Social Cleansing and the Destruction of Council Estates Exposed at Screening of ‘Dispossession’ by Endangered New Cross Residents
On Saturday, I went to the New Cross Learning Centre — a community-run former library in New Cross — for a screening of ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’, a new documentary about Britain’s housing crisis directed by Paul Sng, who is from New Cross (and is the director of ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’).
The screening was organised by the residents of the Achilles Street area, whose homes are threatened by Lewisham Council, which wants to knock them all down, and build shiny new replacements.
The area affected runs between New Cross Road and Fordham Park (from south to north), and between Clifton Rise and Pagnell Street (from west to east), and there are 87 homes (with 33 leaseholders), and around 20 businesses (along New Cross Road and down Clifton Rise).
Lewisham Council claims, in its most recent consultation document, from February this year, that “[a]ll current council tenants who wish to stay in the new development will be able to do so with the same rent levels and tenancy conditions that they have today,” and that “[a]ny resident leaseholder who wishes to will be able to remain in home ownership on the new development.”
This sounds reassuring, but the recent history of regeneration projects — both in London and elsewhere in the country — is that councils and developers lie to tenants and leaseholders, to get them to agree to regeneration under terms that are not then honoured. Instead, tenants are evicted and their homes demolished, and they never get to return, and leaseholders are offered derisory amounts for the homes that, ironically, they bought under Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, which is insufficient for them to buy a replacement property in the area, leading to their exodus in addition to that of the former tenants.
The recent history of this social cleansing programme is admirably documented in ‘Dispossession’, exposing what is, fundamentally, a scandal that has received far too little attention: the selling off to private developers of council estates — mostly deliberately run down over many years, or even decades, under a process of “managed decline” — on the basis that there is insufficient money to refurbish them to a decent standard. The developers, with the collusion of the councils, then knock them down, and build unaffordable new housing instead, resulting in the involuntary exile —- the social cleansing — of the former residents, who have to leave the area — even if, as often, they have lived there for decades, and, understandably, think of their homes as home — and often can no longer even afford to live in London.
The film chronicles the template for dispossession that is well-known and well-documented to those paying attention — beginning with the destruction of the Heygate Estate in Southwark, and looking at Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, the Balfron Tower in Poplar, and the Aylesbury Estate, also in Southwark, and also taking the story further afield — to Glasgow and Nottingham.
The Heygate, near the centre of the Elephant & Castle, an estate of huge high-rise blocks surrounding lower-rise buildings and significant green space, was emptied of its occupants in the 2000s, and, for many years, was empty except for a handful of leaseholders clinging on, at which time it became a kind of post-apocalyptic urban jungle, a place of extraordinary silence, with performance spaces and vegetable gardens.
Housing activists — via the extraordinary Southwark Notes website — have demonstrated how most of the Heygate’s 3,000 residents were dispersed across London, never to return, and there are other shocking statistics: Lendlease paid Southwark Council £55m for the Heygate Estate, and £40m for the Oakmayne and Tribeca site, also at the Elephant. The process of evicting and relocating tenants cost the council £65m, while refurbishment of the estate would have cost just £35m. Lendlease, meanwhile, stands to make a profit of £194m, while Southwark will make noting, although one doesn’t vine have to be cynical to notice a revolving door whereby former Southwark council housing employees end up getting jobs with the developers.
In other revealing statistics, 1,034 homes were demolished on the Heygate Estate, and 2,704 are being built on its replacement, Elephant Park, but only 82 of those will be for social rent, generally set at 30% of market rents. This is genuinely affordable for a majority of workers, whereas what passes for “affordable” in the legislation approved in London by Boris Johnson when he was Mayor, is actually set at 80% of market rents, and is therefore completely unaffordable for most workers, because market rents in central London can easily be £500 a week for a couple. When the median income is less than £20,000, that can lead to people paying, as Oxford professor Danny Dorling says in the film, 50%, 60% or even 70% of their income in rent, when it should only be described as “affordable” if it is no more than a third.
The film provides a background to the need for social housing, and points out that, after the Second World War, the Attlee government built 1m new homes, 80% of which were council houses, and 5m were then built in the decades that followed. The decline began under Margaret Thatcher, and her baleful legacy is clear: at the start of her premiership, 42% of people lived in social housing, now it is less than 8%, and 1.4m people are on waiting lists. Of the properties that were sold under Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy, 2.2m were in private ownership by 1996, and the most unforgiveable aspect of Thatcher’s policy — which new Labour never repealed — was the prohibition on councils building any new homes.
From Thatcher’s time onwards, some council housing ended up being transferred to the ownership and control of housing associations, a mix of private companies and charities, directed by legislation, who often did a good job. However, beginning under rNew Labour and most glaringly since 2010, under the Tories, cynical austerity cuts have forced them into becoming developers much more than being social housing providers, and a glaring example of that is at the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark.
Failing to learn any lessons from the Heygate disaster — because the template of dispossession and private profit is the same for all developments — Southwark hooked up with Notting Hill Housing, which used to be a social housing provider, but is now one of many former social housing providers that have become aggressive private developers, to demolish the borough’s other huge estate, the Aylesbury, rather than refurbishing it, as would have been sensible after all the negative publicity surrounding the Heygate redevelopment.
Instead, the evictions have started, as have the private developments, and Southwark and Notting Hill have had their compulsory purchase programme blocked by Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for its derisory nature, and for breaching leaseholders’ human rights. The film focuses on the story of Beverley Robinson, a resident on the Aylesbury Estate, and, as Paul Sng explained in an article for the Guardian when ‘Dispossession’ was released:
She has refused to move out of the estate until she receives the market rate for her home, which will enable her to buy an equivalent property in the area. The council’s initial offer for Robinson’s two-bedroom flat, was £65,000, which she rejected. Following a tribunal, the price was increased to £187,500, still short of her expectations. According to estate agents Foxtons, the average price of a two-bedroom property in Southwark is £884,648. Robinson is entitled to expect a like for like replacement property if she is forced to leave her home.
Robinson is now the only resident in a block that is fenced off like a prison, and as Sng explained:
Robinson has to be let in and out of the building by a guard day and night, and is a virtual prisoner in a home she bought from the council under the right to buy policy. In addition, the council have also stopped providing regular maintenance on the building (despite her still paying a service charge), meaning that the communal garden areas are untended and the lift and lighting are frequently not working for days on end. Such underhand tactics suggest that the council is attempting to intimidate Robinson into selling her flat, thus allowing them to continue with a £1.5bn redevelopment project.
Both the Heygate and the Aylesbury estates are desirable because Southwark is so close to central London. Elsewhere, however, parkside and waterside locations are what the council and developers seize upon. It is no accident that Achilles Street is right next to New Cross’s only park, Fordham Park, just as it is no accident that, in Lambeth, the destruction of Cressingham Gardens, a well-designed, low-level estate that opened in the 1970s, is being aggressively sought by Lambeth Council, as it overlooks Brockwell Park from an elevated location.
At Cressingham Gardens, all the subterfuge required to try to persuade the tenants and leaseholders of 306 homes to vote for their own death penalty failed. Just 4% were in favour. Residents describe it as “like living in a village,” and were well aware that they had been subjected to “managed decline.” The council decided to press ahead with its plans anyway, but the residents took them to court, and won — twice — although the council still refuses to give up.
The latest corrupt manoeuvrings exposed by the film involve the creation by councils themselves of housing associations to handle the destruction of estates and their lucrative rebuilding. In Lambeth, the council’s chief social housing destroyer is Matthew Bennett, who has not set himself up as the head of Homes for Lambeth, the housing association responsible for rebuilding. And so, in a shocking demonstration of naked vested interests, Bennett will be approving the destruction of estates that he will then be in charge of redeveloping.
At Cressingham Gardens, it has been demonstrated that the cost of destroying the estate is much greater than refurbishing it, as is generally true of all redevelopments. The film also looks briefly at Central Hill, an acclaimed estate in Crystal Palace, which is coveted by the council and developers because of its stunning views over London. The campaign to save Central Hill is ongoing, but is interesting not only because lovers of architecture are on board, but also because Architects for Social Housing, a wonderful organisation campaigning to save estates from destruction and to pursue refurbishment options instead, have produced unassailably sensible plans to refurbish the estate rather than proceed with its destruction.
The film also looks at the underhand eviction of tenants from the Erno Goldfinger-designed Balfron Tower in Poplar, where artists were cynically engaged as a diversion — in a move that is known as artwashing — and touches briefly on other social cleansing programmes that are either underway or imminent.
In Poplar, the destruction of Robin Hood Gardens (oh so close to Canary Wharf) is in the latter category, and in the former is the West Hendon Estate, which demonstrates another geographical draw for developers — it’s right next to a beautiful reservoir.
Also of note is Woodberry Down in Hackney — also located by a beautiful reservoir — and in bringing the story up to date concerned readers need to check out Haringey’s plans to sell of all its housing stock to Lendlease, the destroyers of the Heygate Estate, in a £2bn deal that explicitly involves giving Lendlease approval for the destruction of entire estates, including Broadwater Farm and Northumberland Park, both in Tottenham.
Readers should also check out the story of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in west London, threatened with destruction as part of the huge – and hugely profitable – Earls Court redevelopment (which is subject to widespread criticism on a number of fronts), but primarily the message of the film, and of the experience of anyone paying attention in London, is that a full-scale assault on social housing is underway in almost every borough, which, if it is not stopped, might well lead to the social cleansing of up to a million people over the next 10 or 15 years. Moreover, as ASH never tires of explaining, the social cleansing cuts across party lines, as most of the dispossession in London is being conducted by Labour councils.
I’ll let that sink in, and give you time to check out ASH’s list of estates under threat from Labour councils, whilst also adding that there are no saviours waiting in the wings. Despite getting elected because housing is Londoners’ number one concern, Sadiq Khan’s plans are worthless, and Jeremy Corbyn is permanently silent on the clearances conducted by his own party.
It is up to us to fight back — and to build a movement that corrupt politicians and developers cannot ignore, and which, I hope, can continue to channel the justifiable anger that was felt in June when the contempt that politicians, developers,and housing officials feel for social tenants was most vividly felt as an inferno engulfed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, killing at least 80 people, an inferno that was entirely preventable and that only happened because safety standards had been deliberately gutted in an effort to increase profits.
Note: Check out the Achilles Street Stop And Listen Campaign website for information about how to contact councillors to oppose Lewisham’s plans, prior to a council meeting on October 4 at which residents fear the redevelopment plans will be approved. If you’re interested, please ask the campaigners to put you on their mailing list. And please also check out the Achilles fanzine, put together by Lilah Francis.
And for a defence of London’s social housing in song, check out ‘London’ by my band The Four Fathers.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).