How Architects for Social Housing Took On the Dangerous Neo-Liberal Contempt for Social Housing of Patrik Schumacher and Others at the Barbican

A banner in defence of social housing at the Anarchist Bookfair in Tottenham on October 28, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

On Saturday, while I was meeting up with other social housing campaigners at the Anarchist Bookfair in Tottenham (where there was a screening of the powerful documentaryDispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle,’ housing activist and academic Lisa McKenzie and anti-fascist activist Martin Lux were discussing ‘Taking it to the Streets — the politics of Class Solidarity,’ and the Radical Housing Network was discussing ‘After Grenfell, the struggle for housing justice’), Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing was taking on some of those seeking to justify and celebrate the neo-liberal destruction of social housing at the Battle of Ideas in the Barbican Centre, described as “two days of high-level thought-provoking public debate.”

To be blunt, it is hard to think of a more important topic for those living in the UK right now than the parlous state of housing, and the class war and exploitation of the poor by the rich that is currently underway, and that, if it isn’t stopped, will destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people over the coming decade.

Those people live in social housing, on estates that are being torn down not because there is fundamentally anything wrong with them structurally, but because those responsible for them — councils and housing associations — starved of funding by central government, have chosen not to fight for their tenants, but to enter into deals with wealthy and rapacious international property developers, who knock down the estates, and replace them with hideously overpriced new apartment blocks and towers, largely for sale to foreign investors.

In contrast, those who used to live on the estates — the tenants and, in the cases of properties formerly owned by councils, the leaseholders — are lied to about the reality of their predicament until, in many cases, they willingly sign their own death warrants regarding their homes. Tenants, in general, do not get to return to the new developments — and if they do, they pay considerably more, for less space, and with no tenancy rights whatsoever — while leaseholders — those who bought into Margaret Thatcher’s promise of home ownership for council tenants — are offered such derisory amounts of money for their homes that they can no longer live in the area.

Simon Elmer and his colleague, Geraldine Dening, set up Architects for Social Housing in 2015 as an alliance of like-minded individuals opposed to this destruction, and their main contribution to this unfolding nightmare — beyond taking a strong moral and ethical point of view in defence of those who live in social housing — has been to demonstrate, over and over, how refurbishment is much cheaper than demolition, and, through detailed planning, how infilling and adding to existing buildings can create extra homes without the need for any destruction.

The councils and developers don’t care, of course, because their mission is not to save existing estates, and provide new housing for genuinely affordable social rents, but to socially cleanse their boroughs of their poorer inhabitants, or those who failed to jump onto the housing ladder the last time it was remotely affordably for people on average incomes, around 15 years ago, and to join in the profiteering of the developers. In some cases, those responsible seem to have nothing but contempt for those in social housing — and as ASH has continually pointed out, the majority of the wrecking crews are Labour councils —but in other cases the ideology also involves old-fashioned corruption, with many councillors and council officials joining developers via generous revolving door policies.

On Saturday, Simon Elmer was not up against councillors but a largely unappealing group of architects and advisers in thrall to neo-liberal supremacist views, and all demonstrating absolute contempt for those poorer than themselves and their destructive and heartless colleagues. The only one I knew of in advance was Patrik Schumacher, who took over from Zaha Hadid as the head of Zaha Hadid Architects after Hadid’s death, and whose contemptuous supremacist views appal everyone who retains a shred of decency.

As the architectural website Dezeen explained last November:

Zaha Hadid‘s closest confidantes have distanced themselves from the speech made by her successor Patrik Schumacher, in which he called for social housing to be scrapped and public space to be privatised.

Rana Hadid, Peter Palumbo and Brian Clarke – the three other trustees of the Zaha Hadid Foundation, and executors of Hadid’s estate – said they “totally disagree” with Schumacher’s views.

They also claimed that Hadid herself would have opposed the speech, which mapped out the architect’s vision for a deregulated and privatised city, with support for foreign investment into property and gentrification.

“The views recently expressed by Patrik Schumacher regarding the closure of art schools, the abandonment of social housing and the building over of Hyde Park are his personal views and are not, in any way, shared by us,” said the trio.

“Knowing Dame Zaha as well as we did, we can state categorically that she would have been totally opposed to these views and would have disassociated herself from them. We personally also totally disagree with these views.”

The others on the panel were a compromised academic, Kath Scanlon, Lisa Taylor, the Chief Executive of a think-tank grandiosely called the Future of London, and James Woudhuysen, formerly Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and now a visiting professor at London’s South Bank University, who, although reprimanded by Simon below for his thoughts on recycling, has some interesting views on housing, and, in particular, believes, with some merit, that prefabrication is the answer to Britain’s housing crisis — see this article from 2004, and this paper, written with the architect Ian Abley, also in 2004, imagining a prefabricated housing future in 2016, which, of course, never happened. The two had just written a book called Why is construction so backward?, explaining how the UK “construction sector is one of the world’s weakest in innovation.” 

Below I’m cross-posting the text of Simon Elmer’s speech on Saturday, as made available on the ASH website, prefaced by an introduction in which he explained more about his fellow panelists, and provided pertinent links to their work — or their malignant propaganda. This is a rather powerful and concise defence of ASH’s position, which I thoroughly endorse, and a necessary and important rebuke to the dark forces bent on the destruction of all social housing. The links in Simon’s speech, I should note, are my own additions.

Unfortunately, those on the dark side have considerable money and influence, but we are many and they are few, and if we can genuinely work out how to remember what solidarity is, after 30-40 years of its persistent erosion by the neo-liberals who are still trying to wipe us out, then we can take on these disgraceful people, who wage their bitter ideological wars not on traditional battlefields, but though turning our actual homes into battlefields from which we are to be cleansed, resist them en masse, and win this fight!

Be warned, though, if we don’t work out how to fight back effectively, we will be evicted, marginalised and removed to whatever towns can be found that can be made into privately-rented ghettos.

Battle of Ideas: Reform or Revolution in Housing?
ASH, October 28, 2017

On Saturday, 28 October, as part of the Barbican’s Battle of Ideas festival, ASH was part of a panel debate titled Housing: Reform or Revolution? The rest of the panel was composed of Patrik Schumacher, the Principle at Zaha Hadid Architects, who the previous year, at a speech at the World Architecture Festival, had called for estates in Inner London to be demolished to make way for more productive people and their ‘amazing multiplying events’; Kath Scanlon, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, who the same year co-authored a report commissioned by the Berkeley Group recommending their estate redevelopment, Kidbrooke Village, as an example of why London’s housing should be taken out of the control of local authorities and placed in the hands of private developers; Lisa Taylor, Chief Executive of [the] Future [of] London, a policy network which the previous year had published a report recommending that demolishing and redeveloping council estates was one of the keys to addressing London’s housing crisis; and James Woudhuysen, Visiting Professor at London’s South Bank University, who in 2006 on the BBC Breakfast Show had argued that recycling was a symptom of an ‘authoritarian state’ and accused the Green Party of being ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-human’. This is the text of ASH’s presentation.

1. Reform or revolution?

A photo of an advert for hideously overpriced apartments in New Cross, London, used by Simon Elmer of Architects for Social Housing in his talk at the Battle of Ideas in the Barbican Centre on October 28, 2017.I want to start with title of this event: reform or revolution, and look at what this opposition means in practice through a recent image of a new housing development. The image is an advert for the NX Gate apartments in New Cross. It shows a young woman in what I guess advertising executives would call a state of excitement, over which are written the words: ‘The rental revolution is here! Rent from £300 per week’. Developed by Realstar Living, NX Gate rents 2-bedroom apartments from £1,525 per month, not including the numerous service charges. Just down the road from this new development is the Achilles Street estate, where a 2-bedroom council flat costs £414 per month, nearly a quarter as much. Despite this, Lewisham council has plans to demolish this estate and redevelop it along the same lines as NX Gate, making it just one of over 190 such estates that have recently undergone, are undergoing, or are threatened with redevelopment, privatisation and social cleansing by London’s estate regeneration programme. In case we don’t know at whom this ‘revolution’ is being marketed, the Rightmove advert for NX Gate indicates that the new development is 10 minutes from Cannon Street and 12 minutes from Canary Wharf, with Goldsmiths College just around the corner.

In short, the ‘revolution’ in housing is a marketing gimmick, aimed at young bankers looking to buy and international students looking to rent with the bank of mum and dad. So let’s look at the reality behind this gimmick.

2. There is no such thing as a free market

Last year my fellow panelist Patrik Schumacher famously declared that council tenants were being subsidised by the state to live in parts of London they would not otherwise be able to afford, and that he wanted to demolish their homes to make way for what he called ‘his people’. Now, whatever you may think of this programme for the social cleansing of Inner London, the reality is that the UK’s post-war housing estates paid off their construction costs and debt interest years ago, and are actually making a profit for councils and housing associations. Or at least, they would be if they weren’t demolishing so many of them.

Like so many things taken as fact in debates about how to solve the housing crisis, the truth is the exact opposite of what we are told. It is the private sector that is being subsidised by the state through a myriad of schemes: Right to Buy, which has sold 1.8 million council homes, a quarter of which are now owned by private landlords; Housing Benefit, which pays £20 billion a year to subsidise the growing private rental market that has taken their place; Help to Buy, Rent to Buy and Shared Ownership, which are available to households earning £90,000 a year; and more generally with the billions of pounds of public land and assets that are being sold to private developers at a fraction of their market value. The truth is that there is no private housing scheme that is not based on pocketing huge sums of public money.

3. The public sector doesn’t exist

But just as there is no such thing as a free market, so the public sector also doesn’t exist. Is it any wonder that Parliament refuses to regulate the private rental market when 1 in every 5 MPs is a landlords? In the local authorities implementing the estate demolition programme the conflict of interest is even greater. The prime example here is Southwark council, where 1 in 5 councillors are lobbyists for the building industry, and where 6 of the most senior officers responsible for selling the Heygate estate to property developers Lendlease for one-fifteenth of its market value now either work for or with the company.

And the lobbying is not confined to councillors. Kath Scanlon of the London School of Economics, who sits beside me on this panel, was paid by the Berkeley Group to produce a report on Kidbrooke Village, a development built by them on land cleared of over 1,900 demolished council homes and around 5,000 evicted council tenants. Of the 4,500 properties for private sale being built in their place, only 150 are planned for social rent. Despite this, Professor Scanlon’s report recommended that not only our homes but our communities too be handed over to the design and profits of private developers like the Berkeley Group, whose pre-tax profits have quadrupled in just five years from £136 million in 2011 to £531 million in 2016.

In short, our public housing and public land is in the hands of individuals and institutions that mistake stewardship for ownership, and public service for the opportunity to flog our public assets to the highest bidder.

4. Building more homes is not the answer

It is universally agreed that to solve the housing crisis we need to build more homes. However, the housing crisis is not one of supply but of affordability, with 56 per cent of London homes failing to meet this criterion. Now, while the law of supply and demand describes a capitalist dream of competitive markets responding to human needs, London’s financialised housing market, flooded by global capital, is driven by profit margins. House prices in London have risen by 86 per cent since 2009 to an average price of nearly £491,000 in January 2017, fourteen-and-a-half times the average London salary, and in Inner London to £970,000; while rents in London’s private rental market have gone up by 9.6 per cent in the past two years alone to an average of £2,216 per month for a 2-bedroom home, double the national average. Simply building more high-value properties will only push these prices up.

In transport systems this is called ‘induced demand’, when building more roads actually increases traffic. As an example of which, a decade ago the only baker’s on Hackney’s Kingsland High Street was Greggs, where you could buy a loaf for under a quid. Nowadays the street is lined with artisanal bakeries selling loaves at many times that price – and, just as importantly, as of last year Greggs stopped selling loaves to concentrate on take-away health-food fodder for the influx of Dalston hipsters. Not only has the increased number of bakeries in the area increased prices rather than reducing them, but it has also removed the low-cost loaf for the local working-class population. We all know what this process is called: gentrification, which isn’t driven by consumer choice but by market creation. If we leave London’s housing to the market, all we’ll get is the housing equivalent of more artisanal bakeries.

5. There is no housing crisis

The estimated total value of the housing stock in England in January 2017 was £6.8 trillion, an extraordinary figure that has increased by £1.5 trillion in the last three years alone. Equivalent to 3.7 times the gross domestic product of the entire UK, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth, the property market now constitutes an economy in itself. Unsurprisingly, £1.7 trillion of that housing stock is in London. The function of new-build properties in London is not to house the 250,000 London households currently on housing waiting lists, or the 240,000 London households with 320,000 children living in overcrowded accommodation, or the 50,000 London households with 78,000 children that are currently homeless and living in temporary accommodation; it is to satisfy the demand of international capital for investment opportunities.

Because of the enormously inflated exchange value of these new-build properties, their use value as homes for Londoners in need of housing is almost zero. On the contrary, the more council estates are demolished to clear the land for their construction, and the more public land is lost to private companies, so the higher the demand for housing grows, the higher the price of the housing being built in their place is driven up, and the louder the demands to demolish more council estates to make way for higher cost housing in their place.

6. Architects for Social Housing

So what’s the answer? Over the past 3 years Architects for Social Housing has designed alternatives to the demolition of 5 estates, increasing their capacity by up to 45 per cent without demolishing a single existing home. Through renting or selling a percentage of the new builds privately we can generate the funds to refurbish the rest of the estate, which has typically been deprived of maintenance for years as part of its managed decline. If the requirement is to build more homes in which Londoners can afford to live, there is no necessity to demolish the only homes in London to have escaped the speculation in property. Like austerity measures, London’s programme of estate demolition and redevelopment is not an economic necessity but a political choice.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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).

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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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