for an explanation for this pack of lies, Dr. White replied, unconvincingly, that the omission of ASH’s presentation was an ‘oversight’, and added, more revealingly, that Cambridge House receives funding from Southwark Labour Council – information, she wrote, which ‘should give you an insight into the line we have to tread’.

It does, and although the blog report was subsequently modified to make a brief mention of our presentation – although still without the slightest criticism of Councillor Richard Livingstone and Southwark Labour Council – this was the last time ASH had anything to do with Cambridge House, Dr. White or Professor Lees, whose undergraduate textbook, published in 2008, is already out of date in its characterisation of the demolition of council estates for land as a process of ‘gentrification’. As Anna Minton remarked during the conference, there are numerous articles debating whether gentrification is a good or a bad thing; whereas no-one who has lived through or actively resisted it, rather than just read about it in a book, can be in any doubt about the negative effects of so-called estate regeneration schemes. It is time academics cut the umbilical cord of gold that binds them to the funders and employers of their voices, found the courage to denounce estate demolition for what it is, and refuse to give a platform to those who excuse, propagate or implement what is not the gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods but the social cleansing of working-class communities from their homes for profit.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions to this widespread collusion of academia with the violence of London’s estate demolition programme; and since I’m indicting those academics who collaborate with and make excuses for social cleansers, I would also like to cite those who don’t. Professor Jane Rendell, Director of Architectural Research at the Bartlett School of Architecture, made a considerable contribution to the Public Inquiry into the Aylesbury Estate Compulsory Purchase Order with her research into the lies peddled about the Aylesbury Estate demolition and the suppression of the report on its possible refurbishment by Southwark Labour Council. Dr. Paul Watt, Reader in Urban Studies at Birkbeck Collage, works with the Focus E15 Mothers campaign and is one of the few academics not to treat invitations to speak on the housing crisis as an opportunity to plug their latest book. His contribution to the recent Royal Academy conference ‘Forgotten Estates’, exceptionally among academic presentations, insisted on the political dimension, economic rewards and social cost of the housing crisis, with a particular indictment of the role of the Labour Party in implementing the estate demolition programme. And finally, and most exceptionally of all, Dr. Lisa Mckenzie, Research Fellow in Sociology at the London School of Economics, Class War activist and all-round pain in the arse to the Establishment, organised the Resist Festival at which I am speaking today, Her work as a working class scholar and activist has helped to bring class back from its suppression by post-Marxist sociology and place it at the centre of debates and actions on the effects of austerity economics on the housing crisis in Britain.

These three, however – and there are of course more – are very much the exception to the silence and acquiescence of our ‘intellectuals’ to what’s happening in Britain today. Academia has an inglorious history of not standing up to power, so let’s go straight to Godwin’s Law for a comparison. Under the Third Reich, German academics and intellectuals were some of the most advanced in the world, yet their historians invented the lost origins of the German people in an Aryan race of blond-haired blue-eyed supermen; their archaeologists searched for the lost site of the defeat of Caesar’s Legions by ancient Germanic tribes in the Teutoburg Forest; their philosophers identified the historical destiny of the German people in the boundaries of a mythical Fatherland; their eugenicists measured the faces of Jews, Gypsies, Negroes and Slavs to justify their subjection and mass extermination; their doctors conducted medical experiments on the mentally disabled and carried out State-funded programmes of enforced euthanasia; their physicists and engineers designed the most advanced weapons the world had ever seen; their artists and critics championed fascist aesthetics and denounced the degenerate art of cultural bolshevism; and their architects designed the masterplan for Germania, the capital of a thousand year Reich, on the demolition of contemporary Berlin.

Let’s fast forward 80 years to Austerity Britain, a time and a place when central Tory government and local Labour authorities are united in identifying the source of crime, anti-social behaviour and rioting in the architecture of post-war council estates, rather than in the poverty, unemployment, social exclusion and cuts to social services of the communities that inhabit them; when property developers justify building real estate investments for the dirty money of Russian oligarchs, Chinese industrialists and Arab oil sheiks by searching for the lost origins of London in a conservative image of ‘city villages’; when estate agents measure the Net Present Value of working class communities to justify their plans to demolish the homes of hundreds of thousands of Londoners; when hereditary millionaires and CEOs declare poverty to be a personal failing, homelessness a crime, and unemployment solved through unpaid labour in their private companies; when doctors and nurses collaborate in the sanctioning of benefits for our sick and disabled; when scientists and engineers have made Britain the world’s second largest arms dealer in the world; when artists are the avant-garde of social cleansing dressed up as the accelerated gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods; when architects docilely and obediently collude in the demolition of the last remaining housing the working class can afford to live in and their replacement with luxury apartments no-one but the filthy rich can afford to buy; when journalists, TV programmers and entertainment industry executives queue up to propagate every lie, myth and stereotype about council estates and the working class communities that live in them under the direction of their paymasters; and when academics . . . well, we’ve seen today a fairly representative example of what they’re doing. They’re doing what the so-called ‘intellectuals’ of this country always do – they’re closing their eyes, closing their ears, closing ranks and defending their class position. Besides that, what else can they do? Hold another conference? Write another paper? Publish another book?

I have a thesis, which I’d like to submit for my PhD in Housing and Class War at the London School of Economics and Political Science under the supervision of Dr. Lisa Mckenzie. My thesis is this. If there is a point to the utterly pointless existence of academia, it is to speak truth to power, not to fellate it on its slippery passage up the arseholes of the working class.

4. The People’s Court

Since this is supposed to be a festival of actions as well as ideas, I want to end by convening a People’s Court for the indictment of the LSE Four. Let me remind you, for the last time, who they are. The authors of New London Villages: Creating Community, a report commissioned by the Berkeley Group to justify their social cleansing of 5,277 residents from the Ferrier Estate and its replacement with the real estate investment called Kidbrooke Village, are Research Fellow Kath Scanlon, Research Officer Emma Sagor, Professor Christine Whithead, and Research Fellow Alessandro Mossa. I indict all four of these academics at the London School of Economics on the following charges:

  1. Lying about the reality of estate regeneration and perpetuating the myths of sink estates to justify the social cleansing of working-class communities.
  1. Taking the conceptual framework of their research, and specifically the model of ‘city villages’, from the Berkeley Group and passing it off as independently formulated criteria for assessing Kidbrooke Village.
  1. Placing the cultural legitimacy of a London School of Economics report in the service of Tory Government policy, Labour Council lies, and the profits of a property developer.
  1. Accepting financial support for their research from Berkley Homes in order to validate the wished-for conclusions of their financial backers.

If the LSE 4 are found guilty by the People’s Court, in the name of Architects for Social Housing and on behalf of the former residents of the Ferrier Estate, I call for the following punishments:

  1. The immediate sacking of the four authors from their positions at the London School of Economics. It will be instructive to see how they feel about the demolition of council housing when they don’t have a professional salary from one of the UK’s wealthiest academic institutions to pay their mortgages.
  1. A written admission of their culpability on the above charges to be made available for publication. Let’s see how they feel about having their lives and community trashed in the press.
  1. The formal withdrawal of their report from use by the Berkeley Group and the public repudiation of its findings. Perhaps, when they experience what it’s like facing the financial and political muscle of one of the UK’s largest building companies, they’ll discover some sympathy for residents fighting for the homes they recommend demolishing.
  1. The donation of whatever fees they received from the Berkeley Group to a housing support fund available to residents of the former Ferrier Estate, to which we invite the London School of Economics to make further donations.

This concludes the case for the prosecution.

At the conclusion of this indictment witnesses were called for the defence, but none stepped forward. And although invited in advance to appear before the People’s Court, none of the indicted were present, so they were tried in absentia. After a brief deliberation, and by a unanimous jury, a verdict of guilty for all four defendants was returned by the People’s Court. We therefore call on the London School of Economics to execute this judgement.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

With thanks to L.G. for the research on the Ferrier Estate, to Lisa Mckenzie for inviting me to speak at Resist, and to Andrew Cooper for the illustration.

One thought on “The Intellectual Bloodstain: Academia and Social Cleansing

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