Et tu, Boughton? Silences and Censorship in Municipal Dreams

Verso, Municipal Dreams (May 2018)

I was in town on the weekend and had a look through John Boughton’s recently published book Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. I don’t know John personally, but I know his blog, also called Municipal Dreams, and have referenced his excellent coverage of the Five Estates regeneration in Peckham, and praised his blog as a source of information for campaigners mapping London’s estate regeneration programme. Unfortunately, however, he hasn’t returned the favour. The final chapter of John’s book is titled ‘People Need Homes: These Homes Need People’, which is a slight misquote of the banners hung by the Focus E15 Mothers during their occupation of the Carpenters Estate, and covers some of the recent history of council housing in which ASH has had some involvement. Indeed, of the six estates John mentions in this chapter – Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Northwold, Cressingham Gardens and West Hendon – ASH has worked closely with the residents of the first five of them and produced design alternatives to demolition for the first four. He even mentions that residents and activists have come up with ‘People’s Plans’ for the Central Hill and West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, repeating our figures on the increase in housing capacity the ASH design proposals for the latter can achieve.

However, just as academic Anna Minton did last year in her book Big Capital, there is no reference to Architects for Social Housing in John Boughton’s book, either in the body of the text or in the footnotes. I’ll pass over the fact that, like Anna, he doesn’t mention us in his discussion of both the IPPR report City Villages and the Savills report Completing London’s Streets, which ASH did quite a lot to bring to the attention of the housing movement through both our blog articles, The London Clearances (October 2015) and Mapping London’s Housing Crisis (March 2016), and our demonstrations at the launch of the London Housing Commission’s final report in March 2016 and at the headquarters of Savills in April 2016. But if John hasn’t read or viewed these, he certainly knows about the design alternatives to the demolition of these four estates, which means he also knows about the work of ASH, the URL of our blog and our name. Indeed, John has been following the ASH blog since January 2016, and is presumably one of the 14,722 people who have visited these articles on our site. So why, like Anna Minton and Loretta Lees, has he deliberately written us out of this history?

Well, part of the reason is that West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes has removed the ASH logo and name from our own designs and the 3-D model we made of them on the website where they display them under the title of ‘The People’s Plan’. The omission of our name from John’s reference to these plans in his book, therefore, has the same origin and precedence as its omission from Labour MP Andy Slaughter’s reference to ASHs proposals in his House of Commons speech recommending them to his fellow MPs.

The second reason is because John is a Labourite, perhaps even a Corbynite. I know this because one of the things he says in this chapter is that if we were to take one estate demolition scheme as representative of the situation in housing in the UK, West Hendon is as good as any. Now, West Hendon is in Barnet, which is a Conservative-run borough, and as such unrepresentative of estate demolition schemes, which are disproportionately concentrated in London, where they are overwhelmingly implemented by Labour councils, which are responsible for 195 of the 237 schemes ASH has mapped. This makes me think that ASH’s outspokenness about this fact on our blog and our criticisms of Labour’s complicity in this programme is something John is actively trying to suppress by neither mentioning us by name when referring to our architectural designs nor footnoting our blog in his book. In case his bias is in doubt, the title of an interview with John in the Local Government Chronicle will be familiar to anyone with experience of Labour’s double standards on housing: ‘It’s the Tories who have really been playing party politics with council housing’.

The third reason is the same reason why Anna Minton and her fellow academic, Loretta Lees, have written books and published articles that draw heavily on our blog, and in the case of the latter have lifted from it verbatim, without referencing it; and that is because anyone directed to the ASH blog will find – to different extents, certainly – much of the source of their research, which is not in the periodicals and books of academics but in the blog of an architectural practice whose work is attacked and denounced by Labour activists and councillors alike.

Now, this might seem churlish to some of you, or a private grudge in the bigger issue of council housing. When we raised her failure to reference our blog with Anna last year she accused us of wanting to ‘own’ the territory, which is the opposite of what we’re trying to do. The point of ASH’s design and written work is to disseminate the knowledge it produces, and the more people that use it the more influence it has. But ASH is an unfunded organisation that receives very little in either personal donations, professional fees or public grants. Our ability to exist relies partly on proving that our work has had demonstrable impact on housing debates, partly in winning public grants and partly in finding paid design work with council estates, housing associations, tenant management organisations, housing co-operatives and community land trusts. The same goes for whether we are invited to speak at academic conferences, council scrutiny meetings and other organisations influencing housing policy. Every time we’re written out of that debate by published authors and academics like Minton, Lees and Boughton we lose another chance both to make our work better known and to build the financial capability to continue doing it. As I’ve said before and no doubt will again, in our view this is crap behaviour, professionally dishonest and lacking in generosity; but it is also motivated by the political manipulation of the truth that defines the way the Labour Party and its supporters go about their business.

Finally, having mentioned all these estates and the campaigns to save them from demolition, John concludes that ‘there are no obvious villains in this story’. This is the fence-sitting excuse of journalists who think not interrogating the lies of politicians, councillors and developers, and giving them equal weight to the verifiable facts produced by those resisting them, equates to a balanced view. It doesn’t. It means you’re too politically compromised by the truth to admit it, or too lazy to find it out, or too timid to say it, or too crap a writer to express it. This makes it all the more regrettable that John’s book doesn’t direct its readers to the ASH blog, whose more than 150 articles identify exactly who the villains are in this story. I was going to buy Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing – partly to support its author, partly because of what I might learn from reading it. As his blog shows, John has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of council housing, and I imagine his book contains more of it; but an account of council housing that, after 300 pages, refuses to identify who is responsible for its destruction, how this is being implemented and why, isn’t one I want to buy. There’s already enough disinformation out there published by the institutions and companies actively instigating its ‘fall’.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the vast majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work, you can make a donation through PayPal:

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