Social Housing

How Councils Ruin Social Housing for Financial Gain

We spoke to director Paul Sng about his new documentary, 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle'.
July 3, 2017, 10:37am
Govanhill, Glasgow. Photo: Rob Clayton

Last week, at a Q&A for his new film, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, director Paul Sng was asked how Britain's social housing crisis began. He said, "It goes back to 1066; as soon as the arrow goes into King Harold's eye and William the Conqueror divides up the land between all the dukes and creates the feudal system of property, that's where the problem begins, and that's still happening today."


Hundreds of years on, the wealthy still get first dibs here in the UK. We still live in a society in which the most vulnerable aren't necessarily guaranteed a safe and secure place to live – as we saw tragically with Grenfell Tower – while the amount of social housing available continues to plummet, demolished in favour of lavish private developments.

Paul Sng's documentary spans London, Glasgow and Nottingham in its analysis of Britain's social housing crisis. Calling upon residents, MPs, councillors and private development companies, it reveals chronic lack of investment in social housing complexes that all too often leads to disrepair and a justification for demolition.

In many cases, such as with the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle, the replacing of social housing with private rented accommodation prices residents out of the area, resulting in a particularly toxic kind of social cleansing. To find out more, I spoke to Paul about his film and what can be done to help prevent the continued decimation of social housing in Britain.

A tower block in Nottingham. Photo: Rob Clayton

VICE: Hi Paul. Why is there not stronger opposition from local councils when it comes to "regeneration" actually pushing long-term residents out?
Paul Sng: It's multi-layered. British councils haven't been able to borrow money to build. I think the issue is that a lot of the councils are in debt. Lambeth particularly, when they're building new social housing in order to cut down those debts, they need to put in private properties for sale as well as social housing, so you'll find in many cases that there will be luxury apartments within a complex and that's basically in order to generate money.


And social housing residents come out of the whole thing worse than they started.
With the Heygate estate they demolished 1,000 houses, built 2,700-odd new ones, and only 80-odd were available at social rent. This creates a culture of distrust in the borough. Matthew Bennett – the previous cabinet member for housing at Lambeth – he announced the demolition of the Cressingham Gardens estate [in Tulse Hill] on Twitter.

That's just awful
It is, isn't it. You just think, 'These are people's lives – these are their homes – and to do something like that, it just smacks of inhumanity.'

St Ann's, Nottingham. Photo: Rob Clayton

With around a third of current MPs also serving as landlords, can they be impartial on housing policy?
Yeah, I mean, 71 Tory MPs voted against the bill to make homes fit for human habitation – that's crazy. Personally, I don't think MPs should be allowed to have any other income while they're an MP. It's too open to corruption. If you're an MP and you're voting on legislation that will either benefit you or would be detrimental to your earnings, that's a massive conflict of interest, isn't it?

Hugely. Do you think councils might be purposefully depriving areas of investment so they can be demolished and bought by private companies?
I think so. Certainly in London and in inner city areas. If you're a council tenant, a percentage of your rent is ring-fenced for maintenance and refurbishment of the estate. But if that money is then not being spent on maintaining the estate, that's a swindle, really. Especially when a lot of the time, the justification to demolish them is attributed to the fact that repairs and refurbishment works are too expensive. Well that, you could then argue, is a process of managed decline, where you've let the estate fall into a state of such disrepair that it actually becomes more financially viable to demolish it and start again.


Whose fault is that?
I always think that, in any job I've ever had, anywhere that I've ever worked, there's always a percentage of people who don't know what they're doing. I think in the case of Lambeth and Southwark councils, they either don't know what they're doing and they've made massive mistakes, or they do know what they're doing and that's slightly more sinister, in that it's deliberate mismanagement of resources and deliberately bad communication.

Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London

So where do estate agents come into all of this?
At one point we were going to have this interview with this guy who's, like, an ethical estate agent, if that's not an oxymoron, and in the end we didn't do the interview because we were running out of time. You can always tell an estate agent because they're wearing that kind of suit.

It's normally the big watch for me.
The watch, yeah. And you know those shoes? Those horrible light tanned shoes that they all wear, with the weird design at the front that has that kind of ridge bit down the middle. Only estate agents wear those shoes.

Can these problems be changed from the bottom up, or do we need a change of government?
A change in government would help, but the thing is – in London, at least – it's Labour councils doing a lot of this stuff, regenerating all of these estates. I don't think Jeremy Corbyn is going to be a panacea for improving the lives of council residents. I think it could be better, but it would rely on Jeremy Corbyn turning around and condemning what his councils are doing.


READ: Every Flat in a New South London Development Has Been Sold to Foreign Investors

Should there be an independent union for social housing residents that's countrywide?
That would be a good idea, but again, how would you fund it? Who runs it? It would be helpful. Obviously there are tenant's associations that are set up, but it depends how many people on an estate join a tenants' association. It's frustrating that people are having to become experts in housing law, in architecture, in town planning to, you know, try to just hold their own against the council. That shouldn't be necessary, but unfortunately it is.

During filming you had problems getting in touch with Tory MPs and right-wing figures – why do you think that was the case?
I shouldn't have announced the title, but we needed to because you can't give someone a false title when they sign a release form. I think we should have kept it as "Dispossession". Putting "swindling" in the wording made it look as if we'd already made up our mind. We kind of had, but I originally imagined it to be more polemic than it turned out. It was difficult to get a broad range of people.

How do you plan to get as many people to see this film as possible?
Well, if you approach an MP and if they basically sponsor the screening to show it in Parliament, it then happens on that basis. I mean, I live in Brighton, so I'll arrange a meeting with Caroline Lucas and see if she'll do it. Hopefully we'll get it on in Parliament, and if not we'll get in on to Corbyn, because I think he needs to see it definitely.


Thank you, Paul.


See more about 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle' here.

UPDATE 03/07/17: An earlier version of this article stated that Matthew Bennett announced on Twitter that the Central Hill estate was going to be demolished, when in fact it was the Cressingham Gardens estate.

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