‘Concrete Soldiers’: New Documentary Film About Social Cleansing and Council Estate Destruction in London Features Andy Worthington as Narrator

11.11.17

A promotional image for 'Concrete Soldiers', a new documentary film about the threat to social housing in London, directed by Nikita Woolfe, featuring narration by Andy Worthington.

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I’m delighted to announce the launch of the website for ‘Concrete Soldiers’, a new documentary film directed by Nikita Woolfe, for which I’m doing the voiceover. I met Niki at ‘The Truth About Grenfell’, a powerful event the week after the terrible Grenfell Tower fire in June, organised by ASH (Architects for Social Housing), which Niki was filming (and which also features in ‘Concrete Soldiers’). The completed film of the event, which has had nearly 15,000 views to date, is here.

A few months later, Niki asked me if I’d like to narrate the film, and I was honoured to say yes. I live in social housing (which, for foreign readers, is rented housing that is, essentially, run on a not-for-profit basis), and am a passionate defender of it, and it has been thoroughly depressing watching as it has been denigrated by those who seek to destroy it so they can make a profit from its privatisation or its destruction and replacement by new private developments.

Those who want to get rid of social housing have a number of ploys: one is claiming that it should only be for those who are especially poor and desperate, and not, as I think it should be, for anyone who wants to rent rather than own a property, but who wants to do so cheaply, and sees that as a fair trade, as those who rent never end up owning the properties they live in, unlike those who take out mortgages.

Moreover, the insane housing bubble that has dominated Britain’s economy for almost the last 20 years makes the case for social housing more, not less compelling the more the bubble continues. Far from being something that only the very poor should have, social housing is now something that is needed by everyone but the very rich, as house prices are completely out of reach for all but a small number of ordinary people, and private rental prices have followed suit into the stratospherically expensive. Where once it was accepted that no more than a third of a person’s salary should pay for their rent, people are now regularly paying over two-thirds.

While the argument for social housing for all is not widely aired, but should be, another huge threat to social housing is the planned destruction of housing estates — council estates — on the generally false basis that they are too run down to renovate. Whilst it is true that some estates were poorly built, most of those examples were demolished long ago, and most surviving estates are run down because councils themselves have failed to invest in them, and, moreover, could be renovated much more cheaply than it costs to demolish them, as ASH has persistently demonstrated.

However, those who seek to destroy them are not interesting in renovating properties for their existing tenants and leaseholders, and, as ASH has also demonstrated, paying for these works by infilling with new properties that can be sold on the open market. Instead, they are in thrall to private developers, whose preferred method for profiteering is to demolish estates and build replacements that are largely for private sale, with some available through inadequate alternatives to social rent (which is generally between 30% and 50% of private rents); for example, “affordable” rents (the greatest linguistic misnomer in modern Britain, as “affordable” rents are set at 80% of market rents, and are therefore unaffordable), and shared ownership deals, a scam that involves people paying far more than social rents to nominally own a proportion of the properties they live in.

In addition, existing tenants and leaseholders are treated with contempt, and, in general, are socially cleansed not only from their former homes, but from the entire area in which they lived. Tenants, if they are allowed to return, get smaller properties that cost much more, with no security of tenure, while leaseholders are generally priced out by being offered, through compulsory purchase orders, far less money for their old homes than is required to buy a replacement — either in the new developments or elsewhere in the vicinity.

‘Concrete Soldiers’ looks at the epidemic of social cleansing that is currently underway in London — most of it, it must be noted, engineered by Labour councils, with a particular focus on the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, and two estates in Lambeth: Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens, which I have covered before. See Surprise as Tories Judge that Compulsory Purchases for the Regeneration of Southwark’s Aylesbury Estate Breach Leaseholders’ Human Rights, for example, about the struggle of the Aylesbury leaseholders to prevent Southwark Council from offering them a derisory amount for their homes.

It is also an important part of the film that it presents a positive message, encouraging people to believe that they can make a difference, and that they can succeed in their campaigns, as happened with a small estate of sheltered housing in Streatham, Leigham Court Road, which was saved from its planned destruction by Lambeth Council through a concerted effort by its residents, with support from its architect, Kate Macintosh, and other architects.

The world premiere of ‘Concrete Soldiers’ is on Friday December 8 at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, Lambeth, London SE11 4TH. Niki and I will be part of a Q&A, as will other housing activists, and there will also be a performance by the acclaimed spoken word artist Potent Whisper.

A second screening will take place at Deptford Cinema, on Monday December 18, at which I’ll be doing the Q&A, and there will also be representatives of housing campaigns in Lewisham — specifically, Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald Road in Deptford, and Achilles Street in New Cross, which I wrote about here — and if you’re in London tomorrow, please come to a benefit gig I’ve organised at the Birds Nest pub, featuring Potent Whisper, my band The Four Fathers and many other performers.

Please email Niki (or phone 07413 138909) for further information about the film, interview requests, and inquiries about screenings.

A short teaser for the film is below, via YouTube:

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 Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), 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).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, promoting the release of the website for ‘Concrete Soldiers’, a new documentary film about social cleansing in London, via the destruction of council estates, directed by Nikita Woolfe, for which I’m doing the voiceover. The world premiere is in London on Friday December 8, and it’s a timely release, as councils across London (and mainly Labour councils, it’s sad to note) make deals with private developers to destroy council estates, instead of refurbishing them, and to replace them with new, overpriced private housing from which most existing tenants, and most ordinary hard-working Londoners will be excluded. This is one of the great scandals in modern Britain, and I’m deeply honoured to be involved in exposing it and challenging it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Did the council officials not realise that once they started selling off the council homes to the tenants that they would be a shortage of council houses? The council houses were then sold at a hefty profit, making ex council tenants quite rich…..social housing is a problem everywhere in the UK now, the council in Milton Keynes is housing all those seeking a council properly in Luton in bed and breakfast hotels (in one room with no cooking or bathroom facilities) and leave them there for years…what has been achieved by selling council homes….absolutely nothing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Dessie. The great crime, which most people don’t know about, is that councils were prohibited by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government from reinvesting any of the proceeds from council house sales into building new social housing. There’s been a shortage of new housing ever since, from which all these problems stem, although the last 20 years has seen various horrendous new forms of housing-related greed becoming dominant in what passes for our culture and society.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    If you’re in London tomorrow, do come to the benefit gig at The Birds Nest featuring Potent Whisper, my band The Four Fathers, The Commie Faggots, Agman Gora, Asher Baker, Ukadelix and the Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir – campaigning for Old Tidemill Garden and The Achilles Street Stop and Listen Campaign! https://www.facebook.com/events/185529255352675/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Dessie Harris wrote:

    Oh Andy I did not know about this event had I known earlier i would have loved to attend. I don’t go to London very often now…… have to admit though I miss Oxford Street and the theatres in Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus too.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Maybe there will be another occasion, Dessie. I hope so! Thanks for your interest!

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Andy I hope this film has a wide distribution, as it sounds like it is making important points.

    Toronto and Vancouver are also in a long term housing bubble that some people keep predicting will burst, catastrophically.

    I too live in social housing — a housing coop, specifically. Some of the rents in my building are subsidized, most people pay what is called “market rent”, but, which is actually almost half what they would have to pay, if they were actually renting somewhere else.

    There is something called housing coop, in the USA, where you bring a big whack of cash to the table, and buy equity into a building. Canadian housing coops, like mine, started as corporations where the Government initially guaranteed a mortgage, to build the building, and an annual stipend, to provide subsidies. Members, like myself, got to move in, without paying any equity. We have largely run the building, with very light government regulation, mainly connected with maintenance, and how we administer the subsidy funds.

    You wrote that the Grenfell building had recently had 8.7 million pounds spent to refurbish it — including the outer panels. In my building a coop general member’s meeting would have decided which kind of legally acceptable panels to use, and I think it is likely we would have gone with the ceramic ones.

    My building is almost 35 years old, but well maintained, and comfortable. Sadly, a Conservative government came in, about 25 years ago, and ended the program that guaranteed those mortgages, and this remarkably successful program, has not been revived. 45,000 people live in a housing coop, like mine, in Toronto.

    The housing fee (ie rent) a member pays for a one bedroom unit in my building is a little more than half what an ordinary renter would pay in an ordinary rental building, even if that building was 25-35 years old. We don’t have a secret to good maintenance. There are half a dozen coops within a block or two of me. They all have comparable housing fees to my buildings. What I believe this shows is not the good management of my building, but rather the huge profits the owner of a private rental building can make, during a housing bubble.

    Advocates for affordable housing in the UK, when addressing the issue of new construction, could do worse than to consider whether they could use elements of this model of social housing through guaranteeing the mortgages of cooperative corporations.

    Here is an article from the Toronto Star Housing coop still thriving 30 years later

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver, for your observations. I assure there are lessons that could be learned for the Canadian model.
    There is a history of co-ops here too, but many evolved out of the squatting movement of the 60 and 70s. Most of the not-for-profit rented sector is either run by councils or by housing associations, which have grown in influence over the last 30 years so, largely taking over council properties; in some cases, taking over whole towns or cities’ social housing. The problem, of course, as we’re seeing so vividly, is that both councils and housing associations have had their funding squeezed so hard or cut entirely by the austerity-crazed Tories that their purpose – to provide genuinely affordable housing – is in risk of being destroyed as they get more and more involved in private developments to make money, and the terrible shared ownership schemes we have here, where, paying many times more than they did in social rent, people get to nominally own a quarter or a half of their home.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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