In April of this year the BBC re-televised its three-part series Dan Cruickshank: At Home with the British, which had originally been aired in May 2016, and was again in May 2017. Halfway through the final episode, ‘The Flat’, which focuses on the history of the Lincoln estate in London’s Bow, Dan Cruickshank jumps into a Black Cab and says:
‘When the Lincoln estate was designed, the London County Council had the largest, and in many ways the finest, architectural practice in the world. Indeed, it was responsible for some of the most iconic modernist housing schemes in Europe.’
So it’s a shame that, when he gets out the cab and speaks to Historic England’s Elaine Harwood, who sings the praises of its housing schemes, he doesn’t ask her why Historic England didn’t see fit to list Central Hill estate, one of the LCC’s masterpieces, and save it from demolition by the vandals at Lambeth Labour council.
Nonetheless, Cruickshank accurately identifies three of the main causes of the decline of council estates in the UK in the late 1960s and 70s:
The poor construction methods of unregulated developers throwing up systems-built housing, leading to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968;
The systematic neglect and lack of maintenance and refurbishment of buildings by councils;
The obligation of those same councils, following the 1977 Housing Act, to house the homeless, leading to the change in the use of council estates as homes for working class families to becoming dumping grounds for everyone who had fallen through the welfare net and, soon after, Margaret Thatcher’s brave new world of free market capitalism.
What Cruickshank doesn’t identify is the impossibility of any form of public housing existing within the logic of an unregulated capitalist economy that must always find new markets in which to invest its surplus, which is the primary cause of the mass demolition and privatisation of council housing that is happening today.
This is ASH’s brief commentary on the Greater London Authority policy on Resident Ballots for Estate Regeneration Projects, the recently published addendum to the London Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, and the outcome of the promise to ballot residents made by Jeremy Corbyn at the Labour Party conference back in September 2017. This is the policy document that has had Labour supporters panting with anticipation ever since as they look forward to what the Labour Leader promised would be estate regeneration ‘for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators,’ with the added stipulation that ‘councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place. Real regeneration, yes, but for the many not the few!’ Unfortunately, like all the promises made by the Labour Leader, this has failed to materialise.
As an example of the servile appeasement of property developers masquerading as resident empowerment this document will take some beating in the consistently appalling housing policy coming out of the GLA under the title of Homes for Londoners; but for those of us attentive to the yawning chasm between the socialist rhetoric of the Labour Party and the neo-liberal reality of its policies, this is both instructive and indicative of the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn will be able to keep all his other pie-in-the-sky promises if (as seems increasingly unlikely) he is elected to head the government of this country.
A commentary on every implication of this former lawyer’s circumlocutions would, as in our commentary on the Labour Mayor’s Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, be longer than the policy document itself, so I’ve confined myself to a series of questions which those Labour activists with access to Sadiq Khan may, given the chance, wish to address to him. So disastrous are the Mayor’s policies on estate regeneration, however, that it has become necessary to start writing our own. These questions, therefore, are followed by some of ASH’s own policy proposals that need to become reality – and soon – if we are to see estate refurbishment and, where appropriate, infill become the enforceable default option for any council or housing association undertaking the regeneration of a housing estate.
‘The city as a form of settlement did not arise by chance. The city is the richest economic and cultural form of community settlement, proven by centuries of experience. In its structural and architectural design the city is an expression of the political life and the national consciousness of the people.’
– Government of the German Democratic Republic, The Sixteen Principles of Urban Design (1950)
Architecture is the political art par excellence, and not only because, unlike painting or literature, architecture is a collectively consumed art, and therefore constitutes its audience as a mass rather than fragments it into the individual consumer. From this collective consumption, undoutedly, derives its social power to constitute a community of interest – with common goals, a shared history, and a collective future – from an undifferentiated and therefore potentially revolutionary society. ‘Architecture or revolution!’ was Le Corbusier’s warning to his paymasters – and he was right. But in addition to this power, which it shares with music and theatre – which are themselves dependent upon the architecture of their setting – architecture goes beyond the symbolic realm to mobilise the actual, realised referent: the human body. At once receptacle, vehicle and medium of the human mind, the human body is captured, subjected, moved, orchestrated, arranged, placed, situated, presented, configured and collectivised by architecture as a mass. Whether it is the willingly embraced community of the music festival, sports arena or religious event, or the enforced collectivity of the shopping mall, the rush-hour traffic jam or the public transport queue, this mass remains the object of political government, and architecture is the art that fashions that object: in the spaces of our dwelling, our labour, our consumption, our play, our entertainment, our celebration, our anxiety, our fear, our anger, our collective participation in the spectacle of society. Indeed, the increasing virtuality of our communities has only increased our nostalgic longing for architectural massing. To understand how this political object is constituted and deployed, governed and interrogated, controlled and dispersed, we should attend to the technique of architecture; for it is this tékhnē that will reveal to us the éthos of the polis. Architecture is always political.
Most of us by now are familiar with how our national press and media worked to shape public opinion immediately after both the police assault on picket lines at Orgreave Colliery in 1984 that resulted in niney-five charges of riot being made against striking miners, and the death of ninety-six football supporters in the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 that resulted in fans being accused of drunkenness and hooliganism, with neither injustice having subsequently led to a single policeman or politician being convicted of a crime. Since the Grenfell Tower fire officially left seventy-two people dead in June 2017, only six people have been convicted of criminal offences, and that for varying degrees of indecent or fraudulent behaviour in what were non-violent crimes. Reprehensible as their actions were and disrespectful to survivors and the bereaved of North Kensington, the fraudsters have been handed extraordinarily punitive sentences of between 18 months and 4½years apparently designed to slake the public’s thirst for justice. These have echoes of the similarly exaggerated sentences handed out following the Tottenham riots in 2011, when within six months nearly a thousand working-class and black kids were given custodial sentences on average four times the length handed out for similar offences the year before, with one man jailed for six-months for stealing a bottle of water. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that when property developers claim millions of pounds of public money for their private enterprises it’s called a Private Finance Initiative, but when the poor try to do the same it’s called theft and fraud.
In the meantime, not one of the more than sixty professional contractors, consultants, TMO board members, council officers, councillors, civil servants and politicians responsible in varying degrees for the Grenfell Tower fire that killed over seventy people and made hundreds homeless has even been arrested, let alone sentenced. The findings of the Grenfell inquiry, which only began to listen to evidence last week nearly a year after the fire, cannot rule on either civil or criminal liability even within its drastically narrowed terms of reference. And the Metropolitan Police Service has said that its detectives are a long way from handing over evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, and that the criminal investigation will take years. Again, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the wheels of justice turn at very different speeds depending on who’s in their path. There’s a sizeable portion of the British public that wants – if not expects – that criminal investigation to be on charges of misconduct in public office or gross negligence manslaughter (both of which carry a criminal sentence) rather than corporate manslaughter (which only carries a fine). To prepare the way for that not to happen, and for the perpetrators of this crime to walk away free from the crematorium of Grenfell Tower, a radical change in the public’s opinion of those responsible will be required. Enter Andrew O’Hagan . . .
1. The Tower
On Thursday, 22 June, 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire the previous Wednesday, Architects for Social Housing held an open meeting in the Residents Centre of Cotton Gardens estate in Lambeth. Around 80 people turned up and contributed to the discussion – residents, housing campaigners, journalists, lawyers, academics, engineers and architects. The meeting was filmed by WoolfeVision, and has subsequently been viewed over 20,000 times on YouTube. On 21 July, five weeks after the disaster, partly in response to the disinformation being spread about the tower by Labour politicans who were trying to separate the disaster from the estate regeneration programme their councils are primarily responsible for implementing across London, ASH published its report, ‘The Truth about Grenfell Tower’. We sent this report to Joe Delaney from the Grenfell Action Group, and both they and ASH submitted it for consideration as part of the consultation on the terms of reference for the Grenfell Inquiry, to whom the housing and human rights lawyer, Jamie Burton, wrote on our behalf:
‘This report deals with the causes of the fire at Grenfell. It also speaks to recent government policy, both central and local, towards social housing and council estates in particular. Notably, since the fire, many politicians and commentators have stated publically that the fire was in some way indicative of problems common to all tower blocks and council housing estates. Many of these people assume that council and housing association estates are unsafe, inherently flawed in their design, breeding grounds for anti-social behaviour, and generally undesirable places to live. In fact, the evidence clearly demonstrates the opposite to be true. When properly maintained and refurbished, council estates are excellent places for people to live. The problems that do exist in council estates stem not from their inherent design or purpose, but flawed government policy towards them and their residents – policy that the Grenfell Tower fire has brought into focus.
‘It is unclear whether or not the Grenfell Inquiry will consider existing public policy towards council housing and/or tower blocks generally. We consider that it should, as it is critical to a proper understanding of what happened to the residents of Grenfell Tower on 14 June, 2017. However, if the inquiry is not broadened in this way, then at the very least it must avoid adopting any of the unjustified assumptions some people hold about council housing estates and the tower blocks within them.’
Following the publication of the ASH report, which has since been visited over 15,000 times on our blog, we were contacted for interviews by a wide range of journalists and filmmakers, including from BBC Home Affairs, Panorama, Channel 4 News, the Financial Times, RT News, Al Jazeera, Novara Media, and many other people besides. These included two journalists from the London Review of Books, Josh Stupple and Anthony Wilks, to whom I gave a three-hour interview at the end of August that they filmed, they said, as part of the research they were doing for a long-form article on the fire to be published in the new year. As often happens, many of these interviews came to nothing: the sensationalist Panorama documentary went ahead, but without input from us; and when we refused to toe the Labour opposition’s widely accepted line that the Conservative government’s austerity cuts were to blame for the fire the interview requests dried up too. However, I’m a subscriber to the LRB, which I receive through the letter-box every fortnight, and when the new year had come and gone and the article still hadn’t appeared, I wrote to the editor in March, 2018, not in the hope of being published in its letters section, but as a genuine inquiry about their silence on this event:
‘I’ve lost track of how many articles on Brexit the London Review of Books has published since that fateful June day in the summer of 2016, so I was a little surprised to see yet another in the last issue (‘Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem’, vol. 40, no. 2, January 2018). But this one, at least, contained the first mention that I have read in your pages of that other incident in the history of the UK that occurred a year later, but about which the LRB has remained steadfastly silent. Following our report into its causes and those responsible, I was interviewed last year about the Grenfell Tower fire by an LRB journalist, who promised me an article would be out in the new year. Brexit, no doubt, has gripped the attention of the LRB’s middle-class readership, who might imagine themselves immune to the causes and consequences of this fire, but there can be few events in the past year on which so many strands of British life converge: the housing crisis, the privatisation of our public land and assets, unaccountability in local and central government, deregulation, foreign investment in London property, the mass loss of social housing, and the estate regeneration programme in which they all meet. For those who think the Golden Age of pre-Brexit UK is something to be missed, Grenfell is a sharp reminder to the contrary, and the failure of the LRB to report on this disaster has become something of an elephant in your offices, which I’ll hope you’ll soon chase away. This may help you.’
To which I attached the link to the ASH report. In reply I received an e-mail from Paul Myerscough, one of the senior editors at the LRB:
‘Thanks for your note. I can’t promise that we will rein in our coverage of Brexit, but I can promise that we shall carry something on Grenfell – by, I imagine, the writer who interviewed you – sometime in the next few months, and that it will be a substantial piece of work.’
As the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire approached it became apparent that this would also be when the LRB broke its long silence. And sure enough, this Friday the expected feature-length article arrived, titled ‘The Tower’ and written by the novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan, who is listed on the contents page as an editor-at-large. At nearly 60,000 words it’s twice the length of the ASH report, and according to the Channel 4 journalist, Jon Snow, whom it paints in unflattering colours, O’Hagan had a team of researchers at his disposal, presumably including the two I spoke to. Neither my interview nor the ASH report is referenced in O’Hagan’s article, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has read the two texts, but he does make numerous references to the accusations levelled against Kensington and Chelsea council, which he dismisses as the ‘ingrained resentment’ of ‘agitators’ – and other, equally pejorative, descriptions of activists that wouldn’t look out of place in the Daily Mail. So I feel that, although O’Hagan has completely ignored all the evidence of the council’s responsibility for the fire that we compiled and discussed over the course of our report, the conclusions he reaches are very much directed at discrediting those we reached, and that we therefore have a case to answer. It isn’t hard to recognise an unflattering portrait of ASH among O’Hagan’s contemptuous description of what he calls the ‘battalion of “local experts” and “community leaders”, quite a few from other areas, keen to speak on behalf of the victims before appearing on the news to denounce the guilty parties.’
More than this, though, I’m genuinely surprised ‘The Tower’ has been published by the London Review of Books, which is itself something of an ivory tower of political correctness and middle-class consciousness, but is always assiduous in dotting the i’s in its well-mannered liberalism. O’Hagan’s article, by contrast, reads like something penned by Boris Johnson for the Telegraph. After writing the ASH report on Grenfell Tower I never wanted to return to it again; but this is such a hatchet job I feel I have to. Given the magnitude of what he’s writing about and the flippancy of his argument, it’s one of the worst pieces of journalism I’ve read – written by a writer who, by his own admission, was looking to move on after the fallout from being Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s ghost writer, and was doubtless aware of the publicity he’s now getting from being controversial about this most contentious of events. But equally probably, his article is also a strong indication of where the public inquiry will lead in apportioning blame and exonerating guilt. I had thought that one of the reasons the LRB hadn’t written about the fire is that, strictly speaking, it’s a journal for book reviews. So this is my review – which I will be submitting to the LRB –of what I wouldn’t be surprised to learn will turn into Andrew O’Hagan’s best-selling novel The Tower: Rewriting Grenfell.
In January of this year the Liberal Democrat Party published data gathered from Freedom of Information requests to 276 councils revealing not only the number of empty dwellings in the UK and how long they have been left empty, but the lack of action by local authorities to bring them back into use during a housing crisis that is causing increased housing poverty and homelessess. Over the past five years only 19 of the 247 councils in England and Wales that responded to the FOI requests have made use of the Empty Dwelling Management Orders that would allow them to take over properties that have been empty for at least 6 months, and only 6 of those councils have done so in the past year. Describing this as a ‘national scandal’, Vince Cable, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, called for stronger powers for councils to bring empty properties back into use as homes – as he put it – ‘for some of the most vulnerable people in our society’. In March I was interviewed for a documentary on this issue by Designing Buildings Wiki, and this prompted me to research the causes of this national scandal and the failure of existing government policy to cover it up. In response, I have come up with some proposals for solving the problem of empty housing – which is neither a cause nor a symptom of our housing crisis but a product of it – and how those solutions can be enforced in practice through changes to legislation and policy.
The increasingly common sight of empty housing in the middle of a housing crisis is a global phenomenon, blighting the housing stock not only of London and Paris but also of Melbourne and Vancouver. Its causes, therefore, cannot be attributed to the local conditions of that housing crisis – to an excess of production or lack of supply, of having too little space or too few builders investing in either a boom or stagnant housing market. Rather, the phenomenon of large numbers of empty homes is a systemic problem produced by the current moment in world capitalism. Years of laissez-faire government policies and the resulting increase in the monopoly capitalism holds over housing means the production of residential properties in the world’s wealthiest cities is now driven not by their use-value as homes for the citizens of a country, but by their exchange-value as investment opportunities for global capital in search of high-growth commodities in secure markets underwritten by the state. Any government that seeks to bring housing back into use as homes for its electorate, therefore, must do so through housing policy that first loosens and finally breaks global capital’s hold over our nation’s homes, and in its place have the political will to take responsibility for housing the citizens of the nation into its own hands.
Unfortunately, in the UK today neither of the two political parties with expectations of forming a government now or in the near future has either this policy or this will. Indeed, the housing policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties – and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats too – contain only more of the same abrogation of this responsibility to the market that has created the situation where, in England in 2017, 1.16 million households are on housing waiting lists and over 268,000 people are homeless in a country in which hundreds of thousands of homes stand empty at any one time. Data published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (Table 615: vacant dwellings by local authority district: England, from 2004) shows that, of the 23.3 million dwellings in England subject to council tax charges, 590,000, 2.5 per cent of the total, were empty in October 2016, with more than 200,000, 0.86 per cent, empty for more than 6 months, 60,000 empty for more than 2 years, 23,000 for more than 5 years, and over 11,000 for at least 10 years. Extraordinarily, nearly 48,000 of these homes, 8 per cent of all vacant dwellings, are in the social rented sector.
According to analysis by the charity Empty Homes, over 84,000 of the dwellings empty for more than 6 months, 42 per cent of the total, are in council tax band A, the lowest value properties (up to £40,000 based on 1 April 1991 values), with nearly 68,000, 34 per cent, in bands B and C (£40,001 to £52,000 and £52,001 to £68,000). However, the more than 2,000 empty dwellings in band H, the highest value properties (more than £320,000 in 1991), although only 1 per cent of the 200,000 dwellings empty for more than 6 months, represents 1.51 per cent of all dwellings in this council-tax band, the highest percentage of any band, and nearly double the total average of 0.86 per cent. Perhaps surprisingly, the lowest value empty homes represent 1.49 per cent of all properties in band A, the second highest percentage. In comparison, the empty homes in bands B to G constitute between 0.54 and 0.81 per cent of their respective bands. Empty homes, in other words, are proportionately in the highest and lowest value properties in England. Although London, with 19,800 long-term empty homes, has the lowest percentage (0.56 percent) of all the regions, and around half the 39,000 long-term empty homes in the North West (1.2 per cent of all homes in the region), this accords with the reasons why properties are being bought in the capital and by whom, and how this results in them being left empty, with 58,000 London properties (29 per cent of the total) standing empty in a city where 165,000 people are currently homeless.
Recently I watched the film iBoy, which was first released by Netflix in January 2017. Based on the 2010 novel by Kevin Brooks, which is set in the fictional Crow Lane estate in South London, the film relocates the story to the Middlesex Street estate in Aldgate, just off the Petticoat Lane market. A lot of the film takes place on the raised walkways of the outer ring of low-rise blocks that surround the estate’s courtyard and central tower, and which are in turn surrounded by the encroaching monuments to capitalism of the adjacent City, which in the night scenes appear like alien spaceships expanding their intergalactic empire. Much is made visually of this juxtaposition between the dark, run-down, concrete council estate and the glittering metal and glass towers of the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard, and all the other cute names for the priapic emanations of Albion.
I won’t bother you with the story, which is drawn from the increasingly limited range of narrative film; but the basic conceit is that, following a gang shooting on the estate, the young hero has fragments of his iPhone embedded in his brain, and this allow him to access and control digital electronic devices. In their criticisms of the improbability of such a premise and the romantic clichés in which it is played out, what the critics all ignored was the ideological setting to the film, which like all ideology is transparent while at the same time being in plain view. The reason we don’t see it is because it’s so close to our vision as to be indistinguishable from it, like the internalised iPhone screen through which the hero views the world. The Guardian even accused the film of an excess of ‘urban realism’. The clichés no critic saw were those about council estates and the communities they house.
On this one, which is renamed the Crowley estate in the film, the residents are either criminals or victims of crime, their homes dirty, dark and ruled by gangs, the architecture conducive to alienation, despair and ‘anti-social’ behaviour, their community part of a network of organised crime, their mothers crack addicts and whores, their kids dealing or taking drugs, their behaviour only contained by heavily armed police, their proximity to the City of London incongruous and outdated, the existence of the estate futile, doomed and in need – as the heroine says – of ‘cleaning up’. In case the way to do this is in doubt, the file the hero downloads before calling in the riot squad for an early morning raid is titled:
Even if you haven’t seen the film, you won’t be surprised to learn that this characteristically middle-class perception of council estate communities – which has itself been formed through thousands of similar depictions in our press, media, news reports, reality TV shows, documentaries, housing policy documents, think-tank reports, developers’ press releases, estate agents’ adverts, councillors’ plans, housing ministers’ speeches and films like this – was written, acted and directed by a team of writers with a tin ear for the speech patterns of London’s working class (‘you think your drug dealing won’t escalate?’), actors whose occasional ‘sorted’ and ‘fuck offs’ couldn’t hide their Home County accents and RADA haircuts, and a director whose filmography is characterised by ‘gritty’ depictions of Inner City life which, unwittingly or otherwise, prepare the way for the plans of property developers and the planning authorities that are in their pockets. That the ‘breeding-ground’ – to use the sink estate terminology – for the criminality that afflicts our society should be located here, in this inner-city council estate, rather than in the financial district it borders, should be sufficient indication of whose interests are being served by this film. Apparently oblivious to the effect it will have on the community it depicts, iBoy would not look out of place in a property developer’s presentation to the City of London Corporation arguing why this ‘sink estate’ should be demolished and the immensely valuable land on which it stands handed over to them for redevelopment. Continue reading “iMayor: The Ideology of GLA Housing Policy and the New Policy we need on Estate Regeneration”→
I’m dreaming dreams, I’m scheming schemes, I’m building castles high. They’re born anew, their days are few, Just like a sweet butterfly. And as the daylight is dawning, They come again in the morning!
– Jaan Kenbrovin, I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (1918)
There’s been a lot in the papers and on social media lately about West Ham football fans and how much they hate their new ground in the London Stadium. This culminated in the recent pitch invasion and protests during the Hammers’ home defeat to Burnley in March, when hundreds of angry fans demanded the removal of the board that oversaw the club’s move in August 2016 after 108 years at Upton Park. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who last year had to take back management of the stadium after it was revealed that the move has cost the public £300 million – the same cost as rebuilding a football-specific arena from scratch – called these protests ‘disgraceful’. In response, the club has introduced tighter security measures, including bringing the police into the ground, to patrol the space separating fans from the West Ham board on match days. A protest walk from Upton Park to Stratford planned for February was only called off following back room deals between the club’s vice-chairman and selected supporter groups. Despite Newham council spending £40 million on converting the former Olympic stadium through loans it admits it does not expect to see repaid, West Ham season ticket-holders complain about what a wasteland Stratford is, with none of the Pie & Mash shops and cheap pubs they used to visit on match day, and how much the former Olympic stadium, with its running track for athletes, separates them from the football pitch. This alienating distance, echoing that between working-class fans and the millionaire players and board-members, is the perfect image of the gentrification of English football since the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989, the subsequent imposition of all-seater stands that doubled ticket prices overnight, and the forming of the Premier League stockmarket in 1992, and as such part of the wider marketisation of every aspect of our lives that is socially cleansing the working class from our inner cities.