1. The Realism of the Impossible
Over the past couple of months I’ve been reading the poetry of Bertolt Brecht, and I’d like to start by quoting one of his poems. He wrote this poem in 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor with 44 per cent of the vote — which with the support of the Conservatives gave the Nazi Party the working majority it needed. Soon afterwards Brecht — who had been unrelentingly mocking of the ‘dauber’, as he called the former amateur painter — had to flee the country as a political exile. The poem is titled On Wavering, and given the state of the world at present there are parallels between these two historical moments. It’s a poem, I think, about political commitment.
It looks bad for our cause.
The darkness grows deeper.
Our powers grow weaker.
And now, after so many years
of work, we are in
a worse position than when we started.
Yet the enemy is stronger than ever.
His powers seem to have grown.
He has assumed the appearance
of imperial invincibility.
We, on the other hand, have made mistakes,
there’s no point in denying it.
Our numbers are dwindling.
Our slogans are in disarray.
The enemy has twisted
the meaning of our words
What now is false
of what we once said?
Some of it or everything?
On whom can we still rely?
Are we just left over,
discarded from the living stream?
Shall we remain behind,
no longer understanding anything
and by no-one understood?
Must we be lucky to succeed? This you ask.
Expect no other answer than your own.
The political dimension of architecture is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most unpleasant aspect of it. The seemingly unachievable aims of socialising housing, of creating an alternative economic system to capitalism, or of saving the planet from environmental disaster, look relatively easy compared to changing our political system. Having to engage with UK politics is something we dislike intensely. Political debate in the UK is a sandpit of social media squabbling; and the resulting politicisation of housing provision by all our parliamentary parties, who use it as a bargaining chip to advance their own aspirations to council, municipal, parliamentary and ultimately government power, is the single largest barrier to finding solutions to our housing needs.
To accompany this poem I want to show this photograph (above) of graffiti on one of the bridges over the River Seine in Paris. If you don’t read French, it says: ‘Be realists: demand the impossible.’ This photograph was taken in May 1968 during the uprising in Paris, which saw a new collaboration between striking workers and radicalised — if not quite revolutionary — students. The story goes that at a meeting at the Renault-Billancourt car factory, whose workers went on strike for 33 days, a union boss said to the committee: ‘We must be realists: don’t demand the impossible.’ The next day someone who presumably was at that meeting wrote on the walls of the factory the slogan: ‘Be realists: demand the impossible.’
What subsequently became one of the slogans of the ’68 uprising is seen as the idealist character of the events, which saw students occupy the Sorbonne to discuss overthrowing the capitalist system of education but neglecting to occupy, for example, the radio or television broadcasting stations or the offices of the municipal authorities. But I don’t think it is. The proposed solutions to our current political moment — which extends far beyond the field of architecture, but in which architecture is a moment — are, I think, deeply unrealistic. They are, in fact, idealistic. These include propositions that, for example, so-called ‘affordable’ housing will address our housing needs; that minor revisions to capitalism under, say, a social democratic government will somehow meet the demands of feeding the population of the world, bringing about greater social equality, averting a third world war, or stopping the planet from turning into an uninhabitable globe. To be realist, in contrast, we have to demand what is seen at present to be impossible. We have to cross that line, which is drawn by the state, between what is deemed to be possible and what is perceived to be impossible. So, let’s be realists, and let’s look at the impossible.
2. Opposed Economies of Architecture
This workshop is the fourth in this series of presentations for a socialist architecture. The context for this presentation is the challenge of reclaiming the political dimension of architecture and bringing about progressive change within the totality of social, economic and environmental relations. The previous workshops set about situating architecture within the dimensions of the environmental, the economic and the social, all of which, as I have said, are metonyms for the totality in which architectural practice exists. I want to emphasise the word ‘reclaim’ within this context, since the political dimension of architecture is something that has been lost — or rather conceded — by contemporary architects, who have turned their back on this dimension of their professional practice, and in doing so handed it over to the clients who pay them, the developers who employ them, and the politicians who write the legislation within which they practice.
We have been showing this diagram on opposed economies of architecture throughout the four workshops, with each version illustrating the particularity of the dimension of architecture under discussion. In the first workshop on the social dimension of architecture, I drew a contrast between the tiny portion of finance accorded in any capitalist architectural project to social or affordable housing — which is regarded as a loss subtracted from the total profits extracted from that scheme — and the total social dimension of architecture within a socialist economy. The same thing obtains with the environmental dimension of architecture, which under capitalism is discharged as a portion of funding given to ameliorating the negative effects of a given scheme on the environment. I also drew a distinction between the economical dimension of architecture — which is to say, the totality of exchanges — compared with the purely financial dimension of architecture within a capitalist economy.
This particular diagram represents the difference between the political spheres within a capitalist economy and a socialist economy. Within a capitalist economy, the political dimension is something that is seen as outside of the financial sphere. It is given. It is unchangeable. There is no alternative up for consideration. Politics decides which political party governs the capitalist system, but that system is not available for challenge within its political system. This line, which is drawn by the state, is the line between the possible (different political leadership of the capitalist system) and the impossible (a different economic system).
One of the things I’ve changed on this diagram from its use in our workshops on the social, environmental and economic dimensions of architecture is that the political sphere within a socialist economy is no longer blue — which is a conservative colour: it is, of course, red. But I’ve also changed the words. In a socialist economy, the political is distinct from politics, which is what this sphere is called, and how it functions, within a capitalist economy. There is a difference between politics, which is the grasp for executive power over the capitalist state, and political practice, which for a socialist who doesn’t believe in that old chimera of the parliamentary road to socialism (which is to say, a communist) is the attempt to overthrow the capitalist state and oversee a socialist economy.
3. The Politics of Architecture
An example of this difference is ASH’s book-length report, Central Hill: A Case Study in Estate Regeneration. This is about the work we did on the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace, South London. The bulk of this study is made up of the necessity of retaining and refurbishing our council housing estates, particularly during a crisis of housing affordability that in London has reached epidemic levels; but a lot of it is about how the local authority, Lambeth council, opposed our proposals. If you look at the beginning of the report, it opens with about two-dozen endorsements of its proposals by some of the most senior academics whose research speciality is housing, by politicians and councillors resisting the estate demolition programme, and by architects and campaigners who support the work of ASH. And the universal consensus among these housing professionals is that this report is really important, that its proposals are clearly the best solution not only for Central Hill estate but for all estate regeneration schemes, and that they should be adopted and exported as the best way to retain what’s left of our social housing, to generate the funds to refurbish it, and to build the homes for social rent we so desperately need and which are not being built under the current programme of estate demolition, redevelopment and privatisation.
So, why did the council refuse ASH’s proposal? Why did they vote to demolish the estate, even though doing so would cost them many times the costs of redeveloping it, and doing so would lead to the mass loss of homes for social rent, the privatisation of the new development, and at least 50 per cent of the new properties being for market sale, with the remainder a mix of unaffordable housing tenures, the bulk of which would be for shared ownership? And why have councils done so not only on this estate, but on the 250-odd council estates across London that have undergone, are currently undergoing, or are threatened with demolition, social cleansing or privatisation, with the enormous negative impacts this will have, socially, financially and environmentally?
The answer, of course, is because architecture is always political. There is this strange perception in the architectural profession today — and certainly in the UK, which is probably the most depoliticised state in Europe — that architecture is somehow outside of politics, in the same way that, in the diagram above, politics under capitalism is accorded a separate sphere of practice. But that isn’t the case, because at the moment architecture is very clearly capitalist. So what does capitalist architecture do?
4. Capitalist Architecture
Capitalist architecture is not just an expression — whether regrettable or cynical — of the capitalist system. The argument that: ‘I am an architect, I work within the capitalist system, therefore my architecture is capitalist by default’ — is an inadequate description of the close relationship between architecture and capitalism from which the current global housing crisis is inseparable. Capitalist architecture is a tool and implementation of that system, entrenching, expanding and exporting its social and economic inequalities globally, and the political hegemony that guarantees them.
Capitalist architecture accumulates capital in residential property. Global capital is being invested in property where the housing markets offer the greatest returns on that investment, and the capitalist state guarantees the security of those markets. It is not being invested where housing need is greatest, for instance in the global south, or in the housing that meets that need, even in the wealthiest cities in the world. Capitalist architecture, therefore, has become divorced from its primary and defining task: housing the populations of our cities, our states, our world. Compounding this abrogation of professional responsibility, the value of the residential property capitalist architecture is producing is being extracted from the economy as investor profit, which is invested in further property speculation rather than housing provision.
Capitalist architecture designs social segregation into the built environment, through segregated affordable housing blocks, through segregated entrances (so-called ‘poor doors’), segregated amenities (‘rich gardens’ inaccessible to residents of the affordable housing component of a development), anti-homeless architecture (such as sleepless benches and doorway spikes), and segregated and gated ghettos of wealth patrolled by private security firms. The justification for poor doors, which I recently heard repeated by an architect at a panel of experts on housing I was attending, is that shared entrances would incur increased service charges on affordable housing tenants. On such contemptuous excuses is social segregation being built into our cities. The only city I know of that has rejected poor-doors is New York, because if its history of racial segregation. So while it’s impossible to introduce poor doors into New York City, in London, apparently, it’s okay. It’s also okay to have segregated gardens, as witnessed by the recent scandal of a privatised and gated housing development, also in Lambeth, built on council land sold to a private developer, prohibiting children from the affordable housing block run by a housing association, from playing on an area for residents of the market-sale and shared ownership properties.
Capitalist architecture contributes to the degradation of the environment through expanding the production of its commodity, the consumption of resources, and the production of waste, all of which are increased many times over by the current architectural orthodoxy of demolition and redevelopment, which flies in the face of recent token declarations to reducing carbon emissions through such false solutions as green walls, green roofs and photovoltaic panels being added to luxury apartments built for global capital investment.
Capitalist architecture actively produces homelessness — the increase of which is not a symptom of the failure of capitalism but the product of its more and more successful functioning. It produces housing poverty and housing precarity — which is becoming an experience common to all but the very wealthiest members of a society. And it demolishes existing social housing in order to eradicate the competition it represents to the market, while at the same time consuming those state subsidies that the so-called ‘free’ market can supposedly do without. Indeed, I know of no new housing development which is not based on the massive transferral of public funds into private hands. All market-sale housing is currently being subsidised with huge funds, at the point of production and sale, by the state, while social housing has had progressively more and more funding withdrawn from it. Capitalist architecture is complicit in all this.
Capitalist architecture, finally — and this relates to motivations — generates profit for its agents, including landlords, local and municipal authorities, property developers, investors, architects, property managers, estate agents and buyers. At a basic level, the more expensive the scheme, the greater the profit, with the fees of architects and other contactors fixed to the total value of the development. Given which, is it any wonder that architectural practices have all but universally supported demolition and redevelopment schemes, when far less expensive refurbishment options equate to a far smaller fee? This is further encouraged by government legislation, with Value Added Tax on refurbishment projects being set at a full 20 per cent, while new-build development has zero. And, of course, while there is considerable if inadequate funding for various forms of affordable housing provision at both ends of the production process, for developers as well as for consumers, there is none for refurbishment. Everything, under a capitalism economy, is designed to extract private profit, even at the cost of the public purse.
5. Party Politics
So how — in the absence of a socialist revolution or anything like it on the horizon — does a socialist architecture begin to address the complicity of the profession in the systemic violence of the state against its own citizens and those of other states? Let’s start with the attempted solutions of party politics — precisely that realm of practice from which architecture is separated under capitalism, and to which the political agency of architecture has been outsourced by the head-in-the-sand ideologues of Neo-liberal architecture.
To summarise what we’ve learned from four years of trying to work with or against various political parties I came up with a political syllogism. It’s not an exact syllogism, but it’ll do for our purposes. It’s my attempt to answer the question of why — given that every housing professional not benefiting financially from the estate demolition programme supports our proposals — those proposals have been unanimously rejected across the political spectrum by every council in office, whether that local or municipal authority is Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or even Green.
- 1st Premise. When in opposition, a political party is opposed to, for example, the demolition of social housing, the privatisation of public land, the eviction of tenants and local businesses, the closing down of libraries and social services, and the social cleansing of their constituents.
- 2nd Premise. However, the same parties, when in power, are in favour of all the above, which they carry out ruthlessly and with complete disregard for either the constituents who voted them into office or the other political parties.
- Conclusion. The reason for this is that party politics, which we are told guarantees our democracy, is in practice the very successful strategy for negating any accountability an elected representative might have to their constituents. Party politics is in practice the structural antithesis of democracy.
- Proposition. Therefore, the only way to hold local authorities accountable to the constituents who voted them into executive power is to ensure that no party is in overall majority control. Certainly, in the UK our politics has been completely dominated for over a century by the Conservative-Labour monopoly, both of which are right-wing parties committed to the economic policies of Neo-liberalism in both philosophy and practice. Only by breaking this monopoly and the majority control a single party exerts over a council can we stop that party ordering a member to vote for something they don’t support on the pain of being expelled. Only by being directly accountable to their constituents, rather than their political party, will our political representatives be compelled to represent the interests of their constituents.
These are propositions designed to re-introduce democratic accountability into our politics, which under our current party-political system is structurally impossible. Let’s have a look at an example of how this works in practice. This is an example of party politicking that occurred in July 2019. At the last local elections in London held in May 2018 the Green Party, with whom ASH has worked in the past, managed to get 5 councillors elected into Lambeth council. Several members of the Green Party wrote endorsements of our proposals for Central Hill estate — although the party has subsequently refused to align itself with ASH’s proposed changes to policy on estate regeneration and has even come to endorse demolition. But recently the Lambeth Green councillors introduced a motion to Lambeth council that drew on an impact study ASH had commissioned from Model Environments into the embodied carbon emissions consequent upon the demolition of the Central Hill estate:
Now, under the influence of Extinction Rebellion, the Labour-run council had recently declared a ‘climate emergency’, much like every other council in London. So, one might think it would have no hesitation in adopting the propositions in this motion to reduce carbon emission in the borough, starting with looking at alternatives to the council’s estate demolition programme, and to make impact assessments of the social, economic and mental health effects of demolishing an estate a prior condition to a regeneration scheme. But no. Party politics always comes before political action, and Lambeth council, under its Labour Party administration, redacted the entire motion relating to estate demolition (above). This is only one example of many in which opposition parties will oppose, in principle, whatever is proposed by the party in power, regardless of whether or not it meets with, or is in contravention of, its own policies. In our experience, no political party has any principles, any policies, any ethical commitments that will get in the way of its goal of political power at any cost.
6. Independent Politics
So, what of independent politics? At the last local elections a former Labour councillor in Lambeth, Rachel Heywood, stood as an independent candidate. She had previously been suspended from the Labour Party for publishing an open letter to the council voicing the mildest criticisms of their plans to convert 10 libraries in the borough into fee-paying gyms, demolish the venues of around 30 traders to make way for redevelopment by Network Rail, and demolish and redevelop 6 council estates, including Central Hill. The fact she had been a Labour councillor for 12 years, several of them as leader of the council, made no difference to the Labour Party, which accused her of apostasy and withdrew the party whip; and when, at the local elections in May 2018, she stood on a platform to oppose the plans of the Labour-run council, she was ejected from the party altogether.
In response, ASH sent Ms. Heywood, who had declared her intent to stand as an independent councillor, a copy of our report on Central Hill, asking her to support our proposals as a member of Lambeth council should she be re-elected. This is the endorsement she wrote:
‘This piece of work could not be more timely: I am convinced there is no bigger issue for this election and, crucially, over the four years until the following one. Much of the ward I represent — Coldharbour in Central Brixton — is comprised of social housing, and it is this — not the fashionable watering holes of the town centre or the architecturally anomalous and substandard blocks of private and un-affordable housing — that makes it such a joyous and extraordinary place to represent with its wonderful communities, and a fitting locus for the battles for social justice it has witnessed.
‘These estates, which include Loughborough, Southwyck House and Angel Town, along with democratically significant buildings including Brixton Recreation Centre and the real markets, are undoubtedly at huge risk in the immediate future under this administration’s policies and priorities. Having fallen out with said administration over this, over the plan to put fee-paying gyms in libraries, over the ruination of so many small businesses in the town centre, and much else besides, I am standing as an Independent after 12 years as a Labour councillor.
‘I’ll see Brixton brought to the ground over my dead body, but I’d rather try more conventional means of protest first. A piece of work like this must be essential reading for everyone who values strong and sustainable communities, and real places and societies in which to live. Thank you.’
It’s interesting that a former councillor felt it necessary to express this lack of faith in the democratic process to which she had adhered for the past 12 years. And unfortunately she was right to to do so. The electorate of Brixton is overwhelmingly Labour-voting, and constituents have as little knowledge of the policies of individual candidates standing in the elections as they do, apparently, of the Labour Party they repeatedly vote into office in the borough. Heywood was voted out by Brixton’s ‘wonderful communities’, and a new, more obedient Labour candidate, Scarlett O’Hara, who had previously won the bi-election following Heywood’s suspension, was voted back in. Ms. O’Hara promptly announced that, as she had grown up on a council estate, she had learned, she said, ‘how valuable it is to really listen to residents and hear their views.’ Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to listening to the 77 per cent of residents on the Central Hill estate who voted against the demolition of their homes by Lambeth Labour council and for their refurbishment along the lines suggested by ASH. Despite Ms. O’Hara’s declarations of allegiance to the benefits of council housing she herself has enjoyed growing up, allegiance to her political party, as always, trumped allegiance to the candidates who elected her into office.
7. Political Practice
As a result of this structural flaw at the heart of our democracy, party politics is confined, at best, to changing government policy within a parliamentary or presidential system, while leaving the economic relations those policies administer unchanged. Party politics, therefore, is implicitly resigned to the belief that the economics and politics of capitalism cannot be changed — or as Margaret Thatcher repeatedly said when justifying the Neo-liberal revolution she oversaw in the UK: ‘There Is No Alternative’. This is the line the state draws between the possible and the impossible, and whose current axis has been drawn by the Neo-liberal consensus that no UK government of the past forty years has dared to challenge. And in that resignation, our political parties jockey only to purchase the best seat they can afford at the unfolding spectacle of our current decline into increasingly authoritarian and right-wing governments.
Lenin famously described fascism as ‘capitalism in decay’, and today that term has become applicable to describe not only the rise of far-right movements and political parties across Europe and the world, but with increasingly applicability to the most powerful capitalist states, beginning with the United States of America.Historically, fascism has been the political system to which capitalism turns when the state struggles unsuccessfully to contain its economic contradictions. This is exactly what the Western democracies are struggling to overcome right now: through state subsidies for corporate monopolies; through ideological hegemony between political parties; through violent and legislative suppression of workers’ organisations (as currently being demonstrated by the French state’s extraordinary level of violence against the Gilets jaunes); and through trade and military wars of imperialist aggression, which is what’s going on right now, most dangerously between the USA and China. Lenin’s description of the characteristics of fascism in the 1920s uncannily describes the world right now.
However, where there was a Neo-liberal Revolution within Western democracies whose consequences have defined most of our lives, there can — and must be — a Socialist revolution if our children are not to inhabit a world that will make the dystopias of the Twentieth Century look like crude prototypes. So what’s the alternative? In contrast to the increasingly dictatorial administration of capitalism by party politics, or the civil-rights campaigns of identity politics with which so much of the liberal Left is comfortably distracted, political practice — which is what we so desperately need a revival of today in the West — attempts to change the political, economic and social totality that produces and reproduces the economic relations of capitalism.
8. Political Principles of a Socialist Architecture
How do we locate architectural practice, which as we have seen has become a willing tool of Neo-liberal social, economic and environmental violence, within this political landscape? To answer this, let’s look at some of the political principles of a socialist architecture.
A socialist architecture must not only provide an alternative model to the capitalist system, it must also disrupt and challenge the hegemony of that system: developing, expanding and exporting its social, economic and environmental principles through political practice. It is not enough to be content with an individual solution meeting the housing needs of a particular community — whether that be a squat, a housing co-operative or a community land trust. Co-existence with capitalism, either happily or on its margins, is not the goal of a socialist architecture.
A socialist architecture must produce publicly-owned housing in which public funds are invested, not market-sale housing through which those funds are extracted; thereby becoming a means for the redistribution of wealth, rather than its accumulation in fewer and fewer hands. Just as capitalist architecture is not merely an expression of the capitalist system but re-entrenches it, so a socialist architecture must become a means to redistribute wealth. At present, so much of our personal wealth is spent on paying our housing costs, every penny of which is making the rich richer, and the rest of us poorer.
A socialist architecture must design social equality into the built environment — the very opposite of what capitalist architecture is currently doing; through equality of social housing tenure; through equal access to communal amenities; through retention and reclamation of public space; through equal access to communal spaces, light and views; and through socially integrated neighbourhoods, not neighbourhoods segregated by wealth, which is what’s happening more and more to our cities under capitalism. The favelas that surround the financial, commercial and residential centres of the cities in the global south is only the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon, but its causes are everywhere re-designing our urban conurbations.
A socialist architecture must reclaim the political dimension of architecture that has been ceded to developers, planners, real-estate firms, think-tanks and politicians. These are the people writing housing policy and in doing so determining architectural form and practice. The so-called New London Vernacular that UK architects have universally embraced is not an architectural style but a means to increase the residual value uplift in the land on which it is built. In reclaiming its political dimension, a socialist architecture must restore the object of architectural practice to its place within the totality of social, economic and environmental relations. Architecture is important because it’s a field of practice through which innumerable strands of the social fabric pass. Today it has been reduced to a servile tool of the building industry.
A socialist architecture, finally, must apply political pressure for the legislative, policy and cultural changes that will make it possible to further socialist practices within our current capitalist system. By this, we don’t mean to suggest that a socialist architect can have a happy co-existence with capitalism. The socialist architecture whose principles and practices we’re describing is not the architecture of the past. It’s not, for example, the architecture of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or of the German Democratic Republic, or of the Socialist Federal Republic of the former Yugoslavia. The socialist architecture we’re interested in is that of the present and the future.
9. Towards a Socialist Revolution
That doesn’t mean, however, that models from the socialist past aren’t useful for imagining a socialist architecture of the future. In 1930 the Russian architect Moisei Ginzburg completed the Narkomfin building in Moscow (below). This had a huge influence on Le Corbussier’s far more famous Unité d’habitation, which was completed in Marseilles in 1952, two decades later. There was a real dialogue between the two architects, with Ginzburg being influenced by Le Corbussier’s architectural thesis Towards an Architecture, which was published in 1923 and which has provided something of a model for our own book, For a Socialist Architecture. We considered calling our book Towards a Socialist Architecture, but we wanted to distinguish between the socialist architecture of the future we hope to bring about, and the principles and practices fora socialist architecture of the present — which is to say, under capitalism. But let’s talk, for a moment, about how we move towards a socialist revolution, and what part architecture can play in that movement.
Ginzburg called the Narkomfin building ‘transitional type housing’. What did he mean by this? Well, the 2-bedroom maisonettes for families on the first and second floors were self-contained, with their own kitchens and bathrooms, much like the standard contemporary home within capitalist economies. However, the 1-bedroom apartments over the third, fourth and fifth floors that make up the bulk of the building, and which were made for single residents and young couples, had their own toilet and shower cubicle; but residents had to use the communal kitchen and dining room in the adjoining annexe. The building was revolutionary, therefore, in the proper sense of the term — of bringing about change — not only in its architectural form and engineering structure, but in its social function. It affected the transition of its residents from a domestic life based around the social unit of the bourgeois family to a collective mode of living.
Ginzburg’s building drew on Trotksy’s idea of the ‘transitional period’, the period after the Russian Revolution when the Bolsheviks were confronted with how to affect the movement from a semi-feudal and only partially industrialised Russian Empire to a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is what Trotsky wrote in 1923 in Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia:
‘People cannot be made to move into new habits of life — they must grow into them gradually, as they grew into their old ways of living.’
I think it’s important to reflect on these words when thinking about the role of a socialist architecture. The transition to socialism, according to Trotksy, is to be undertaken not only by policies handed down by central government. We can’t afford to wait round for this always future government to pass down socialist policies that will save us all from capitalism. It’s not going to happen. Party politics, such as it functions under capitalism, is not going to produce that change. But what we can try to do is change the everyday habits of citizens, including how we live together. Obviously, it’s going to take far more than that to affect the movement toward socialism we so desperately need; but just as capitalist architecture is a tool of the capitalist system of privatisation, social cleansing, wealth accumulation, inequality and social segregation, so a socialist architecture can be a tool for bringing about change towards a socialist system.
10. Policies on Housing Development
To this end, we’ve come up with some policies on housing development, in conformity with the final principle I mentioned, that ‘a socialist architecture must apply political pressure for the legislative, policy and cultural changes that will make it possible to further socialist practices within our current capitalist system.’ These are our policy proposals:
- When proposing a housing development scheme that requires the demolition of existing housing, the planning authority or landlord and their private investment partners must set aside sufficient funds for a refurbishment and infill option to be developed up to feasibility-study stage. This option must be designed, assessed and costed by a team of architects, engineers and quantity surveyors independent from the team given the project brief for the demolition and redevelopment option.
- This independent team must be given funds, from the planning authority, landlord and investment partners implementing the scheme and/or the municipal or district authorities, to produce an impact assessment of the social, financial and environmental costs of demolition and redevelopment for existing residents, the local community and the planning authority. The findings of this assessment must be overseen and verified by an independent supervisor, and made available to the public before any ballot is held on regeneration.
- Enforceable target requirements must be set in local, municipal and regional policy defining what a housing regeneration scheme is required to meet before receiving either public funding or local authority planning permission. These targets must not be described with vague phrases about ‘like-for-like’ replacement of demolished homes, residents’ financially contingent ‘right to return’ to them, or undefined proportions of promised ‘affordable housing’, but written in non-negotiable, clearly defined numbers, proportions, tenure types and rent levels that are not subject to revision.
- If a community votes against a proposed demolition and redevelopment scheme, the planning authority or landlord must carry out the refurbishment and continue (or where appropriate restart) the maintenance of the existing homes at the very least. Where it is necessary to the funding for this refurbishment, and with the agreement of residents, the landlord should implement the infill housing produced by the independent team employed to develop this option. In this way, residents cannot be presented with a choice between the demolition of their estate and its managed decline.
- The municipal authority must allocate sufficient funds for housing refurbishment and infill. If residents vote for this option these funds must be made available to them, either working in tandem with the planning authority or through the various forms of resident or co-operatively managed and collectively-owned models currently being explored by resident groups.
- If a housing development is deemed financially unviable because of insufficient profit margins for the developer and private investment partners, whether due to insufficient public funding, an increase in development costs or a downturn in the property market, the scheme must be rejected by the planning authority as unviable, not paid for at the social, financial and environmental cost to the existing community, future residents or the general public.
- All existing housing, as well as communal and public amenities, must be re-provided on site at the same rental levels, service charges, house prices, security of tenure and ownership status. Any move costs and increase in housing costs incurred during a ‘decant’ process must be borne by the developer. All redevelopment projects must be phased to ensure residents must only move once. Interim housing, when all other alternatives have been exhausted, must keep the existing community together.
- New housing provision must meet local housing need, with the maximum amount, and at least the majority of new-build dwellings, for social rent levels and secure tenancies. New housing must not have a negative social, financial or environmental impact on existing residents or the local community. Any uplift in land value consequent upon the granting of planning permission or new development must be reinvested in the local community and its infrastructure, not extracted as profit for the landlord, property developer or their private investment partners.
We’ve already had some success with these proposals. Last year we gave our report on The Costs of Estate Regeneration to Len Duvall — at the time the Leader of the Labour Party in the London Assembly, but whose opposition to Lewisham Labour council’s planned demolition of Reginald House and the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in New Cross meant he was banned from meetings of the Lewisham branch of the Labour Party — and at the subsequent meeting we presented him with our proposed changes to policy on estate regeneration. This March we received an e-mail from Debbie Smith, the Research and Support Officer to Len Duvall:
‘Len Duvall has asked me to let you know the following about the London Mayor’s budget for 2019/20. Following lobbying from Len, funding is to be made available to residents voting on the regeneration of their council estate to commission expert guidance on the proposals. This guidance would ensure that residents can talk directly to developers and councils on an even playing field, and that they are fully informed of options around the design, size, quality, cost and tenure of the development. The Mayor agreed to take the ask of the request forward in other parts of his housing strategy, and he will be pursuing this request throughout the year. He will let you know when we have further details.’
We’ll wait and see whether London’s notoriously slippery Mayor will honour this agreement, and exactly who these experts are that will give guidance to residents when the current membership of the Mayor’s Regeneration Team is made up of architects, housing professionals and politicians that are supporters, implementors and financial beneficiaries of the estate demolition programme in its current form. But despite this cronyism — which is rife in UK politics at every level and in every party — we are making some progress with these proposals, and we will continue to lobby for their adoption into legislation, Greater London Authority policy and council policy. However, in Part 2 of this presentation we’ll look at how the principles behind these policies can be put into practice without waiting for the latter’s adoption by our political parties and institutions.
11. Opposed Political Economies of Housing Provision
Finally, in this last diagram we are showing opposed political economies of housing provision under capitalist and socialist economies. The both begin with production, where the two circles join, but from there they follow opposed paths. Capitalist architecture distributes the commodity; a socialist architecture redistributes wealth. Capitalist architecture is made for the moment of exchange, and its value is its exchange value; a socialist architecture is made for its use, and it is judged by its use value. Capitalist architecture is consumed, so that the cycle can begin again and profit can be extracted from that cycle; a socialist architecture is maintained, refurbished and re-used.
The key point I want to end on is that, at the moment of exchange, that money is taken out of the economy. What is happening at present is that more and more money is being taken out of the economy and hidden in offshore financial jurisdictions where it pays no tax. Living standards are dropping. More and more wealth is being accumulated in fewer and fewer hands, but it is not being invested in anything productive. Instead, it is being invested in the global housing market, with 72 per cent of the increase in the value of the UK housing stock last year coming from an increase in house prices. High-value residential property in economies whose political system will subsidise and when necessary bail out the property market has become one of the primary deposits of global capital. 10 per cent of global wealth, some US$7 trillion of private wealth, is now held in offshore financial jurisdictions, and at least £170 billion of that wealth — and most likely far more — was invested in UK property in the 8 years between 2006 and 2014. In contrast to this, a socialist architecture invests that wealth back into the economy, into social services and into infrastructure, including housing that meets the needs of the population.
Architects for Social Housing
ASH’s presentation on the political dimension of a socialist architecture continues in Part 2. ‘Political Practices’.