The Labour Party Conference 2017: Housing Policy and Estate Regeneration

On Wednesday afternoon the Labour Party Leader gave his closing speech to the party faithful in Brighton. And to our surprise, the man who for two years has resolutely refused even to refer to the estate regeneration programme being implemented by Labour councils across the country, but most especially in London, finally mentioned the ‘R’ word. Labourites who have opposed the programme but equally resolutely refused to condemn their party for implementing it have reacted with typical understatement. ‘I knew he’d come good!’ declared one supporter on the ASH Facebook page. ‘Can you now acknowledge we were right about Corbyn?’ demanded another. ‘A yes/no vote on demolitions is now Labour Party policy!’ said a third. And the rapture wasn’t confined to social media. ‘Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on Labour councils over housing’, ran the headline to Aditya Chakrabortty’s article in the Guardian’s online housing section (obviously the editor wouldn’t dare put it the paper, but we thank Aditya for including a link to our article on Mapping London’s Estate Regeneration Programme). ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s bold pledges will halt social cleansing of estates’, declared the excited Dawn Foster the next day. So what did Corbyn actually say about estate regeneration and housing, and what will his words mean in practice? In the absence of anything resembling analysis in our national press, here is what ASH heard in the Labour Party Leader’s speech.
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Mapping London’s Estate Regeneration Programme

1. The List

As I turned to camera and explained why I had just pursued first Sadiq Khan and then Jeremy Corbyn in opposite directions down the same Islington street, asking them questions they both resolutely refused to answer about their support for the estate regeneration programme being implemented by London’s Labour councils, a Labour activist stood behind me and held up a ‘Vote Labour’ placard, as if this would somehow compensate for the silence of the Party’s Leader and future London Mayor. At this point Sid Skill (not his real name, unfortunately) stepped forward and held up, in front of the Labour placard, an A3 sheet of paper bearing a list of about 40 names printed in red, below which was written in large black capital letters: ‘JUST SOME OF THE ESTATES SOCIALLY CLEANSED BY LABOUR COUNCILS IN LONDON’.

It was 26 March 2016, the elections for London Mayor were six weeks away, and we – that is, members of Architects for Social Housing, Class War, the Revolutionary Communist Group, several film crews and a bunch of press photographers – had just ambushed a publicity stunt designed to heal the public rift that had opened that week when it was revealed that the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, had appeared on another list of names, this one leaked to the press and identifying the MPs designated as ‘hostile’ to Corbyn’s leadership. I don’t think this was the first time I had seen the list Sid and L.G. had compiled and posted on ASH’s Facebook page, but it may have been the first time I had seen Sid use it as a weapon to combat the lies of the Labour Party. As I spoke to camera I held up another sheet of paper, this one bearing a map of Islington – the constituency of the Labour Leader who had just run away from me – on which every council estate had been outlined in red. I had taken this map from a report published in March the previous year by the Institute of Public Policy Research titled City Villages: More homes, better communities, which we had just exposed as the basis to the housing policies of both the Labour and the Conservative candidates for London Mayor. In this report the editor, the onetime Labour Peer, Andrew Adonis, had argued that the greatest source of brownfield land available for redevelopment in London is what Yolande Barnes, the Director of Research at Savills real estate firm and co-author of the report, estimated are the 3,500 existing council estates on which roughly 360,000 homes are built and in which over a million Londoners currently live.

It’s hard to say exactly when ASH had the idea of mapping London’s estate regeneration programme, but this is as good a moment as any; and I recall it here to distinguish our purpose in creating this map from a purely academic exercise that is content with recording the actions it maps but does nothing to oppose them. ASH’s map of this programme is first and foremost a weapon in the fight against the propaganda war waged by the political parties whose housing policies are based on this programme, the London councils implementing it, the housing associations receiving public funds to profit from it, the public think tanks employed to justify it, the estate agents that produce the viability assessments that demand it, the builders, property developers and architectural practices getting rich from it, and the press that promotes the lies and silences the truth about it. That’s a lot to place on one map, so we decided to make it as big as we possibly could. This article is how we went about creating it.

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ASH Retrospective at the ICA

From the 14-20 August ASH had a residency in the Upper Galleries of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. During the week we hosted several talks on aspects of London’s housing ‘crisis’, including a presentation by Co-ops for London, a workshop by Achilles Fanzine, and an ASH meeting on the terms of reference in the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire. During our residency we created a wall-size map identifying the site of every London estate regeneration, and on the weekend we exhibited both this and the design alternatives to demolition ASH has produced in the two-and-a-half years between March 2015 and August 2017. And since the estates the ASH designs are made to save from demolition are occupied by the people that are always absent from architect’s masterplans, we also invited individuals and groups with whom we have collaborated to exhibit photographs and films documenting some of the estates threatened by the London programme of estate regeneration and the campaigns by residents and other groups to resist the demolition of their homes. This is a record of the exhibition at the ICA.

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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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In formation: ASH Residency at the ICA

In 1960 the Fourth Conference of the Situationist International was held in London’s East End. This was the SI’s only visit to the land of Les Rosbif, and while here they were invited to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at its old site in Dover Street. After their presentation – which largely consisted of rejecting the art world’s attempt to recuperate their actions as ‘Situationism’ – the British public – which largely consisted of that mix of bourgeois, bohemians and bankers still recogniseable today – started demanding clarifications. At which point Guy Debord got up to leave, but not before saying in demotic English: ‘We’re not here to answer ******* questions!’

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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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