On the front line of the housing crisis

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I’m not a political activist, I’m a designer. I first became interested in social housing from an architectural point of view, not a social one. Public housing has been one of the biggest debates in both politics and design since the 1950’s… So what role can creativity play in our current crisis?

Over these last few months, in the lead up to the upcoming general election, there has been much activism, debate and publicity surrounding the issue of housing, and I have been doing my best to get my head around the complexities of the problem, and the many people working together to do something about it.

In February I attended the March for Homes. We met at Elephant and Castle, just up the road from the recently demolished Heygate Estate, a focal point of the campaign. Thousands of tenants, campaigners and unionists descended upon City Hall demanding building of new council homes and an end to soaring private rents.

Before the march, we heard from several speakers: Campaigners, politicians and tenants from local estates, telling their stories of eviction, poor housing conditions, unaffordable rents, uncertain relocation plans, and displaced families- separated from their support networks.


So why do we have this problem? When did we start building houses? And why did we stop?


It all started in post-war Britain, when the government, led by Lloyd-George, identified a need to “build homes for heroes”. The country’s working class was living in slum-like conditions and surviving on rations, with no access to free healthcare or education. This access to housing as a human right, not a privilege, was one of the key policies of the Welfare State, established in 1948.

My (slight) obsession with housing begins here, because our councils hired young, forward thinking architects to come up with solutions for housing a huge number of people in a short space of time. They looked to Europe, to Le Corbusier and his cities in the sky. The Swiss-born architect was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities, for all people, rich and poor.

As Anna Minton pointed out at the ‘Six Thoughts on Changing Britain’ festival at the Southbank Centre earlier this year, the British Government even looked over the Iron Curtain, into the USSR, and learnt from how they were solving their own issues of urban housing and education on a vast national scale.

And so we built… Young architects and planners, with modern ideas, finding “ways to make socialism work for capitalism”*. In a 1996 BBC short feature on the Alton Estate in Roehampton presented by the architect Richard Rogers, we hear about some of the ideas and philosophies of the young designers practicing in this busy period of re-thinking our cities. Rogers talks about the “social importance of architecture inspired by the Eutopian tests carried out in Europe” at the time.

He describes Alton, built in 1958, as “one of the best examples of public housing in the world”, due solely to the aims of the GLC (Greater London Council) in creating a neighbourhood; one with its own shops, schools and spaces for leisure. The whole estate was designed around the needs of the various residents; from young families to the elderly. The tenants association had (and still has) a strong presence, with annual festivals on the grounds and high resident engagement in decision-making.

There are of course many unsuccessful examples of post-war developments, but as Rogers points out, “for too long, council housing has been a dirty word… Alton is living proof that you can create a modern environment and keep a strong sense of community”. It was this excitement for change which had fizzled out by the 1980’s.

By now we all know the story of Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme in 1980, hailing the end of a long period of construction of public housing and the privatisation of the entire sector. Many believe Right to Buy to be responsible for the loss of 2m existing council homes, and with councils forbidden from using profit from sold houses to build new ones, we can see how Thatcher’s governtment paved the way for disastrous future New Labour schemes such as Pathfinder (often blamed for huge regions of abandoned housing within inner city regions throughout the country).

These days, most social housing is via benefits, with 1 in 4 Londoners relying on them to pay rent, and we’ve unsurprisingly ended up with capped benefits and soaring rents. The recent Tory scheme Help to Buy has done little to address the shortage, instead, inflating the property market.

In London, one consequence of the crisis is that whole communities are being uprooted and scattered around the country against their will, due to council estates being demolished and replaced with modern homes for the expensive, private sector. For example:

  • The Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle: home to more than 3,000 people, the new development in its place consisting of 2,500 new homes, only 79 of these will be social.
  • The Aylesbury Estate in Southwark: current regeneration to create twice as many homes, 50% of these will be ‘affordable’ (…not to be confused with ‘social’).
  • The Sweets Way Estate: demolition planned to make way for new private rentals.
  • The Balfron Tower in Poplar: 120 family sized social houses in Poplar, soon to be refurbished into luxury flats.
  • The Haggerston Estate in Hackney: Provided nearly 450 social houses. The regeneration plans for the area currently feature 761 new homes, only 248 of which will be social (tbc).


Which leads me to my first story of everyday people power….


In the 1960’s, Haggerston was a run-down, working class corner of Hackney. The Haggerston Estate had a reputation for racial tensions, crime and poor living conditions. The development was built as a standalone housing block with no public spaces or amenities, therefore it was difficult for people to get to know their neighbours, so the residents took it upon themselves to address this.

The GLC gave them an empty flat, in which they set up a DIY co-op shop. They took it in turns to work shifts, and it wasn’t long before the shop became a key social centre. The housing organisation eventually shut down the coop, responding to pressure by local businesses, but in doing so they failed to realise that for the first time since the estate’s construction, the residents had created a community.

I learned about the Haggerston co-op at the launch of Real Estates. A 6 week art project by Fugitive Images, a cultural activist production agency run by Andrea Zimmerman and David Roberts. The event was a constantly changing series of exhibitions, screenings, discussions, readings and workshops.

Fugitive Images have been working with residents of the Haggerston Estate for 7 years, sharing their stories and campaigning together. The aim of Great Estates was to invite other communities, speakers or artists relating to the housing crisis in London to tell their stories, and it became a platform for campaign groups to come together and share their experiences. The talks I attended felt more like networking events than presentations. (At one ‘Long-Table’ discussion, I witnessed residents from different estates sharing advice on how best to legally fight eviction warnings).

At the opening, the journalist and writer Owen Jones made a speech about the relevance of events such as Great Estates. He highlighted the importance of voice and hope in times of crisis, pointing out that when the social background of our politicians and the media is quite clearly unaligned with that of the majority of the population, it is difficult for those who are suffering to be heard.

Fugitive Images are responsible for the art installation ‘I Am Here‘ (caption image), which featured photographs of the Haggerston tenants fixed to boarded-up windows of the estate as homes were emptied. As David Roberts put it, the role of artists and campaigners in this crisis is:


to make visible the effects of displacement, eviction and homelessness


I’ve mentioned before how important art and expression can be in supporting a cause, and over the last few years this project has been no exception.

Throughout the programme of events I learned about several campaign groups coming up with simple and creative ways of fighting for their cause. Most notably, Focus E15, who first penned the slogan “Social Housing not Social Cleansing”.

The Focus E15 campaign was set up by a group of young mothers who were served eviction notices when funding was cut to their hostel for young homeless people. They immediately went to their local council for advice, only to be told that, following cuts to housing benefits and lack of affordable housing in London, their only option (if they wanted rehousing), would be to accept private rented accommodation as far away as Manchester, Hastings or Birmingham.

The mothers are still in London, and their campaign has seen the creation of a weekly community support stall in Stratford, an occupation of Newham Town Hall, organisation of March for Homes earlier this year, and the occupation of the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, where Focus E15 set up a social centre for two weeks, with an evolving program of daily events, including workshops, meetings, and music and comedy gigs.

Further North… Last year I wrote about my delight at the discovery of the Granby Four Streets in Toxteth, Liverpool, where local people took control of their emptied streets after 30 years of neglect. Here, the few remaining residents of the area took the future of their neighbourhood into their own hands, setting up a community land trust and taking control of some of the derelict properties, rennovating them with the young architecture collective Assemble.

Back in London, in Lambeth, one of the more successful examples of social housing, the Cressingham Gardens estate, is currently facing plans for renovation to attract more private rental income. The estate is known in the borough for its low crime rates and strong sense of community. Last year, the campaigners organised a Housing Crisis Question Time, inviting local councillors and journalists to help them play a more active role in the future of their estate.

I love the idea of a grass-roots campaign group having to call in their local councillors to show them how to engage in a productive dialogue about a community’s needs…

At the New Era estate in East London, a campaign led by three mothers saved the estate from development by private American Investors. NHS worker Lindsey Garrett said at the time of the victory in December:


We beat a multibillion-dollar investment company. Who would have thought three single mothers from Hoxton could have done that?


Then there’s the Sweets Way estate in Barnet. Originally owned by the MOD, the development was taken over by Annington to temporarily provide homes for many famillies who were on the Barnet housing waiting list. Today, the estate is set to be demolished, its 142 council homes replaced with 229 new ones, 59 of which will be (our old friend) “affordable”.

Here too, residents have had to find creative new ways of making themselves heard. They have a strong presence on social media, constantly updating followers and other campaigns on their progress or set backs. They reached out to other groups like Focus E15 and the New Era Estate campaigners, as well as activists (Russel Brand was a key follower of the Sweets Way occupation). As more and more families were evicted, they set up a social centre, providing child care for the relocated children who still attended school in Barnet.


What next?


In the 1950’s our councils turned to young, optimistic thinkers to come up with cheap and effective ideas for housing our growing population. Many of these ideas may not have been successful (or even popular), but over time the provision of a permanent home has allowed many people to feel part of society and to form their own communities. Today those communities are being taken apart and moved on, simply for financial gain.

We can learn so much from our past successes and failures. But we must also learn from the present. This crisis is showing us that in our increasingly imbalanced society, it is only when people stand up for themselves and each other that real progress can be made. Focus E15, the Sweets Way campaign, the New Era estate- they are fighting for the very same rights that were promised to the population almost 70 years ago.

We can only hope that somewhere out there, our leaders are seeing these small victories and taking note for when they do eventually decide to build new homes. It will take much more than bricks and mortar to re-build what’s being demolished.

As Owen Jones points out, the Sweets Way campaign in Barnet “is significant because it is a striking example of people deprived of any meaningful political voice in modern Britain… they are forced to be creative when it comes to forcing the powerful to listen”.

And these grass-roots campaigns and projects are nothing if not creative. They’re organised. They have created networks, communities and strong imagery that will speak to so many people at a time when they desperately need our support.

These people know that in order to be heard the message must be loud and clear: A home is not an asset. It is a human right.




Follow the amazing work of Focus E15 online and on Twitter

Support the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign online and follow them on Twitter

Support the Sweets Way Resists campaign online and follow them on Twitter

The Real Estates event and ‘I Am Here‘ art project were created by Fugitive Images. Follow them @FugitiveImages

Owen Jones is a writer and journalist. He has a lot of important things to say about this and more, follow him at @OwenJones84

Anna Minton is an author and journalist, follow her for more talks and events re: public housing @AnnaMinton

‘Six Thoughts on Changing Britain’ was a series of talks as part of the Changing Britain Festival at the Southbank Centre, it’s free and definitely worth checking out if you can before May 7th…

Professor David Robinson is head of the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), at Sheffield Hallam University. CRESR has been undertaking housing and social affairs research projects for more than 20 years, and in 2013 were the first to uncover the financial impact of the Coalition’s welfare reforms, which have hit the poorest areas of the UK hardest. Read more here