‘A conservative estimate for the embodied carbon of Central Hill Estate would be around 7,000 tonnes of CO2e, 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 retrofitting scheme in a year and a quarter. Annual domestic emissions per capita in Lambeth are 1.8 tonnes. The emissions associated with the demolition of Central Hill Estate, therefore, equate to the annual emissions of over 4,000 Lambeth residents.’
Report by Model Environments on behalf ofArchitects for Social Housing
In the new year ASH visited Park Hill Estate in Sheffield. We went to look around the estate and see the renovations. Park Hill has often been compared to London’s Robin Hood Gardens, which unlike Park Hill was refused listing by English Heritage, and we wanted to see why one building had been saved for renovation and the other is to be demolished. We also wanted to see what the consequences of that renovation were for residents, both past and present. Above all, though, we wanted to visit Tent City, the homeless camp that had been set up there in October 2016. The first thing we saw, on the site where the tents had originally been pitched, was a Notice to Leave from Sheffield City Council, stapled to a stake in the ground. The deadline was dated a few days previous, but the camp hadn’t gone, just moved around the corner to one of the courtyard lawns between the west and south blocks of the estate. There we met Anthony Cunningham, the organiser of Tent City.
He told us he wants to draw attention to the poor condition of the various homeless shelters in the city. The reason so many people were living in Tent City, he said, is because the hostels were full of drugs and violence, and they felt safer here, in tents on an empty housing estate, than they did either in the shelters or on the streets of Sheffield. Homeless people had walked from as far away as Manchester and Newcastle to come here. He told us even the council’s housing officers were sending people they couldn’t house to Tent City. Anthony also wants to draw attention to the amount of money the homeless charities are receiving from the council and various other grants, and question how it’s being used. ‘If they’re doing the job they’re being paid to do’, he asked, ‘why does Tent City exist?’ It’s a reasonable question, which neither Sheffield City Council nor the homeless charities have yet answered.
While we were talking to Anthony a woman arrived with some hot soup she’d made for the camp. The previous night she’d brought some hot chocolate. She was responding to the videos Anthony releases on social media every day asking for food, water, clothing, blankets, cardboard to stand on, wood for the fire, camping equipment, and everything else you need to survive outdoors through a Sheffield winter. Beside a metal brazier the camp’s Christmas tree was still up, decorated with strands of tinsel. At the entrance to the camp, hung across one of the tents, a bed sheet carried the message: ‘Don’t make our homeless homeless’. On the floor of the food tent a cardboard sign said simply: ‘No more Death.’
We spent the next three hours walking around the estate, photographing the buildings and talking to the people we met. When we got back to London we made contact with Anthony, and over the past month we’ve done our best to publicise his campaign through our networks. This is what we saw and have learned since about what’s happening on Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate.
Park Hill Estate was completed in 1961, providing 995 council homes, 74 garages, 31 shops, 4 pubs, a laundrette, community centre, social club, doctor’s and dental clinic, chemist, infant and primary school, butcher’s, baker’s, newsagent, fish & chips shop and 12 caretakers for a community of around 3,000 estate residents. The four blocks, built on a slope falling northwards, rise from 4-storeys in the south to 13 in the north, maintaining an even roof level across the whole complex. The brick cladding infilling the concrete frame passes through four shades from dark brown at the bottom to pale ochre at the top, reflecting the surrounding architecture on Park Hill. The young architects were Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, under the supervision of John Lewis Womersley, Sheffield Council’s City Architect. Construction began in 1957, and was completed in four years at a total cost of £2.2 million.
One of Park Hill’s innovations, revolutionary for the time, were the ‘streets in the sky’ that run alongside the flats every three floors, beginning at the first, and facing into the interior courtyards. Designed to imitate the streets of the terraced housing that was demolished to make way for the estate, and even given the old street names for familiarity, they were wide enough for milk floats to deliver their bottles to residents’ front doors, as well as collect their rubbish. And because all but the highest of the three ‘streets’ connected at some point to the ground as they went up the hill, residents were not dependent on lifts to get in and out of their homes. Another, even more important decision, was that neighbours on the old terraces were given flats next door to each other on the new estate, allowing the familial networks that bind a community together to continue. That community was working class, largely employed in Sheffield’s thriving steel industry.
However, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, British Steel lost £1 billion on a £3 billion turnover in 1980-81, and a sixth of Sheffield’s workforce, around 40,000 people, lost their jobs. Unemployment in the city as a whole reached 15 per cent in 1984. The 1977 Housing Act, which provided the first statutory definition of homelessness, meant local councils now had the duty to house the city’s most vulnerable people, and many of them ended up on the Park Hill Estate. From being home to a working-class community, Park Hill Estate became a dumping ground for the victims of Thatcher’s brave new world.
Near the estate’s south block we were approached by a homeless man living in Tent City. He told us openly he was a junkie, but insisted that he always disposed of his needles after use, and helped make the area safe for other users. He was trying to get allocated housing from the council’s rapidly diminishing stock, but they wanted to split him up from his girlfriend and two kids, and wouldn’t give him a home they could live in together. He told us that, after many years of struggle, he was in the mental frame to kick his addiction, but needed a home, and that this was the biggest obstacle to him getting his life and family back together. He didn’t ask us for money.
In 1998 Park Hill was given Grade II listing by English Heritage. The last remaining residents were evicted in 2003, and the following year Sheffield City Council, under Bob Kerslake, transferred the entire estate to property developer Urban Splash for the nominal sum of £1. Following his knighthood two years later, Sir Bob Kerslake went on to become Chief Executive of the government’s Homes and Community Agency in 2008, and Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government in 2010. In 2015, as the newly ennobled Baron Kerslake of Endcliffe in the City of Sheffield, Lord Kerslake became Chair of Peabody housing association, which this month merged with Family Mosaic, and now manages a combined portfolio of 55,000 homes.
In 2006 Sheffield City Council granted planning permission on the land for 634 new homes for private sale, 40 available under a shared ownership scheme, and 200 for rent through Great Places Housing Group, one of the UK’s largest landlords, which owns or manages 18,465 homes. In 2007 the estate’s schools, shops and housing office were demolished, and in 2008 Urban Splash began Phase 1 of the renovation of the north block on a proposal for 257 apartments for private sale, 56 flats for rent, and 12 units for shared ownership, plus 30,000 square feet of commercial space. At the insistence of Urban Splash, the development agreement between them and Sheffield City Council has been withheld from public scrutiny.
Having incurred pre-tax losses of £15.4 million for the year ending 31 March 2012, Urban Splash announced in August 2013 that it had formed a joint venture with property developer Places for People to complete the renovation of the north block. The deal, which followed Urban Splash selling its new partner 654 of its other properties for £77 million, also meant that Places for People, which has assets in excess of £3 billion and manages more than 150,000 homes, is now the purchaser of last resort on Park Hill’s new flats in the event of market failure. The following month Sheffield City Council was accused of having spent £2.8 million of council funds since 2005 to keep the project afloat.
Renovation of the north block of Park Hill Estate was undertaken by architects Hawkins\Brown, with Studio Egret West as urban designer. Despite its listing, the building was gutted, with only the concrete frame remaining. The bricks from the original walls have been removed and replaced with aluminium sheets painted in bright colours, and the interiors of the flats have been stripped back to the raw concrete frame – which was not exposed in the original structure – reflecting the contemporary fetish for Brutalist architecture.
Part of the mechanism by which Brutalist estates are emptied of their social content as housing for the working class is this fetishisation of form and material. But this sensory fetish, appealing to both sight and touch, is only preserved and revealed for middle-class appreciation at the cost of a fundamental change in the function of the building, whose ‘essence’ the raw concrete is now, supposedly, revealed to be: no longer as the material structure of mass-produced social housing for the working class, but as the object of middle-class aesthetic pleasure for those few who have eyes to see (and can afford to live in the renovated estate). The fetish is always formed as compensation for a lack (in the fetishist) and absence (in the fetishised): for the foot fetishist it’s the woman he daren’t see whole; for the collector of ‘primitive art’ it’s the colonisation of the people it was stolen from; and for the contemporary aesthete of Brutalism it’s the working class community whose eviction from the renovated housing he refuses to see.
Phase 1 of the renovation of 78 flats in the north block at Park Hill Estate was completed in 2012. 26 of these flats were offered to social tenants, with the other 52 going on sale for between £90,000 and £150,000. The entire lower three floors of the block have been rented as commercial space. In 2013 the renovated block was nominated for the Stirling Prize, which is the apotheosis of this fetishism. It’s for this reason that the middle classes have so much invested in such prizes, not only financially but psychically. Social cleansing is conducted through an ideological mechanism that allows the beneficiary not to see what is right in front of their nose, a moral myopia that turns its gaze from the poverty and violence on which those previously denigrated, now suddenly beautiful concrete beams are exposed to their dazzled eyes.
The sales office was closed when we were there, but outside we began talking with a middle-class man, originally from London, who was eager to discuss the estate. He was visiting his daughter, who had recently bought one of the new apartments. We chatted amiably about the renovations, the recasting of the concrete balustrades, and other formal aspects of the block. We asked him if he knew about the tenancy range on the refurbishment, and he said ‘mixed’. Then we asked him whether he was aware of the Tent City for the homeless at the other end of the estate. He was, and said he had ‘every sympathy with their plight’. He was a nice bloke, but saw no correlation between his daughter’s purchase of her new home and the people living in tents surrounded by 600 empty council flats a couple of hundred yards away.
The total number of flats on Park Hill Estate will be reduced from 995 to 874, of which 300 have been earmarked as ‘affordable’. Transform South Yorkshire, the Government’s former Housing Market Renewal Agency (with £13.5 million), the Government’s Homes and Community Agency (£24.8 million) and English Heritage (£0.5 million) have so far committed a total of £38.8 million of public money to the £130-135 million of private money invested in the renovation. In response to a Freedom of Information request, Sheffield City Council have revealed that, as of February 2013, 26 homes for social rent were made available in the renovated north block, with a further 30 homes for social rent promised in the future.
These 56 flats comprise the entire rental component of the block, and raise the question of how many are actually for ‘affordable’ rent. With government subsidies now only available for the latter, housing associations are systematically converting social rents into affordable rents, with 76,259 converted across the UK in the three years between 2012 and 2015. Under the Homes and Communities Agency’s Affordable Homes Guarantee Programme 2013–17, Great Places Housing Group, in their end of year report 2015, boast of bringing 900 homes to start on site over this period. They make no mention of homes for social rent. But whether for social or affordable prices, of the 670 remaining households that were ‘decanted’ from Park Hill Estate, by February 2013 only 18 former residents had returned.
In November 2015 architects Mikhail Riches were awarded the contract for Phase 2 of the renovation, to the northern half of the west block. This will see 200 more homes and 27,000 square feet of commercial space made available to buy and rent. In March 2016, following the award of £1 million of government funding, Artspace announced that it will relocate to a new art complex made up of galleries, studios and workshops, to be housed in the estate’s east block. And in October 2016 a revised contract between council and developer agreed – however unlikely this may be – that the renovation of the estate will finally be completed in 2022, with the remaining three blocks earmarked for 330 housing units for students from Sheffield’s Hallam University, a further 210 private apartments, plus more commercial space.
As part of what property developers call ‘place-making’, a working-class tragedy has been re-branded as middle-class marketing strategy for Park Hill Estate. Against a backdrop of Sheffield’s industrial past, Urban Splash has transformed a line of estate graffiti (first editing out the name of the addressee, Clare Middleton) into a Tracey Eminesque neon sign which they use to promote the regeneration of Park Hill Estate for their middle-class clients. The words ‘Will you marry me?’, written on one of the bridges between the renovated north block and the old west block, becomes an invitation to join the shiny new vision of Sheffield the transformation of Park Hill represents – no longer as the heartland of steel production in the North of England, but as a call centre for foreign-owned companies.
The writer of the graffiti, Jason, who was abandoned by his dad, sexually abused in homes as a child, and whose girlfriend was warned off by social services from marrying him and subsequently died from cancer, now out of work and broke, contacted Urban Splash about their use of his message to his dead girlfriend. ‘You’re making all this money out of my graffiti and I’m homeless. Can you give me a flat?’ Urban Splash didn’t bother to respond. Instead it has been left to an activist from Sheffield, Alice Carder, to start a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to house Jason. On her Just Giving page she writes: ’This could be another sad story of profit over people. Or it could be one of human kindness, love and people power.’ Urban Splash, which last year reported total returns of £14.6 million on a £25.1 million turnover, has not donated to the fund.
In October 2016 Sheffield’s homeless set up Tent City on land at the south end of the estate’s west block. The camp, which initially gave shelter to around 20 people, has received widespread support from the people of Sheffield in response to its social media campaign. Shops and cafes have donated food, drinks and wooden pallets to keep people off the muddy ground, and one company even installed portable toilets in the camp – until Sheffield City Council threatened to fine them if they weren’t removed. They subsequently issued Tent City a ‘Notice to Leave’ the land by 1 January, 2017. According to figures released that month by the Department of Communities and Local Government, the council has 737 local authority-owned homes sitting empty this winter. Since Park Hill Estate technically belongs to Urban Splash, it isn’t clear whether this includes the more than 600 homes on the estate that have sat empty for the past 14 years. Sheffield City Council additionally threatened the as-yet-unidentified defendant with up to £2,000 in legal fees if they did not vacate the land on which the west, south and east blocks of Park Hill Estate have stood empty since 2003.
In response to these threats the camp moved from its original site to a lawn on the courtyard between the west and south blocks, providing better shelter from the icy winds on Park Hill. There are currently around 30 homeless people living on the site. On 13 January the defendant, now identified as Anthony Cunningham, was issued with a ‘Notice of Trespass Hearing’, for which he was fined with a £355 issue fee, and instructed to appear at Sheffield County Court on 25 January, 2017.
The organiser of Tent City, Anthony Cunningham grew up on Park Hill Estate, and has served in the British Armed Forces. He worked for a year doing outreach for the homeless and vulnerable in Sheffield, during which he experienced how ineffectual the city’s hostels were, and now wants to open a night shelter in the city centre. He has started a petition that has so far collected 1,700 signatures out of a target of 2,500, which when reached he will present to the other project leaders at a scheme called L.I.F.E (a new beginning). He’s also spoken of raising funds for a derelict building on Duke Street, which runs along the east boundary of the estate, refurbishing it through the offers of voluntary work he’s received from builders, and turning it into a shelter.
When we met Anthony on Park Hill Estate and listened to him tell us about Tent City and what he hopes to achieve, we noticed how clean and ordered the camp was, with no rubbish in sight. About three hours later, as we were taking some final photos, we ran into him again, walking around the estate on his own as night fell picking up rubbish. He said he didn’t want the press turning up and accusing the homeless of creating a hazard, but he also wanted to make it safe for any users by cleaning up used needles. At ASH we don’t usually focus on individuals in campaigns, but we thought Anthony was a bit special and took this photograph of him.
Cathedral Archer Project
At the other end of our estimation, Tim Renshaw, the CEO of homeless charity Cathedral Archer Project, testified at the hearing in Sheffield County Court on 25 January. In his statement he condemned Sheffield Tent City on the grounds that, while it may be a ‘human response’ to homelessness, ‘human behaviour’, he said, means it isn’t the answer. By this he implied that homelessness isn’t caused by poverty, unemployment, the decimation of Sheffield’s industries, cuts to benefits and public services, or the demolition of housing people can afford to live in, but by the behaviour of the homeless. It didn’t surprise us to learn that Tim Renshaw is a former priest and curate: God being both perfect and omnipotent, the religious have to see suffering as an individual’s moral failing, which is why the government pays them so much to keep telling us homelessness is our own fault. According to Father Renshaw, however, the human behaviour at fault is not that of the government cutting funds for social housing, councils handing public land over to private developers, builders making a fortune on huge profit margins, or investors getting rich selling luxury apartments – it’s ours.
Nor were we surprised to discover that, in addition to its numerous other sources of income, the Cathedral Archer Project, which in 2016 registered a turnover of £661,530 (up £216,440 from the previous year) and declared assets of £327,540, receives a £30,000 grant from Sheffield City Council. As a Christian, Father Renshaw will forgive us for believing that his testimony in condemnation of Tent City was the quid pro quo for his 30 pieces of silver. Follow the money and you’ll find the corruption, and it inevitably leads all the way up to God’s pearly gates.
Helped by the reverend’s testimony, Sheffield County Court has granted Sheffield City Council an interim possession order for ‘Tent City’, giving them power to evict the camp within 24 hours. This means the more than 30 homeless people living there will be asked to leave at the end of a police baton and the camp demolished. This, apparently, is because the Labour council, according to Jayne Dunn, the Cabinet Member for Housing, ‘doesn’t think it is a safe place to stay’. More specifically and to the point, she wants homeless people to ‘get support and accommodation from established services’ – which is to say, from charities like the Cathedral Archer Project, which without the patronage of the homeless wouldn’t be making the large sums of money they do.
In addition to the £30,000 grant from the council, the charity received £388,842 from the Big Lottery Fund in 2010, £30,000 from Lloyds Bank in 2010, a further £60,000 in 2015, £15,000 from the South Yorkshire Police in 2014, and £75,000 from the Henry Smith Charity in 2015. Just as with the evicted residents whose homes Labour councils are demolishing up and down England, the homeless of Tent City are a lucrative source of income for the charities that claim these considerable sums in their name; and their eviction from Tent City not only makes them homeless again, but allows property developers Urban Splash to continue to keep over 600 council homes empty, as they have done for the past 14 years, while they work out how to make the greatest returns on its renovation. Council, developer, charity, law court, police: every link in the chain of social cleansing doing its job – including, of course, the architects.
Visions and Revisions
One of the most intractable problems ASH faces is convincing residents facing the regeneration of their estate – whether through renovation or demolition – that the new homes promised by the council are not being built for their benefit but for an entirely new clientelle of mostly private buyers and renters. We know the council is lying; the council know they’re lying; but persuading residents that local authorities – and Labour councils no less – are deliberately trying to make them homeless means challenging everything they’ve ever believed about the public sector and, for many of them, the Labour Party.
What makes Park Hill Estate so important as a case study is that we can follow its history from its beginning in the great council housing schemes of the 1960s; see the reasons for its decline in the 1980s – not, as we are constantly told by politicians, because of its architecture, but because of lack of maintenance and the changes to its use and resident demographic; look at the economic and political forces behind the decision to transfer its housing stock to a private developer; reveal the role of both housing association and central government in converting what is left of its social housing into affordable rents; place its renovation and re-branding for a middle-class clientelle in the context of the wider regeneration of Sheffield from an industrial into a service economy; expose the collusion of council, law court and charity in keeping its hundreds of empty homes free of the city’s homeless for over a decade; all the way through – if not to its end – then to a pretty accurate idea of what’s coming next. As supporting cast in this history, the role of architects in dressing up the social cleansing of a community of 3,000 residents as a purely formal exercise in building renovation has nevertheless been key to its acceptance by the public. It’s not for nothing that architects have been called ‘the funeral directors of the working class’. If you want to know about the visions and revisions of estate regeneration, look at Park Hill.
And where ASH has so far designed alternative proposals for estates threatened with demolition, Park Hill also demonstrates that listing estates is no solution for the communities that live on them. On the contrary, while residents threatened with the demolition of their homes are more likely to put up resistance, the renovation of their homes up to the high standards required of a listed estate is an effective means of decanting them. So while London’s Robin Hood Gardens, designed by Jack Lynn’s former colleagues Alison and Peter Smithson, was not listed, and is to be demolished and replaced with another generic example of the new London vernacular designed by architects Haworth Tompkins, its neighbour, Balfron Tower, was listed by Historic England, and is now being renovated by Poplar HARCA housing association to standards that no former resident can afford to pay – either as leaseholders unable to afford the cost of renovation (estimated at £137,000 per flat), or as tenants unable to afford the hugely increased rents, with no social housing provided. As both Balfron Tower and Park Hill show, listing an estate is merely another means of socially cleansing the resident community and freeing up the renovated building for a new, middle-class clientele of buyers and renters.
These lyrics by Morrissey, scribbled on a wall of the estate, were originally about a cemetery, but they serve just as well as an epitaph for the evicted community of Park Hill, whose history and memory the renovated and fetishised Brutalism of the new luxury apartments serves to erase.
Justice for Tent City
Architects for Social Housing calls for justice for Tent City in Sheffield County Court on Friday, 3 February on the charge of trespass for giving the city’s homeless a safe place to sleep in the middle of a Sheffield winter. The hearing, in which the council will seek a permanent possession order, is being held in The Law Courts, 50 West Bar, Sheffield, S3 8PH. If you live in Sheffield, please go down and show your solidarity with Anthony Cunningham, protest against the eviction of Tent City, and demand that Sheffield City Council opens the more than 600 homes sitting empty on Park Hill Estate to the homeless of Sheffield, and then refurbished – not for those who can afford to buy homes, as the billboards say, ‘from £100,000’ – but for the 29,444 households that are currently on the city’s housing waiting list.
How much rental revenue has Sheffield City Council lost from allowing more than 600 council flats to stand empty for 14 years? How much from the 995 flats on the original estate? Since Park Hill was handed over to Urban Splash in 2003, the council, which claimed it didn’t have the funds to refurbish the buildings, has lost over 724,000 weekly rents on 1, 2 and 3 bedroom homes. Current rents on the few remaining flats for social rent on the north block are £73.27 per week for a 1-bedroom flat, £89.66 for a 2-bedroom flat, and £103.00 for a 3-bedroom flat. Taking an average weekly rent of £89 per week (based on 1 x 1-bedroom flat, 2 x 2-bedroom flats and 1 x 3-bedroom flat in each 3-storey module) that’s around £65 million of lost revenue. With the £39 million of public money that’s been given to the private development, the council could have had £104 million, around £104,000 per flat – enough to refurbish the estate, and keep Park Hill as council housing. These figures are, of course, rough estimates and have many variables like changing rents, servicing and what little maintenance the council carried out between 1980 and 2003, plus the cost of decanting tenants during refurbishment; but they point to the revenues lost when Sheffield City Council put public housing into private hands, and the financial viability of refurbishing estates when the political will to do so is there. The social cleansing of Park Hill estate is not a financial necessity but a political choice.
It’s impossible to know exactly how much has been spent on the renovation of the north block of Park Hill Estate. The total cost of £40 million listed in the project data in 2010 only covered making the external envelope watertight, with the construction and interior fittings of flats dependent on market sales. And that’s before Places for People were cut into a new financial deal in 2013. As the ‘commercially sensitive’ information of private companies, none of this is available for public scrutiny, even on the renovation of formerly public housing. When the council gave Urban Splash the keys to Park Hill they also gave away their right to scrutinise the financial arrangements that would determine how many of the new homes would be available for private sale, shared ownership, joint equity, affordable or social rent – what Mark Latham, the development manager at Urban Splash, has called ‘remixing the tenures’.
However, taking the figures provided by Sheffield City Council in February 2013 – before Places for People came on board that August – £170 million of private and public money had been allocated to the renovation of the entire estate. With planning permission for 874 units divided between residential and commercial space, that comes to £194,500 per unit. According to the latest prices, the homes are selling for between £100,000 for a 1-bedroom and £150,000 for a 3-bedroom flat – considerably less, in other words, than the cost of refurbishing them. So whatever profit Urban Splash is making out of the project must be coming from the £39 million of public money invested by the various government bodies. It’s not surprising that the thirteen-year project has constantly stalled for lack of funds, or that it has been forced into partnership with a wealthier developer.
The motivations for the renovation of Park Hill Estate are different in degree, therefore, if not in kind, to what’s happening in London, where council estates – whether demolished like Robin Hood Gardens or renovated like Balfron Tower – are being replaced with flats only the very wealthy can afford to purchase. The cost of materials and labour does not increase five times between Sheffield and London, yet the flats on Park Hill Estate, at this level of renovation, would be on sale for between £500,000 and £750,000 in the capital. It’s this mark-up, and not the burden of so-called ‘affordable’ housing quotas, that accounts for the unprecedented profit margins being made by developers and builders. How many homes for social rent could be built with such sums is a question that can only be answered if there is the political will to ask it, but that will is entirely lacking in British politics today.
Ultimately, the blame for what’s happening at Park Hill Estate lies with the withdrawal of funds for council housing by successive governments, both Tory and Labour. But Sheffield City Council’s decision to offload the estate to a private developer, rather than refurbish it for existing residents, can only be explained by an account of where the revenue from the estate’s rents in the 42 years between 1961 and 2003 went. Contrary to the widely-peddled lie that council housing is subsidised by the tax-payer, the £2.2 million cost of building Park Hill Estate, which was low even for 1961, would have been paid off decades ago. But whether because of mismanagement or corruption, the council’s decision has directly resulted in the social cleansing of 3,000 residents from their former homes, the transferal of 1,000 council homes into private hands, and the expenditure of nearly £40 million pounds of public money on private investments. Indirectly, but no less consequently, it has resulted in the obscene sight of a camp of 30 homeless people sleeping in tents through the winter of 2016-17 against a backdrop of 600 empty council homes.
As we publish this article, news has come that at 11am this morning, Monday 30 January – four days before the time agreed at the hearing in Sheffield County Court – South Yorkshire Police, acting on the orders of Sheffield City Council, evicted Tent City from Park Hill Estate. It’s roughly 30 occupants are now homeless again.
I know almost nothing of anarchist theory, but of what little I know there seems to be a problem with what happens afterwards. A little like Jane Eyre’s famous concluding line — ‘Reader, I married him’ — it’s the unwritten bit that follows that will determine whether the love affair was real or just infatuation. But whether the idea is to destroy the power of the state (and refuse to get married) or take power (and abolish marriage as an institution), I don’t understand how that is meant to be done or maintained against the power of the military-industrial complex backed by the wealth of international capitalism. Communism, by contrast, came up with a pretty clear image of the future once their fabled Revolution was brought about, even though so far things haven’t quite gone according to plan — quite the contrary. However, the hope and faith in the Revolution has induced a sort of idealism in communists, who tend to act as if it was always just around the corner, capitalism always in crisis and just about to fall — as it has been, it seems, practically since it reared its ugly head. I have always felt that the contradictions of capitalism are more often to be found in the hope and faith of those predicting its imminent demise than in the economic, political and ideological system that has colonised the entire world.
This hope and faith — terms more appropriate to messianic religious nutters than materialist revolutionaries — leads communists to act in ways that are purely formal approximations of political activity. The latest example was last week’s communist protest outside a Glasgow bar, apparently against Bacardi for being ‘an enemy of Cuba’. If you can’t see the ridiculousness of this you belong in Stalin’s politburo — or worse, on Tariq Ali’s picnic guest list. Quite apart from the Borg-like behaviour of its adherents towards those who don’t toe the Party Line, it’s because of such absurdities that communism has never managed to appeal to the British working class sufficiently to make it a political force in the UK, as it has been, at times, in Germany, Italy and France. As much as communism gains a certain authority from its international scope, and notwithstanding the importance of its critique of capitalism as a global system of exploitation and violence, the British working class, faced with homelessness, unemployment and poverty, and without an apparent alternative to the corruption and capitalism of the Labour Party, are not going to be lured by communists banging on about Palestine, Cuba and Venezuela and thrusting one hundred year-old texts by Lenin in their faces. The failure of communism to increase its followers — even now when there is such a need for a political alternative — is, if not proof, then a strong argument for the truth of this accusation, no matter how unpalatable it may be. The working class of Britain want to be spoken to about solutions to their own sufferings, which however much they pale besides those of the people of Palestine, Yemen or Syria, are theirs, getting worse, and to which no political movement in this country is presenting a solution.
It’s for this reason that anarchists alone, it seems to me, are grabbing the attention of the despised of Britain, the ‘left behind’, the ‘just about coping’, and other euphemisms of capitalism’s victims. Marching, demonstrating, protesting, and all the other out-of-date activities of the Left have become a purely formal, symbolic activity. That is to say, they have become the playthings of the middle-classes. They have neither constitutional reckoning (which is why President Trump really doesn’t give a fuck how many people march against him) nor political threat — not only because of the growing power of the police, army and other security forces, but because, with a few exceptions, the mass of people who march, whether in Washington or London, do so with no intention or ability to use their numbers as a political force. What was once — a long, long time ago — a demonstration of working-class power, has for some time now become little more than a show of disapproval. And politicians with armies at their disposal don’t care about disapproval.
In contrast, the occupation of an oligarch’s empty mansion in Eaton Square last week by the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians is real, not symbolic. The courts, acting with a swiftness that only a billionaire’s displeasure can buy, will have them out of there at the end of the riot police’s batons, but they have pushed back against the occupying force of capital that presides over every aspect of this servile country, and in doing so opened a chink in its armour — a chink we and others may chose to help force open. They haven’t made demands of the corrupt, they haven’t asked someone else to do something about the problem, they haven’t stood around waving flags demanding that a politician in a faraway country who has never heard of them does something he wouldn’t do in a million years and pretended they’re making a difference. They’ve taken direct action — a term that is much used but little understood. Marching, demonstrating, protesting, demanding, petitioning isn’t direct action. Whatever affectivity people might kid themselves into thinking it may have is always mediated through the recipients of their pleas, who really and truly do not give a fuck. If you don’t know and face this, your protest is not only ineffectual bullshit, it is contributing to the spectacle of democracy by which the mass of people in this and every capitalist country are kept politically passive. We are not the 99 percent — they are well in hand, watching TV, playing with their phones, discussing politics online, voting every five years; we are the 1 percent, and acting otherwise is to play your allotted role in the State’s stage management of our protest.
Anarchism may not have a plan for what happens when our three-volume romantic novel is closed and we all walk off into the sunset with Mr. Rochester, but we’re no way near crossing that line. Quite the opposite. And pretending we are is the surest way to turn our Bildungsroman into a Gothic horror. Perhaps anarchism is best understood — it’s how I understand it through watching and participating in the actions of my anarchist comrades — as political action under the yoke of capitalism — which is to say, in the horror story of our present reality.
Finally, anarchists, whether chasing fascist architect Patrik Schumacher down the street, occupying the Aylesbury Estate, smashing the Cereal Cafe, taking Tower Bridge, hanging anarchist and anti-fascist flags over Eaton Square, or setting up a homeless shelter in an oligarch’s empty mansion, really know how to produce an image that captures the imagination of anyone in Britain who may be thinking of throwing off the shackles of capitalism and the blindfold of parliamentary democracy and joining the fight. And under the blanket propaganda that keeps the British electorate in a state of consumerist complacency rising, when required, to xenophobic hatred, this is one of the most important tasks of direct action. I’d suggest that, if communists ever want to turn their Revolution into reality, they should start learning from the anarchists.
After victory for Harrods’ workers organised by United Voices of the World, and the halt to the compulsory purchase order on Millwall Football ground and the surrounding estates and businesses by the campaign of local resistance, the occupation of 102 Belgrave Place, which has been reported around the world, is our third victory in London in 2017. And we’re still in January.
Ivy House, a private hostel for homeless families by Manor House tube station, stands directly opposite the former Woodberry Down Estate, where 1,980 council homes were demolished when the current Hackney Mayor, Philip Glanville, was Cabinet Member for Housing. According to the Woodberry Down masterplan, which was granted planning permission by Hackney Labour Council in February 2014, these are being replaced with 3,292 luxury apartments for private sale, and 2,265 so-called ‘affordable’ units – that is, up to 80 per cent of market rate – of which a mere 1,088 have been promised for social rent. These proposed tenancies, however, are dependent upon future viability assessments – which means the profit margins of the developers.
Woodberry Down is being redeveloped by property developers Berkeley Homes and Genesis housing association, which according to Hackney Labour Council is responsible for delivering over 1,900 homes for social rent and shared ownership. However, in July 2015 Neil Hadden, the chief executive of Genesis, declared: ‘We are not able, or being asked, to provide affordable and social rented accommodation to people who should be looking to the market to solve their own problems.’ The Berkeley Group, which has the highest profit margins of any builder in the UK, recorded a 34 per cent rise in pre-tax profits to £392.7 million in the six months to the end of October 2016, up from £293.3 million over the same period the previous year. The Chairman of the Berkeley Group, Anthony William Pidgley, CBE, has a total annual compensation, made up of his salary, annual bonus and stock options, of £21.489 million.
Former council tenants on Woodberry Down estate who moved into the Genesis homes have complained that they have fewer rights as housing association tenants, receive worse service and pay much higher bills. And there are reports – particularly from pensioners and low-income families – of tenants having to go into debt just to afford the heating, or of moving out altogether because they cannot afford their increased rent, service charges and utility bills.
The women in the hostel across the road live in single bedsits with their children, and although Ivy House is categorised as temporary accommodation some families have been there for more than two years. They are allowed no visitors at any time, day or night, are not permitted to eat in their room, cannot smoke anywhere in the hostel, and are prohibited from using their own bed sheets. CCTV is fitted throughout, and there are regular room inspections by staff. One interviewed mother said: ‘I feel like I’m in a prison.’ Their entire Housing Benefit goes to the privately-owned hostel.
Ivy House, which has 97 bedsits over 2 floors, is owned by Rooms & Studios London, a company set up by business operations expert Danny Edgar and structural engineer and technocrat Zamir Haim. They have 1,500 units for rent across London, and describe the accommodation as being for ‘professionals, students and hostel seekers’. In the three decades they have operated in London the two entrepreneurs have bought, built, refurbished and sold assets worth over £200 million.
Hackney Labour Council currently houses 793 homeless families in hostels like Ivy House, the highest number of any London borough, where a total of 2,733 households, around 8,000 people, live in temporary accommodation, the sixth highest in London. £35 million per year in Housing Benefit is being paid to private landlords like Rooms & Studios London in order to house homeless families in temporary accommodation in Hackney – but it’s being paid by Central Government, not Hackney Council. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Hackney Mayor recently stated he was ‘pleased’ he kept the borough’s hostels open.
Hackney Council isn’t alone. London Labour Councils lead the way in the number of homeless households they place in temporary accommodation, making up 10 of the 13 worst councils and accounting for 37,661 households out of a total of 53,343. That’s upwards of 150,000 people, including 90,000 children, living in temporary housing, bed and breakfasts, hostels and other private accommodation across London. Yet the programme of estate demolition – also led by London Labour Councils – continues.
According to figures released this month by the Department of Communities and Local Government compiled from the 2015-16 data returns of Local Authority Housing Statistics, 5,098 dwellings owned by London Labour Councils (out of a total of 6,139 across the capital) are sitting empty this winter. But in reality, given the number of council estates having their housing stock transferred to private developers and housing associations and then emptied – and left empty for years on end – in preparation for their demolition, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg.
In the face of this housing crisis, Hackney Labour Council has recently announced the extension of its demolition programme to 19 council estates across the borough. This doesn’t include its collaboration with the Guinness Partnership in its plans to demolish Northwold Estate, whose council housing stock was transferred to the housing association. In place of the 19 demolished council estates, Hackney Council has said that it’s going to build 2,760 new homes: 1,360 for private sale, 500 for shared ownership or joint equity – about whose dangers residents are kept in the dark – with 900 homes promised for social rent.
What Hackney Labour Council doesn’t say, however, is how many council homes it will demolish across the 19 estates, how many residents will be made homeless by the demolition of their homes, how many will be able to afford to take up the council’s ‘Right to Return’ to the new developments, how many will be housed in privately-owned temporary accommodation for how many years within the borough, how many will be moved out of the borough under the threat of being declared to have made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ (at which point, following the 2011 Localism Act, the council’s duty of care is now discharged), how many net homes for social rent will be lost to the estate demolition programme, or what guarantees it gives that the 900 homes for social rent it has promised will actually be built now that, with the changes to planning legislation under the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, there are no longer any obligations to do so. And you can understand why.
ASH was recently asked a number of questions about our principles and practices by a member of Momentum, a faction of the Labour Party supporting Jeremy Corbyn that we have been highly critical of in the past because of its support for Labour councils demolishing council estates. Many of the questions we were asked are ones ASH has been asked before; but what made these different was that they were based on consistently inaccurate perceptions about what we believe and what we do. Perhaps it was no more than a provocation; but it was interesting to see so many contributors to our Facebook page respond at such length to the questions, and correct so many of the lies spread about the viability of estate refurbishment by the councils trying to demolish them. One of the things we were asked was ‘What is ASH?’, and I think the discussion that ensued is one of the answers to that question. It seemed to us, therefore, that it might be useful to anyone interested in ASH to publish these questions on our blog along with our answers, which incorporated many of the contributors’ responses.
I’m not really sure who or what ASH is, but these are genuine questions to them or this forum:
1) What is your alternative to estate redevelopment on estates that are past their sell-by date? Do you simply think the council should spend millions on keeping decrepit buildings upright when it would be cheaper in the long run to rebuild? I think many of the tower block demolitions were probably wrong, and no one now suggests removing those still standing, but blocks like Tower Court, where I worked for years as a gardener, clearly needed demolishing as it was covered in cracks. Similarly, I think it strange that you appear to dispute the claim that there is a need for family-sized flats, and your position of not redeveloping appears to leave many families in substandard, too small accommodation.
2) If you accept there is a need for some redevelopment, which I hope you do, how would you finance it? I don’t need to point out that we have lived now through decades of attacks on social housing by central governments, both Tory and Labour, wedded to the ideology of ‘mixed communities’. There is no money for social housing in Hackney. The mayor, Philip Glanville, is clear that their redevelopment is only possible via the sale of significant numbers of luxury flats and providing so-called affordable housing. What is your alternative to this funding? Personally, on Woodberry Down – again somewhere I have known and worked on for 30 years and is now not great housing – I think they could have done far more piecemeal approach, redevelop bits at a time; but fundamentally there were blocks there, like where Skinners School is now, that were cracking up, had no lifts, so no good for mums and the old. Another good example, which I campaigned around initially, was Haggerston West with Carl Taylor. Haggerston East was transferred to CanalSide, who actually did do up the old blocks, knocked some flats together, and that was the option that I would have liked on Haggerston West. However, what was proposed on Haggerston West gave a lot more houses, a lot more flats, and that persuaded the tenants who voted – those that were left – for the council’s scheme. I think they were conned, but, equally, I understand that the kind of money that CanalSide used was not available for the Haggerston West redevelopment, and that that could only have been funded by private housing. Fundamentally it seems to come down to this: you seem to believe that all redevelopment is gentrification as it introduces luxury flats, so does this mean you simply want to keep things static?
3) Where do you think London Borough of Hackney will get money to renovate flats from? By building private infill, as you slightly bizarrely seem to support? I was involved in opposing the council’s infill Estates Plus programme 10 years ago, as the tenants felt it took away their garages and green space. We won, by the way. If you think that the council can simply borrow money I would be very interested to hear of examples where this has happened, as I am unaware and think there are some legal issues, but I may be wrong.
Thank you for your questions, which I’ll try and answer as far as I can:
1) I’m not sure what you mean by estates being ‘past their sell-by date’. Half of London lives in 150 year-old Victorian brick terraces, and we don’t hear calls for them to be demolished. The concrete structures that are consistently described by councils as ‘past their sell-by date’ are nowhere near such a loose definition. You’ll recall that concrete was first used by the Romans, and the structures they used it on are doing pretty well. As the builder on the ASH forum wrote, the cracks that you put forward as evidence that these estates ‘clearly need demolishing’ are nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, like the Labour councillors whose assertions you seem to be basing your judgements on, you don’t seem to understand technically what you’re talking about, and should speak a little less authoritatively on a subject that has such consequences for the homes of thousands of residents.
As for the need for a proportion of families on estates to move into larger flats – or more accurately, flats with more bedrooms – I don’t know where you get the idea that we ‘dispute’ this. In fact, in our critique of these inaccurate judgements about the state of disrepair of council homes justifying their demolition, ASH has addressed precisely this issue in our article on Lambeth Labour Council’s ‘Criteria for Demolition’. You may wish to read this text. Again, a family growing and requiring more bedrooms does not, as you claim, make that accommodation ‘substandard’. On the contrary, the council homes Labour councils are so intent on demolishing are considerably more generous in size than the increasingly reduced space standards guiding new builds.
2) If by ‘redevelopment you mean the demolition of existing council homes and their redevelopment, then no, we do not accept that. If you take the trouble to go onto ASH’s blog, which I hope anyone would before asking us such lengthy questions, you’ll see that our first principle is ‘that increasing the housing capacity on existing council estates, rather than redeveloping them as luxury apartments, is a more sustainable solution to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s social housing during a housing shortage, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house.’ On all the design alternatives to demolition ASH has produced – on Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates – we do not demolish existing homes, which we propose to refurbish, but we always introduce new homes, increasing the housing capacity of the estate by up to 45 per cent. Far from wanting to keep things ‘static’, as you assert – again, based on I’m not sure what – we propose a future for these estates by refurbishing the existing homes, keeping the community together, and adding new homes to extend the life of that community and provide more housing for rising housing demands (as opposed to real estate investments). You can find our designs for each of these proposals on our blog. If you’re genuinely interested in our proposals and how we propose funding them – which so far no council of the Labour Party has been – you can read our 50-page Feasibility Study Report on West Kensington and Gibbs Green.
3) As ASH has said consistently for some time, we believe what you call ‘redevelopment’, which only follows on from the demolition of council homes, is not gentrification but social cleansing, so your ‘seems’, once again, is wrong. I wonder where you’ve got your uniformly inaccurate opinions of ASH from: it sounds like from the Labour Councils whose social cleansing of London’s council estates we oppose. I’m also not sure what you’re trying to convey by your description of our infill proposals as ‘bizarre’, except to try to dismiss them. But if you look at our proposals, they are for both infill and roof extensions, and are a mix of homes for private rent or sale and more homes for social rent, not exclusively ‘private’ as you assert. And they never eat into the green spaces on the estate, as you suggest they have to, but are almost always built on derelict or disused land identified by residents. Again, you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about with these blanket assertions, and I invite you to look at ASH’s proposals for a better understanding.
There are a number of ways in which estates can generate the money for their refurbishment. One of these is by a Right to Transfer to a Community Land Trust, such as is being attempted by the West Kensington and Gibbs Green community. Another might be by setting up a Tenant Managed Organisation and borrowing against, for instance, future rental income, as Cressingham Gardens have suggested as one of several financial models proposed in their People’s Plan. This is up to the individual estate campaigns and residents. What we propose architecturally, which can combine with and compliment these options, is generating funds for refurbishment through the renting or selling of a proportion of the new homes we propose to build on the estates.
But more generally, your assertion that Labour councils are broke and cannot afford to refurbish their estates so they have to be redeveloped is based on a fundamental untruth, which is that refurbishment is too expensive. In fact, quite apart from all the problems of destroying a community, the disruption to lives of decanting an estate, not to mention the social, mental health and environmental consequences of demolition, refurbishment has been consistently shown to cost a fraction of demolition and redevelopment. Far from being the only financially viable option, councils are taking on enormous financial risk setting up special purpose vehicles in such an insecure housing market, and against the advice of people and institutions that have a far more objective understanding of the risks than the easily lobbied amateurs on Labour cabinets. As campaigners at Cressingham Gardens have pointed out to Lambeth Labour Council, tenants rents and service charges are ring-fenced and only allowed to be spent on housing as part of the Housing Revenue Account, and are therefore not affected by the central government funding cuts you mention. As an example, only £200-250,000 of the £1,200,000 the council collects in annual rent from Cressingham Gardens is spent on maintenance and repairs. And even if SPVs were the only way councils can raise the money they have squandered through mismanagement of the housing revenue account and the escalating wages of their officers, they should do so not in order to demolish council estates but to refurbish and extend them according to models such as that offered by ASH.
To argue that demolition and redevelopment is the only financial option is to buy into the very easily exposed lies of the Labour councils that are responsible for fabricating this argument. There are many examples of this I could give you, but to take just one, read the article on our blog by Professor Jane Rendell, based on her testimony at the Public Inquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Order on the Aylesbury Estate, about how Southwark Labour Council buried the report they commissioned into the relative cost of refurbishment versus demolition. The Labour councils to which ASH has presented its alternatives to demolition – Lambeth and Hammersmith & Fulham – have done exactly the same thing with our alternatives to demolition based on fabricated figures, withheld information, inaccurate assessments, false claims and deliberate misunderstandings – lies, in other words. The truth – which perhaps your allegiance to the cult of Corbyn has blinded you to – is that Labour councils are not looking for solutions to the housing crisis; they are devising – with Jeremy Corbyn’s blessing and Sadiq Khan’s support – ways to sell as much of our public land as possible into private hands.
Dear _______ Labour Council
Please don’t put a price on our homes:
Our estate is where we live,
You cannot sell what you don’t own.
When you come round here to consult with us,
Listen hard to what we say to you,
And we do hope you consider it well
When you decide what we want to do.
Dear _______ Labour Council
Please hear these words that we speak:
We know you want this land,
But in this you are not unique.
The rich get rich building luxury homes
They rent and they sell for too much,
And the rest of us work all of our lives
For a dream that we never will touch.
Dear _______ Labour Council
Please don’t dismiss what we say:
We’re not about to back down,
We’re not about to move far away.
Each one of us has a right to a home,
And we know you know this to be true,
And if you vote to regenerate us
We will vote and regenerate you.
There was a disproportionately large police presence last Saturday at the United Voices of the World demonstration at Harrods Department Store. The protest was called in support of 450 waiters and chefs demanding they receive 100 per cent of their tips from customers, rather than the 25 per cent they are currently receiving, which reduces the salary of each member of staff by up to £5,000 per year. To put this in context, this theft of up to 75 per cent of staff tips by management comes in a year when Harrods announced that their pre-tax profits for 2015-16 had increased by 19 percent to £168 million, sales had risen by 4 per cent to £1.4 billion, and the owners had just paid themselves a juicy £100.1 million dividend. Architects for Social Housing turned up in support of this protest, as did members of Class War, while the Left – whether in the form of other unions like Unite, the Corbyn support group Momentum, or the various Trotskyist factions such as the Socialist Workers Party – were conspicuously if unsurprisingly absent: the UVW being unaffiliated to the Labour Party and therefore beyond the bounds of its control. Despite this, the protest was well attended and conducted peacefully and in good humour, stopping the traffic several times with the giant blow-up banner, but letting people pass freely along the pavement, and we were generally well received by passers-by, with none of the well-heeled patrons taking excessive umbrage at having to enter the Harrod’s Sale by the side doors.
The only violence – as at every demonstration I have attended over the past few years – came from the Metropolitan Police Force, whose numbers grew rapidly throughout the protest. Large numbers of police vans were parked up and down the Brompton Road and along its side streets; several police camera crews filmed everyone attending from both inside and outside the department store; and eventually even riot police from the Territorial Support Group turned up – completely unnecessarily. The police attempted to bully and intimidate us from the beginning, pushing us around, fencing us in and trying to kettle us in groups. A young lad was arrested right at the beginning for letting off a red smoke flare – although what possible harm that could do to anyone beyond adding a bit of theatre to the proceedings isn’t apparent; and a middle-aged woman was arrested for alleged ‘criminal damage’ – which, when she resisted, was upgraded to ‘assaulting a police constable’ – a charge the MET hands out like confetti these days. I spoke on behalf of ASH in formal support of the UVW protest and immediately became the object of police attention to the extent that I felt I too was about to be arrested, with cameras trained on me as I walked around and much finger-pointing and notebook-scribbling by the blue-shouldered officers. Having been arrested at a demonstration last year on a similarly manufactured charge of Assault PC (a charge dropped when video evidence showed the constable assaulting me), I recognised the signs and judged it best to leave the demonstration a little early if I didn’t want to join my fellow protesters in the local nick.
Because of this, I didn’t see the subsequent arrests as the police moved in at the end of the protest, around 4pm, and arrested a further 6 people, including the General Secretary of the union, Petros Elia. Without any proof being produced, Petros was held for 17 hours in Belgravia Police Station along with 5 other protesters, then released on Sunday without charge. His bail conditions, however, as with the other protesters arrested, include prohibiting him from coming within 50 yards of Harrods, effectively precluding him from taking part in any further demonstrations by the union. Even in the long and shameful history of the UK’s industrial disputes, I can’t recall another instance of the General Secretary of a union being prohibited by the police force from approaching the company with which the union he represents is in industrial dispute. Apart from the police abusing their powers of arrest and bail to influence the course of industrial action, all of this contravenes our rights as citizens to move freely (article 5), our freedom of expression (article 10), and our freedom of assembly (article 11), under the European Convention on Human Rights; but then the police have been abusing these rights as a matter of practice for some time now without the need to change the law, as Theresa May will when she introduces the British Bill of Rights.
In reality, though – which is to say, our present reality in the UK – none of this should be surprising, since the Qatar Investment Authority that owns Harrods owns more of London than the Crown Estate, with around £30 billion worth of investments out of an estimated £275 billion in assets worldwide. A sovereign wealth fund set up to manage the surpluses from Qatar’s oil and natural gas reserves – currently the third largest in the world – in practical terms the QIA is the piggy bank of the Al Thani royal family, with the current CEO (who is also a member of the royal family) having been appointed by the Emir of Qatar. Besides its extensive foreign investments, the QIA also profits from the enslavement of millions of workers from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in abject living conditions (below) in Qatar’s building industry. The International Trade Union Confederation has predicted that 7,000 construction workers will die on building sites in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, where 1.8 million migrant workers are kept in conditions of semi-slavery, with pay withheld, with their passports confiscated, living in work camps and labouring in 50 degree heat. In contrast to which, Qatar’s 278,000 citizens have the highest per capita income in the world.
The Qatar Investment Authority bought the Harrods Group for £2 billion in 2010, and since then has invested heavily in London real estate, acquiring the Shard, three 5-star London hotels (Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught), Burberry’s Department Store, the Olympic Village (for which the Clays Lane Estate in Newham was demolished), the US Embassy (which it plans to turn into another luxury hotel), Chelsea Barracks (which it is redeveloping into luxury housing), 1-3 Cornwall Terrace (which it plans to turn into a royal palace for the Al Thani family), the Shell Centre, One Hyde Park, £1 billion and 279 acres of residential property in Mayfair, Camden Market and the whole of Canary Wharf; and its property development company, Qatari Diar, is expanding its portfolio to manage over 4,000 homes in London. The QIA also has substantial shares in Barclays Bank (with which it has twice been investigated and fined by the Serious Fraud Squad), Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, the International Airlines Group (which owns British Airways), Heathrow Airport and the London Stock Exchange.
It is hard to believe – it would be naïve to do so – that it was not under the instruction of this ruthless and immensely influential financial power with a huge presence in London that the Metropolitan Police Force arrested the General Secretary of United Voices of the World at Saturday’s demonstration. The aggressive and heavy-handed police presence at the demonstration was clearly a crude attempt to stamp out the unionisation of the Harrods workers by the UVW and their just demands for all of their tips; and the arrests of their leadership and other members is equally clearly an attempt to bully, intimidate, harass, dissuade and criminalise further union action. This demonstration was reported in advance in papers around the world, and had huge coverage in the UK leading up to Saturday; yet the following day every paper, including The Guardian, TheMirror, The Mail, The Independent and The Telegraph, as well as the reliably biased BBC, reported gleefully on the first two arrests but failed to mention the arrest of the General Secretary of United Voices of the World (the honourable exception to this censorship was The Morning Star). It’s a genuine question: would the UK, were it to apply for re-entry into the European Union, be rejected on the grounds that our police force, national press and elected government fail the requirements of the Democracy Index by repeatedly demonstrating themselves to be the instruments of corporate interest?
When ASH talks about the social cleansing of London we mean not just the forced eviction of the working class from our council estates and the replacement of their homes with investment opportunities for vehicles like the Qatar Investment Authority; we also mean the replacement of that class with a migrant workforce which, like many of the staff at Harrods, are employed on zero hours contracts, on the minimum wage, without unionisation, and who have to commute to work on long journeys from the outer boroughs of London. What is driving social cleansing is not only the enormous financial profits to be made from redeveloping land in Inner London, but the resulting demographic shift that is driving London further and further towards a Parisian model of the city, with a centre for the international rich surrounded by a suburban ring of service industry workers drawn from a largely migrant population. And we saw in 2016 how that social contract is working out.
It should also not surprise us to learn that several protesters, who were arrested later that evening, were initially detained by Harrods security guards in cells they keep for suspected shoplifters located in the basement of the department store. It seems the Qatar royal family not only regards Harrods as part of its private emirate, but believes that British citizens on its property are subject to the same laws under which they keep 1.8 million workers enslaved in Qatar – and judging by the actions of the MET on Saturday they’re right. The use of our police force to break union action and demonstrations, and the increase in their powers of surveillance and arrest under the cloak of protecting us from terrorism, is part of a vast project of social engineering that is transforming every aspect of our public and private lives in the UK, and of which the demolition of our social housing for foreign investment is only one campaign. It is for this reason that ASH has been publicising, supporting and reporting on this struggle by UVW. ‘The workers united will never be defeated’ – a phrase we used at the demonstration – is not just a nostalgic chant, it’s a political imperative; and if we don’t want to see London socially cleansed and replaced with the working conditions, employment practices and class relations being imported from totalitarian states like Qatar, we’d better take up its call now. Architects for Social Housing stands in solidarity with United Voices of the World in our shared struggle to oppose the forces of our economic, political and legal subjugation in 2017.