In April of this year the BBC re-televised its three-part series Dan Cruickshank: At Home with the British, which had originally been aired in May 2016, and was again in May 2017. Halfway through the final episode, ‘The Flat’, which focuses on the history of the Lincoln estate in London’s Bow, Dan Cruickshank jumps into a Black Cab and says:
‘When the Lincoln estate was designed, the London County Council had the largest, and in many ways the finest, architectural practice in the world. Indeed, it was responsible for some of the most iconic modernist housing schemes in Europe.’
So it’s a shame that, when he gets out the cab and speaks to Historic England’s Elaine Harwood, who sings the praises of its housing schemes, he doesn’t ask her why Historic England didn’t see fit to list Central Hill estate, one of the LCC’s masterpieces, and save it from demolition by the vandals at Lambeth Labour council.
Nonetheless, Cruickshank accurately identifies three of the main causes of the decline of council estates in the UK in the late 1960s and 70s:
- The poor construction methods of unregulated developers throwing up systems-built housing, leading to the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968;
- The systematic neglect and lack of maintenance and refurbishment of buildings by councils;
- The obligation of those same councils, following the 1977 Housing Act, to house the homeless, leading to the change in the use of council estates as homes for working class families to becoming dumping grounds for everyone who had fallen through the welfare net and, soon after, Margaret Thatcher’s brave new world of free market capitalism.
What Cruickshank doesn’t identify is the impossibility of any form of public housing existing within the logic of an unregulated capitalist economy that must always find new markets in which to invest its surplus, which is the primary cause of the mass demolition and privatisation of council housing that is happening today.
In 1998 the Lincoln estate was one of seven estates and 4,500 homes that was stock transferred by Tower Hamlets Labour council into the hands of Poplar HARCA (Housing and Regeneration Community Association). Between 2005-07 several further estates were similarly handed over, including the Aberfeldy, Teviot and Brownfield estates. The latter included Balfron Tower, whose 146 flats were decanted for refurbishment between 2010-2015, with residents given a legally hazy right to return then subsequently told their former homes were being gutted and renovated by PRP Architects and sold for private sale on the market, resulting in a total loss of 99 homes for social rent. Leaseholders who wanted to enact their right to return were given a renovation bill of £137,000. Unsurprisingly, none have. On the Aberfeldy estate, 14 blocks are being demolished and replaced with 619 new homes designed by Levitt Bernstein Architects, 529 of which will be for private sale and only 63 for social rent. Despite this, in 2016 Poplar HARCA, which is now the private landlord for 9,000 homes in the area, was awarded the Guardian’s ‘Public Service Award for Transformation’.
Unfortunately, none of this is mentioned in this episode by Dan Cruickshank. Why? The last time I saw Cruickshank was in February 2017 on a Labour-organised rally to protest against the Haringey Development Vehicle that has since been paused. He was holding a Socialist Workers Party placard at the time, and looked a bit embarrassed and confused – and I can see why. The HDV deal entered into by Haringey Labour Council planned to demolish over twenty council estates, including Northumberland Park, Broadwater Farm and Sky City, in a £2 billion deal that would have handed over a 50 per cent stake in council land, housing and businesses to Lendlease, the property developers that socially cleansed over 3,000 people and demolished over 1,200 homes on the Heygate Estate, in the same kind of deal Tower Hamlets Labour council set up with Poplar HARCA and which this BBC programme celebrates as an unqualified success.
Now that it’s been privatised by Poplar Harca none of the information about the regeneration of the Lincoln estate is in the public realm, so I don’t know exactly what has happened there, and would appreciate it if anyone can post information about it in the comments below. But at the very least, as a housing association council tenants’ secure tenancies will have been swapped for assured tenancies, which means a drastic reduction in their tenancy rights and an uncapped increase in their rents and service charges; and I would imagine that leaseholders, as they have at Balfron Tower, would have faced unaffordable refurbishment bills and pressure to accept inadequate compensation for their homes that, once vacated, would then be renovated and sold on the market for four times the price. Far more important, though, is the human cost of cross-subsidising such an estate regeneration, which appears to have been what has been carried out on the Lincoln estate, with the social cleansing of communities that is undoubtedly being carried out in Balfron Tower and on the Aberfeldy estate among others. To celebrate the former without even mentioning the latter is not only bad TV journalism, it’s deliberately misleading viewers about one of the biggest political issues in London.
Which immediately makes me ask: what ideological function is this programme serving? Well, we know that BBC is an overwhelmingly Conservative Party-run organisation, and it’s in the government’s interest to paint this rosy picture of its housing policy, which is based not on the housing needs of the UK population but on the huge profits to be made on London’s property market. But in the cross-party war on the working class that is being waged through estate ‘regeneration’ by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, private companies dressed up as housing associations such as Poplar HARCA are literally being handed billions of pounds of London real estate and land, and this programme repeats, with very few questions asked, the standard narrative of council housing in this country – a narrative written by those who stand to make the greatest profit from its repetition through instruments of propaganda like the BBC.
Next time I see Dan Cruickshank on a demonstration against estate demolition, privatisation and social cleansing, I’ll ask him what the hell he was doing contributing to this propaganda. And if you see him first so should you.
Architects for Social Housing