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Documentary review: Dispossession, the great social housing swindle

PUBLISHED: 10:00 23 June 2017 | UPDATED: 14:15 23 June 2017

Sajid Javid refused to allow the compulsory purchase orders of council homes in the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark

Sajid Javid refused to allow the compulsory purchase orders of council homes in the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark

Archant

Premiering just one week after the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, Paul Sng’s prescient documentary explores the dire state of the nation’s social housing crisis

Robin Hood Gardens is one of London's most famed council estates and is set for imminent demolitionRobin Hood Gardens is one of London's most famed council estates and is set for imminent demolition

One week after the news of the deadly fire at Grenfell Tower in West Kensington, Paul Sng’s documentary is a prescient and deeply unsettling look into the housing crisis.

Narrated by feminist socialist and ardent Corbyn supporter, Maxine Peake, Sng’s film opens by introducing the historical background to social housing; from it’s Victorian roots as a scheme to eradicate the abuses of private landlords in slum conditions, to the post-war need to rebuild London after the Blitz.

Thatcher’s then popular Right to Buy policy provides the solution to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s dream of a property owning democracy.

Beverley Robinson has refused to leave the home she bought in Aylesbury Estate and has to be let in and out through the fencing surrounding the buildingBeverley Robinson has refused to leave the home she bought in Aylesbury Estate and has to be let in and out through the fencing surrounding the building

Although Glasgow and Newcastle are explored in depth, it’s in London that the brutality of the developers shines through, in evicting low income families from their homes taking up valuable land.

The families and communities dissipated elsewhere aren’t worth a moment’s thought; they’re probably just the sort of people daytime TV’s poverty porn warns us about anyway.

Demolishing their homes and moving them away from the centre of London will eradicate the problem, surely?

In Elephant and Castle, we’re told 10,000 social tenants will lose their homes, with residents compensated £95,480 for a one bed flat.

The residents of Cressingham Gardens, Lambeth put together a People's Plan to regenerate Cressingham which was ignored by the council in favour of demolitionThe residents of Cressingham Gardens, Lambeth put together a People's Plan to regenerate Cressingham which was ignored by the council in favour of demolition

Their homes will be replaced with luxury properties on the new Heygate development beginning at £310,000, where every flat has been sold to an overseas investor.

Of 2704 new properties, only 82 new homes will be built for social rent compared to the 1,034 flattened.

Is it any wonder that private developers’ first point of call is to demolish the stigmatised tower blocks occupied by low income families like those that occupied Grenfell, and in their place build high-density luxury flats selling at upwards of the market average?

After all, it’s all just part of the profiteering rat-race. The families displaced and communities destroyed “brick by brick,” as one little girl yells over a microphone, are simply collateral damage, not to mention the loss of architectural history behind them.

Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets was designed by Erno Goldfinger in the 1960s and is protected from demolition as a Grade II listed buildingBalfron Tower in Tower Hamlets was designed by Erno Goldfinger in the 1960s and is protected from demolition as a Grade II listed building

Sian Berry has made her views on the Camden Community Investment Programme clear; ‘regeneration’ translates to ‘demolition’ in all too many cases.

In Sng’s film, the London Assembly Member is joined by other voices including Guardian writer Dawn Foster and co-leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas in damning the uprooting of local families to be dispersed far beyond the community they have grown to love.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 comes in for much criticism, in part thanks to the decision to bring in Savills to advise the government, who subsequently suggested that private developers were best suited to meet the city’s housing shortage.

Shelter estimates that 180,000 council homes will be lost due to the Act, with many more siphoned off through the extension of right to buy.

That particular policy faces no shortage of criticism, and no party is spared condemnation for allowing it to continue.

We meet Beverley, a resident at Aylesbury Estate who bought her home only to be told that the council was planning to demolish the building and refund her less than market value.

It’s a sad portrayal of the catalogue of errors underlining the policy which meant that the council lost unprecedented levels of stock, and could no longer afford to build more homes to replace that which they had lost, or invest in those that still stood.

Amongst all the stigma social housing is charged with, it’s easy to forget that a council house is still a home, when so many of the luxury flats in ‘lights off London’ are simply a place for overseas investors to park cash.

The residents we meet at Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets tell us that everyone knows their neighbours and they feel secure, words that now churn the stomach.

Now, through what they call ‘social cleansing’ and intransigence, “people are being swept aside with complete disregard” as London fast tracks towards gentrification.

The picture we are left with is a wholly Victorian housing crisis where private landlords call the shots. Rats plague the streets of Glasgow’s Govanhill, rubbish is left in the streets, broken windows are better left than repaired since it’s more cost-effective in the long run to allow social housing to rot until it can be demolished than invest in it.

In Cressingham Gardens, residents’ associations are ignored by councils, whose decisions are announced on Twitter before the residents are told. People and communities, it seems, are disposable as far as the value of land per square metre is concerned.

The average price of property in London is just under half a million pounds at £474,704, and with prices like that it’s no wonder first time buyers are sliding further away from the ladder and into a life of eternal renting.

What this documentary drives home is the need to redefine the word ‘affordable’ for those on average incomes, and think about the returns that investing in low income communities and the homes they live in provides not only in terms of pure financial profit.

If we’ve learnt anything in the past week, it’s that lives are worth more than saving £2 a panel more on making the materials that clad their homes fireproof.

Councils need to be given funding to buy back the houses they lost through right to buy and to fund the building of millions of new homes.

If the arbitrary cap on council borrowing was reversed, they might be able to compete with the big developers who outbid them. If councils were well equipped, they would be able to reject developers who pay them off not to include social housing in their projects (just recently, a Battersea development announced it was no longer financially viable to include as many affordable homes they originally promised).

If estates weren’t able to be labelled as Brownfield land, perhaps more effort would be made to spruce them up rather than knock them down.

Some councils do seem to be beginning to take heed of the winds of change. Only last week Westminster council leader Nickie Aiken announced an end to the “cosy cabal” between developers and councils.

With the Grenfell tragedy still imprinted on our eyelids when our eyes are closed, perhaps councils, the government and developers will actually begin to listen.

‘How does a crisis turn into a tragedy?’ asks one promotional poster for Paul Sng’s film. Now, sadly, we know the answer.

Dispossession: the great social housing swindle is showing at Arthouse Crouch End on Monday 2th June, the Genesis on 27th June and Curzon Soho on 27th July. For tickets, see the website.

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