Countless Cities: Photographs by Alessia Gammarota

It is estimated that today the earth is inhabited by 7.7 billion people. More than half the world’s population lives in urban environments, and the process of abandoning rural areas continues to escalate. Climate change, economic upheaval and global migration to cities will define the future of humanity. It seems incredible, but we do not even know the number of cities in the world. But what are cities? How do they work? And why are some cities more sought after than others as places to live? Countless Cities is a biennial exhibition that is launched on 28 June 2019 at Farm Cultural Park, a contemporary-arts centre in the midst of the rural town of Favara on the Italian island of Sicily. The Farm is an urban renewal project to transform the heart of Favara into a modern art exhibition and community space. The exhibition runs till 27 October 2019, and will be held inside and outside seven pavilions across both Favara and Agrigento. The UK pavilion about London is exhibiting photographs by Alessia Gammarota, with captions by Architects for Social Housing, and set in the context of the ASH map of London’s estate regeneration programme.

ASH map of London’s estate regeneration programme

In August 2017, during their residency at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Architects for Social Housing produced a map of London’s estate regeneration programme. They identified 237 council or housing association estates that have recently undergone, are currently undergoing, or are threatened with demolition, privatisation or renovation resulting in the mass loss of homes for social rent and the social cleansing of existing residents from their communities. This represents the greatest transfer of UK public housing into private ownership since the Right to Buy scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, and which today has sold 2 million council homes, over 40 per cent of which are now being rented out on the private rental market by professional landlords. By demolishing the only form of housing that offers an alternative to this market, and by clearing inner-city land for redevelopment as investments for global capital, the estate regeneration programme is the driving mechanism of London’s housing crisis. This programme affects not just the 24 per cent of Londoners who still live in social housing but all Londoners, with private rental costs being driven up by competition and house prices being driven up by the financialisation of London housing.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Grenfell Tower fire, London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

The fire in Grenfell Tower started just before 1am on 14 June, 2017, and spread quickly up and across the inflammable cladding and insulation. This had recently been added as part of the cosmetic refurbishment of the building, and was designed to lessen the negative impact of a concrete tower of council housing on land values in the wealthiest borough in the UK. Residents complained to their landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, about the quality of the work, which they feared placed their safety at risk. Seven months before the fire, the Grenfell Action Group wrote:

‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.’

72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, and hundreds more lost their homes and every material possession. Of the 202 households that survived the fire, two years later 15 are still living in temporary accommodation. Despite government promises to change legislation, sprinklers still haven’t been retro-fitted to council estates, and over 300 residential blocks in the UK are still covered with flammable cladding similar to that installed on Grenfell Tower. Removing and replacing this cladding is expected to take a further 5 years, with the cost of doing so being passed onto leaseholders by the landlord.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Protest outside Kensington Town Hall

In the days and weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire, thousands of people from the local community and across London protested outside the Kensington and Chelsea town hall, demanding justice for the dead residents and their families. The findings of the public inquiry, which only began to listen to evidence a year after the fire, cannot rule on either civil or criminal liability even within its drastically narrowed terms of reference, which is only looking at the technical causes of the fire, and ignoring its bureaucratic and political context. The Metropolitan Police Service has said that its detectives won’t be handing over evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service until 2021 at the earliest, 4 years after the fire. Their criminal investigation, moreover, will be on charges of corporate manslaughter, which only carries a fine, rather than misconduct in public office or gross negligence manslaughter, both of which carry a criminal sentence. Two years after the fire, not a single one of the more than 60 contractors, consultants, board members, councillors, council officers, civil servants and Members of Parliaments responsible in various degrees for the fire has yet been arrested.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Aylesbury Estate, London Borough of Southwark

When the Aylesbury estate was completed in 1977 it was one of the largest housing complexes in Western Europe, with 2,758 flats that were home to around 7,500 people.  Twenty years later, in 1997, the newly-elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, chose to give his inaugural speech on the Aylesbury estate. The estate is located in the Inner-London borough of Southwark, and had been neglected of maintenance for decades by the Labour-run council. In his speech, Blair initiated the estate regeneration programme that has since demolished, is demolishing, or is threatening to demolish around 250 housing estates in London alone.

In 1999, the Aylesbury estate was targeted for such ‘refurbishment’ by Southwark council. Two years later, however, in 2001, 73 per cent of residents on a 76 per cent turn-out voted against the council’s attempt to stock transfer the Aylesbury Estate to a housing association. Following this setback, in 2005 Southwark council deliberately suppressed the report on the option to refurbish the Aylesbury Estate because it concluded that it came to only 58 per cent of the cost of demolition and redevelopment. To overcome these findings, the council then artificially raised the cost of refurbishment by £148.9 million for external works that were costed at a mere £24.8 million.

In January 2015 the Aylesbury estate was occupied by squatters and campaigners for over two months. In response, Southwark council sent in riot police, but the occupiers were one step ahead of them, and simply moved from block to block. In response, the council constructed a wall topped with razor wire around the first development site of the Aylesbury estate. That April the court finally evicted the occupiers, but the wall was left up, and the remaining residents are still living behind it, accessing their homes through security guards armed with dogs, and with the council refusing to do any repairs to their homes.

Resident and campaigner for the Aylesbury estate

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

But the campaign to save the Aylesbury estate wasn’t over. Between April and October 2015 a Public Inquiry was held into the Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) issued by Southwark council on the homes of leaseholders on the First Development Site of the Aylesbury Estate scheme. Among the objections by campaigners were that no new homes for social rent will be provided on the new development; that the scheme is financially unviable; that the options for refurbishment and infill had not been considered; and that the scheme will not benefit the wider area, which is a legal requirement for the issuing of CPOs.

In September 2016, to the surprise of everyone, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government upheld the Government Inspector’s recommendation not to confirm the CPO. The primary reason was that, in contravention of Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, the CPOs would have disproportionately negative effects on elderly residents unable to afford to buy new properties in the area, on children forced to move to new schools, and on residents from black and ethnic minorities separated from their communities. Southwark council, therefore, was in breach of its Public Sector Equality Duty. However, in April 2017, following increased offers to leaseholders, the Secretary of State lifted his block. A year later, in April 2018, the Aylesbury leaseholders withdrew their objections to the CPO after reaching a confidential agreement with Southwark council.

Since 2005 the 2,758 homes on the Aylesbury estate have been gradually emptied and demolished by Southwark council, and are currently awaiting redevelopment by Notting Hill Genesis housing association. The new development will have around 4,200 properties, but will have 778 fewer homes for social rent in a borough with 11,000 households on the council housing waiting list. Across Southwark, a total of 9,500 homes for social rent are currently being lost to regeneration schemes initiated by Southwark council.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Cotton Gardens estate, London Borough of Lambeth

Following the Grenfell Tower fire, politicians and developers sought to capitalise on the man-made disaster by arguing that all council estate tower blocks were fundamentally unsafe and should be pulled down. This served their agenda of clearing Inner London of social housing to make way for luxury developments that would release the residual value of highly lucrative London land currently occupied by council estates and residents. In fact, it was the new cladding on Grenfell Tower that caused the deaths, while the tower itself, which was constructed of reinforced concrete in 1974, is still standing after being on fire for two days at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees centigrade.

Cotton Gardens estate in Kennington was completed in 1968, six years before Grenfell Tower, and like it is typical of the build quality, design innovations and generous space standards of post-war council housing. In contrast to which, many of the new residential developments in London, thrown up quickly, purchased by overseas buyers who will never visit them, and rented out for exorbitant prices to tenants who have no other choice of housing, are of poor standard of design, build quality, space standards and safety. Across London, numerous new residential complexes are either being pulled down or, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, being decanted of residents while their flammable cladding is removed. Not only is UK housing policy not based on building the homes in which residents can afford to live, but the properties themselves are inferior to what they’re replacing.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

ASH consultation with residents of Patmore Co-operative

The 854 homes on Patmore estate were completed in 1960 and are now home to over 2,000 residents. In 1994 residents formed the Patmore Co-operative to manage the estate and address the long-term lack of investment by the council. Two years ago, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) was invited by the co-operative to produce a vision for the future of Patmore estate. This began with a series of consultations and workshops in which residents gave feedback on what they would like to see improved. ASH’s proposals include refurbishing the existing buildings, new windows, heating, lighting, insulation, ventilation, waste disposal, cycle storage, paths, fencing, play equipment, and the possibility of new additional housing through infill and roof extensions. One of the most popular ideas, proposed by residents and taken up by ASH, is the re-use of disused laundry rooms as communal rooms for resident initiatives and ‘DIY’ spaces.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

The Patmore Estate, London Borough of Wandsworth

The Patmore estate lies with the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea opportunity area, one of the largest building sites in Europe, and is therefore under threat of demolition and redevelopment by London’s estate regeneration programme. Designed to clear land for the development of the highest value properties possible, this programme currently threatens over 200 housing estates in London alone, and is the driving mechanism of London’s crisis of housing affordability. The nearby developments around Battersea Power Station are far beyond the financial means of most Londoners, and function primarily as investment opportunities for global capital, buy-to-let landlords and speculators on London’s property market.

The immediate cost of this programme is the social cleansing of Inner London of its working-class, black and minority-ethnic populations, which makes up a disproportionate portion of London’s housing estate communities. But the demolition of London’s social housing, and the construction of tens of thousands of prime and super-prime properties, is driving up housing costs on both the private rental and housing market, with the result that 1 in every 52 Londoners, 165,000 people, are now homeless. The crisis of housing affordability has been one of the main motivations in the UK population voting for Brexit, with foreign investment in UK property and house prices both dropping since 2016.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Southbank Place, London Borough of Lambeth

A new development on the south bank of the River Thames, properties on Southbank Place start at £1,050,000 and go up to £7.85 million. According to a report by Transparency International, 40 per cent of the apartments were bought by offshore companies registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, and 60 per cent purchased by investors from high corruption risk jurisdictions. Southbank Place is being developed by Braeburn Estates, a joint venture between the Canary Wharf Group, a British property developer that owns 7.9 million square feet of London property, and Qatari Diar, the property investment arm of the Qatari Investment Authority. The sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar, the QIA has around £30 billion worth of investments in the UK out of an estimated £275 billion in assets worldwide. Other London properties owned by Qatari Diar include The Shard and East Village, a housing development in East London.

In 2015 Southbank Place was purchased for more than £550 million by Almacantar, a property investment and development company part-owned by the Agnelli family of Italian billionaires. Since being founded in 2010, Almacantar has acquired over 1.5 billion square feet of prime property in Central London, including, in addition to Southbank Place, Centre Point Residences, Marble Arch Place, CAA House, Lyons Place and 125 Shaftesbury Avenue. In May 2019 Almacantar put Southbank Place up for sale for £875 million. In the ten years between 2005 and 2014, at least £170 billion worth of UK property was acquired by offshore companies registered in tax havens. Transparency International has been unable to identify the real owners of more than half of the 44,000 UK land titles registered to oversees companies, but 9 out of 10 of the properties were purchased through tax havens. Almost 1,000 of the land titles were owned by powerful individuals identified as having political influence and constituting the greatest risk of corruption.

Photograph by Alessia Gammarota

Nova Victoria, City of Westminster

Following a £2.2 billion investment by Land Securities, with £14 billion of property holdings the UK’s largest listed property developer, the Inner-London neighbourhood of Victoria is undergoing a boom in mixed-use developments of office, retail and residential units. The 18-storey Nova Victoria building, a £380 million complex, won the 2017 Carbuncle Cup for the UK’s ugliest new building. At the same time as granting planning permission for these deposit boxes in the sky, the local authority, Westminster City council, is pursuing a programme of estate demolition to free up the land for further such developments, with the Ebury Bridge council estate the latest to be targeted for demolition and redevelopment as luxury housing.

In the decade since the financial crisis, London house prices have risen from an average of £245,000 in April 2009 to a current average asking price of £614,000, and now cost more than seventeen times the average London salary of £35,000. In Inner London that price rises to around £970,000. Home ownership in the UK, which peaked at 71 per cent in 2003, has been declining ever since and now stands at 63 per cent, with only 47 per cent of Londoners having a mortgage or owning their own home. The total value of the UK housing stock in 2018 was £7.29 trillion, having risen by a third over the last decade alone. £1.77 trillion of that housing stock is in London, nearly a quarter of the total. 72 per cent of the increase in the value of housing stock in 2018, £137.7 billion, was due to house prices going up, while only 28 per cent was from new properties being built. £1.5 trillion was in the private rental sector. Equivalent to 3.45 times the gross domestic product of the UK, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth, the UK property market now constitutes an economy in itself.

Foxtons Halloween costume of the year

Founded in 1981, Foxtons is commonly known as ’Britain’s most hated property agent’ because of its aggressive tactics and leading role in the gentrification of Inner-London neighbourhoods. In 2006 a BBC documentary about the estate agency industry accused Foxtons’ agents of misleading clients, falsifying signatures on contracts, over-valuing properties, instructing subcontractors to destroy the sale signs of rival agencies, and charging tenants of the properties they manage exorbitant fees. Foxtons charges tenants £420 in administration fees and £210 just to put their name on a contract, 6 weeks’ deposit, a month’s rent up front before moving in, £300 for a change of occupancy within an existing tenancy, £120 to renew terms at the end of each tenancy, £60 for each letter sent if a tenant is late with the rent, £35 for a letter of reference from them, and £165 for an end of tenancy inventory check.

Foxtons Poster

In April 2015 Reclaim Brixton organised a demonstration against the gentrification of the Inner-London neighbourhood of Brixton. One of the corporate outlets targeted by protesters was Foxtons estate agent. During the march protesters broke the estate agents’ window, an act that was widely condemned in the British press as ‘mindless vandalism’. In reality, 30 per cent of London households now have to find a home on the private rental market controlled by estate agents like Foxtons, and four years after the protest the average rent in Brixton advertised by Foxtons is £2,054 per month. Across London, rents have risen to an average of £1,588 per month, 70 per cent higher than the UK average. While the total rent paid by UK tenants in 2018 rose to £51.6 billion, more than double the £22.6 billion paid in 2007, just twelve years ago. ‘Millennials’, young people born between 1977 and 1995, paid £30.2 billion of that rent, more than three times the £9.7 billion they spent in 2007. It is predicted that over the next quarter of a century rents in the UK will rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty.

Photographs by Alessia Gammarota
Captions by Architects for Social Housing

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