J’ACCUSE! Selected Letters to the Architects’ Journal, June 2015-July 2017

ASH first encountered the Architects’ Journal in June 2015 when, together with Fight for Aylesbury and Class War, we organised a protest at the AJ120 Awards, and Will Hurst, at the time the Deputy Editor, appeared among our motley crew of squatters and class warriors resplendent in a navy blue suit, and engaged me in debate. The idea had been inspired by Fight for Aylesbury’s occupation the previous May of the offices of HTA Design, the lead architects on the Aylesbury estate regeneration, during a meeting in Camden with their fellow practices Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Duggan Morris Architects, and which had drawn Ben Derbyshire’s memorable response: ‘Well, thank you very much for your point of view. Would you be so kind as to leave now?’ Rather symbolically, the AJ120 Award ceremony was being held in a huge tent erected in the moat of the Tower of London, and in order to get our message past the line of bouncers we had printed out our protest on about two hundred sheets of A4 paper and folded them into airplanes. I remember opening our protest by launching the first plane, and by lucky chance it flew over the heads of security, across the battlement walls, down into the moat, and landed in one the champagne glasses lined up on the tray of a waiter. On the back of these sheets we had printed in large black letters:

Q. Why do architects always wear black?
A. Because they’re the funeral directors of the working class.

As any good Deputy Editor should, Will tweeted this on his Twitter account, and the following week the protest was widely covered in the Architects’ Journal, with a mention in Rory Olcayto’s editorial, a feature by Colin Marrs including the full text of our protest, and even in that drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding rant of intellectual ideas that is Paul Finch’s personal column, then was followed up the following week by a page of responses from architects on the ‘ethics of regeneration’. Great, we thought, the conscience of the profession has been pricked! In the words of Humphrey Bogart, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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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.

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The Green-eyed Twitter Trolls: Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard

Towards the middle of May, Architects for Social Housing became aware that we were being subjected to what appeared to be a trolling campaign on Twitter. Knowing its origins – both the people behind it and their motivations – we blocked them and ignored it, hoping that they would tire of the publicity they got from attacking ASH and eventually go away. However, over two months later the trolling has not stopped, and has in fact expanded to include anyone who has anything to do with ASH, including the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whose conference on ‘Housing Justice’ we spoke at in June, and the Architectural Workers, who last month organised a debate on ‘What is the Architect’s role in the housing crisis?’ at which we also spoke; as well as general call-outs to individuals and groups such as the Focus E15 Mothers and others not to share a platform with us. I must admit we sort of hoped that a knight in shining armour would come along and defend our blemished honour, but – alas! – it seems these days a girl must fight her own battles. Also, a number of people attacked by association have asked us why we haven’t responded. Unpleasant as it is, therefore, we feel we must explain where these attacks are coming from and why, and refute the accusations they make against ASH.

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10 Myths about London’s Housing Crisis

This text was commissioned from ASH by the Guardian’s Housing Network, which subsequently refused to publish it. This is the second time an ASH piece has been commissioned and refused by the Guardian, which since Katharine Viner took over as editor in March 2015 has moved further and further to the political right, and whose articles on housing have increasingly resembled press releases for the councils, mayors, housing associations, property developers, builders, real estate firms and architectural practices feeding at the housing table – so we weren’t surprised. The last two years have shown ASH that there is nothing the mainstream press would publish that we would consider writing, and nothing we would write that they would consider publishing. Here is the text as rejected.

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Vauxhall Hustings 2017

I’ll keep it brief, because I’m nearing the end of my tolerance for this stuff. We started with a minute’s silence and the local minister, Steve Chalke, calling on us to show respect for democracy – which he said meant listening to each other. As chance would have it this hustings were being held in the church that for several months last year put a blackboard up outside inviting passersby to write down their ‘hopes and prayers’ for the community, and they would pray for them. I wrote down quite a few, including: ‘A plague on this Tory government that is a plague on the people of Britain!’ ‘Stop Lambeth Labour Council demolishing Cressingham Gardens!’ ‘May the working class rise up against the oppression of the rich and the corrupt’ And finally, when it seemed none of my prayers were being answered: ‘May the church condemn this government’s attacks on the poor, the disabled, the sick and the vulnerable!’ I don’t know whether the church ever prayed for any of these, but eventually the blackboard was taken down.

After the opening statements by the five candidates, which included for Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Pirate party (promoting technology and online privacy) and the Women’s Equality Party, the Chair, Tom Kibasi, who is the Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, chose questions that been submitted by the audience in the following order of importance. To give you an indiction of how long each topic was discussed I also recorded roughly when the questions were asked:

7.45pm – Brexit
8.20pm – Voting ID and proportional representation
8.25pm – Fox hunting
8.30pm – Banking reforms
8.35pm – National debt
8.45pm – Arts subjects in schools
8.50pm – Child care nurseries
9.00pm – Local transport
9.05pm – Cycling and cars
9.10pm – Housing

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Social Housing: Demolitions, Privatisations & Social Cleansing

Last month, to accompany its exhibition at the RIBA, Karakusevic Carson Architects published a book titled Social Housing: Definitions & Design Exemplars, which contains 24 case studies of new developments across Europe and the UK, many of them estate regenerations in London. These include the Colville, Kings Crescent and Nightingale estates in Hackney and the Bacton Low Rise estate in Camden, all four of which have been designed by Karakusuevic Carson; the Agar Grove estate in Camden, designed by Hawkins/Brown and Mae; as well as Tower Court in Hackney, designed by Adam Khan Architects and the Silchester estate in Kensington & Chelsea, designed by Haworth Tompkins. Oliver Wainwright, the architecture and design critic at the Guardian, called the book ‘A fascinating overview of social housing today. Complete with the essential nitty gritty details of plans, sections, budgets and timeframes, it’s both a practical manual and optimistic manifesto for what its possible to achieve, against all the odds.’

Such case studies have become endemic to the rash of publications over the past two years setting out the legislation, business models and design principals of estate regeneration in the UK. In February 2015 Urban Design London published its Estate Regeneration Sourcebook, which contains 14 case studies of regenerated estates, again including the Colville and King’s Crescent estates. In March 2016 four architectural practices not in the Karakusuevic Carson book – HTA Design, Levitt Bernstein, Pollard Thomas Edwards, and PRP – published Altered Estates: How to reconcile competing interests in estate regeneration, which contains 12 case studies of  estates regenerated by these practices, including the South Acton, Aylesbury, Packington and Crossways estates. Last December the Conservative government published its Estate Regeneration National Strategy, which contains 16 case studies of regenerated estates, including the demolished Ferrier and Myatts Field North estates, now redeveloped as Kidbrooke Village and Oval Quarter. The same month the Greater London Authority published Homes for Londoners: Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regenerationwhich contains 8 case studies of anonymised estates. And in April of this year the Labour Party published Local Housing Innovations: The Best of Labour in Power, which contains 44 case studies of new housing in Labour boroughs, many of which are engaged in council-led estate regeneration programmes.

All these publications and case studies have one thing in common: they all depict estate regeneration as the solution to the UK’s housing shortage, the new developments as unqualified improvements on the demolished estates, and the communities of residents as willing and satisfied customers in the regeneration of their homes. What was uniformly missing from all these publications is the ‘nitty gritty details’ – to use Oliver Wainwrights phrase – of how many homes for social rent were lost to these demolition schemes, how much public land was privatised by the redevelopment, and how many residents were socially cleansed from their estate as a result – everything, in fact, that would allow the reader to make a judgement about whether these ‘exemplars’ of estate regeneration are solving the housing crisis – as they claim to be – or exacerbating it.

To rectify these omissions – which are the first and most important criteria by which any estate regeneration should be judged – Architects for Social Housing is publishing this e-book of 13 case studies that we have written over the past year-and-a-half, accompanied by 8 articles that look at the function of estate regeneration in London’s housing crisis. Missing from this list of studies is Central Hill estate, on which we have published numerous articles as well as a design alternative to its planned demolition, and which will be the subject of a book-length case study to be published later this year. The reality of estate regeneration revealed in these studies is totally at odds with that presented in the publications by the Conservative government, the Labour opposition, the Greater London Authority, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the think tanks set up by the London councils demolishing the estates and the architectural practices contracted to design the new developments. We will leave it to the reader to judge which is the more accurate representation of a national strategy that will affect the homes and lives of millions of people in the UK.

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In Defence of Our Land: Historical Similarities Between the Enclosure of Common Land from the Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries and the Privatisation of Public Land in the Twenty-First; or, Why the Class War Never Changes, Only its Historical Form

These extracts are from John Wright’s recently published book, A Natural History of the Hedgerow (2016). I began reading it partly out of my love and hatred of hedgerows, about which I have written before on this blog in an article on Land Values, but also as an escape from the violence, injustice, political corruption and urban squalor of estate demolition. Little did I expect that, far more than a natural history of the hedgerow, Wright’s book also contains a social history of the struggles arising from the enclosure of common land in England and Wales between the Thirteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; and reading it I was struck by how similar the motivations and injustices of enclosure were to the conflicts arising today from the privatisation of land through the programme of estate demolition, not only in London but across the UK. Above all, I was struck by the class basis to both wars, the similarity between the arguments used by the ruling class to justify its appropriation of the common land from an already impoverished working class, the collusion of parliament and judiciary in that injustice, the arrogance with which the landlords convince themselves – if not their tenants – that it is for their own good, and the contempt and cruelty with which the rights of working men and women were and still are trampled on and dismissed. I was also interested by the brief accounts of the latter’s rebellions, which echo down to our own struggles to save our housing estates from demolition, their residents from eviction, and our land from privatisation. Every generation thinks that its historical moment is without precedent; but as this text shows, the class war between the rich and the poor never changes, only the forms it takes at different moments in history. For the agricultural workers and tenant farmers of the Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries one of the most violent forms of class war they faced was the enclosure of the common land on which they depended for their subsistence; for the working-class residents of council and social housing in the Twenty-first Century the contemporary equivalent is the demolition of the estates in which they live. Whether we should take hope and courage from these rebellions or despair at their repeated defeats depends, of course, on our own willingness to survive – and even to win – this war; but we should never be mistaken about its class basis, or to what ends it is waged.

The True Levellers' Standard Advanced

Continue reading “In Defence of Our Land: Historical Similarities Between the Enclosure of Common Land from the Thirteenth to Nineteenth Centuries and the Privatisation of Public Land in the Twenty-First; or, Why the Class War Never Changes, Only its Historical Form”