Déjà lu: Who are Academics For?

On the weekend of 10-11 June ASH attended the Housing Justice conference being held as part of the ‘Small is Beautiful’ festival in Wales, and for something to read we took Anna Minton’s new book, Big Capital: Who is London For? a copy of which, signed by the author and sent to ASH, had arrived earlier that week.

Reading it, however – and particularly the third chapter on ‘Demolitions’ – was a strange experience, like reading a summary of just about everything ASH has written about and published on our blog over the past two years. That’s not surprising, as we met Anna in 2015, and she and Paul Watt had invited us to publish our October 2015 blog article ‘The London Clearances’ in the special feature of City they were editing on housing activism. I remember Anna had been generous in her appraisal, arguing that this text, which was one of the first to identify the threat the IPPR report City Villages represented to council estates, should be more widely published. In fact, in the days when Labourites still read the ASH blog, and following the demonstration we organised in January 2016 against the Housing and Planning Act, this single article was visited over 15,000 times on the ASH blog. Ah, heady days!

Since then we have introduced Anna to some of the estates ASH has worked with, taking time out to show her around Central Hill, and at their invitation we presented our design work on West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates at a conference she and Paul organised at the University of East London.

I never realised, however, just how closely Anna – who almost never posts on our Facebook page – appears to have read our blog articles. Flicking through her book I felt like Michael Douglas in the Bill Hicks sketch about the ‘Goat-boy’ edit of Basic Instinct (the lead actor’s role has been removed and replaced with 3 hours of Sharon Stone ‘eating out’ another chick): ‘I could’ve sworn I was in that film!’ (‘Goat-boy called it like he saw it, Mickey’ . . .)

Here’s Anna writing about Starter Homes supplanting homes for social rent in Section 106 agreements, something we first wrote about in January 2016 in ‘Blitzkrieg! Sink Estates and Starter Homes’, and which I remember Anna announcing, with some surprise, at the UEL conference after sitting through the presentation in which we’d just brought it up.

Here she is observing that the Housing and Planning Act 2016 grants planning permission in principle on ‘brownfield land’, the redefinition of which through accompanying policy to include housing estates ASH was the first to write about in March 2016 in ‘The Doomsday Book: Mapping London’s Housing Crisis’. To my knowledge this aspect of the new legislation was deliberately suppressed (even if the authors were aware of it) in every other article written about the Bill precisely because it implicates Labour councils in the estate demolition programme.

Here she is writing about the dirty tricks employed by the Conservatives to push the Bill through the House of Commons, something ASH reported on our Facebook page over several months in considerable detail, organising a round table discussion to pick apart the Bill’s legislation, speaking to several campaigns from Focus E15 Mothers to Save Cressingham Gardens on what it would mean for them, and culminating in May 2016 in our blog article ‘Resistance Begins at Home: The Housing and Planning Act’.

Here she is with residents of the newly-named Macintosh Court in June 2016, celebrating its stay of demolition at Open Garden Estates, the yearly event organised by ASH, and to which we had invited numerous film makers, campaigners and journalists like her to come and write about the victory over Lambeth Labour council. The point of this event is to link the estates hosting it and their campaigns to save their homes, and by removing the rare victory at Macintosh Court from Open Garden Estates Anna’s book isolates it from this wider struggle.

Here she is on Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and his decision to refuse the compulsory purchase order on leaseholders on the Aylesbury estate on the grounds it infringed their Human Rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and breached the Equality Act 2010, something which – in response to the misinformation and inaccuracies being published in the press and on social media – we picked apart in careful detail and published in September 2016 in our blog article ‘Financial Compensation for Human Rights: The Aylesbury Estate’ the day after the decision was made.

Her she is discussing the London School of Economics report commissioned by the Berkeley Group to promote the Berkeley Homes redevelopment of the demolished Ferrier estate as Kidbrooke Village, something I spoke about at the Resist festival in September 2016 and whose subsequent write-up the following month, ‘The Intellectual Bloodstain: Academia and Social Cleansing’, is to my knowledge the only article exposing this collusion between academia and estate demolition.

The strange thing is, not once through the entire book is either the ASH blog that carries these articles or, in the case of Open Garden Estates, the events ASH organises mentioned, let alone footnoted.

In keeping with academic procedure – which is necessary for it to contribute to the research rating of the department in which Anna is employed ­– there are copious footnotes in the book; but in keeping with academic seclusion, these almost all reference other academic articles; or, at least, not one of the ASH articles on which Anna’s book seems to draw over and over again appears in the footnotes.

Now, I don’t want to appear bitter. Yeah-yeah, I know: ‘If you don’t like it, write your own book!’ It’s sound advice, which we liberally dispense to those who tell us at great length exactly and precisely what they think ASH should be doing. But because of who and what our work threatens – from the politicians promoting estate demolition to the architects and developers getting rich from implementing it – the ASH blog is never going to get anything like the coverage of mainstream news outlets, newspapers, architectural magazines and even academic books.

Because of this, we don’t mind journalists nicking our stuff – and the list of journalists who have done so is as long as Sadiq Khan’s nose. That’s partly the point of publishing these articles on our blog, so that – even if in watered down form – the information we have researched and the arguments we have formulated get disseminated in the wider public sphere.

That’s also how this stuff works as a collective endeavour, and not the work of a single author. In recognition of which, the blog posts ASH publishes draw on the research of many other writers, for instance the work of the 35% Campaign, which I understand Anna herself has drawn on in the past in her report on the revolving door between councilors and developers in the demolition of the Heygate estate. Because of this, ASH always takes care to recognise our sources – not out of conformity to academic procedure, but in a spirit of mutual generosity and recognition that unfortunately is not always apparent in the little fiefdoms, political manipulations, censorship and careerism that are increasingly characterising the struggles within the housing crisis.

We’re flattered, of course, to discover that Anna is such a diligent reader of the ASH blog; but given how much time we have spent taking her around places like Central Hill estate, answering her many questions about individual campaigns, inviting her to events like Macintosh Court, and generally treating her like a colleague – if not quite a comrade – in this wave of shit we’re struggling against, it would have been nice for her to return the compliment. There’s perhaps not a lot journalists and academics in this deeply apolitical country can do to help the work of ASH, but if the ones who draw on our work were more diligent in formally recognising it – either in links to our blog in their articles or in footnotes in their published books – our proposals would perhaps find greater reach in the newspapers and architectural journals that continue to refuse to publish the truth about estate demolition.

This weekend, apropos an excellent article by Richard Godwin in, of all places, the London Evening Standard – in which an interview with ASH is finally quoted accurately and at some length – I couldn’t help making a somewhat sly reference on our Facebook page to the comparative absence of acknowledgement in Big Capital. In response Anna wrote back asking ‘Are you implying I’ve somehow nicked your work? I don’t appreciate that.’ Only Anna can really answer that question, though the fact she’s asking it is perhaps its own answer. She also reminded me that it was she who put the author of the Standard article onto us, which I hadn’t forgotten and for which we are grateful.

But to respond to Anna’s question: what we appreciate is recognition of our work when it’s due – partly out of courtesy and that equally abused term ‘solidarity’ – but far more importantly because of how it can help to spread the truth about the motivations for estate demolition ASH has spent the past two years working to expose and propose alternatives to. In this work – for which we don’t receive a lecturer’s or journalist’s salary or a government research grant – we can do with all the help we can get; and so far – while there have been many generous individuals who have contributed their time and skills and creativity to working with ASH – we’ve had almost no assistance from any institutions, whether architectural, academic or journalistic.

This isn’t to say, however, that ASH doesn’t appear in Anna’s book: we do, three times.

The first is in the opening chapter, where I appear personally as a fire-breathing activist standing outside the London Real Estate Forum last year with Class War and the Revolutionary Communist Group, issuing Lear-like threats against the international property developers within. This is an image of ASH that the architectural establishment appears to be comfortable with. The only time we’ve appeared in the pages of the Architects’ Journal, for example, it’s either as ‘protest group Architects for Social Housing’ or ‘campaign group ASH’ – very much, in other words as we do in Anna’s book. After more than two years’ work, over a hundred articles, and architectural design alternatives to demolition for five estates, ASH still hasn’t been published in a single architectural magazine or newspaper. When we present our work at the numerous conferences we speak at on an almost weekly basis the first thing other architects and housing campaigners say to us is: ‘How come we haven’t heard about this?’ But then why should they have, when the only time we get a mention in articles in magazines like the Architects’ Journal, newspapers like the Guardian and books like Big Capital is as a protest group?

That’s not entirely true. The second time we appear in Anna’s book is on the second last of its 130 pages, where she recalls Geraldine taking her around Central Hill estate – which until recently Anna refused to believe Lambeth Labour Council would demolish – and finally writes something about our designs in this single, somewhat breathless sentence:

‘The ASH plan would raise revenue to repair the homes from existing rents and from the sale of the additional 230 new homes they would build which would not fundamentally change the architectural plan.’

Which – given all we’ve said and done – isn’t much. No reference is made for those who might be interested in our alternative to demolition for Central Hill published on the ASH blog, or to any of our other architectural alternatives we’ve designed for other estates.

And finally, in the list of acknowledgements at the book’s end, our blog article on ‘The London Clearances’ is cited with reference to its publication in the special feature of City of which Anna was co-editor, and which is only accessible online through a paywall. Again, no reference is made to the ASH blog, where the article is freely available, and is linked to all our other work.

Big Capital is a good summary of what’s been written about London’s housing crisis over the past two years. What it lacks – as other commentators have pointed out – is precisely what ASH offers, which is the beginning of a solution to this crisis. No doubt that’s outside the limits of academic discourse, as we’ve discovered when articles we’ve submitted to academic journals about our practical work have been rejected because they ‘don’t reference the academic discourse in the field’. As a former academic I know its back-scratching conferences and its fear of anything that goes on outside its ivory tower, which it either ignores while it’s happening or appropriates when its over. But the housing crisis 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 department’s research rating; and it isn’t the subject of government grant-sponsored research into gentrification. It’s a struggle for survival.

What we need, in the immortal words of Elvis Presley, is a little less conversation, a little more action. And – if I might add a line to the verse – a little more generosity in what we are constantly told should be a unified front in a collective struggle. On the title page of the copy of the book she sent Geraldine Anna wrote ‘Thank you for all your help.’

You’re welcome, Anna.

Architects for Social Housing

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