The Great Social Housing Swindle: The human cost of the housing crisis

New documentary Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle unravels the dark tale of communities and homes destroyed, as governments and the media condemn and demonise social housing

A new film on social housing is touring cinemas around the country. And it is painfully, horribly timely.

Director Paul Sng’s Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle tells the stories of people living in social housing in London, Glasgow and Nottingham – and charts the neglect and demolition of their neighbourhoods and communities.

Watching the film again in the wake of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, their stories gain extra power, the film becomes even more important. Some lessons to be gleaned from the neglect of social housing and the ways in which the concerns of social housing tenants are so readily dismissed by councils and developers are agonisingly clear.

Introducing the West End Premiere of the film, which took place less than 48 hours after the fire at Grenfell Tower began, Sng dedicated the screening to the families and loved ones of the victims of the tragedy. “Now is not the time to blame, but to listen,” he said. “To listen to working class people, their fears for their homes – people who have been marginalised, neglected and are not being listened to.”

Each screening of the film is followed by a Q&A with Sng, contributors to the film, housing experts and local activists.

The ambitious plan is for the film to do more than articulate the human costs of the economic and political decisions that have brought us to this point of crisis. It is aiming to do more than inform and educate about the decline of social housing. Instead, the film makers are hoping that, by bringing together local and national housing activists to share their stories, the film could help future campaigners bidding to save social housing – and ensuring that the concerns of local campaigners and residents are heard.

I wanted to look at the human cost of the housing crisis

It is also hoping to change the conversation about social housing. As journalist and activist Dawn Foster said at the London screening: “They only call them tower blocks when poor people live in them. They only want to demolish them when poor people live in them.”

Activist and academic Dr Lisa Mckenzie, who talks to friends and former neighbours on the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham in the film, added: “I felt helpless yesterday and today. This ‘murder’ that has happened has made me feel helpless. The only way to challenge this is by doing it together. I want this film to be a campaign. We are saying to everyone, get together, talk, meet, swap details – this is probably the biggest issue of our time.

“There are campaigns all over the country that have learned how to do this. I want us to share what we know and share our knowledge so we don’t have to start from scratch”

Speaking to Sng before the film’s release, it was clear that Dispossession… was already a passion project.

“I wanted to look at the human cost of the housing crisis,”  says Sng, who is best known for 2015’s film Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, which followed the riotous rise of the UK’s angriest band.

He describes the film as “political but not party political.”

In 1979, 42 per cent of people in the UK lived in social housing. Today that figure is eight per cent – with a waiting list of around 1.4 million. How did we get to this point?

Margaret Thatcher - Right To Buy
Margaret Thatcher introduced the Right To Buy policy in 1980

The film, narrated by Maxine Peake, unravels the dark tale, charting the decline and fall of social housing. We hear about the policies, the failures, the deals between developers and councils, the marginalisation of social housing tenants.

It explains how, from Lloyd George’s “Homes fit for Heroes” in 1919, through the post-war council housing boom – in which 80 per cent of more than one million homes built by Clement Attlee’s government were council homes – social housing was at the heart of all parties’ housing policy in the UK for decades.

We all know governments have caused the housing crisis. That starts with Margaret Thatcher

“[Since then] successive governments have not seen the need for social housing,” explains Sng. “They think everyone should aspire to be a homeowner.

“We all know governments have caused the housing crisis. That starts with Margaret Thatcher and the Right to Buy policy. Five years after Right to Buy was introduced, there was a housing boom. Then we had the accumulation of property as investment, as asset accumulation. Then into the 1990s, we had Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments, which simply did not build enough.

“Not replenishing the stocks that were sold off led to chronic shortages. You need to replace like for like – otherwise where will the next generation live?”

Rather than being a dry regurgitation of statistics and politics, Dispossession… hears from people fighting to stay in homes and neighbourhoods in which they built their lives. The film visits estates in London, Nottingham and Glasgow, highlighting communities threatened with destruction by councils and developers eager to cash in on high land values during austere times, when funding from central government was cut.

Cressingham Gardens

“We came when our children were quite small, having lived in a high-rise flat on the 15th floor. It was like a dream come true, really,” says Eileen O’Keefe, who has lived on the Cressingham Gardens estate, London (above), since it was built in the early 1970s.

“Our children grew up together playing outside. And our grandchildren know each other. We’ve been to their children’s weddings and they’ve been to our children’s weddings. It has been a lovely community since we moved in. It is like living in a village, in a way.”

“A lot of us moved in here within a fortnight. And we built a community from scratch,” adds her husband, Michael.

DID YOU KNOW…

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For Sng, the story of this pedestrianised estate of houses with gardens, designed by architect and town planner Edward Hollamby, is typical of recent social housing history. “At Cressingham Gardens the residents were consulted on five possible options, including partial renovation, redevelopment and rebuilding, or the one that no one wanted, which was to demolish. They all voted against that option but the council went ahead with it,” he says. But the residents fought back, a fight which continues today.

“They got together with surveyors, architects and accountants to make their own People’s Plan. An amazing document, which meant keeping the existing housing there but building around it. It would have created more social housing and would have been cheaper but the council rejected it because the council are in debt.”

He believed that social housing should be about secure, stable housing for a broad spectrum of society

At Poplar in London, Sng describes how residents of brutalist high-rise Balfron Tower (main picture) were evicted in blatant “social cleansing”. The film follows resident Gavin, who was told he could return after the tower was refurbished. “But that never happened because they didn’t take back any social rent tenants – it is now going to be all luxury apartments,” says Sng.

“In the 1960s, people were really proud of their council houses,” he continues. “A lot were designed by top architects, like Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower. He wanted to design somewhere for working class communities – they took streets of people from that area in Tower Hamlets so they would all be together in their community.

Social housing through the years:

  • 1919 Homes Fit for Heroes – the first social housing building boom is launched by PM Lloyd George to accommodate soldiers.
  • 1945 End to Austerity – after Churchill’s defeat in a shock Labour victory new PM Clement Attlee set a target of building 400,000 new houses a year to rehome people in postwar Blitzed Britain. Between 1945 and 1951, one million new homes were built.
  • 1980 Right to Buy – under Margaret Thatcher’s flagship law one million council houses were sold to tenants in seven years.
  • 1997 – the New Labour government restricted conditions for people buying council housing.
  • 2017 – Eight per cent of people in the UK live in social housing, with 1.4 million on the waiting list.

“He believed working-class communities were the driving force of society. And that social housing should be about secure, stable housing for a broad spectrum of society. If you don’t have the means to buy a house or don’t want to, it is your place and it is your home until you give it up or want to move on.”

The foregrounding of the effects of politics on people’s lives makes this perhaps the most important British film since Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake – with which it shares a campaigning zeal and a compassion. The film highlights the impact of political decisions but also the way the conversation around social housing has changed since the Second World War. At the St Ann’s estate in Nottingham, Sng, with help from Mckenzie, focusses on the stigmatisation of people in social housing.

You only see negative portrayals of estates in the media. They are not all ‘sink estates’. That is someone’s home

“You only see negative portrayals of estates in the media,” he says. “They are not all ‘sink estates’. Even if a few fit that sort of description, it is not a term anyone should be using. That is someone’s home. You see it in Shameless, Little Britain, Benefits Street and all those risible poverty porn shows that make people not living on a council estate think people who do live there are undeserving.”

As Dispossession… shows, by hearing stories of community, home and belonging, lived experiences are something very different.

“The community of St Ann’s has always looked after me. I have a young daughter of seven months old. I believe she will always feel supported by the community of St Ann’s – as I have felt.” This is Chantal Lee, 25, a St Ann’s resident who was the Labour candidate in Newark at the General Election. “There are hundreds of doors in St Ann’s I can knock on and just say, ‘I’m struggling, can you help me?’”

Screenings around the UK of Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will be followed by Q&As with the film-makers, housing experts and activists