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.’
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.
1. With Friends Like These
The first tweets to be were directed at us were posted from the accounts of @RabHarling, @BalfronSocial and @PplRism. These, we know, are just some of the different Twitter accounts of the same person, Rab Harling, but we suspect he has more, as he appears to keep a close track of what we’re doing. I think we probably met Rab at the Real Estates exhibition put on by Fugitive Images in March 2015, around about the time we set up ASH. We were impressed by his photos of the inside of Balfron Tower, where Rab was living. I don’t think I’ve met Rab in person more than two or three times, as he’s very much the keyboard activist; but ASH held a meeting in Balfron Tower in August of that year, where he spoke about his photographs. Since then ASH has been supportive of Rab’s work, advertising his exhibitions on our Facebook page. Personally, however, I never managed to make it to any of his exhibitions, despite being asked by Rab, which may have caused some resentment. We communicated quite a lot on Facebook messenger however, but I noticed he kept leaving membership of the ASH page, and I kept having to let him in again. Last June he told me that he had unfriended me on Facebook because I never commented on his posts, which gives you some idea of his narcissism. That same month Rab sent me a draft copy of a book of his photographs that he’s hoping to publish, and asked me to write something for it. Again, I was extremely busy at the time with ASH work and never found the time to do so. I also remember that Rab made a few snarky comments about the times I appeared on RT news talking about the housing crisis. At the time I took them as a good-natured dig by a mate, but I was wrong.
Things came to a head, however, when the Royal Academy announced a panel discussion called ‘Forgotten Estates’, to be held in September 2016 and focused on Robin Hood Gardens estate. Rab was furious that the panel included Mark Crinson, a professor of Architectural History at the University of London; Paul Watt, a Reader in Urban Studies, at Birkbeck College; Kate Macintosh, an architect and designer of Dawson’s Heights, among other estates; and Jessie Brennan, an artist who had made work about Robin Hood Gardens. Rab’s photographic work was focused on Balfron Tower, but he regarded neighbouring Robin Hood Gardens as very much his domain, and that July wrote a letter to the event Chair, Owen Hopkins, asking to be put on the panel. I was a little surprised when Rab copied me into the letter, as his desperation for acceptance by the establishment ‘elite’ he makes such a song and dance about hating was at odds with his otherwise rebellious persona:
Owen – in a message that Rab also copied me into – responded by inviting Rab to join the audience. Rab’s response – to me, not Owen, though he might have sent something similar to him – was this:
This childishly narcissistic reaction didn’t really surprise me. When we met Rab he was embroiled in a legal case, the details of which I never fully grasped, resulting from a long Twitter trolling campaign of a Tower Hamlets councillor, I think, and which culminated in Rab threatening him online. Rab was subsequently arrested, and in all the time I knew him he was living under the cloud of what the repercussions would be. I was told that at the trial Rab was instructed by the judge that if he didn’t plead guilty he was facing a custodial sentence, so Rab did as he was told and got off – I imagine with a caution and a restraining order. I wasn’t particularly aware of all this, but I began to realise that Rab had a problem when, the week after his trial, when I was congratulating him on not being sent down, he told me he had started another Twitter campaign against a Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, whom Rab accused of stealing his research.
Now, from my experience of writing for ASH, I know that journalism is largely based on theft; but while it is unpleasant to have academics and journalists steal your stuff and publish it in the mainstream press, the bigger picture is that your message gets out to a much larger audience – even if you’ve been cut out of that picture; but Rab’s trolling of this journalist made me realise that what he wanted above all was not to make the social content of his work public but to receive public recognition for it. From what I’ve seen from his recent Twitter exchanges with Dawn Foster, Rab is still chiseling away at this particular chip on his shoulder.
I wasn’t that surprised, therefore, when last September, having not been accepted onto the ‘Forgotten Estates’ panel, Rab announced that he was leaving London to take up an artist’s residence at a gallery in Amsterdam. I asked him if it was a permanent move, and the real reason for him leaving London became apparent:
Shortly after, ASH was invited to speak at an exhibition called ‘Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens’, that was being held in October. I wrote to Rab to ask whether he was exhibiting, and also about the people holding the show and what their agenda was. He responded that he wasn’t and that the people looked sound. That was the last time Rab and I exchanged messages.
Now, I wouldn’t usually share what are personal messages between me and a former friend, but Rab’s subsequent and unrelenting attacks on both ASH and individual members have been so vitriolic and personal that I feel I need to explain – partly to myself – what is motivating them. Since these attacks started in May, we’ve been informed by someone who knows both us and Rab that the watershed was a follow-up panel discussion to ‘Forgotten Estates’ titled ‘Future Estates’, which was also held at the Royal Academy, and to which ASH member Geraldine Dening was invited to speak alongside other architects.
We hadn’t attended the previous discussion at the Royal Academy, though I had watched the recording of the live stream. Rab had urged ASH to organise a protest outside – which was of course ridiculous; if we were to protest every panel discussion on housing that didn’t include exactly who we thought should be on the panel ASH would be – as some try to characterise us – nothing more than a protest group. Rab himself, naturally, organised nothing. In the event, the art-historical contribution of Mark Crinson was borderline absurd in its seeming indifference to the fate of current residents; but Paul Watt, in particular, spoke very well, and both Jessie and Kate made informative contributions.
When the invite to speak at ‘Future Estates’ came, therefore, we accepted, and did what we always do when speaking from within the institutions of power. In both Geraldine’s presentation and in my own comments from the floor, we were critical of the role of the other speakers in colluding with the demolition of the estates whose ‘future’ we were supposedly there to discuss. In particular, we accused Adam Khan, an architect, of being involved in the social cleansing of Marian Court in Hackney, and John Lewis, the Executive Director of Peabody’s Thamesmead estate regeneration scheme, of deceiving residents about what would be built in its place. Rab wasn’t at the discussion, but we have subsequently been told that our attendance marked some sort of turning point for him, and that from now on ASH was to be the object onto which he would offload his resentment at not being invited to speak at events, not financially compensated for his work, and generally being ignored.
In truth, though, Rab was being a little too modest about his success as an artist. A look at his website shows that since graduating with an MA in Photography from the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts, London, he has exhibited his work and given talks at numerous shows, including at the UCL Slade Research Centre at University College London; the Royal Geographical Society; the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London; the Centre for Social Justice & Inequality in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick; the London School of Economics & Political Science; the Limehouse Art Foundation, London; and, most recently, at the Diffusion International Photography Festival 2017. Rab has also been invited onto the panel at the screening of Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle in the Glasgow Film Theatre. Besides his residency in Amsterdam – from which I presume he has now returned from what, judging by the photos, was a rather nice flat on one of the canals – Rab has also been a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence, again at University College London, and has just accepted another residency, again at another art gallery, in Prague this time.
Despite this rather impressive CV, which shows Rab being well nested in both the art and academic worlds, his initial attacks on us were directed against our own educational backgrounds – Geraldine having studied at Cambridge University and I at University College London. It’s a little bizarre, given Rab’s own long history of exhibiting at UCL and those other ‘elite’ academic institutions from which he has such a need for acceptance, and suggests his real motivations lie elsewhere. The particular focus of Rab’s plentiful bile, though, was the accusation that ASH is participating in ‘art-washing’.
People with a grudge often need to find a larger canvas on which to paint their resentments, turning personal grievances into political posturing; but ‘artwashing’ is an issue within London’s estate demolition programme. ASH has been critical of its use in places like Balfron Tower, where artists were invited to occupy and use flats evicted of tenants to put the gloss of gentrification on the social cleansing of the estate community by Poplar HARCA. It’s ironic – to put it mildly – that Rab was one of these artists, living in Balfron Tower on a two-year residency and pursuing his career as an artist from doing the very thing he is now accusing ASH and everyone else of doing. Ah, that green-eyed monster strikes again!
As an architectural practice, however, ASH’s focus has been less on artists, who play a minor role in the propaganda of social cleansing, and more on architectural practices, who play a far larger one. From the protest we organised at the AJ120 Awards in June 2015 through to our protests at the Stirling Prize in October 2015 and 2016, as well as our critical debates with the RIBA and our public condemnations of individual practices such as Mae, PRP, HTA Design, Levitt-Bernstein, Hawkins/Brown, Haworth Tompkins and Karakusevic Carson, ASH has sought to bring attention to the role architects play, not only in managing estate residents on behalf of councils and developers, but of actively colluding in the false image of estate regeneration presented to the public. As anyone who has followed our campaigns knows, ASH doesn’t need lessons in challenging ‘art-washing’ from an artist who thinks a twitter account makes him an activist.
But where, then, did the accusation come from that ASH, against all expectations, is suddenly involved in ‘artwashing’? And not only in art-washing but in ‘plotting to profit from estate demolition’, in ‘illegally engaging in political activity’, in ‘complicity with the establishment in the housing crisis’, in ‘promoting establishment values’, in ‘offering a socially cleansed vision of London for the rich’, in belonging to the ‘Oxbridge establishment’, indeed in ‘social cleansing’ itself?
2. Antagonisms of the Academic
At this point we need to introduce the second character in this two-and-a-half month trolling drama, someone who tweets under the name @etiennelefleur. This is Stephen Pritchard, a PhD student writing his dissertation on art-washing. Like Rab, Stephen is well entrenched in the academic world, having taught or presented at the Royal Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, Durham University, the University of Warwick and the Arts Council of England. This is how Stephen describes himself in the entire page he devotes to himself in his blog, ‘Colouring in Culture’:
‘I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher. I like to move from outside in and inside out. I’m interested by the spaces in which we live. I’m an art historian, writer, activist and community arts practitioner. My starting point for this blog: Everybody’s socially engaged nowadays. I enjoy the tensions created by antagonism.’
We can’t answer for the truth of these rather self-regarding descriptions, since we’ve never met Stephen. The first time we heard about him was when Paul Sng – the director of Dispossession, and also a friend of Rab Harling – sent us a text Stephen had written about Loretta Lees, Professor of Human Geography at Leicester University, who had just won a research grant for £615,341 to study ‘Gentrification, Displacement, and the Impacts of Council Estate Renewal in C21st London’. From my own brief time in academia I know that nothing brings out the green-eyed monster in academics like the grant they didn’t get, and Stephen’s text was highly critical of the research project’s involvement with the arts organisation Platform 7.
Stephen had a point, as Platform-7 looks exactly like the kind of corporate front involved in art-washing; but his argument, as far as I can remember, was restricted to tracing the business links of the organisers and the boards they sat on. Stephen wanted ASH to publish his text on our blog, but we refused for two reasons. First, the text was all insinuation, and never actually made the argument about how Platform-7 are engaged in ‘artwashing’. In other words, it was a bad article, and I didn’t have the time to research and rewrite it for him. Just as importantly, though, Stephen refused to put his name to the text, without which it was no more than slander, whose repercussions would be felt not by him but by ASH. I told Stephen why we refused his text, and also said that part of being an activist is standing up and putting your name to something, not hiding behind an alias – or, I could have added, behind an anonymous Twitter account. Stephen accepted this, but said that as a PhD student he was afraid of jeopardising his chance of getting a job in academia. So much for moving ‘from outside in and inside out.’ The text Stephen wrote ended up being published – still anonymously – on the London School of Economics’ blog of some students, at which point Loretta Lees called her lawyers and had it removed. That’s another story, but again, it gives some insight into the motivations – and character – of the people who have been attacking ASH.
Like Rab Harling, Stephen Pritchard is someone who works within academia while at the same time leading a fantasy life of rebellion (‘gamekeeper turned poacher’), all the while desperately hoping for a securely remunerated position in that world. I know that position well, having flirted with it myself for a few years in my long-lost youth, and I know its resentments, its humiliations, its desperations, its indignities, its self-loathing, and above all the fantasies on which it relies to maintain is self-deception. It’s a form of false consciousness particular to artists and academics that like to think of themselves as community-based activists and campaigners. As Stephen describes himself on his blog:
‘I’m a final-year PhD researcher at Northumbria University exploringhow activist art and radical social praxis might create spaces for acts of resistance and liberation. The research particularly focuses on interventions which support movements that oppose gentrification, displacement and corporate capitalism and seek creative new approaches to developing radical socialist democracies. My work is deeply rooted in critical theory. My deeply intradisciplinary approach spans urban geography, aesthetics, politics and political theory, cultural policy, economics, decolonisation and border thinking, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories, sociology, and visual and material cultures.’
I’m only surprised Stephen doesn’t have his own theme tune embedded in this page. So what – besides us rejecting his text for publication on the ASH blog – could have turned such a multi-talented radical against us?
3. The London Festival of Architecture
Over the past three years ASH has organised Open Garden Estates, an event hosted by London estate communities whose residents organise walks around their estate, show visitors into their homes, tell them about their campaigns to save their estate from demolition, and also make contacts with residents from other campaigns facing the same threat. In 2015 Open Garden Estates was hosted by the three estates ASH was working with; last year it was hosted by around a dozen estates across London; this year three estates hosted the event. The last two years we have advertised the event as part of the London Festival of Architecture, which runs through June. This has meant that, in addition to other residents, architects and those interested in architecture, particularly the post-war Brutalist estates most under threat of demolition, visit the campaigns to save them. ASH has been anathematised in the architectural press because of our criticism of the profession’s role in estate demolition, so advertising Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture is also a way for us to circumvent the lack of publicity about our work and make our design alternatives to demolition more widely known to other architects and the general public. More importantly, though, the more people turn up to the individual estates and talk to residents, the stronger their campaign will be.
For Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, however, none of these benefits outweigh the corporate links to the London Festival of Architecture. We didn’t actually follow what the argument was – if indeed there was one – but I think the accusation was that the LFA had given a platform to Poplar HARCA, the housing association responsible for the demolition, privatisation and social cleansing of numerous Tower Hamlets estate, including Balfron Tower. At ASH we have no time for this sort of virtue signaling, which is always a substitute for the action neither Rab nor Stephen have ever engaged in. Instead, again and again their tweets begin with the repeated accusation ‘Artwashing!’ – which for them has come to represent the key crime in the estate regeneration programme, rather than the actual estate demolition it is meant to conceal – about which they are unable to do anything from the safety and comfort of their academic and art institutions. As in so much within the so-called activism of so-called radicals within the so-called housing movement, the accusation of ‘artwashing’ has become the fetishised substitute for action, the jealously guarded archive of their academic studies, the topic of their art practice, the political justification for their personal grudges, the hook on which to hang the hooded top of their inactivity. For ASH – which is more interested in opposing the actuality of estate demolition rather than deconstructing its representations – there is no contest between, on the one hand, the purism of the principles of student radicals about who and what they associate with in the virtual reality of their keyboard activism, and, on the other, the real world benefits the increased publicity of advertising Open Garden Estates in the London Festival of Architecture brought to residents fighting to save their homes from demolition.
As an example of which, during Open Garden Estates ASH visited the Excalibur estate, which is under threat of demolition by Lewisham Labour council. On the edge of the estate is the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which was originally set up in December 2014 by Elisabeth Blanchet and Jane Hearn, and on Saturday 24 June it hosted an open event at which they showed films by Lucia Tambini and Elisabeth Blanchet that told the history of the estate and the campaign by residents to resist its demolition. Elisabeth had previously got in contact with ASH, and the organisers made the event part of this year’s Open Garden Estates. Because ASH member Senaka Weeraman had taken the initiative to advertise Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture under the title ‘Estates of Memory’, the online architectural magazine Dezeen listed Excalibur estate as one of its ‘top ten picks’ of the Festival, and every ticket on the Eventbrite invitation was taken. A map allowed visitors to take a self-guided tour around the estate, and after the films residents and organisers answered questions about the history of the prefabs and the campaign to save their homes, and we followed our visit up with a report on the campaign.
We know neither of these keyboard inactivists would bother to leave their late night tweeting and make the visit to meet them, but we invite Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard to explain to the residents of the Excalibur estate faced with losing their homes exactly why they shouldn’t advertise their campaign in the London Festival of Architecture. They won’t, not only because their so-called activism is entirely inactive, but because to do so would be ridiculous and insulting to the residents they daren’t face.
Besides which, neither Rab nor Stephen manage to maintain the same high principles when it involves their own work at institutions like the London School of Economics and University College London, both of which have been complicit in estate demolition and social cleansing. Rather, both have sought to build a private fiefdom within the housing movement out of their career interests. Indeed, they have recently founded a group with the familiar title of ‘Artists Against Social Cleansing’. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in order to advertise themselves these green-eyed sons seem a little too intent on killing their symbolic father – such Oedipal fantasies being characteristic of the eternal rebel . . .
If Rab and Stephen had been genuinely concerned about the London Festival of Architecture giving a platform for social cleansing, they could have turned up at the events at which this platform was held and voiced their protest. For example, unknown to us, Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Labour council, appeared on one of the festival’s platforms to congratulate herself on working with Lambeth’s communities to build more homes. As chance would have it, that same evening the residents of Central Hill estate – which the Cabinet she heads had just condemned for demolition – were attending the Scrutiny Committee they had called to review the decision. What an opportunity for them to voice their protest at the Leader of Lambeth council’s estate demolition programme! Neither Rab nor Stephen turned up, of course; and to our knowledge neither have once left their laptops to voice their disagreements in person with the speakers at the platforms they accuse the London Festival of Architecture of giving to social cleansers. But then that, of course, would require action.
By contrast, in the weeks leading up to the General Election ASH attended several hustings across London at which we voiced our objections to the local programme of estate demolition, and on 31 May we organised our own hustings for the Vauxhall constituency. We weren’t surprised that our two Twitter trolls didn’t turn up, but instead confined themselves to calling on the candidates not to participate – ‘no platforming’ being the signature inactivism of the student radical.
On 17 May ASH also spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art on a panel discussion on ‘Urban Planning as Social Cleansing’. This drew paroxysms of rage and incensed accusations of ‘artwashing’ from our armchair inactivists. The fact that at the talk ASH met residents from three estates who wanted to work with us meant nothing to them. Nor that the story we told about estate demolition was entirely new to most of the audience. How could it – when they were both safely tucked up behind their keyboards, polishing their principles into the small hours when it seems most of their tweets against us are rubbed off?
In response to our talk at the ICA, ASH has subsequently been offered the use of the Upper Galleries for one-week this August. We will be exhibiting the design alternatives to demolition from our work with various estates across London, as well as collectively creating a map of every estate regeneration currently taking place in the capital. We’ll also be hosting various talks by other groups about the housing crisis, as well as holding a meeting about the Grenfell Tower fire, on which we have recently published an extended report. As we anticipated, this has drawn further vitriol from our two Twitter trolls; but we can safely say we don’t anticipate seeing either of them turn up to give voice to their tweeted insults in any public forum more exposed than an anonymous social media account.
4. Blogs, Lies and Innuendo
In the meantime, the next product of their anonymous clictivism arrived on 22 May, when Stephen published a blog post titled ‘ASHwash: Architects for Social Housing AND for Establishment Values?’ As those who read the ASH blog know, we often publish articles that are a form of investigative journalism, producing a case study of a particular estate regeneration or analysis of a piece of housing policy. Reading Stephen’s post we were struck by how much it tried to imitate the ASH articles, reproducing screen grabs of apparently damning information, including footage of incriminating evidence of art-washing, highlighting textual proof of criminal behaviour, etc. However, much like his earlier text we had refused to publish on the ASH blog, Stephen’s article – which is less investigative and more Carry-On journalism – is a series of innuendos and nudge-nudge wink-wink questions his argument is too weak to answer. The responses of people who read his post and contacted us ranged from ‘Pathetic’ and ‘So what?’ to ‘I find this kind of purity competitiveness both pathetic and pointless.’
As an example of the sort of innuendo on which Stephen’s article relies and which Rab’s trolling repeats ad nauseum, the blog post starts with a photograph of Central Hill estate taken by ASH and used by us to publicise Open Garden Estates. So beautiful is the image of the estate that it has also been used widely in numerous articles, including that by Zoe Williams, who reproduced it without our consent in an article about estate regeneration that nevertheless praises the work of Studio Egret West, an architectural practice working with Poplar HARCA on the regeneration of Balfron Tower. Without any argument actually being made, therefore, Stephen’s caption to the image insinuates that because ASH took the photograph we are somehow connected with the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. That’s about the level of critique in the blog post; however, since we’re discussing this, I’ll very quickly answer the questions he asks.
As if unearthing the Hitler Diaries, Stephen has ‘discovered’ that ASH is a Community Interest Company, something we became in September 2016 as a condition of a (failed) grant application to the Tudor Trust. This required that we set up a bank account for any anticipated funds before making our application, and in order to receive funding ASH had to have a constitution. We looked at the options, and a Community Interest Company (CIC) fitted our needs and abilities best. It also means that any payments we receive for design work, such as we are currently receiving from the Patmore Co-operative, are registered in the ASH bank account, and will appear on our tax returns lodged in Companies House. But Stephen needn’t get too excited about what he and Rab have denounced as our ‘profiteering’; the grand total of payments ASH has received this year is £6,000.
That’s about it, as far as the attack on ASH goes. There’s another issue Stephen raises about the political dimension of our activity, which I’ll return to later; but the rest of his blog article is about the association of Geraldine Dening, the co-founder and director of ASH, with SPID Theatre. This make up by far the largest part of the article, and consists of a series of snide insinuations about Geraldine’s integrity based on deliberate or otherwise misunderstandings and lies. Geraldine does indeed have her own private practice, but – alas! – it did not win the RIBA National Award 2013, as Stephen wrongly asserts; and although many years prior to this she did, as a young architect, work for larger practices designing schools and other developments, she does not now. It’s not exactly clear what crime would have been committed if she had, except in the unemployed mind of the perpetual student Stephen is; but one would hope a PhD candidate had a better comprehension of a CV than this demonstrates.
The focus of Stephen’s expose, however, is the entirely unclassified information that in February 2014, one year before ASH was formed, Geraldine became a Board Member – not a Director, as Stephen inacurrately asserts – of the SPID Theatre Company. We had first attended several of SPID’s productions several years ago and liked what they do; and when they asked Geraldine to sit on the board she agreed to act as an architectural advisor. Stephen’s blog post is largely taken up with tracing the connections between SPID Theatre and Kensington and Chelsea council, and specifically the work SPID has done with Trellick Tower, which lies within the borough. Again and again he demands that the reader – those who have stayed with him through his gripping account – look at SPID’s sponsors, which include such corporate criminals as the Twentieth Century Society; but he never bothers to make any argument more damning than the one that people who work on other arts organisations like the Battersea Arts Centre and the Tricycle Theatre also sit on the board of SPID Theatre, or that members of the council and TMO who own and manage the estate on which SPID Theatre is based do too.
Such relations with councils inevitably come with their own compromises and dangers, and that is not a route ASH has chosen to take – even if there were a council left in London that would talk to us! But the alternative is not always available for a theatre company that does not have private financial backing, does not operate – as Rab Harling does – out of paid residencies in art galleries, and does not have a government grant – as Stephen Pritchard does – in an academic institution. In attacking such arrangements with empty insinuations, Stephen betrays his own lack of knowledge of how to work outside the paternal institutions in which he lives and studies; but he also – to my ears – protests too much and too loudly to cover up his own protracted adolescent dependence upon them.
To substantiate his demonisation of SPID Theatre as a corporate front for – you guessed it – ‘artwashing’, Stephen includes the link to a BBC report of SPID’s production at Trellick Tower, which Geraldine and I attended, and writes: ‘There is a whiff of artwashing here.’ Cutting edge stuff, Steve. It is clear, however, that neither he nor Rab have ever been to a SPID Theatre production – just as they will never visit the similarly attacked Excalibur estate – so let me fill these armchair inactivists in on the work they so bravely expose.
SPID Theatre is based in Kensal House, a council estate in Labroke Grove. It produces plays that are written by its own members and which dramatise contemporary issues, particularly those facing children and young adults in London today. What makes the productions we’ve seen particularly compelling is that the plays are acted and co-produced by young people from council estates in the borough. We have seen a number of productions in both Kensal House and Trellick Tower, and have always been struck by the confidence and abilities of the young people given the responsibility of putting them on. Beyond the social issues dramatically explored in the plays, the productions themselves act as a means for the young people in them to explore the world outside the council estates on which they live.
To dismiss the benefits such involvement can potentially have for these children both socially and creatively as – in Stephen Pritchard’s words – ‘bang on, straight-down-the-line arts and cultural policy speak’ – is the judgement of someone who comes from a world where theatre and creativity were the price of a ticket away. Similarly, to denounce the theatre group that gives these young people this chance in the name of an academic critique of ‘artwashing’ is the action of someone who has no knowledge of the stigma that comes from living on a council estate, and no interest in the potential of the children who live on them. To troll both in order to further your own career in academia is the action not of an ‘activist and community arts practitioner’, as Stephen describes himself, but of a careerist and green-eyed opportunist.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, SPID Theatre and its young actors put on a benefit production of their play iAm 4.0 at the Playground Theatre in North Kensington, and in the process raised £1,700 for the Grenfell Tower Fund. I’m willing to bet that’s £1,700 more than either Stephen or Rab have ever raised or given in their time or work to any council estate community.
What Stephen Pritchard hasn’t bothered to reproduce in his blog post is the film SPID Theatre produced themselves called Cheltenham Tales, which they screened at this production, and which far from being artwashing for the regeneration of the estate is about precisely the threat to the graffiti wall and skateboard park that regeneration presents. Perhaps, if he left his ivory tower in Northumbria University and visited the people and places his mass of theoretical models are so clueless about, Stephen Pritchard, PhD, might find a way to apply the many and truly astonishing array of gifts he claims he has to the world outside his social media accounts.
5. Architects for Social Housing
Stephen Pritchard admits he has never met us – and of course, just like Rab Harling, he has never worked with us; so let me tell him a little bit about what Architects for Social does. Perhaps this will give both of them an idea why the institutions whose acceptance and invitations they are so desperate to receive invite us to speak at their venues. Who knows – one day, if they leave social media and do something worth talking about, they may have something worth listening to.
ASH is an organisation that sets up working collectives for the various projects we’re engaged in. After two-and-a-half-years of work, we’re receiving an increasing number of offers from architects, students, writers, photographers, film makers and others to work with us on these projects. In most cases, after a long day’s work with which Stephen and Rab – to judge by their plentiful Twitter activity – are completely unfamiliar, young architects meet with us in the evening to offer their labour for free on our design work. Sometimes, as in the case of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, this leads to us being commissioned to produce a feasibility study report, for example, on ASH’s designs; and when we receive payment for our work that money is used to pay the architects working on the designs. But by far and away the bulk of the work we and those who work with us do is done for free.
Despite this, neither ASH nor anyone who has worked with us has been spared their accusation that we are somehow ‘profiteering’ from estate regeneration. Since neither Rab nor Stephen appear to have any idea of what goes on outside their keyboard worlds, they won’t know that it is work like this that constitutes a housing campaign – not virtue signaling and trolling on social media. Their accusations that the architects giving their time and labour and skills for free on ASH’s projects are somehow profiteering from their labour are the fantasies of keyboard onanists.
Where ASH has been paid for its work – specifically on our designs for West Kensington and Gibbs Green, who were able to raise funds from charity grants – we were paid around a tenth of the usual cost for such work. Indeed, we were originally approached by the campaign to find an architectural practice for the brief, but no-one would touch it at the price. All the funds we received were spent on paying the architects who worked on the designs. The hundreds of hours of other work we spent on consultations, workshops, publicity and all the other myriad things ASH does when it works with residents was done for free.
On Central Hill estate, with which ASH worked for two years, architect Geraldine Dening – the target of continuing online insults by the brave Rab Harling – gave an estimated £20,000 of her labour to drawing up an entire design alternative and feasibility study for free. As, indeed, did everyone who worked with ASH on this project – architects, photographers, film-makers, writers, graphic designers, environmentalists, quantity surveyors, engineers, campaigners – everyone who gave their time and skills for free because they believe in ASH’s larger project.
For artist Rab Harling and academic Stephen Pritchard, remunerated and housed by institutions of culture and higher learning, to dismiss the enormous generosity and energy of the people who have worked on ASH’s projects here and at numerous other estates across London as ‘profiteering’ really is beneath contempt – and if we thought either had the character to do so we would demand an apology on their behalf.
6. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn
But if the cause of Rab Harling’s apparently unending spite is his long nurtured professional jealousy and resentment towards ASH, what is the motivation for Stephen Pritchard, someone we’ve never even met? I must admit that this was a cause of some confusion on our part. All this bile and slander because we wouldn’t publish his scribbles on our blog? Even taking into account the pettiness of Twitter trolls it didn’t make sense. Then I decided to have a look at Stephen’s Twitter page – which by the sheer number of his tweets seems to be where he lives out most of his life – and the penny dropped.
Last September Stephen, like so many student radicals, joined the Labour Party, and a quick look through his Twitter account will show the depth of his fervour for Jeremy Corbyn. Now, as anyone who reads our blog will know, for the past two years ASH has been consistently critical of the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils, which we have designed architectural alternatives to as part of our support for resident campaigns. But we have also been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s silence on estate demolition, and in the weeks leading up to the election we published a number of articles on the housing policies of the Labour Party. These that revealed that – far from there being a split between the practices of Labour councils and the principles of Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour manifesto based its housing policy on the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils.
This is a bitter pill to follow for the acolytes of Jeremy Corbyn, but two years of fighting Labour councils has shown us that in a choice between the residents whose homes are threatened by Labour housing policy and the electoral hopes of the Labour Party, Labourites will always chose the latter. And so it is with Stephen Pritchard, who despite painting himself as a ‘intradisciplinary, border thinking, psychodynamic’ champion of working-class residents, is more than willing to sacrifice them to Labour council demolition schemes if it means getting Jeremy Corbyn into power. For him, as for so many housing campaigners who have placed their faith and hope in Corbyn, anything that contradicts this message is a threat to their simple narrative. ASH’s article on the contents of Labour’s manifesto, the publications of Labour’s Housing Minister, the statements at Labour’s conferences, and above all the practices of Labour’s councils, was a fart in their lift to heaven.
In his hatchet blog job on ASH, therefore, Stephen dug up a condition of our conversion to a CIC, this being that we will not be ‘a) a political party; b) a political campaigning organisation; or c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation’. On this sleuth-like piece of detective work this PhD researcher comments most solemn like: ‘ASH needs to be very careful to differentiate between its social enterprise function and its broader, collective functions.’ Thanks for that bit of advice, Steve. In fact, from the very beginning of ASH’s existence activists of every political stripe have tried to divide our design work – which they are happy to accept for free – from the political dimension of our campaigning, which has consistently highlighted the Labour Party’s collusion with the programme of estate demolition.
But to put Stephen’s investigative antennae to rest, ASH is not a) a political party; nor are we b) a political campaigning organisation such as Momentum, to which we wouldn’t be surprised to learn he belongs; nor are we c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation, such as Axe the Housing Act or the Radical Housing Network, both of which are pullulating with his fellow Born-again Corbynites. Unlike these grass-roots fronts, whose overriding concern is the electoral victory of the Labour Party, ASH has no interest in Parliamentary politics. Our concern is for the estates and communities the political parties in Parliament threaten. Whether Stephen regards this as political activity depends on his academic understanding of the term, in which we have not the slightest interest; but his attempt to expose us with this bit of information really is pretty weak. I hope his PhD has a better grasp of what constitutes primary research, or the academic standards of Northumbria University must have fallen.
This is not the first time ASH has been targeted by Labour activists and apologists for estate demolition – far from it. Ever since we started identifying the Labour Party as complicit in this programme, Labour activists from Momentum and the Radical Housing Network have periodically trolled us on our Facebook page and even gone as far as to warn residents against working with us. In the case of Central Hill estate, this extended to a campaign with which we had been working for a year-and-a-half, and for which, as I said, we had produced an entire design alternative to demolition for free. None of that mattered to the members of Unite the Union and Lambeth Momentum, who successfully managed to convince the organisers of the Save Central Hill campaign to denounce us publically. It’s unclear to us exactly what Lambeth Momentum offered in our place, except their subsequent betrayal and denunciation of the Save Central Hill campaign when it attacked the Labour council that threatened their homes. But it is clear to us that Stephen’s empty insinuations were simply another attempt to discredit us and what we do in the weeks leading up to the General Election. Unfortunately for the Corbynites, everything ASH has published on Labour housing policy – unlike Stephen’s article on us – is based on facts and not innuendo, reasoned argument and not sly insinuations; and until Stephen or some other Labour activist can refute either we will continue to hold the Labour Party accountable for its record of estate demolition.
7. Trolling in the Real World
What has disgusted us most about these attacks on ASH is not, however, either their vitriol or even their personal nature, but how both Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard are willing to use their supposedly heroic defence of estate residents to promote and further their own careers as artists and academics within the safety net of the institutions they inhabit. Over the past three years we’ve watched with increasing amusement at the fetishisation of the activist as the latest figure on the scene of identity politics. It’s for this reason we’ve always refused the description of what we do at ASH with this meaningless term. ‘Activists’, for us, are the earnest young people who door-knock for Labour MPs at election time and wear T-shirts saying ‘We love Jeremy!’ But there is, also, a strange sense of entitlement among those who, having marched to Parliament one weekend or titled their Twitter account something like @BalfronTower, rather grandly designate themselves as ‘activists’, and – without having actually done anything – regard any platform, conference, exhibition, workshop or panel discussion to which they haven’t been invited as a personal sleight on their green-eyed ambition. It never seems to occur to them to do anything that the organisers of these platforms would want to invite them to talk about, or – Jeremy forbid! – create a platform themselves. In this respect, the yawning gap between the actions of keyboard inactivists like Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, and their sense of entitlement to speak at events they treat as an opportunity to further their careers, is an example of precisely the sort of artwashing and careerism they accuse everyone but themselves of being party to.
As I said, the trolling of us by these two over the past two-and-a-half months is no longer confined to ASH, but has extended to the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whom they called on to ban us from their conference; the Focus E15 Mothers, whom they have warned not to share a platform with us; the Architectural Workers, whom they accused of being social cleansing profiteers; a resident of Cressingham Gardens who used the London Festival of Architecture to launch a book containing testimonies from her fellow residents facing demolition, and whom they also accused of art-washing; as well as the candidates for the Vauxhall constituency, whom they called on to boycott the Lambeth Estate Hustings organised by ASH. Even the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire didn’t stop Rab Harling from attacking the Green Party’s GLA member Siân Berry, one of the handful of London politicians to speak out against estate demolition, for the ‘crime’ of having attended Oxford University. There are no doubt even more groups and individuals these two trolls have targeted – either because of association with ASH or because Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, from the glorious purity of their keyboards, deem them to be ‘artwashers’ – but since we have blocked all communication with them we are, thankfully, spared both their bile and their ambition.
Unfortunately, however, this trolling has not been without consequences in the real world. Last September ASH was contacted by residents on Hackney’s Northwold estate, which is under threat of demolition by the Guinness Partnership. Since then, we have worked with their campaign to save their homes, advising them on the tactics that would be employed against them and some of the things they might want to do in setting up their own campaign. We have published several articles publicising that campaign, including exposing the Guinness Partnership’s plans and motivations for the demolition; held a number of open meetings with residents about what estate ‘regeneration’ will mean for them; and with the collaboration of individual architects and the Architectural Workers, ASH has produced a preliminary design alternative to the planned demolition that equals the increased housing capacity proposed by the Guinness Partnership without demolishing a single existing home. We have done this for free – not, as Rab Harling claims, in order to profit from the housing crisis, but because we believed in the Save Northwold campaign and wanted to help residents in their struggle to save their estate from demolition.
We thought, therefore, that we’d at least earned a little solidarity in return. Unfortunately, one of the residents and organisers of the Save Northwold campaign is also a member of Artists Against Social Cleansing, the pet project of Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling. When she told us about the project we thought it a good idea; but under the influence of these two Twitter trolls she has subsequently shared and publicised their innuendos and attacks against us. And – quite incomprehensibly for us – despite the fact that ASH has given several hundred hours of our time and labour to their campaign, Save Northwold has similarly shared in spreading these attacks on social media.
When we contacted the members of Save Northwold to point out the motivations of their new collaborators, and asked them why they would attack ASH, which they were expecting to work with over the next few years, the member of Artists Against Social Cleansing – whom we won’t name here because we believe she has been badly misled by these two careerists – wrote back: ‘There are important debates to be had and in the interest of all in this struggle’. Yes, there are, but we don’t see how those are being had through the public trolling of ASH on Twitter by her fellow members.
Speaking on behalf of the Save Northwold campaign, one of the organisers subsequently wrote to us – not to explain how they had made a mistake and to unreservedly condemn the slurs against Geraldine they had unwittingly shared – but to inform us rather grandly that: ‘We need to be clear about boundaries, transparency, and what we are each getting out of any future collaboration.’ If the Save Northwold campaign wished to know about ASH’s structure, they had only to ask us at the meeting we were about to have with them to discuss our future collaboration in producing a design alternative to the demolition of their estate over the next year. For future reference, publically re-tweeting a personal attack on the integrity of our lead architect, and refusing to condemn snide insinuations against ASH after we have given so much of our time to their campaign, is not the way to build trust, establish transparency or promote future collaboration. As for our own future collaboration, as a result of this trolling and the breakdown in trust and respect it has fostered, ASH is no longer working with the Save Northwold campaign. We trust they will find their future collaboration with Artists Against Social Cleansing more conducive to their needs; and we hope this article will provide the transparency about their new collaborators they asked for.
ASH does not have the financial backing and support of academic institutions, art galleries, unions, the Labour Party or private benefactors, and we are not in receipt of any grant funding. We are an entirely voluntary organisation working almost entirely for free. As such, we have no obligation to work with anyone, least of all those who attack us, whether for political or personal reasons, or out of some bizarre sense of entitlement to our time and labour. We will make the results of the design work we have already done available for the use of Northwold estate residents; but it should be clear – and if it isn’t we make it clear now – that ASH cannot enter into a long term contract with groups or individuals with whom there is a lack of trust, and we will not work with groups or individuals who attack us or seek to undermine us, or with groups or individuals who openly support and promote groups who attack us or seek to undermine us. The open season on ASH is over.
Once again, we regret having to address this rather sordid matter in public and at such length; but there comes a time when you have to defend yourself and those who work with you against sly innuendo, slander, accusations and personal attacks from careerists and disgruntled artists. This is our last word on the matter. We leave it to you to decide whether you wish to work with ASH in the future – and, of course, whether you choose to associate with the green-eyed Twitter trolls whose behaviour has compelled us to make this public statement. We’ll leave you with this public statement from Rab Harling, artist and housing activist:
Across the country, Labour councils are putting Labour values into action in a way that makes a real difference to millions of people. It is a proud Labour record, and each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do.
In the lead up to last night’s decision by Haringey Labour council to go ahead with the transfer of £2 billion of land and assets, including thousands of council homes, into the hands of international property developers Lendlease, Aditya Chakrabortty, who has been following the Haringey Development Vehicle, and who is the best of the journalists writing on housing at the Guardian, published an article highly critical of Haringey and other Labour councils implementing social cleansing through estate privatisation and demolition.
In response he was widely attacked on Twitter by Labourites, whose spluttering objections can be narrowed down to the one that indignantly demanded: ‘How is this helping the Labour Party!’ This conforms to everything we’ve been writing not only about the Labour Party’s antagonism to the truth, but it’s belief that the homes and lives of residents it threatens should be sacrificed to its electoral success. Apparently Chakrabortty was also told that the Haringey council leadership regard him as a ‘one man left wing Daily Mail’ (welcome to our world, Aditya: at least they didn’t denounce you as a Tory, as they have us). However, in his article Chakrabortty couldn’t refrain from absolving the Leader of the Labour Party from his accusations of corruption.
‘However easy it is for pundits to conflate today’s Labour party with Jeremy Corbyn, to do so ignores the daily experience of people under many Labour councils that are his ideological opposite. Such as the zombie Blairites who run Haringey, and who bear as much resemblance to Corbyn’s Labour as Jive Bunny does to Death Metal.’
It’s a strangely dismissive and overstated comment in an otherwise serious and measured article, and suggests the difficulty Chakrabortty has in believing what he asserts. Is Corbyn really the ‘ideological opposite’ of the Leaders of Labour councils? Is Corbyn’s Labour really Jive Bunny to Claire Kober’s Death Metal? And if so, why has Corbyn consistently refused to condemn the actions not only of Haringey council but of every other Labour council engaged in the social cleansing of working-class communities through estate regeneration schemes?
There was a strange phenomenon, which continues to this day among his admirers, that absolved Adolf Hitler from knowledge of and therefore culpability in Nazi atrocities, and even the Final Solution. The cult of Der Führer that the Nazis created around Hitler meant that not only were his decisions unquestioned, but also pure of all culpability in the event of their failure or exposure. Now, I hope it’s clear that I’m not comparing Corbyn to Hitler, but it is increasingly apparent that there is something cultish about the absurd position Corbyn’s idolisers have placed him in of being guiltless – and even ignorant – of what the Party he leads is doing, not only at council level, but even of its housing policies.
A similar sort of reverence surrounds the President of the United States of America. I remember after 9/11 when George Bush was coming out with the line that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the attack, even though every bit of intelligence pointed to Saudi Arabia as the culprits, and in response to questions to this effect aides replied: ‘This is the President of the United States speaking here, and we need to listen.’ In response to the completely absurd and slightly worrying adulation Corbyn enjoys among his supporters, observers have pointed out that he is already assuming a Presidential air – precisely that Presidential air Tony Blair assumed when he sent us to war in Iraq on a similarly fabricated ‘evidence’.
Now, cults are based on belief, not reason, so I have no expectation of converting those of you who have taken the veil. But anyone looking for evidence that Corbyn lacks neither knowledge of nor culpability in the social cleansing of London communities through estate privatisation and demolition has only to read the Labour Party’s manifesto on housing – which ASH has written about here, and the statements by Corbyn and his Housing Ministers on the actions of the Labour councils about which he is supposedly so ignorant, which you can read about here. If you feel like stopping the chanting for a bit, getting up off your knees and having a rational discussion about what the Leader of the Labour Party is promising to do with our homes – let alone what Labour councils are already doing with his support – have a read.
Architects for Social Housing
Below is the updated list of 170 London housing estates we know of that are under threat of or already condemned to privatisation, demolition and social cleansing by Labour councils.
Did I hear right, or was I making it up? As I stood outside the pub having a fag, the crowd shuffled past, branded like an Olympic team with flags and banners and placards bearing the logos of every Labour-affiliated union and other left-wing group, including several I thought no longer existed. I recognised the tune – it was the opening bars from the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – but what were the words being sung over the top? Was I imagining it, or were they really chanting ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ over and over again? We’d listened to a couple of speeches outside the BBC, where the People’s Assembly demonstration – titled ‘Tories Out!’ – had assembled, but this was too much. We decided right there and then to abandon any idea of joining the blushing throngs.
Later on in the day we joined Class War in the Chandos off Trafalgar Square for an ill-earned pint. A small commando team had gone off to ambush Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square, and while waiting for him to arrive confronted Len McCluskey – the General Secretary of Unite the Union, which pretty much funds the Labour Party – with the record of Labour councils socially cleansing working-class communities from London through council estate privatisation and demolition. He simply turned his back on them, showed not the slightest interest in hearing what they had to say, or even in looking at the posters they held up listing just some of the 155 London council estates threatened by Labour councils.
Later on the Messiah himself arrived, and rather like Moses parting the Red Sea the crowd fell back to let him through. Quick as a flash Lisa Mckenzie of Class War ran up behind him and confronted Corbyn with the same question she had asked McCluskey. It’s a simple question, one we’ve been asking the Labour Leader for two years now, so far without receiving an answer: ‘When are you going to stop Labour councils socially cleansing people out of London?’
Corbyn turned briefly to glance at the poster Lisa was holding up, a frown across his face. I guess, when everyone you meet wants to touch the hem of your garment, it must be surprising to see someone actually challenge you on your record rather than the rousing rhetoric and empty promises with which a nation has been deluded. But just like McCluskey, Corbyn turned immediately away and continued walking between the chosen people, who recovered from the shock of finding a heretic among their ranks and quickly closed in around their Saviour. Like McCluskey, Corbyn showed no interest in what Lisa had to say. Rather, like the practiced, professional politician Corbyn is, he immediately recognised that here was someone who hadn’t swallowed his lies, and walked quickly away – as practiced politicians do – and engaged in a far more pressing conversation with yet another Labour-branded functionary.
Class War continued to shout out their question, hold their posters up, and let the people around them know about Labour’s record of estate regeneration – precisely the estate regeneration programme that killed the residents in Grenfell Tower, about which not a single Labour speaker all day could end without saying something typically vague about poverty and austerity. What not a single speaker said was what had killed them.
In response to this intrusion by Class War, the Labourites first asked the watching police to disperse them, and when the constables didn’t oblige formed up in a line in front of them, held up their branded placards in front of the Class War posters, and started chanting the same chant I’d heard in the marching crowd: ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ They too – like Len McCluskey, like Jeremy Corbyn, like Momentum, like the People’s Assembly, like Unite the Union, like the Socialist Workers Party, like the Radical Housing Network, like the increasing number of so-called anarchists who voted for Labour, like, it seems, anyone who believes Corbyn is some kind of socialist and the Labour Party a social movement – had not the slightest interest in hearing about what Labour are doing to the lives and homes of working class people. Similarly, the leaders and speakers and followers who have filled the airwaves with their lamentations and fury over the Grenfell Tower fire have shown not the slightest interest in hearing about the estate regeneration programme that caused it. On the contrary, they are willing to sacrifice everything – the hundreds of thousands of Londoners whose homes and businesses are being demolished by Labour councils and the truth about what killed the people in Grenfell Tower – to the electoral hopes of the Labour Party.
The Cult of Corbyn
Something very strange is happening to the Labour Party. As we know, the neo-liberals that make up its Parliamentary Party loathe Jeremy Corbyn, and even after the election that gave them back their seats they have continued to speak out against his promises of re-nationalisation (though less about his retention of Trident and government cuts to benefits). Because of this, and because of the huge support Corbyn enjoys personally from the party membership, under John McDonnell’s stewardship Labour now calls itself a ‘social movement’. Without anything being said to this effect, this allows the Labour membership to believe that, once their Leader is in power, it will be they, and not Labour’s Members of Parliament, who will dictate policy. ‘Vote us into power’, they tell us, ‘and we will return Labour to its real values’. However imaginary and divorced from history those values have become under the propaganda of, for instance, films like Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, this belief allows the growing Labour membership to imagine its collective will – embodied in the fast becoming sacred figure of Corbyn – will one day govern the country. The fact the UK is a parliamentary monarchy and Labour a parliamentary political party which, if elected to government, will be subject to the vote not of its membership but of its members of parliament, is conveniently ignored.
That’s not quite accurate: not ignored, but suppressed, silenced. That’s why Class War and ASH and the Focus E15 Mothers and the RCG repeatedly drawing attention to the actions of the Labour Party at council level have met such extraordinary hostility from members of the Labour Party who are otherwise – that is, in Conservative-run boroughs – opposed to estate demolition. In the case of ASH, we know that residents have been told by members of the Radical Housing Network not to work with us because of our criticisms of the Labour Party and its support for the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils. Against the promises of Labour’s manifesto on housing – which is in fact based on these demolition schemes – this is a rude reminder that far from being a social movement Labour is a political party seeking election to power of the government of the UK, and if we want to get an idea of how that government would govern we should look at the actions and attitudes of these councils.
From this inconvenient truth has sprung the mantra, repeated by Momentum et al, that Labour councils are run by ‘Right-wing, Progress, Blairites’ at odds with Corbyn’s housing policies – as if the Labour MPs so many Corbynites voted for at the last election are any different. ASH showing in detailed arguments based on Labour’s own public statements that not only is there no difference between the housing policies of the Labour Party and those of Labour councils but that, on the contrary, the former is based upon the latter, has fallen on ears as deaf to the truth as the crowd of chanting believers in Parliament Square.
Under the chants of ‘Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn!’ Neil Coyle can be re-elected Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, while his record on the planning committee of Southwark Labour council’s estate regeneration programme is drowned out; Helen Hayes can be re-elected Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, while her collusion in the demolition of the Heygate and Central Hill estates and the eviction of the Brixton Arches is drowned out; Diane Abbott can be re-elected Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, while her record of failing to oppose the demolition of 18 estates by Hackney Labour council is drowned out; David Lammy can be re-elected Labour MP for Tottenham, while his record of standing by as the Haringey Labour council sells off £2 billion of land to property developers Lendlease, including two council estates in his own constituency, is drowned out.
Ideology under capitalism works not by censorship but by noise. Within increasingly reduced limits we can say what we like, but no-one will hear us over the noise of those with access to the media. We’ve seen this principle at work in the reaction of Labour politicians to the Grenfell Tower fire. Beneath the cries for justice and truth repeated again and again by Labour MPs David Lammy and Emma Dent Coad, the actual truth from which justice alone will emerge is being drowned out. Because Labour does not yet have the power to exert control over the media, which has been virulently opposed to Corbyn since his election to the leadership, it must make use of disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire and turn it to its own political ends. Labour, led by Corbyn, has shown absolutely no compunction in cynically using the dead of Grenfell Tower to attack the Tory party, while drowning out the truth about its own role in what killed them.
However, since the Labour Party’s surprising returns at the General Election, the media is beginning to change its attitude towards Corbyn. He still hasn’t got the newspaper barons on side though, as Tony Blair took care to prior to his election as Prime Minister. The primary medium of Corbyn’s propaganda, therefore, is events like yesterday’s. Exactly as Trump – a similar political outsider without the support of his party – did with far greater success, Corbyn and his team have described their political ambitions as a ‘movement’, and have adopted the guise of being outsiders in their own party. This exactly replicates the feelings of those millions of Labour supporters who, reared on 13 years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have returned to the ranks and ballot box of the Labour Party with the dream that they may, once again, find themselves represented in it. The student radicals, middle-class liberals and elderly members of Momentum are all agreed on one thing: that they do not recognise themselves in the mediocrities that make up the Paliamentary Labour Party or the stony-faced ruthless businessmen and women that sit on Labour councils. So instead – again, very much as the rust-belt proletarians of the US did with New York billionaire Trump – they focus all their attention on the figure of Corbyn, who in their eyes is relieved of all responsibility for the actions of the political party he leads.
The Spectacle of Activism
It’s clear that, against our own predictions, the Labour Party is on the up. Not only are the MPs that twice voted no confidence in Corbyn now opportunistically reconciled to his leadership, but Labour’s strategists seem to have accidentally laid their groping fingers upon the quickening pulse of politics in capitalist democracies. Labour’s electoral team has remarked how much they have learned from Bernie Sanders, members of whose campaign team came over to the UK to instruct Labour activists in the lead up to the General Election. It’s typical of Labour that they chose to be instructed by a campaign that lost; but looking at the spectacle they put on in Parliament Square earlier this year, at which Guardian journalist Owen Jones and Labour Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott spoke out against the election of Donald Trump, and hearing the chanting marchers yesterday, deaf to anything but their own declaration of absolute and unshakeable faith in their Leader, it seems to me that it is to the campaign and tactics of Donald Trump’s electoral team that Labour have been looking. However, it’s not merely ironic that in condemning the election of Trump to the Presidency of the United States, Jones and Abbott used exactly the same propaganda tools and tactics that brought him to power.
Like Trump, Labour have adopted the spectacle of street politics – of a social movement, of political protest, of ‘grass-roots’ activism, of the until-now-suppressed and overlooked outsider, of the silenced ‘99 per cent’, of the rhetoric of rebellion and even revolution, of justice ‘for the many, not the few’ – to call for the election to the government of the UK of a social-democratic political party that runs 110 councils and unitary authorities across the UK, have directly elected Mayors in London, Manchester, Liverpool and 11 other local authorities, 13 seats in the European Parliament, 262 in the House of Commons and 202 in the House of Lords of a capitalist country with the sixth largest economy in the world. I can’t remember any other leadership of either the Labour or the Conservative parties holding demonstrations that deliberately imitate the language of street protest, while at the same time having the political clout and financial resources to close down Regent’s Street with a campaign bus on a Saturday afternoon or – as they did in February – hold a rally that erected a temporary stage in Parliament Square in the middle of a Government Security Zone.
Not only is this an appropriation of a form of protest created to oppose power by those who sit in positions of power, but in doing so it subsumes every other protest into its ranks, reducing the multiplicity of campaigns to the simple equation that lent its title to Saturday’s demonstration: ‘Tories out!’ What this simplistic message silences is, of course, what will take their place. Momentum, for one, has been very open about this colonisation of localised campaigns by Labour’s imperial ambitions for power, and it is typical of the naivety of the largely middle-class students who make up its activists that this ambition is accepted at face value. Of course, as marketing companies know, the best salesman is the one who believes in his product; and the first customer of Labour’s sales pitch are the salesmen and women who sell it on the voters’ doorsteps, who organise these demonstrations, who write propaganda about Labour policy, who promote Labour’s ideology in their media outlets, who make nostalgic films about Labour values, who dedicate poems to Corbyn, who invite him onto popular culture platforms, who have elevated him to his current and slightly absurd position as Saviour of the People. Anyone who is critical of this sales pitch or who seeks to challenge its relation to the reality of the product it’s selling is anathematised as an unbeliever – or worse, a Tory – and subject to slanders against them personally and attacks on whatever organisation or group they speak from. As an example of which, for drawing attention to Labour’s complicity in estate demolition ASH has been the subject of repeated attacks from Labour activists individually and collectively almost since we formed over two years ago, and they show no sign of abating.
The evidence that increasing numbers of British voters have fallen and are falling for this illusion of Labour as a social movement is a measure of just how successful it has been as a campaign strategy. Initially adopted in response to the peculiar circumstances of Corbyn’s enormous popularity within the party membership and equally enormous unpopularity among his fellow MPs, it has subsequently turned a necessity into a virtue and embraced the spectacularisation of politics in which the USA leads and instructs the world, and which was pioneered by the fascist and totalitarian political parties and regimes of the Twentieth Century. Like Trump’s Republicans and Corbyn’s Labour, these regimes understood that what the masses want is faith in a Leader, not detailed explanations of policy; subsuming within a collective identity, not the burden of individual responsibility; the comfort of banal slogans, not questioning of political practice; the illusion of ideology, not the inconvenient truths of reality. Anyone who believes that the 184 Labour MPs who abstained from voting against Tory welfare cuts will, upon forming a government, turn around and vote for Corbyn’s increases to corporation tax, or to re-nationalise the railways, post office, water and energy companies, or to build half a million homes for social rent is living under this illusion.
In contrast, anyone who is engaged in trying to dispel this illusion knows that Western democracies – which is to say, the world’s declining capitalist economies – are moving towards a new totalitarianism that is once again looking to the lessons of fascism in how to govern an increasingly impoverished, scared and potentially rebellious population. The Conservative government knows this, and over the past decade and more has quietly gone about effecting our transition to a state built on fear, hate and anger, with unmatched powers of surveillance, a press and media run by corporate interests, and a judiciary and parliament colluding in stripping our human rights. Theresa May’s electoral team tried to promote her as the Leader of this brave new world, but fortunately for us they had the worst possible material for the future they wanted to paint, and one who visibly fell apart under the gaze of the media and questions of the press. Corbyn, by contrast, whose team has been in campaign mode since his election to the Leadership of the Labour party two years ago, has emerged from the General Election not as Prime Minister, but as the Populist Leader the state needs and the terrified masses seem to want. If the press is changing its attitude towards him, it’s an indication that the captains of industry and members of the establishment that run this country no matter who is in power are beginning to think so too. The ruling class of the US has for some time now realised that they can run the most powerful nation in the world through an actor, buffoon or game-show host. I’m beginning to think that the ruling class of the UK is beginning to think so too.
Just as Corbyn’s enormous popular appeal among the masses as Leader of the Labor Party has all but silenced any questioning of the role of Labour councils in demolishing our homes and selling off public land to private developers, so Corbyn as Prime Minister may be just the figurehead the corporate leaders of our economy need to silence opposition to the sell-off of every public asset this country owns. In the same way that the Press and City turned to Tony Blair in the 1990s as the free-market Leader the UK economy needed at the moment of its expansion, so Jeremy Corbyn may be the Leader the nation needs at this moment when that economy is collapsing in on itself, and the British people are discovering our masters have sold all the life jackets to foreign investors.
Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting Corbyn is a fascist, or that he shares the same politics as Trump, or that the UK is a totalitarian state – not yet, anyway, though it is undoubtedly moving towards being one. What I’m pointing to is the increasing spectacularisation of politics in the UK following the US model, in which elections are won or lost on image rather than reality. Of course, politics has always been about image; or rather, politics exists in the gap between image and reality. But just as the gap between the rust-belt workers in the US and the New York property developer they voted for has never been wider, so the gap between the rhetoric of Corbyn and the record of the Labour Party in power – in local authorities, in council town halls, and in the Greater London Authority – has also never been wider. It is essential that the noise of Labour propaganda, of which Saturday’s ‘Tories Out!’ march was an example, does not drown out the reality of the Labour Party’s policies, particularly on housing, and its record in local government.
The belief that the Labour Party will suddenly start representing the working class whose organised resistance to capitalist exploitation it was formed to manage and placate would be laughable if the consequences of that belief weren’t so dire for the millions of people who live on the housing estates Labour councils threaten with demolition, the thousands of small businesses Labour councils are driving out of London, and our continued public ownership of the land Labour councils are selling off to private companies. What is perhaps most worrying about the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn is not only that it is fully supporting this attack on working class homes, businesses and communities, but that under Corbyn’s leadership it refuses even to acknowledge that this is happening. Far from being a politics – as the Labour slogan goes – ‘for the many, not the few’, this is an ideology that deliberately deafens the many to the reality of both its policies and its practices, and tries to silence those who work to expose that reality. As the Leader and embodiment of this ideology, Jeremy Corbyn is complicit in its lies, its deceptions and its social cleansing. He may continue to turn away from us, as he has done for two years now, but we will continue to confront him and his chanting followers with the threat he presents to the working-class communities of Britain.
Between 1946 and 1948, in response to the loss of housing during the Blitz and the return of demobilised servicemen and women, 156,623 pre-fabricated homes were built across the UK. Excalibur estate in Catford, comprised of 178 bungalow homes, is one of these. Located in what is now Lewisham, the borough had suffered some of the highest loss of housing from bombs, and these quickly erected homes were initially anticipated to be temporary housing, to be replaced later by council estates. Many of them were, but some have survived into the Twenty-first Century, and contain communities that have lived together since the end of the Second World War. Now they are under attack by councils, housing associations and developers, eager to cash in on the rocketing value of London land.
In 2002 Lewisham Labour council met with residents to propose the stock transfer of their homes to a housing association. In 2004 Savills estate agent, which is advising councils on estate regeneration schemes across London, produced a report saying that none of the existing homes were up to the Decent Homes Standard. In 2005 Lewisham council estimated the cost of refurbishment at £65,000 per home, and argued that it would be too expensive to bring the homes up to this standard. Residents were indignant at the council’s description of their homes as ‘indecent’, and began a campaign to save the estate from privatisation.
Initially 93 per cent of residents voted for the conservation of the estate, and they were supported in this by both the Twentieth-century Society and Historic England. However, they were only able to get 6 buildings on the estate listed. Even this was described by the Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, as ‘perverse’. The estate had been managed by a Tenant Management Co-operative since 1990, but when it continued to oppose the proposals it was dissolved by the council and replaced. In 2010 the Homes and Communities Agency said that it would not provide funding for a stock transfer, and Lewisham council announced the ‘regeneration’ of the estate as the only financially viable option.
It recently emerged that Steve Bullock, Lewisham’s elected Mayor, is one of the directors of the company Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, which had lied about the funding for the Millwall FC stadium Compulsory Purchase Order issued by Lewisham Labour Council on behalf of the off-shore property developer Renewal (which funds the Foundation). Another director, who subsequently resigned when his involvement was exposed, is the Leader of Southwark Labour Council, Peter John, OBE. Among its many incidents of malfeasance, the Foundation wracked up a £1 million debt renting a hall of ping-pong tables from Renewal (which is to say, itself), while making zero income for the past three years.
In 2007 Lewisham Labour council entered into partnership with London and Quadrant housing association, which has its head office in the borough. L&Q is the largest landlord in London, with a turnover of £720 million in 2016, when it merged with the East Thames Housing Group. This February L&Q bought the private land company Gallagher Estates for £505 million. David Montague, the Chief Executive, had a salary of over £355,000 last year. As a registered social landlord L&Q not only enjoys tax breaks but receives funding from the government’s Homes and Communities agency to build affordable housing.
In 2010, following a concerted campaign by Lewisham Labour council and London and Quadrant housing association, which told residents the estate would be demolished and redeveloped and they would be invited to return to new homes, a ballot was held on the question: ‘Are you in favour of the regeneration of the Excalibur estate as proposed by L&Q?’ 56 per cent of residents voted in favour of this proposal. The council started ‘decanting’ residents that year. Since then, 39 homes have been demolished, and their residents moved to places like Rochester, Ashford and Gillingham in Kent. Leaseholders, of which there are 27 on the estate, have been offered £140,000 compensation for their demolished homes, and those who have refused this offer have had their homes purchased by Compulsory Purchase Order issued by the Mayor of Lewisham. Residents have complained that since the regeneration began Lewisham council has run the estate down, withholding maintenance from their homes and refusing to remove fly-tipped rubbish around the estate.
In 2011 Lewisham Labour council granted planning permission for 371 new properties on the cleared land of Excalibur estate, a more than 100 per cent increase in housing density. Their argument for this is that such a large plot of land, covered as it currently is with single-story homes, is insufficiently dense to meet the housing needs of the borough as specified in the London Plan. In the planning application, 143 of these new properties will be for private sale, 35 for shared ownership, 15 for shared equity, and 178 for affordable rent. Secure tenancies in the affordable properties will not succeed to children or partners, so any resident that does return will be the last generation to have a secure tenancy, housing associations by law only able to offer assured tenancies.
Throughout the 2011 planning application ‘affordable rent’ (up to 80 per cent of market rate) and ‘social rent’ (around 30 per cent of market rate) are used interchangeably. However, in the subsequent March 2015 Report on Phase 3 of the Regeneration of Excalibur Estate, the ‘affordable’ component is only once described as being for ‘social rent’ (paragraph 6.4), and this is the only place where it is referred to as such; every other reference is to ‘affordable’ housing. Moreover, under the government’s Shared Ownership and Affordable Housing Programme, L&Q have received public funds from the Homes and Community Agency for the Excalibur estate redevelopment, and none of that funding is for homes for social rent. Under this programme, £4.1 billion of the £4.7 billion allocated for the UK between 2016-21 is for properties for shared ownership, £329 million for Rent to Buy, and the remaining £235 million allocated for sheltered housing. L&Q have refused to answer a Freedom of Information request from the 35% Campaign about their record of converting ‘social’ rents into ‘affordable’ rents.
The architects for the new development are Hunters, who also won the contract for the demolition and redevelopment of the Bermondsey Spa estate in Southwark, where the Labour council, under Steve Bullock’s off-shore developer co-partner and council leader Peter John, is similarly and systematically converting ‘affordable’ into ‘social’ housing. And no wonder. Hunters Architects’ vision of the future shows white, middle-class, professional families sitting suited and booted in their new gardens, oblivious of the working class community that once lived on the land on which their new properties have been built.
On the billboards erected around the estate by Lewisham council and London and Quadrant it says: ‘This development will provide high quality new homes for affordable rent, shared ownership and private sale, and will improve the area for the local community.’ In the Greater London Authority’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, a draft of which was published last December and sent out to estate residents for consultation, the London Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, removed the loss of social housing as a condition under which estate demolition would not go ahead, allowing it to be replaced first with ‘affordable’ housing at existing or higher densities, then with ‘better quality’ housing at existing or higher densities.
Keepmoat builders won the £10.8 million contract for the first phase of the development last year. On the Project Information Board for the development on the land cleared of 39 prefab homes, in the box marked ‘Project Scope’, they write that 57 new properties are being built, 18 for private sale, 5 for shared equity, with 34 marked simply ‘affordable’. The box marked ‘Community Involvement’ is blank.
On the edge of the estate is the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which was set up in December 2014 by Elisabeth Blanchet and Jane Hearn. Fortunately, since it is built on land owned by the Church of England, it is not part of the council’s demolition plans. On Saturday, 24 June the museum hosted an open event at which they showed films by Lucia Tambini and Elisabeth Blanchet that told the history of the estate and the campaign by residents to resist its demolition. Elisabeth had previously got in contact with ASH, and the organisers made the event part of this year’s Open Garden Estates, which we’ve been organising for the past three years. As we have in previous years, we advertised Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture under the title ‘Estates of Memory’. The online architectural magazine Dezeen listed Excalibur estate as one of its ‘top ten picks’ of the Festival, and every ticket on the Eventbrite invitation was taken. A map allowed visitors to take a self-guided tour around the estate, and after the films residents and organisers answered questions about the history of the prefabs and the campaign to save their homes.
The current Moving Prefab Museum replaced a previous version, which was founded in March 2014 in an original prefab as a temporary show-house that visitors could enter and get a sense of what life in a prefab home is like. The museum attracted hundreds of visitors from across London, the UK and the world, who came to get a last look at these unique and vanishing homes. This became a cause of concern for Lewisham council, as the museum became a source of information about how the residents had been tricked into voting for ‘regeneration’, and the house itself contradicted the council’s publicity about the ‘indecent’ state of the homes. The council-elected Chair of the Residents Association started to send Elisabeth threatening letters, windows were broken and objects stolen from the museum. Then in October 2014 the show-house burned down. The fire had been set on a retro record player with an accelerant, and declared by the police to be an arson attack. Even though the door to the house was double-locked – about as strong an indication of the identity of the perpetrator as you could ask for – the police didn’t investigate further.
One of the legal challenges to the redevelopment by campaigners is that the land on which the Excalibur estate is built was donated by Lord Forster, then the Governor-General of Australia, to the London County Council. In 1946 the London County Council promised to return the land to parkland once what was then conceived of as temporary housing was demolished. However, the two records of this covenant on the land, one of which was deposited with Lewisham council, the other at the London Metropolitan archives, have both disappeared. There were, presumably, two parties to the land transfer: the Forster Family and the London County Council. The relevant history of the Forster Family can be accessed in the National Archives, and this suggests that in 1946 the land was held by the Forster Estate Development Company. Their records appear to have been deposited with Lewisham Archives in 1993. This is one of the ‘missing’ documents. The records of the other party to the transfer, the London County Council, have ended up in the London Metropolitan Archives. This is the second ‘missing’ document. However, the Land Registry indicates that the Compulsory Registration of transfer of title in land was introduced in Lewisham from 1900, in which case it should have retained records of the 1946 transfer, including any restrictive covenants. A copy of the deed can be accessed here. There is a risk, however, that you pay the fee and still don’t end up with what you want. We recommend, therefore, that both Lewisham council’s archives and the London Metropolitan Archives are both visited first to establish whether the ‘missing’ documents a) were ever archived, and b) are really missing.
Architects for Social Housing
(With thanks to Nick Barber for his research on the missing covenant)
Part 2 of ASH’s presentation at the conference on Housing Justice, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology as part of the Small is Beautiful festival in Machynlleth, Wales, 8-11 June, 2017.
‘Economics’, meaning the management of a community’s resources, including those of the household, and ‘ecology’, the study of the relationships between organisms and their physical environment, are both derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning ‘household’. Rather than worship at the altar of regeneration, where communities are sacrificed to the demands of profit, we need to realign our understanding of economics with the notion of sustainability – at the centre of which is the household. Sustainability is the interrelationship of the economy, our communities and the environment.
Contrary to what we are constantly told, housing estates are neither inherently flawed in their design and construction, nor come to the end of their natural lifespan. Rather, through the process of managed decline, estates such as Central Hill in Crystal Palace have been deliberately run down by the local authority, in this case Lambeth Labour council. The resulting state of disrepair is then cited by those same authorities to support their argument that there is no alternative to demolition and redevelopment. The subsequent demonisation of council housing by the media as places of crime and anti-social behavior leads to the wider cultural acceptance of the estate demolition programme by the general public.
Above left is a photograph tweeted by the local ward councillor and former Lambeth Cabinet Member for Housing, claiming that mould is one of the reasons Central Hill estate must be demolished. While to the right is a photograph tweeted by PRP, Lambeth’s chosen architectural practice, accompanied with the question: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway?’ In response to this concerted campaign of denigration, here is ASH’s alternative narrative confronting the propaganda of estate demolition with an alternate narrative of estate living:
These last two slides were taken on Central Hill estate at a yearly event ASH organises called Open Garden Estates, which a dozen estates across London hosted last year. Open Garden Estates is designed to challenge the negative propaganda around council estates by inviting the public to visit, walk around and meet the resident communities. It’s also an opportunity for residents to organise and promote their campaigns of resistance to demolition, as well as make contact with other estate communities facing the same threat to their homes.
Case Study 1: Central Hill Estate
To explore what a sustainable future for our housing estates might look like, ASH has spent the last two years working with residents on estates, investigating the social, economic and environmental consequences of estate regeneration, and proposing design alternatives to demolition. Ultimately, we propose ways of improving the homes, landscape and community facilities on the existing estate by providing options for building additional housing on the land without demolishing a single home or evicting a single resident. The plans we produce are put forward by the residents as part of their campaigns to save their homes. We call this model ‘Resistance by Design’.
Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace, south London, was designed by Ted Hollamby and Rosemary Stjernstedt in the 1960s around the existing trees and steep landscape. It is made up of pedestrian ‘ways’ off which pairs of stacked maisonettes are arranged across the hillside, with every home having a view of London to the north, and a courtyard to the south. The estate was therefore designed in relationship both to the landscape and to the environment. The estate, which achieves a high density of housing unusual for such a low-rise estate, is very popular with the residents, who enjoy the variety of private and outdoor spaces. Central Hill contains 472 homes, ranging from 1-bedroom studios to 6-bedroom houses, all of which have been condemned for demolition by Lambeth Labour council. In opposition to this decision, ASH’s proposal retains and refurbishes all the existing homes, keeps as many of the existing trees as possible, while making necessary improvements to the landscape and community facilities, all paid for by the rent or sale of a proportion of the new homes.
ASH’s proposal identifies the potential for between 200 and 240 new homes on Central Hill estate, roughly 40 per cent of the existing estate. In the aerial view above, infill housing (in yellow) is built on unused and derelict sites. Roof extensions (in pink) consist of one or two additional lightweight, pre-fabricated floors on top of some of the existing flats. These are situated around the edges of the estate, where their additional heights will not obscure residents’ views. Any issues that residents may have with the layout or the design of the estate can also be addressed through refurbishment and other design interventions.
The chimneys of the long-abandoned boiler house in the north-eastern corner of the estate are retained, providing a new entry to the estate that celebrates the past as well as looking to the future. The existing concrete structure could be sustainably refurbished to accommodate low-cost workspace on the ground floors, and a new building above could provide up to 28 wheelchair-accessible flats without any negative impact on the neighbouring buildings.
New housing around the edge of the estate is designed to provide up to 50 new homes, improving access into the estate from the main road up to Crystal Palace. A relatively traditional terrace of houses along the road will formally link the estate into the surrounding street pattern.
Light-weight pre-fabricated roof extensions will respond sensitively to the qualities of the existing architecture, estate layout and landscape. At our request, Arups, the engineers for the original estate, provided some preliminary desktop analysis of the existing building structures, and established that it is quite possible to install one or two stories on top of many of the existing buildings. The flat roofs on the remaining homes would have new green roofs.
ASH commissioned Model Environments, a firm of environmental engineers, to produce a report estimating how much embodied carbon is locked into the buildings of Central Hill estate as well as the emissions associated with the energy required for their demolition. They concluded that ‘demolishing a housing estate of some 450 homes will exact a high carbon price on the environment and detracts greatly from London Borough of Lambeth’s contribution to tackling climate change. This report shows that a conservative estimate for the embodied carbon of Central Hill estate would be around 7000 tonnes of CO2 e. Those are similar emissions to those from heating 600 detached homes for a year using electric heating, or the emissions savings made by the London Mayor’s RE:NEW retro-fitting scheme in a year and a quarter.’
ASH also commissioned quantity surveyors Robert Martell and Partners to cost our proposals, who calculated that the construction of 242 new homes and the proposed community facilities, plus the refurbishment of the existing homes and landscape, would amount to around £75 million. If we assume a similar construction cost of around £250,000 per home, the notional cost of rebuilding the 472 existing homes Lambeth council wants to demolish comes to nearly £120 million. That’s before a single new home has been built. And this doesn’t take account of the highly complex site conditions which necessitated one of the most expensive estate projects of its time when originally built, or the significant costs of demolition, which as far back as 2003 the government estimated at £50,000 per home.
Case Study 2: West Kensington & Gibbs Green Estates
There is a direct relationship between who writes the briefs, who designs the master-plans, and the future of our estates. ASH believes the most sustainable approach to the future of our estates is addressed by those who live there and have a direct stake in its future. The brief written by residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in west London made explicit the social, economic and environmental conditions they wished to see in the design for their estate. This placed sustainability at the heart of their People’s Plan.
Residents from West Ken and Gibbs Green have been fighting for 8 years against the demolition of their homes by developer Capco, which has included the estates within their £1.2 billion Earls Court development. In September 2015, ASH was approached by the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes – a Community Land Trust set up by the residents – to produce a feasibility study for additional homes and community facilities, as well as refurbishment and improvements to the existing homes and landscape. This feasibility study is the basis of the residents’ current application for the Right to Transfer the estates from Hammersmith and Fulham Labour council into their own ownership and management.
West Kensington and Gibbs Green are two neighbouring estates of around 760 homes for around 2000 residents. Architecturally, they are composed of a diverse range of building types, from 4-bedroom family houses with gardens to medium-rise, 2-storey maisonettes around communal courtyards and 1- and 2-bed flats in 10-12-storey towers.
One of the first things ASH did was to organise walks around the estate led by the residents, inviting them to show how they used the estate and tell us about the area.
During these walks we were invited inside residents’ homes to get an understanding of each of the typical layouts and how they worked. It was also an opportunity to hear the residents talk about what their homes and the estate meant to them. This revealed one of the key issues at the heart of the current problem: namely, that these are people’s homes that are being destroyed – not simply units for sale or investment, not just commodities to be exchanged, but well-loved places of use, experience and memory.
Over the following months ASH conducted six design workshops that were attended by around 200 residents in total. These allowed us to get to know the residents and to hear what they wanted to see happen to the estate, with the first event specifically discussing what ‘home’ means for them. As we progressed, these workshops allowed us to use a diverse range of media to draw and test ideas with the residents. We also communicated issues like planning and other constraints, as well as our own design ideas, so that residents could get an understanding of the process and a true picture of the options available to them.
ASH took all the information obtained during the course of these workshops and located the comments on a large map. This map grew in size and detail as our knowledge increased and the project unfolded, with green indicating things residents liked about the estate, red for things they didn’t like, and blue for opportunities and solutions.
We also asked residents to draw their routes through the estate, onto which we overlaid views and access boundaries and finally a map, which located all the places which the residents and ASH had identified as locations for improvements, infill or roof extensions.
In response to the residents’ needs and wishes, which we had gathered over the course of around 3 months of workshops, ASH produced specific designs for each identified site, then exhibited these at an event attended by over 60 residents, who were responsible for both presenting and commenting upon the proposals.
ASH’s final design proposes around 250-330 new homes for the estate – an increase of around 40 per cent on the existing homes. These proposals include roof extensions (indicated in pink) and infill housing (shown in yellow), whose interventions were also able to address concerns residents had with the layout of the existing estate.
Refurbishments to the existing blocks included winter gardens and roof extensions to the tower blocks, roof gardens to the existing lower maisonettes, as well as improved insulation, ventilation and passive renewable energy strategies. In addition to a renovated playground, ASH proposed new single-storey housing for elderly and disabled residents, or those who are downsizing due to the bedroom-tax – among other reasons – or in need of supported accommodation. This should in turn free up the larger homes for families that are currently living in overcrowded accommodation elsewhere on the estate. We also proposed converting some of the currently underused garages into workshops, providing income for the estate, as well as low-cost workspaces for residents, also improving the social qualities of this outdoor space. And a new infill block adjacent to an existing tower would provide a new community space on the ground floor, which could open onto Franklin Square for community events.
ASH’s proposals have been costed and a viability assessment produced, and we are confident that the rent or sale of a number of the 250-330 new homes would enable all the remaining homes to be refurbished and all the proposed improvements to the landscape to be paid for. ASH’s model of our design proposals now remains with the residents, who use it to describe the project to visitors – in the photograph above to Green Party candidate for London Mayor, Siân Berry, who as a member of the Greater London Authority has been very supportive of the project.
Case Study 3: Patmore Estate
Adding additional homes to estates, which as these two proposals demonstrate allows an estate to grow in size in a more sustainable way than full demolition and redevelopment, is clearly a long-term project. However, it’s important that the short-term conditions of life on an estate are also addressed and improved where necessary. Severe under-investment, poor management and managed decline all contribute to an increased negative perception of estates both among the residents and in the wider area, facilitating the arguments for their demolition.
To address these issues on the Patmore Estate in Wandsworth, south-west London, ASH is working with the residents to come up with proposals for the refurbishment, re-use and re-appropriation of existing but under-used spaces around the estate. In doing so we hope to come up with a vision for the future of Patmore that helps put it proudly back on the map as the historical heart of the area.
The Patmore Estate is a council estate of around 860 homes owned by Wandswoth Conservative council and managed by the Patmore Cooperative. It currently sits in the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea Opportunity Area, the largest development site in London and, sitting across the Thames from Pimlico, on some of the most valuable land in the world.
Having returned an overwhelmingly positive response to a resident survey a few years ago, the estate is not immediately threatened with demolition. But given its location 100 yards or so from Battersea power station, which is being redeveloped into luxury properties, the estate is in a very vulnerable position. Despite Wandsworth council’s false claims to the contrary, most of the homes are still waiting for the upgrade of their kitchens and bathrooms to the Decent Homes Standard, the roofs are leaking, and all the estate’s community halls have been closed down or privatised over a number of years, depriving the community of both facilities and self-esteem. All of which begs the question: whose opportunity is the opportunity area serving?
Patmore estate is composed of 28 buildings of 3-6 stories arranged around well-designed and maintained courtyards containing children’s playgrounds and landscaped communal gardens. The buildings fall into 11 building types, ranging from terraces of maisonettes to larger L shaped blocks, and are distinguished by their use of materials and balconies.
We started by doing a survey of the existing buildings, meeting residents who showed us around their homes and hearing what they liked about living there as well as the things they thought could be improved. For each building type we identified both refurbishment issues that need to be addressed and heritage architectural elements to be celebrated. The checkerboard balconies are a strong motif that is repeated across the whole estate, and the entrance canopies are a unique and eclectic use of stone and steel.
It became clear that on top of the need for refurbishment of the existing buildings, there was also a need to address a more strategic and infrastructural lack of communal facilities, which currently prevents the estate residents from making the most of the estate, and in particular from coming together collectively. The removal of such facilities is a common tactic used by local authorities to shut communities down in preparation for the demolition of their homes. During the course of our meetings with the residents, residents have identified a whole range of communal activities and facilities they would like to see reinstated or which they are keen to initiate on the estate.
These spaces are already serviced, so could accommodate cooking facilities for the local food bank (which currently distributes on the street); provide a place where people could teach, learn, cook and eat; workshop facilities, dog grooming, recycling, children’s after school clubs, and simply meeting rooms for hire or events. These potential DIY spaces generally extend out from the front of the buildings, around the side in some cases and into the communal gardens, providing excellent opportunities for children to be play overseen, or areas for other outdoor activities. We believe that – more than the production of a report that will make the argument for proper investment in Patmore estate – it is through residents taking control of the future of their homes that the resistance to their demolition and the social cleansing of the community from the area will be most effective.
Over the past few years ASH has explored a number of different strategies for creating possible futures for our social and council housing in this country, and fought for it to be acknowledged as part of a sustainable city that people can afford and want to live in. Collectively, we must continue to argue that it is the sustainability of their communities that is critical to our cities, and that architecture is always political.
Part 1 of ASH’s presentation at the conference on Housing Justice, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology as part of the Small is Beautiful festival in Machynlleth, Wales, 8-11 June, 2017.
One of the biggest obstacles to coming up with sustainable solutions to the housing crisis is that almost everything said about the crisis by the people charged with solving it – knowingly or otherwise – is wrong. On Friday night one of the performers sang a folk song about the poverty of weavers, and I was reminded that I’d recently read that by the early Twentieth Century the English cotton industry produced enough cloth to make a suit of clothes for every man, woman and child on the planet – yet England itself didn’t grow cotton. The raw material came from plantations in the United States of America – a legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade – was woven into cloth by Lancashire weavers, then exported across the world to colonial markets. Yet the only people to make a profit from the cotton’s circulation in what was already a global economy were the British capitalists – the one link in this chain that did none of the labour to produce it. And against the use-value of the clothes as a product, the scale of its production meant its exchange-value as a commodity allowed British capital to undercut and ultimately destroy thousands of local textile industries across the globe. This is an example of the genius of monopoly capitalism, which today has become almost universally accepted as a universal good. It should remind us that capitalism does not only produce markets and goods, it also produces myths about itself. In proposing solutions to the housing crisis, therefore, it’s important to understand and dispel its myths, which as products of our neo-liberal ideology are not deviations from the truth, not misunderstandings of the truth, but deliberate productions of the opposite of the truth. Here are eleven myths about London’s housing crisis.
MYTH 1.London has a housing crisis
There is no housing crisis, if by ‘crisis’ we mean something that is out of our control. The shortage of housing and the corresponding boom in UK house prices and rents has been carefully prepared and legislated over a number of years to serve the interests and fill the pockets of those who have the most to gain from it, both politically and economically. Part of a wider discourse of crisis by which we are paralysed – including the financial crisis, the deficit crisis, the benefits crisis, the NHS crisis, the education crisis, the population crisis and (the mother of all crises) the environmental crisis – there is in actuality, rather than in the ideology of our society, a class war being waged through housing, and so far it is all going to plan. Far from being out of control, the so-called ‘housing crisis’ is well in hand.
FACTS. The estimated total value of the housing stock in England in January 2017 was £6.8 trillion, having increased by £1.5 trillion in the last three years alone. Equivalent to 3.7 times the gross domestic product of the UK, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth, the housing market now constitutes an economy in itself. £1.7 trillion of that housing stock is in London. According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, 26 of the 100 wealthiest people in the UK listed property as a major source of their wealth; while among the richest 1000 people in the UK there are 164 property moguls with a combined wealth of £143.7 billion. More than 100,000 UK land titles are registered to anonymous companies in British oversees territories like the Virgin Islands. Transparency International has been unable to identify the real owners of more than half of the more than 44,000 land titles registered to oversees companies, but 9 out of 10 of the properties were bought through tax havens.As an example of which, in 1 St. George (above), part of the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea opportunity area, 131 of the 210 apartments are owned by foreign investors, with a quarter held through offshore companies based in tax havens. Nobody is registered to vote in 184 of the properties.
MYTH 2. We need to build more homes to meet housing demand
The housing shortage is a crisis not of supply but of affordability. 56 per cent of London homes failing to meet this criterion in Shelter’s new Living Home Standard. 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. In a survey published in the Guardian in February 2014, it is the high cost of housing, the lack of council housing and the excessive rents charged by private landlords that are the three biggest concerns for residents.
FACTS. London house prices have risen by 86 per cent since 2009, and at an average price of nearly £491,000 in January 2017 now cost fourteen-and-a-half times the average London salary of £33,720. In Inner London that price rises to £970,000. Home ownership in the UK peaked at 71 per cent in 2003 and has been declining ever since, with only 40 per cent of Londoners predicted to own their own home by 2025.Rents on London’s private market have risen by 9.6 per cent in the past two years alone to an average of £2,216 per month for a 2-bedroom home, double the national average. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have predicted that over the next quarter of a century rents will rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty.As of September 2016, a total of 73,000 households in England, including 115,000 children, were living in temporary accommodation.In London alone,250,000 households are currently on housing waiting lists, 240,000 households with 320,000 children are living in overcrowded accommodation, and 53,000 households with 78,000 children are homeless and living in temporary accommodation.
MYTH 3. Building more homes will push prices down
Building more homes does not push house and rental prices down. In May 2016 a study of US cities that increased their housing density showed that, rather than reducing demand and with it prices, it actually increased both. While the law of supply and demand describes competitive markets responding to human needs, London’s financialised housing market, flooded by global capital, is driven by profit margins. Building more properties for home ownership, Buy to Let and capital investment will only push house and rental prices up. Despite this, all the major political parties are agreed that a massive increase in house building is the solution to the housing crisis, with both the Conservative and Labour parties outbidding each other in their promises to build 1 million new homes over the next five years.
FACTS. According to the British Property Federation, 61 per cent of all new homes sold in London in 2013 were bought solely as an investment. Estimates by real estate firm Savills of London’s housing forecast over the next five years shows that for lower-prime properties (£1,320,000) there is a demand for 4,000 units and a supply of 6,500; for upper mainstream properties (£850,000) there is a demand for 7,000 and a supply of 9,000; for mid-mainstream properties (£490,000) there is a demand for 14,500 and a supply of 13,250; for lower mainstream properties (£315,000) there is a demand for 17,000 and a supply of just 100; and for sub-market rent properties there is a demand for 20,000 and a supply of 5,700, a shortfall of 14,300.
MYTH 4. There is a lack of land on which to build new homes
Far from there being a lack of land to build on, in December 2016 the top ten house builders in the UK were sitting on land with planning permission sufficient to build over 404,000 new properties, and held option agreements with landowners on enough land to build at least another 480,000. Land, not materials or labour, determines the value of property, and the less there is of it the more it costs, and the higher the price of the properties built on it.
FACTS. Contrary to what we’re constantly told,the UK is anything but crowded. 10 per cent of England’s land is classified as urban; just 2.27 per cent of that land is built upon, and only 1.1 per cent is used for homes. Twice as much land, nearly 2 per cent of England, is taken up by golf courses as by housing. Persimmon Homes, currently sitting on land for 92,400 homes, built just 5,171 new properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from £144 million in 2011 to £774.8 million in 2016. Taylor Wimpey, sitting on land for 77,805 homes, built 14,112 properties last year, and its pre-tax profits have risen from just £89.9 million in 2011 to £732.9 million in 2016. The Barratt Group, sitting on land for 71,351 homes, built just 7,180 properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from £42.7 million in 2011 to £565 million in 2016. And the Berkeley Group, sitting on land for 42,125 homes, built a mere 3,350 properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from £136.2 million in 2011 to £530.9 million in 2016. In total, the pre-tax profits of the four largest builders in the UK – who are also the four largest land-bankers – were over £2.6 billion in 2016, a more than six-fold increase in just five years; yet between them they built less than 30,000 homes in the UK last year.
MYTH 5. Council estates are breeding grounds for crime
There is no causal relationship between the architecture of post-war council estates and anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, crime or rioting, as both central government and local authorities claim as justification for their demolition and redevelopment. Housing poverty, cuts to benefits, lack of maintenance, closure of amenities, aggressive and racist policing and stereotypes propagated by our press and media are the cause of social problems on estates – not architecture.
FACTS. Crime rates on council estates are consistently lower than in the surrounding area. Since its regeneration after the 1985 riots, Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham has had one of the lowest crime rates of any urban area in the UK. In a survey of the estate’s residents in 2003, only 2 per cent said they considered the area unsafe, the lowest percentage for any area in London. The estate also has the lowest rent arrears of any part of the borough of Haringey. As the Indices of Deprivation 2015 interactive map shows (above), crime rates on the estate are in fact far lower than in surrounding areas where terraced housing predominates. Not only are estates not ‘breeding grounds’ for anti-social behaviour, crime and drug-dealing, but the close-knit communities that form within them significantly reduce crime rates. Yet Broadwater Farm has been targeted for demolition in the government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy because of its proximity to the 2011 riots, and together with the Northumberland Park and Sky City estates it is to be redeveloped as part of the £2 billion ‘regeneration’ deal Haringey Labour council has made with international property developer Lendlease.
MYTH 6. Social housing is subsidised by the state
Far from being subsidised by the state, the rents on most post-war estates paid off the cost of their construction and debt interest years ago, and are in fact making a profit for councils and housing associations. It is the Right to Buy council homes, the Help to Buy shared ownership properties, the Housing Benefit paid to private landlords so that residents can afford their outrageous rents, the Homes and Community Agency and Greater London Authority grants for housing associations to build so-called affordable housing for private sale, the local authority funding for estate regeneration schemes, and the widespread transfer of public land into private ownership that is being subsidised by public money – not council estates.
FACTS. 25 per cent of the nearly 2 million council homes purchased under the Right to Buy are now being rented out for significantly higher rents by private landlords. A report released in January 2013 revealed that in London 36 per cent of such homes were being rented back from private landlords by local authorities trying to house their ever increasing numbers of homeless constituents. A quarter of the people renting in the UK now rely on housing benefit to meet the cost of their accommodation, and in the year 2015-16 £20.9 billion of public money was spent on housing benefit in England alone. But with 20 per cent of homes now being privately rented compared to just 17 per cent social rented, and with private rents now double social rents in Britain, the bulk of that money goes straight into the pockets of private landlords. Meanwhile, over the next five years the Homes and Communities Agency has promised £4.1 billion for the Help to Buy 135,000 shared ownership homes on estate redevelopments like Woodberry Down (above). These subsidies are available to any household with an income up to £90,000 in London, or £80,000 in the rest of the UK. A further £350 million has been allocated for Rent to Buy. Nothing is available for homes for social rent.
MYTH 7. We need to build more affordable housing
So-called ‘affordable housing’ is unaffordable to the estate residents whose homes for social rent, at around 30 per cent of market rate, are being demolished to make way for it. Yet the election manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties are all agreed that ‘affordable’ housing is the solution to the housing crisis. Not one manifesto mentions either building housing for social rent or stopping the loss of homes for social rent through estate demolition.
FACTS. Targeted by the London Mayor at 35 per cent of new developments, affordable housing now includes 25 per cent shared ownership on properties which in Inner London are selling for around £700,000 for a 2-bedroom home; rent at up to 80 per cent of market rate; and London Living rent at a third of the borough’s average household income with the additional obligation to save for a mortgage. This Living Rent equates to £680 per month per person in the borough of Haringey, £770 in Hackney, £895 in Lambeth, £950 in Southwark, and £1,170 in Tower Hamlets. Even then, not a single London borough met its affordable housing quotas in 2015, with just 13 per cent of new homes approved as such – a 24-year low – largely due to builders and developers claiming anything higher was ‘financially unviable’. In the year ending March 2016, just 6,550homes for social rent were built in the whole of England.
MYTH 8. New-build developments are better quality
Far from being high quality, new developments are increasingly of significantly poorer quality than the estates demolished to make way for them. And rather than improving their living standards, studies show that estate redevelopment consistently has a negative effect on the mental, physical and economic well being of residents, with housing costs dramatically increased for those who are re-housed, and communities increasingly socially cleansed from developments they cannot afford either to rent or buy.
FACTS. Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, built by Wandle, a housing association supported by the London Mayor, is being pulled down after only six years due to water damage. Orchard Village in Rainham, still being built on the demolished Mardyke estate by the Clarion Housing Group, is already facing demands by residents to be demolished because of its numerous failings. Portobello Square in Notting Hill is facing the same. And Oval Quarter in Brixton (above), where 503 properties for private sale and shared ownership were built on 305 demolished council homes on the Myatts Field North estate, has had residents complaining of numerous problems, including noise pollution, rodent infestation, faulty wiring, water leaks, a lack of hot water, a lack of internet and phone access, a lack of servicing that has been contracted out to private providers, a lack of facilities for residents with disabilities, numerous breaches of health and safety regulations, as well as being locked into 45 year contracts with private power company E.ON that has driven many of them into fuel poverty. While leaseholders offered on average £144,500 for their demolished homes have been unable to return to the new development, this month a 2-bedroom apartment in Oval Quarter was being advertised for £595,000.
MYTH 9. Estate refurbishment is financially unviable
Far from being financially unviable, the refurbishment of estates has repeatedly been demonstrated to cost a fraction of their redevelopment, with none of the damage to the environment caused by their demolition. Local authorities have not been forced to demolish estates because cuts to their budgets by central government mean they can’t afford to maintain them. Like austerity, London’s programme of estate demolition is a political choice, not an economic necessity.
FACTS. In the report commissioned by Southwark Labour council but not presented to the Cabinet in 2005, Levitt Bernstein Architects showed that, at around £186 million, the cost of refurbishing the Aylesbury estate in Camberwell up to the Decent Homes Standard was between 41 and 58 per cent that of the estimated cost of its demolition and redevelopment (above). Since then Southwark council has spent £46.8million to acquire, demolish and redevelop a mere 112 of the estate’s 2,700 homes at a cost of £417,000 per home. This compares with the £20,260 per home the council has spent refurbishing 611 homes up to the Decent Homes Standard elsewhere on the estate.
MYTH 10. Estate regeneration is the solution to the housing crisis
Estate regeneration is not a solution to the housing crisis, it is producing that crisis. The motivation for demolishing and redeveloping estates is not the housing of London’s rising population at higher densities in more and better homes, but to provide investment opportunities for global capital and the enormous profits to be made from building high-value properties on some of the most valuable land in the world. Not only is there no housing crisis, but it’s not about housing.
FACTS. On the Silwood, Bermondsey Spa, Elmington, Wood Dene, Heygate, North Peckham and Aylesbury estates a net loss of 4,275 homes for social rent has resulted from Southwark Labour council’s regeneration programme. However, the 3,168 demolished homes for social rent it has promised to rebuild are in the process of being turned into ‘affordable’ rent, bringing the actual loss of homes for social rent to 7,442. In addition, the Greater London Authority has estimated that Southwark will lose an additional 2,051 homes for social rent as a direct result of regeneration schemes the council is currently proposing on the Old Kent Road opportunity area, making the loss of homes for social rent closer to 9,500. That’s in just one London borough. According to our own research, as of June 2017 there are 155 London housing estates that are under threat of demolition, privatisation or social cleansing by Labour councils alone (above).
MYTH 11. To increase their housing capacity estates must be demolished
Estates do not have to be demolished to increase their housing capacity. Through our design alternatives for infill and roof extensions on Knight’s Walk, West Kensington, Gibbs Green, Northwold and Central Hill estates, Architects for Social Housing has shown that we can increase their housing capacity by up to 45 per cent without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single resident, while at the same time generating the funds from the rent or sale of new builds to pay for the neglected refurbishment of the estate.
FACTS. Details of some of ASH’s design alternatives to demolition are discussed in the second part of our presentation, ‘Sustainable Estates’.