Rioting, Legislation and Estate Demolition: A Chronology of Social Cleansing in London, 1999-2019

Mounted police charge Poll Tax demonstrators in Trafalgar Square, London, 1991

‘We show respect to everyone — to each other, the general public and to the government and police. We engage in no violence, physical or verbal.

— Extinction Rebellion

1990  Did the UK Poll Tax demonstrations in 1990 mark a watershed in the relations between governments and crowds? Certainly not in the violence used by the former. The troops of baton-wielding police who rode their horses into the packed crowds on Trafalgar Square were the same who charged the picket lines of striking miners at the Orgreave coke plant in 1984. And certainly not in the lies the government used afterwards to justify that violence. What Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher denounced as ‘Marxist agitators and militants’ using the Poll Tax demonstrations for their own political ends echoed her description of the 1981 uprising in Brixton against unemployment, cuts to public spending and police racism as a ‘fiesta of crime, looting and rioting in the guise of social protest’ — with both demonstrations subsequently imprinted on public perception as ‘riots’. Perhaps the difference, then, was that, where the violent suppression of the miners’ strike and the Brixton protests that spread across the UK had little impact on Thatcher’s reign, the Poll Tax demonstrations are credited with bringing down a Prime Minister who had ruled over Britain for 12 years.

What it didn’t end, however, was the Neo-liberal revolution Thatcher had initiated, and subsequent Prime Ministers entrenched in UK politics, economics and society. The real watershed of the Poll Tax demonstration was that, as the effects of Neo-liberalism became ever harsher and more blatant, never again would the British people be allowed to bring down a Prime Minister with something as crude and outdated as a protest. From now on, mass demonstrations of people — whether in response to the Iraq War, to the fiscal policies of austerity, to the privatisation of the National Health Service, to tuition fees for further education, to cuts to disability allowances and welfare benefits, to police violence and racism, to the deportation of immigrants, to the crisis of housing affordability, to the Grenfell Tower fire, to Brexit or, most recently, to the environmental crisis — were to be a tool of the government, not of the people.

To bring about this change in the management and public perception of popular protest, over the past 20 years successive British Parliaments have passed some of the most draconian and repressive legislation in UK history. Through this legislation, a new social contract has been made — largely without public knowledge, scrutiny or consent — between UK citizens and the Neo-liberal spaces in which we live, erasing our human rights and civil liberties and increasing the state’s powers of surveillance and control. In this new spatial contract, what’s left of the UK’s council and social housing has become a front line, a barricade and a battlefield in the struggle to resist the combined power of capital and legislation to re-order the space of the city. This article will look at examples of this re-ordering in the context of the London housing crisis, with particular emphasis on the last twenty years of UK housing policy and practice.

To bring this new order into focus, I’m going to look at two moments in the past decade in London: the Tottenham riots of August 2011 that spread across the capital and then to towns and cities in the Midlands and North of England; and the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, which had the potential to spark far greater social disturbance, yet resulted not in rioting but in silent walks of mourning. I will be following how the lessons the UK state learned from 2011 prepared the ground for its reaction to 2017, with both responses ordered around the management of public perception of social housing and the people who live in it. To understand this relation, I’m going to situate both moments in the context of London’s programme of council estate demolition and redevelopment, and examine how it has been used not only to clear inner-city land for global investment, but to refashion urban space into an instrument of Neo-Liberalism.

Stefan Rousseau, Prime Minister Tony Blair on the Aylesbury estate, 1997

1. The Enemy Within

1997  In June 1997, immediately after his landslide victory in the general election, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered his inaugural speech on the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, South London. At the time it seemed like an odd choice, but in retrospect this is widely seen as initiating the current phase of the estate regeneration programme. Describing the Aylesbury as an example of a ‘sink estate’, Blair drew a causal link between the ‘low expectations’ he identified as the root cause of residents’ poverty and the architecture of post-war council estates. This relation between architecture and poverty would become a truism of housing policy over the next 20 years, with the euphemistic solution being ‘regeneration’. On London’s highly lucrative land this has invariably meant the demolition of the existing homes and their replacement with housing at between two and three times the density. Under the guise of creating supposedly ‘mixed communities’, thousands of demolished homes for council and social rent have been replaced with predominantly market sale properties plus a mix of so-called ‘affordable housing’. Introduced in 2010 by the Homes and Communities Agency, affordable housing includes affordable rent at anything up to 80 per cent of market rate, rent-to-buy schemes, and shared-ownership and shared equity properties far beyond the reach of most Londoners. Justified as the solution to London’s housing crisis, the estate regeneration programme has four unstated objectives:

  1. To clear Inner London land for redevelopment and investment by global capital looking for a property market underwritten by government subsidies designed to artificially raise UK house prices;
  2. To build residential properties for the highest value possible in order to realise the maximum residual value uplift in London land prices;
  3. To remove from competition with the market the only housing — council and social — to have escaped the huge escalation in housing costs this programme is driving;
  4. To displace the residents of council and social housing estates in predominantly Inner London boroughs through a programme of social cleansing designed to remove constituents reliant on government and council-funded social services.

1998  The following year Parliament passed the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOS). Designed to control behaviour or presence in a specified place through civil orders rather than criminal sanctions, in practice these were implemented predominantly against kids from council estates. To qualify for an ASBO, behaviour had to be no more than ‘conduct which caused or was likely to cause harm, harassment, alarm or distress’. In total, 24,427 ASBOs were issued in England and Wales between April 1999 and December 2013, when they were superseded by new legislation. 14,157 ASBOs were breached, which is a criminal offence. 7,503 breaches resulted in imprisonment, with an average sentence of 5 months.

Alongside this programme of criminalisation of the UK’s working-class youth, TV shows and current affairs programmes about ASBOs created an association in the public’s perception between council estates and crime. This continues to this day with so-called ‘poverty porn’ reality-TV programmes such as Benefits Street, which stigmatises all council tenants as benefit-scroungers, defrauders of public funds, drug-dealers, shop-lifters, etc.

1999  Two years after it was announced, some of the largest council estates in London were targeted by the estate demolition programme. These included the Ferrier estate in Greenwich, where 1,906 council homes were demolished resulting in a net loss of 1,573 homes for social rent in a borough with 15,000 people on the housing waiting list; the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, where 1,980 council homes were demolished resulting in a net loss of 600 homes for social rent in a borough with over 2,700 households living in temporary accommodation and 13,000 households on the housing waiting list; the Heygate estate in Southwark, where 1,214 council homes were demolished resulting in a net loss of 952 homes for social rent in a borough with over 1,600 households living in temporary accommodation and 11,000 households on the housing waiting list; and the Aylesbury estate — the same estate on which Blair had first announced this programme — where 2,758 homes are being demolished with a net loss of 778 homes for social rent. Their replacements, by developers Berkeley Homes, Lendlease and Notting Hill Geneses, are all private residential developments.

2003  The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 gave the police the power to disperse individuals or groups ‘causing or likely to cause’ Anti-Social Behaviour in public places. Following consultation with the local authority, a Dispersal Zone can be designated in advance, and police and community-support officers are able to require a person to leave that area and not return for up to 48 hours. This power can be used in any public place, as well as in common areas of private land with the landowner or occupier’s consent. The grounds for issuing a Dispersal Order is that an officer of the rank of inspector or above has ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect that a group of two or more persons in any public place ‘has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed’. Failure to comply is a criminal offence and carries a fine of £2,500 and/or 3 months imprisonment. Between January 2004 and April 2006, over 1,000 areas were designated Dispersal Zones in England and Wales. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act also gave councils the power to demote secure tenancies, making it easier for them to evict tenants.

2005  Following the attacks in London the UK Government massively increased its programme of anti-terrorist legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, the Terrorism Act 2006, and the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This programme had begun with the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which responded to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in the USA, and would continue through the next decade with the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, and the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019. In all, no less than nine anti-terrorist Acts were passed by Parliament in less than two decades.

The question confronting the UK state was how to get this mass of increasingly intrusive legislation past the British people, whose human rights and civil liberties — particularly those relating to our freedoms of movement, assembly and expression — it has drastically eroded. The solution was to identify not only the enemy alien but — as Margaret Thatcher had infamously described the striking miners 30 years before — the ‘enemy within’. Throughout the 2000s this enemy was the ‘terrorist’, whose British face was every Asian — Muslim or otherwise — from the 3 million ethnic Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in the UK. But as the US subprime mortgage bubble burst and the financial crisis of 2007-2008 briefly threatened to bring down the global banking system, a new scapegoat was needed. Over the next decade, aided and abetted by policy think-tanks, the law courts, the police and the media, new governments would find this enemy in the 4 million council and housing association homes in which 28 per cent of UK Asians, 48 per cent of black Britons, and 17 per cent of all UK households live.

Conservative Party Leader David Cameron on Wythenshawe council estate, Manchester, 2007

2. The Neo-liberalisation of Policy

2010  In May the general election brought a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government into power; and the following August the Conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange, published a report titled Making Housing Affordable: A new vision for housing policy. This argued that social housing disincentivises residents from working; that it creates ‘welfare dependency’; that social housing is a ‘poverty trap’; that the government should ‘scrap all density and affordable housing targets and aspirations’; that building ‘low cost’ homes will not increase housing affordability; that social rents should be raised to market rents; that existing housing need is for market sale property; and that the answer to the housing crisis is to ‘increase housing supply and raise house prices’.

The same year, the government introduced a programme of fiscal austerity that massively reduced government spending under the rationale that ‘we’re all in this together’. This was a catch-phrase the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, had first used five years earlier — prior to the financial crisis — in a speech to Policy Exchange.

2011  Three years after the government had bailed out UK banks to the tune of £850 billion, in August 2011 riots broke out in Tottenham, a working-class neighbourhood in the North-London Borough of Haringey. This was initially in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year-old black man and resident of the Broadwater Farm council estate. In tandem with the government, the press and media immediately set about de-politicising the uprising, reproducing images of looting as evidence of the criminal character of the ‘rioters’, and pathologising the rapid spread of the riots across England as ‘copycat violence’. Echoing Thatcher 30 years earlier, Cameron, at an emergency recall of Parliament, dismissed the rioting as ‘criminality, pure and simple’ and called for more police on UK streets.

This laid the ground for the hugely increased punishment of rioters by the law courts. Within six months over a thousand working-class youths were given custodial sentences on average four times the length handed out for similar offences the year before. One 23-year-old with no previous convictions was jailed for six-months for stealing a pack of bottled water priced £3.50; a 22-year-old was sentenced to 16 months for stealing ice-cream; a 48-year-old was sentenced to 16 months for stealing doughnuts; and two young men were sentenced to four years in prison for ‘attempting to incite a riot’ via social media that never eventuated. The real response to the rioting, however, would only emerge five years later, and not in criminal legislation but in housing policy.

2012  In preparation for which, the following year Policy Exchange published another report titled Ending Expensive Social Tenancies: Fairness, higher growth and more homes. This recommended accelerating the sale of high-value social housing in London, using the receipts to build ‘affordable housing’, and moving previous tenants to the periphery of the capital. To back up its argument the report asserted — but produced no proof — that ‘the majority of social tenants are either totally or largely reliant on benefits’, and that multi-storey housing creates ‘juvenile delinquency’ and ‘opportunities for crime’.

2013  Policy Exchange published another report, Create Streets, which recommended that all the high-rise council estates built in London between 1950s and early 1980s be pulled down and replaced with mid-rise blocks built on London’s so-called ‘traditional’ street plan. To this end they estimated that 360,000 council homes should be demolished. The same year the author of both these reports, Alex Morton, left Policy Exchange to become Prime Minister David Cameron’s special advisor on housing policy.

2014  The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA). These superseded ASBOs, and carry the threat of criminal prosecution, fines and imprisonment for anyone over the age of 10. An IPNA, which can be obtained on a lower standard of proof than an ASBO, removed the requirement for the applicant to prove that granting it is necessary, and may be issued not only by the Chief Officer of the local police but also by local authorities and housing providers, effectively giving councils and housing associations jurisdiction over their tenants.

In addition, the Act introduced Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), which allow local authorities to ban proscribed acts in a designated area. Carrying a fixed penalty of £100 or a court summons with a fine up to £1,000 and a criminal conviction, these banned acts include begging, rough sleeping, loitering, swearing, shouting and urinating. In June 2015, Hackney council employed a PSPO to ban rough sleepers from begging in the Inner-London borough, where 19 estates are currently being demolished under the council’s ‘regeneration’ programme. PSPOs, which challenge our Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998, make mere suspicion of intention, rather than the burden of proof, sufficient for arrest by the police. In October 2017, Lewisham council, which has over 10,000 people on its housing waiting list, issued a PSPO on the entire South-East London borough; and the following year used it to disperse a protest camp against the council’s demolition of Reginald House estate and the neighbouring Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden.

2015  In January, protesters against Southwark council’s plans to demolish the Aylesbury estate occupied several of the housing blocks for 2 months. The council responded by erecting a razor-wire fence around a large part of the estate, even though many residents were still living there. In March, the Institute of Public Policy Research, a Neo-liberal think-tank, published a report titled City Villages: More homes, better communities. This recommended that London’s 3,500 housing estates all be re-categorised as ‘brownfield land,’ a term used in town planning to describe former commercial or industrial land that has become contaminated by chemical or industrial waste and requires ‘cleaning up’ before being redeveloped. By applying this category to London’s council estates, the equation was clear: what required ‘clearing up’ is another kind of industrial waste — that of the overwhelmingly working-class, black and Asian residents of council estates, around a million of whom live in London. The following month the general election returned a new Conservative government to power.

Sang Tan, Police arrest and photograph man during Tottenham riots, 2011

3. The Social Cleansing of London

2016  In January, Savills real estate firm submitted their report to the UK Government, Completing London’s Streets: How the regeneration and intensification of housing estates could increase London’s supply of homes and benefit residents. In it they recommended that 1,750 hectares of London land currently occupied by council estates containing around 136,500 households be demolished. The report didn’t say how many residents lived on these estates, but at an average of 2.4 residents per household this equates to the demolition of the homes of over 325,000 Londoners. In their place, Savills recommended building residential properties based on the ‘Create Streets’ model promoted by Policy Exchange, through which estate ‘regeneration’ is an active means of gentrification, raising house prices not only on the new development but across the wider area.

It is within this legislative and policy framework that, the same month, David Cameron announced the Estate Regeneration National Strategy. This began with his declaration that 100 council estates in England and Wales would be demolished. In justifying this decision Cameron drew heavily on the reports by Policy Exchange, the IPPR and Savills. Describing council housing as ‘sink estates’ — the term made popular by Blair — Cameron went on to paint a picture of ‘bleak, high-rise buildings’, ‘concrete slabs dropped from on high’, ‘brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways’ that are ‘a gift to criminals and drug dealers’. According to this multi-millionaire son of an offshore investment stockbroker who went to Eton and Oxford, council residents live behind ‘padlocked and chained-up doors’ where ‘poor parenting, addiction and mental health problems’ are ‘entrenching poverty in Britain — isolating and entrapping many of our families and communities’, all with the result that ‘decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour.’ Finally, Cameron drew the long-expected connection between council estates and the Tottenham riots:

‘The riots of 2011 didn’t emerge from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings. As spatial analysis of the riots has shown, the rioters came overwhelmingly from these post-war estates. Almost three-quarters of those convicted lived within them. That’s not a coincidence.’

This ‘spatial analysis’ was carried out by Space Syntax Network, an organisation that provides advice on urban planning, property development and architecture. In a crude report titled 2011 London Riots location analysis, they showed that, in North London between Hackney and Tottenham, 84 per cent of incidences of rioting occurred within a five-minute walk of both an established town centre and a large post-war housing estate; while in south London, between Brixton and Vauxhall, it was 96 per cent. What their report didn’t show was that, in these predominantly working-class neighbourhoods, it is difficult to be more than a five-minute walk from a post-war housing estate. Nor did the Space Syntax Network draw any correlation between the economic conditions and social status of rioters and their actions in August 2011, or mention that the same year Haringey council had slashed its youth services budget by 75 per cent and closed 8 of the borough’s 13 youth clubs. Instead, their report concluded that the key influence in the Tottenham riots was ‘the spatial configuration of large post-war estates’. The implied solution, which Cameron made explicit, is ‘designing out crime’, a phrase that has become a cliché for developers and architects profiting from estate redevelopment.

Broadwater Farm estate, in which Mark Duggan had lived, found itself at the top of Cameron’s list of 100 ‘sink estates’ primarily because of its proximity to the Tottenham riots, but also because of its history, with the same estate being the centre of rioting in 1985 when another black resident, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police search of her home. However, in the 20 years since, Broadwater Farm has had one of the lowest crime rates of any urban area in the world. In an independent 2003 survey of all the estate’s residents, only 2 per cent said they considered the area unsafe, the lowest number for any area in London. The estate also has the lowest rent arrears of any part of Haringey. Following £33 million of investment, a community centre, neighbourhood office, children’s nursery and health centre were built, social projects, sports clubs and youth programs were funded, concierges introduced, raised walkways removed, murals painted, communal gardens planted, transport links improved, shops and amenities made accessible, a more racially representative Tenants and Residents Association installed, and an estate isolated out on a flood plain has been turned around. And yet, 30 years later, Cameron had no hesitation in describing Broadwater Farm estate as one of the causes of the 2011 riots. Why?

What both the Prime Minister and the Space Syntax Network failed to mention is the estate’s other proximity, which is to the huge swathe of ‘regeneration’ projects being pushed through by Haringey council, which the previous month granted planning permission on what — following Tottenham Hotspur F.C.’s relocation — is a 585 apartment, 35-storey, £600 million development with no affordable housing provision. The adjacent Northumberland Park estate and its 1,417 homes has since been demolished to make way for the new football stadium. And the 300 homes of the Love Lane estate are currently under threat of demolition, standing as they do between the new ground and the train station, and therefore constituting an apparently unsightly approach for the corporate hospitality users the new stadium is hoping to attract.

This is the real, financial context to Haringey council’s ongoing programme of ‘regenerating’ over 20 council estates in a borough with more than 3,200 households living in temporary accommodation. The social, economic, racial and spatial consequences of this programme were expressed most clearly in the equalities impact assessment produced by the council for Haringey’s Housing Strategy 2015-2020. In July 2017, a year after Cameron had launched the Estate Regeneration National Strategy, Haringey council selected international property developers Lendlease as its joint venture partner on the Haringey Development Vehicle. This was a Private Finance Initiative that would hand over hundreds of millions of pounds of council land and assets for redevelopment on scores of sites across the borough in a £2 billion project. In mitigation of the disastrous impact this would have on black and minority-ethnic residents facing prohibitive increases in their housing costs, the council recommended ‘accessing jobs and also increasing their incomes to a sufficient level to afford the new homes on offer as a result.’

The legacies of the Tottenham riots have been numerous. The most important of these, following the 2014 Inquest concluding that Mark Duggan’s death was ‘lawful killing’, is that a police officer can kill an unarmed black man with impunity if he has ‘reasonable grounds’ for thinking him armed. But the interpretation of the Tottenham riots outside of any economic or political context as acts of opportunist criminality also set a model for the estate regeneration programme that followed. It subsequently emerged that 76 per cent of arrested rioters had a previous caution or conviction, with an average of 11 offences each. We don’t know how many of these were for the catch-all of ‘anti-social behaviour’ that has criminalised entire communities; but one of the first justifications given by councils for the demolition of any estate is that it is home to, encourages and prohibits the policing of the criminal behaviour of its residents. However, the map neither the Space Syntax Network nor the Prime Minister looked at or referred to when making this reductive connection between post-war council estates and crime is the 2015 Indices of Multiple Deprivation interactive map. A collation of the government’s own statistical data, it shows that crime rates on nearly every council estate in London are lower than in the surrounding areas of terraced housing, and in the case of Broadwater Farm it is significantly lower (below).

Indices of Deprivation 2015, Crime domain for Broadwater Farm estate

But it was too late. The complexity of the causes of the financial crisis, its origins in the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism, its manifestation in the escalation in UK housing costs, and its recuperation in the fiscal policies of austerity and disinvestment in social housing, were all displaced onto the protean and stereotypical figure of the young, black, unemployed, drug-dealing, rioting, council estate-dwelling son of a benefit-scrounging single mother — who was then subjected to further punitive legislation, surveillance and control. Meanwhile, the banks that for the past decade had demanded the freedom of the market from state intervention were bailed out by the UK Government for £850 billion of public money.

In May, against widespread opposition and protests, Parliament passed the Housing and Planning Act 2016. The most far-reaching legislation on council and social housing in a generation, it extended council tenants’ Right to Buy their homes at a state subsidised discount to housing associations, adding to the nearly 2 million council homes already lost since this scheme was introduced by Thatcher in 1980. As first proposed by Policy Exchange four years earlier, local authorities are now forced to sell council homes that become vacant if they are deemed ‘high value’, threatening nearly 113,000 council homes across England and Wales. A total of 214,000 households earning over £40,000 in London and £31,000 in the rest of England would now be forced to pay market rates to stay in their council homes. Secure council tenancies can no longer be passed from parent to child and new council tenancies are for 2-5 years. The obligation to build state-subsidised Starter Homes for sale at a government-subsidised 80 per cent of market rate on 20 per cent of new housing developments was made an enforceable duty that supersedes any requirement to build affordable housing. And planning permission was granted in principle to any housing development on sites entered on a statutory register of brownfield land that, as the IPPR report recommended the previous year, includes existing council housing estates.

Reuters, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn on the silent walk marking the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, 2019

4. The Management of Disaster

2017  Following the resignation of David Cameron the previous year in response to the Brexit vote, in June another general election returned his successor, Theresa May, as Conservative Prime Minister. Less than a week later, on the morning of 14 June, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, West London. The flames rapidly spread to the recently-applied external cladding system, and in 15 minutes had reached the roof. The fire then moved laterally across the highly-flammable panelling and insulation, eventually encasing the entire tower in flames. 72 people died as a result of the fire and 223 residents lost their homes.

On the Friday after the fire, protesters from the local community and across London gathered outside the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, where the emergency council installed by the Prime Minister was having its first meeting, and broke into the offices. This was immediately described in the press as a ‘riot’. But the government had a problem. So strong was public anger about Grenfell — which encapsulated in a single disaster a decade of policies waged against the poor, immigrants, Muslims, single mothers, benefit claimants, the homeless and tenants of council housing — that blame had to be apportioned carefully. Attacking survivors as benefit-scrounging criminals, as the government had the Tottenham rioters, was no longer possible.

Initially, as happened after both the Poll Tax riots and the Brixton riots, the legitimate anger of the local community was described as being infiltrated by ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘left-wing campaigners’ cynically using this disaster for their own ends. In response, the widespread call was taken up to ‘depoliticise’ what was instead universally described as a ‘tragedy’. That the fire was a direct result of an estate regeneration scheme implemented for cosmetic reasons within a privatised system of tender under redundant building regulations that fire-safety experts had called on the government to change for four years was suppressed. At the same time, however, it emerged that hundreds of tower blocks in England and Wales had been covered with similar cladding systems to Grenfell Tower that circumvented and rendered redundant the compartmentalisation that was integral to the fire safety of these buildings.

In response to these revelations, both the Conservative Government and the Labour Opposition began a campaign to lay the blame for the fire not on the privatised chain of contractors that designed, applied and signed off approval on these cladding systems, but on the build quality of post-war council estates. A former Conservative Minister, a current Labour MP, the London Labour Mayor, a journalist in the London Evening Standard and the Head of Housing and Regeneration at Policy Exchange all unanimously declared that post-war council estate tower blocks were unsafe and should be pulled down. In less than a week, a man-made disaster that was a direct result of the estate regeneration programme that has replicated the same conditions of privatised and unaccountable management in hundreds of other estates across England had been turned into an argument for its continuation and expansion.

But first, the growing number of protesters had to be managed. These are some of the actions taken by the UK state not only to suppress the very real chance of rioting, but to turn the public’s anger to its own ends.

First, the Labour Party, recognising a political opportunity when they saw it, declared the fire to be a result of Conservative government ‘austerity’. This was seized on by the liberal press and media, which produced numerous articles and television programmes erroneously linking the fire to government cuts to council budgets. In fact, Kensington and Chelsea — which is the wealthiest borough in the UK, but where over 1,800 households were living in temporary accommodation before the Grenfell Tower fire — had £283 million in capital reserves and £21 million in its Housing Revenue Account, so government cuts to council budgets had nothing to do with the causes of the fire.

A collaboration of Labour politicians, activists and religious leaders preached calm, public order and patience, advising the community of North Kensington to await the due course of justice. To this end, and in conjunction with the local church, ‘silent walks’ were organised on the 14th evening of every month. Beginning with a candle-lit vigil outside the Notting Hill Methodist Church, these walks of mourning very deliberately led the protesters away from the Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall to the south and towards the Kensington Memorial Park to the north.

The Metropolitan Police Service — which had neglected to arrest a single one of the government ministers, civil servants, councillors, officers, directors, board members, private contractors and consultants responsible in varying degrees for the Grenfell Tower fire — started a widely-publicised campaign of dawn raids and arrests of a handful of people guilty of crimes committed after the fire. These ranged from individuals falsely claiming public funds available to residents who had lost their homes in the fire, to a man who posted a photograph he had taken of a body-bag the police had left outside his house. Just as the courts did after the Tottenham riots, the sentences handed out to these offenders were hugely increased. One woman who posed as a survivor was sentenced to 4½ years in prison, and the man who posted the photo online was given a custodial sentence of 3 months.

In August, the Public Inquiry into Grenfell — which the Prime Minister had announced the day after the fire, but which would only began to listen to evidence in May 2018, nearly a year later — revealed its terms of reference. These were strictly limited to the immediate causes of the fire, the building regulations under which it was refurbished, and the response of the London Fire Brigade; but will not address the political, legislative and policy framework that led to these conditions being in place.

2018  In March the following year, the Metropolitan Police Service declared that it would not be handing the results of its investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service until 2021 at the earliest. Then in June, as the first anniversary of the fire approached, an article by the journalist Andrew O’Hagan, published in the London Review of Books and widely reported in the right-wing press, exonerated the council of all blame, which was instead laid on the London Fire Brigade. This coincided with the police opening an investigation into the response of the Brigade on the night of the fire. Finally, in September, the Public Inquiry announced that the second phase of the hearings, on the deregulation of building standards and the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, will only begin in 2020, three years after the fire.

The silent walks continue to be participated in by a dwindling number of mourners, with Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party, one of many politicians who joined in on the two anniversaries of the disaster; but no other public disturbance has resulted in response to the greatest loss of life from a fire in mainland UK since the Second World War. If the punitive sentences and legislation imposed after the Tottenham riots were the Conservative Government’s revenge for the Poll Tax riots that 30 years earlier brought down their most revered leader, the response to Grenfell was the measured reaction of the entire UK state primed to manage this and the many other threats of public disorder to come over the years ahead. Those whose job it is to do so would have been watching closely the chasm that separates the British people from — most obviously — the French protesters who, in October 2018, began the Gilets jaunes demonstrations that are still continuing a year later. Not even Margaret Thatcher could have imagined that, one day, the UK state would be able to burn its citizens to death in their homes in front of the world’s press and get away with it. But that’s where we are today in the UK.

2019  In the two decades since it was launched, London’s estate regeneration programme has implemented, is implementing, or is threatening to implement the demolition, renovation and/or privatisation of 240-plus council and social housing estates. Yet neither the UK Government nor the Greater London Authority has produced data available for public scrutiny recording how many homes for social rent have been lost to these schemes; how many thousands of council tenants and leaseholders have lost their homes; how many residents were able to afford the hugely increased rental, service charge and house prices to enact their Right to Return to the new properties; where those who couldn’t are now living; and in what tenure of housing or form of temporary accommodation.


What observations can we draw from this chronology of the social cleansing of London in the twenty years between 1999 and 2019?

  • First, that policy not only on housing but also on anti-social behaviour and crime is being written by non-governmental, privately-funded organisations with a financial interest in property development, then turned into legislation by UK governments.
  • Second, that this legislation is responding to disaster events like the Tottenham riots and the Grenfell Tower fire — not in order to address their causes but to delimit, control and punish protests, demonstrations and the threat of riots.
  • Third, that beyond this public-order function, this legislation is designed to recreate, exacerbate and capitalise on the social and economic inequalities that are the cause of these events.
  • Fourth, that through the ideological apparatus of the UK state, these events are explained to the public using a discourse of ‘crises’ — including the financial crisis, the national-security crisis, the housing crisis, the welfare-spending crisis and, most recently, the knife-crime crisis — that justifies and accommodates further and even more intrusive and repressive legislation and policing.
  • Fifth, that the estate demolition programme is not only a mechanism for expanding and exporting London’s housing crisis — with it being taken up and implemented by councils in Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and other UK cities where land and house prices are rising — but a tool of social engineering utilised by the state to Neo-liberalise what UK citizens still believe are the public spaces in which we live.
  • And sixth, that after 20 years of legislation, the UK public has internalised its own surveillance, policing and sentencing.

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 majority of what we do is unpaid and after more than four years of work we still have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, please make a donation through PayPal:

5 thoughts on “Rioting, Legislation and Estate Demolition: A Chronology of Social Cleansing in London, 1999-2019

  1. It started earlier than that, though – what about the Milton Court estate in LB Lewisham, where much of the estate, including 7 out of 8 tower blocks, was demolished, starting in 1992. This wasn’t just about the ‘undesirability’ of tower blocks, where many of the residents were very happy to live (I was one), but about the social cleansing of an area colloquially known as ‘the Ghetto’, aka ‘Crack City’.


    1. Council estate’s have been ‘regenerated’ for as long as they’ve been built, and in many cases that has meant demolition. So I’m not saying that Blair began either regeneration or demolition. But in trying to establish a qualitative shift into the current phase of estate ‘regeneration’, I think it marks a watershed. ‘Regeneration’ in London almost always means full demolition and a 2-3 times increase in housing capacity; but it also means replacement with overwhelmingly market-sale properties, with the mass loss of homes for council/social rent. I don’t have the figures for the Milton Court estate on what tenure of housing replaced the demolished blocks, so I can’t comment on it. If you have that information, Ben, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

      Another estate demolition initiated before Blair is the so-called ‘Five-Estate’ regeneration scheme in Peckham that demolished the Sumner, Willowbrook, Camden, Gloucester Grove and North Peckham estates. Completed in 2004, the regeneration resulted in a reduction in housing across the five estates from 4,532 council flats to 3,694 new builds, a net loss of over 800 homes. But the new developments also saw a tenure shift from 4,314 homes for council rent to 2,154 council-rented, 915 housing association and 625 leasehold. In its reduction of the overall number of properties and the relatively large number of homes for social rent built on the new development, this regeneration scheme, which began planning in the 1990s, belongs before the current estate regeneration programme, which invariably justifies the huge loss of homes for social rent with a dramatic increase in the number of properties for private sale on the new development.

      The Ferrier, Heygate, Woodberry Down and Aylesbury schemes, started only a few years later, are significantly different in their outcomes, and set a model for what has followed. I think this justifies speaking of a new phase in estate regeneration, not only qualitatively but quantitatively, to the London-wide programme of social cleansing we have today.


  2. Thanks for the quick response, and yes of course you’re right – I wasn’t thinking about the Five Estates, but I should have remembered, as indeed I should with the Ferrier, Heygate, and Aylesbury schemes, which are all in neighbouring boroughs – though I’m not familiar with Woodberry Down.

    Figures for Milton Court I can’t give clearly, it was quite a mixed programme. We started with 556 flats in the eight tower blocks, and of these only 92 remain, in one block. With maisonette blocks there was a mixture of approaches – some 4-storey blocks were reduced to 3-storey, reducing the number of dwellings, while others were demolished entirely, with new properties built on the same footprint – at that time Lewisham were actually able to build essentially new council-rented properties by utilising the same footprint as the demolished block, and calling it ‘rebuild’ – they only discovered they could do this mid-way through the programme, and changed tack.

    There was also some new-build on new sites within the general estate perimeter – both newly-cleared sites and other sites that had previously been garages rather than residential. These were all handed over to what was then Family Housing Association, and is now Peabody. This probably accounts for no more than 30 properties – I’m not sure of the exact number, except that I know it’s over 18.

    We’ve also had a considerable loss to Right to Buy. I can’t speak for the whole of Milton Court, but I live in part of the estate that’s managed by a TMO. In this part, out of the total of 176 currently managed by the TMO since 1994, only 107 are still secure council tenancies; we have 34 freeholders and 35 leaseholders.

    All Milton Court properties still owned by LB Lewisham, that are not managed by Five Ways, are now managed by Lewisham Homes, an ALMO.

    Sorry I can’t be more definitive.



  3. Hi, I am a 59yr old traditional carpenter living in a Council Flat in Bristol, I was involved in woodland management and regeneration as part of the setting up of the 12 City Forests back in the days of ‘Agenda 21’. I am very interested in the history of the Town & Country Planning Act. I have read that in the original 1947/8 Act ‘Betterment Taxes’ were introduced at 100% as part of a number of measures to limit inappropriate development of agricultural land. Apparently there has been a successive political reversal and reintroduction of both higher and lower rates. Currently I believe betterment tax is 10% (set by the Blair gov). I have also heard that policies to develop flood plains along motorway corridors have resulted as a consequence along with many other inappropriate developments. Can you add detail to my rather sketchy understanding of this?


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