Above: Photos from the production. First the Red Road flats in Glasglow, and then the famous Balfron Tower that inspired JG Ballard’s High Rise..
As Ireland scrambles to get to grips with its housing crisis, director Paul Sng turns in a blinding exposée of the deliberate dismantling of social housing in the UK. It’s called Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle. Rashers Tierney caught up with him to hear how working class communities are being treated like shit as developers and local councils connive after profit.
Housing defines our times. Across the pond in Engerland, it’s no different. Paul Sng says he was compelled to make this film by activist friends of his.
“It was a case of them introducing me to people that were on estates and fighting to save their homes. You know after that you get to know people a bit and then you hopefully earn their trust and then you can work with them.”
The doc starts off tracking the mass social housing projects that took place in the wake of the Second World War when Labour were swept into power. Looking at the long game, all of this was turned topsy turvy by the introduction of the Right to Buy scheme by Thatcher’s first government. Cut to grainy footage of The Iron Lady herself sandbagging her reign with new Tory voters. Handing over property deeds at insane knockdown prices to huddled families.
Consequential statistics from all this burn in via animations and infographics a go-go. At the beginning of the 1980s, 42% of the UK population lived in social housing. That’s plummeted to less than 8% with over five million on the housing list. Now, 50,000 former council homes in the UK are let out by private landlords. Fifty fucking thousand. For Sng that’s the nub right there. This bleeding dry of public assets for private gain and then the gut wrenching knock ons from this swindle.
“I don’t necessarily think there’s you know a group of shadowy figures in a darkened room making these plans,” Sng tells me over the phone. “Effectively housing in particular is driven by the market and successive governments have put all of their faith in solving people’s housing needs in the private rental market.”
This fanatical belief in the market is compounded by cash strapped local councils on both sides of the political divide eager to fill their coffers. Making land deals with developers. Shallow promises of regeneration and rehousing fed to tenants.
Each estate brings its own tale. The doc taps into a string of these via housing activists, campaigners and academics. There’s people like Beverly in Aylesbury. The only person left living on her estate after it was sold off to developers. Outside, irony laden hoardings declare “a fair future for all”. Such tensions exist in cities across the UK but it’s in the capital that things are most extreme.
“You know London is a very compact area,” says Paul. “And land costs a hell of a lot of money there and I think in some situations you know something has to give. Because you know it’s very difficult to acquire land. Local authorities have had their budgets cut. And it’s just the perfect storm where the people who are going to suffer are what would be referred to as indigenous working class communities.”
There’s the story of the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle. Example par bloody excellence for a process that ultimately sees traditional working class communities pushed out or made alien in their own area.
“And I think that’s all that matters when we see our local working class populations just diminish and areas become not gentrified because that’s a nice word but actually socially cleansed,” explains the director. “Where the Heygate stood is now called Elephant park. The council partnered with an Australian company called Lend Lease and the deal that they did, it doesn’t make any financial sense. You can see the figures in the film. They demolished 1000 homes and scattered those 3000 people that were living there.”
More often than not, the properties are swept up by foreign investors. Former residents (even those that availed of right to buy) are offered miserable buyouts that leave them unable to compete for new homes on the open market. The figures illustrate a mass displacement to the sticks.
Many of these estates are iconic. Heygate popped up in Attack The Block and Top Boy. Even a Madonna video. Balfron was designed by a key Brutalist Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger and was once heralded for quality and experimentation in social housing. The fabric of pre-existing communities were held together and housed beside each other in the development.
Goldfinger even moved in for a period and threw champagne parties to elicit insights from the residents. Directly inspiring JG Ballard’s High Rise. Balfron also appeared in an Oasis video. Paul Sng fills me in on what happened the residents of this fabled 26 storey structure.
“It went into a bit of what you know was, I suppose, called decline because not enough care or money was being spent on it by Tower Hamlets council and eventually there was a buy out. Residents decided for it to be stock transferred from our hampers to a housing association called Poplar HARCA.”
Poplar HARCA decided they couldn’t refurbish it. Heritage status made it too costly. So they “decanted” everyone to properly modernize it. “Unfortunately they then decided that they wouldn’t actually move people back in,” says Paul. “They’d moved them all out and then they decided to turn it into a luxury apartment so what was originally designed to be housing for working class communities is now turned into a luxury apartment development.”
Sng’s earlier documentary Invisible Britain charted how the Sleaford Mods burst into popular consciousness articulating a raw rage that captured Britain breaking down along the very class lines New Labour had said no longer existed. Dispossession leaves you with a similar sense of a culture war being waged from above. A war waged through poverty porn and condescending comedy that stigmatizes those that live in social housing. This year’s BAFTA award for comedy went to People Just Do Nothing. A show whose origins derive in taking the piss out of a documentary called Tower Block Dreams Ghetto On Sea.
“You only need to turn on the TV you know on any given day or night and if you flip channels you’ll come across, you know, some of those property porn shows like A Place In The Sun. That sort of thing. Where it’s all about owning your own home,” says Paul. “And you know that’s become something that not only everybody kind of wants but everybody is made to feel they should aspire to. And so you got that side of things. And on the other side you’ve got the last I don’t know twenty or thirty years of stigmatization of people that live on council estates or live in council housing and that’s in the arts and media every day in programs like Little Britain with that Vicky Pollard character. ”
In some quarters, these grandiose structures that transformed skylines and lives are said to have failed to stand the test of time design-wise. Less machines for living in and more factories of alienation and anti-social behaviour. I ask Paul if this view is just another excuse to knock social housing. Not just metaphorically, but quite literally as we’ve seen even here in Ireland.
“In a lot of these cases it was problems with society. It was problems down to deep inequality whether that was through low wages, whether that was through not providing people with sufficient means of welfare that you then create problems. I mean things like crime come from people they don’t come from a particular building and a lot of these buildings they’re really well designed and architects know what they’re doing in these things and I think to actually blame the buildings just becomes a convenient excuse to knock them down but you don’t solve problems.”
There’s a tragic urgency to the flick. It premiered five days before the Grenfell Tower fire. How would this disaster have impacted the documentary had it coincided with filming? Paul’s answer lends an insight to the basic solidarity that underpins his filmmaking.
“It would be difficult to make a film about council housing and not include Grenfell,” he says. “Grenfell is the most significant thing that’s happened, I would say perhaps in the history of council housing really. I think it shows the level of neglect and the lack of value that was placed on the people that lived there. How would we have included it? I can’t really say. I mean I’m always very wary of things like this. You can be seen to exploit a situation. I’d never go down there and poke a camera in someone’s face because it’s not how I do things.”
Sometimes our own national conversation on housing sounds like people discussing the weather. A phenomenon beyond our control. While stringing landlords and the government up for this mess of a market might be a comforting flight of fantasy, Paul Sng offers practical sketches to cog and ram down the throat of the next establishment politician that knocks on your door.
For a start he argues to suspend the right to buy in England. “It’s happened in Scotland I think it’s happening in Wales and you know until we can replace that housing stock that’s being sold off, we need to suspend the policy.”
There also needs to be a loosening up of the greenbelts. “There’s lots of land in England but there’s lots of rules about what you can build upon and what you can’t like,” he says.
He also calls for a five to ten percent levy on foreign investors buying buildings and penalties for those left unoccupied. “If we did that and then ring fenced the money to spend on not only social housing but also on homelessness. That would be great. It might stop so many foreign investors parking their money here and leaving the buildings empty.”
How’s that for a to-do-list?
Head over to www.dispossessionfilm.com for more. You’ll find information about viewing the documentary there as well as a massive list of inspiring local campaigns fighting back in the UK.