Q. ‘Social and environmental issues really matter to me. I want to have real influence but, as an architect, I don’t.
A. ‘Many architects contact me expressing a similar sentiment. Our profession tends to attract and develop idealists, and that can make some of our work little more rewarding than working on a factory production line. The important thing is to harness your feelings and convert them to a useful energy, rather than harbour frustration. Ideally, the aim should be to align them to your real world of work.
‘Idealism is great but, mixed with naivety, the danger is it will remain unrealised. An architect who, as a student, explored an enticing proposition such as the impact of driverless cars might think they are in a good position to solve these issues in the real world. But architects aren’t normally the people single-handedly entrusted to envision such complex projects. You are more likely to be closer to the action as a politician, planner, campaigner or engineer than an architect. All of these are possible career routes for architects.
‘The other mindset you could develop is to think and act small. What we do is way more results-focused than most professions. Your view may be coloured by the kind of practice you work for and its workload. The everyday can be humbly influential. Even with a simple extension you can aim to develop a highly energy-efficient house, or directly help improve the quality of life of a family. Sure, you can think big and — who knows? — be the next Steve Jobs. But to do this, you are more likely to need to work alongside, rather than in, architecture.’
— Matthew Turner, architect and careers consultant, Architects’ Journal (2019)
Within the overall political and economic context of capitalist democracies today, in which there is a cross-party consensus from the political establishment on the marketisation of housing provision, and whatever party forms a government there is no longer the political will to make the state responsible for housing its citizens, how do we meet the housing needs of an increasingly homeless global population? Is a socialist model of housing provision unsustainable and impossible within capitalist economies? And in the absence of a socialist government — let alone a socialist revolution — on the horizon, what would a socialist architecture look like?
Faced with our current global crisis of housing affordability, whose financial roots reach deep into the world economy, can architects do more than bury their heads in the limitations of a developer’s brief, confine themselves to purely formal interpretations of housing typologies imposed to maximise land values, attend award ceremonies to their own complicity in the failed and failing policies of capitalism, and become just another cog in the building industry? Are the fêted ideologues of Neo-liberalism in the architectural profession doing no more than accurately describing the economic and professional conditions under which architects must work, and which they’d better get used to sooner rather than later? Or, can an informed understanding and factual knowledge of the fallacies of Neo-liberal housing policy, rather than blind belief and cynical trading in the myths told to justify it, open up the possibility for a socialist architecture, even under existing economic conditions?
We want to make clear from the start that by ‘a socialist architecture’ we don’t mean the architecture of the past: of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, of the Eastern Bloc in Europe, of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of the People’s Republic of China, of the centrally-planned city of Chandigarh in the Republic of India, of the post-colonial Federal Capital of Brasilia in the Fourth Republic of Brazil, of the National Arts Schools in the post-revolutionary Republic of Cuba, or even the post-war architecture of that most absurd of historical anachronisms, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That doesn’t mean these historical examples of socialist architecture don’t offer us models from which we can learn and take. But what we’re interested in producing is the socialist architecture of the future, whose principles we need to start practicing in the present if it is ever to be brought into existence. Architects for Social Housing is an architectural practice first and foremost, and although we engage in areas other than the design work to which most practices limit themselves — including written advocacy and research, resident advice and support, and proposals for housing policy — our primary concern is how to turn architectural principles into practice.
1. Contexts of a Socialist Architecture
I want to start by outlining our proposal for the book we’re writing under the title For a Socialist Architecture. It has a couple of potential subtitles so far, including: Ask these questions, and Under Capitalism; but it begins by addressing four contexts of a socialist architecture, the first one of which we’ll be focusing on today:
- The Social. To situate architecture within the totality of relations of its production, distribution, exchange and consumption, and propose new practices for a socialist architecture under capitalism.
One might think that, by now, we wouldn’t have to reassert the context of this totality, but architecture today is still thought about, and written about, and used as if it were isolated from this totality. One of the characteristics of Neo-liberal housing policy is that it sees architecture as a form of real estate or a means of exchange, and ignores the totality of the social, environmental, economic and political relations within which it is produced and consumed.
In the UK at the moment the word ‘socialism’ is creeping back into public discourse. We’re once again able to use this term that one couldn’t ten years ago without being laughed at, or dismissed as an extremist, or even arrested. However, the idea still persists that one can only produce a socialist architecture under a socialist system. In maintaining this idea, the potential agency of the architect, or housing professional, or politician, or indeed activist is displaced into an infinitely deferred future that never arrives. How many Neo-liberal architects find comfort in this convenient excuse for their collusion with the obscenities of capitalism? What we want to propose, in contrast, is that one can practice a socialist architecture as a professional architect even under existing policy and economic conditions — which are, of course, Neo-liberal through and through.
- The Environmental. To understand and reduce the totality of consumption within the finitude of global resources.
In the UK right now, and across capitalist democracies, the environment has become a large framework for thinking about what we want or have to do with the world, and how or if we are going to continue into the future. ‘The environment’ is, I think, another word we can all understand for what we mean here by ‘the totality’. At the moment, the primary way in which the architectural profession is responding to its contribution to the continuing rise of carbon emissions around the world is through so-called ‘green architecture’, which includes photovoltaic panels, improved insulation, and green roofs and walls. What it doesn’t consider is the environmental cost of construction or demolition, or the social cost of the tenure types and sale prices of the residential dwellings it is designing, or the economic costs to both residents and the public sector of doing so, or the political agendas it is serving. In other words, architectural discourse is isolating ‘the environment’ (in inverted commas) from the totality of relations in which architecture exists, which includes its social, economic and political dimensions.
- The Economic. To design for and implement economic de-growth within the context of global housing demand.
‘The economy’ is another word for the totality that everyone can grasp, if few of us can fully understand, and provides the next context for a socialist architecture. In this respect, it’s important to understand that de-growth is not a choice anymore: it is something we know we have to do if we are to continue as a civilisation, a species, on an inhabitable planet. But we need to do so within the vast context of global housing demand. Across the globe, we need to build around 2 billion new homes by the end of the century, most of them in the southern hemisphere. Architecture, for us, is first and foremost about one thing, and that is how to house people in secure and comfortable homes in which they can afford to live. The vanity projects that litter the glossy magazines of the architectural press, and to which the prizes of the profession are invariably handed, are irrelevant to the historical task architecture faces in the present. The question — which is a question to which historical socialism has to respond if it is to return as the model of our future — is how we balance meeting this housing demand against the environmental, economic and perhaps social costs of doing so. As an economic system, socialism is not associated historically with either de-growth or environmentalism. Quite the opposite. Historically, after the Second World War, socialism across the globe had to house tens of millions of people very quickly, and in economies that had only recently undergone, or were still undergoing, industrialisation. But the political context in which socialist architecture housed populations made homeless by poverty and colonialism and war in the second half of the Twentieth Century is different from the contemporary context. We will, perhaps, soon be facing as great a crisis in housing provision; but, in addition, we need to meet it under the threat of environmental collapse and in the grip of Neo-liberalism.
- The Political. To reclaim the political dimension of architecture and bring about progressive change within the totality of social, economic and environmental relations.
Finally, in our last presentation we’ll be looking at the political dimension of architecture. One of our mottos is that architecture is always political, a self-evident truth that Neo-liberal architects continue to deny even now. It seems to us that precisely the social dimension of architecture — particularly in the UK in the post-war period when the bulk of our council housing was built under the new welfare state, and more generally across Europe and the world — was not simply about building blocks of homes in order to house people. It was also about coming up with a different vision of how people live together, in communities, in cities, in countries. We called this ‘modernism’, and it could be argued that, of all the forms in which modernism transformed the arts, its legacy stands or falls on its architecture, which embodied like no other art form the tasks of modernism. Today, when modernism is subject to wholesale denigration by the champions of Neo-liberalism, one of the things ASH does is try to encourage architects into reclaiming the social and political dimension of architecture that has been taken over by — or perhaps more accurately conceded to — the agents of Neo-liberalism.
2. Theoretical Foundations for a Socialist Architecture
Now I want to move on to talking about the contents of the book we’re working on, For a Socialist Architecture. As part of our residency here, Architects for Social Housing has been asked by 221A to provide a bibliography of books for the Pollyanna Library in order to give some context to our presentations. Most of the books written about the crisis of housing affordability are academic texts. These analyse the housing crisis and, in some cases, try to identify some of its causes; but very few — if any — propose a solution. In contrast, the books that do propose solutions to the housing crisis are written by think-tanks, by municipal authorities, by building lobbyists, by real-estate firms, by housing associations, by architectural practices and by other housing professionals, and the solutions they propose are, without exception, to continue doing more of the same but at an increased intensity of production across a wider scale. So far, it is the latter texts that are winning the battle for housing policy and legislation in the UK; while the former are gathering dust in academic libraries, where their primary contribution is to the curriculum vitae of their authors and the research rating of the academic departments that employ them.
What ASH wants to do, in contrast, is produce a practical volume that will be used by the people who are suffering the housing crisis as well as those who are its agents: not only residents, therefore, but also councillors, architects, policy-makers and others. To this end, rather than a single, continuous narrative, we imagine the book to be composed of different registers of writing interleaved with each other, into which readers can dip for the information they are interested in or need. One of these sections, composed of a series of short essays, will constitute the theoretical foundations — and practical necessity — for a socialist architecture. These essays will include, but are not limited to, the following topics.
- The global failure of Neo-liberal housing policy.
Before coming to Vancouver, ASH has had exchanges with housing professionals not only in the UK but also in New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Sydney and in many other cities across the world. The housing crisis is global. And yet, these cities are in different countries with different histories, composed of different housing typologies built at different housing densities under different principles of urban planning across very different landscapes; but they all suffer from the same crisis of housing affordability. The origin of that crisis is the same: Neo-liberalism. This is a fancy term to describe the new and emerging stage of capitalism over the past forty years or so, which has led, among many other disasters, to the financialisation of global property markets, the marketisation of housing provision, and the political hegemony of Neo-liberal housing policy. Quite clearly, what we’re doing now and have been for some time is not working, if by housing we mean the provision of a social need of the population rather than a commodity for investment and speculation by international capitalism.
- The inadequacy of human rights as a model for affordable and secure housing provision.
Just before we came to Vancouver, in April 2019, the government of Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act declaring that housing was a human right. This is a right we don’t have in the legislation of the UK, which only defends our property rights; so on the face of it the Housing Act looks like a positive thing. However, this rights-based approach, which is founded on the recommendations of reports produced by civil society but has no legal requirements or enforceable court orders, is meant to provide recourse to anyone wrongfully denied a home for reasons such as their ethnic, religious, sexual or gender identity. The ‘right to housing’ it advances, therefore, does nothing to ensure either the affordability or security of tenure of that housing. This example reveals the limits of human rights as a model for good governance and social justice. Human rights are a set of principles that don’t take into account how they are implemented in practice through the legal system, which is subject to economic and political pressures that — certainly in my experience — supersede those principles. As a model for housing provision, human rights are fundamentally flawed; but they are also, I think, part of the Neo-liberal system. This is something I’ll return to at the end of this presentation; but the inadequacy of human rights as a model for achieving housing justice is one of the foundations for the necessity of a socialist architecture.
- The insufficiency of individual ethics as a framework for the practical agency of architects.
The same inadequacy pertains to the ethical model, another liberal construct. In June 2016, in response to ASH’s criticisms of the collusion of the architectural profession in the UK’s estate demolition programme, the Royal Institute of British Architects published a report titled Ethics of Estate Regeneration. Unsurprisingly, it concluded that whatever moral issues this collusion raised were a matter for the individual conscience of the architect, and not a consideration about the social role of the profession. However, this is a completely meaningless conclusion when most architects, like nearly everybody else, are trying to pay their rent. In other words, their ethical agency is limited by, precisely, capitalist relations of production that make most architects workers on a low wage competing for a limited number of positions in companies themselves competing for contracts from the building industry. To talk of ‘ethics’ under these conditions is to ignore the social, economic and political context in which most architects work, and to which only a socialist architecture can offer an alternative.
- The inability of so-called ‘green architecture’ to compensate for the environmental costs of new development.
I mentioned this before when describing the environmental context of architecture and how the window-dressing of solar panels, green walls and improved thermal performance isolate ‘the environment’ from its social, economic and political context. This is something we’ll come back to in greater detail in our third presentation on the environmental dimension of a socialist architecture.
- The possibilities of a socialist architecture under capitalist relations of production.
At ASH, we’re fed up with people saying that we can’t do anything until we vote the right party or person into government. That isn’t going to happen. There is no parliamentary road to socialism. At the risk of sounding like a communist, Leon Trotsky had this idea about what he called the transitional period. In Moscow there is, still, a wonderful example of Constructivist architecture called the Narkomfin. It was built in 1930 as a building in which the bourgeois family unit in which most urban dwellers had lived prior to the Revolution was superseded by individual maisonettes composed of a living space and bedrooms, but in which the kitchen and dining room, located in an annexe to the main building, were communal. It was a transitional building in that it was designed to change people’s practices of living with each other. We believe that socialism isn’t something that is handed down from above by a government, even if the one elected calls itself ‘socialist’. The history of the Twentieth Century is littered with examples of ‘socialist’ governments that have either remained capitalist and imperialist or fallen into dictatorships. Socialism can only come about if we change our practices — our practices of living together as well as working together. A socialist architecture is a change in architectural practice as well as in housing provision. Over the past five years, Architects for Social Housing has been able to practice a socialist architecture under even the most restrictive Neo-liberal conditions of economics and policy, and we have done so at the heart of that Great Whore of Babylon called London.
- The necessity of architects reclaiming the social dimension and political agency of their profession.
Finally, there is a real desire among young architects to reclaim this agency. Most of the architects who come and work with us are young architects in large practices, and they are quite aware that they are forging the chains of their own oppression. In their daily practice they are contributing to a housing crisis that they are experiencing first hand not only in their inability to get onto the fabled ‘housing ladder’ of capitalism, but in their housing precarity, their housing poverty and, in some cases, their homelessness. They know from the exploitative work practices under which they labour just how inadequate individual ethics is as a model for responding to their situation. And some of them, who have worked with ASH in the past, have recently joined the United Voices of the World trades union as the Section of Architectural Workers.
3. Practical Advice for the Agents of a Socialist Architecture
The above are just some of the bases for the urgent necessity of a socialist architecture now. However, only a part of what we do at ASH can be called ‘architecture’. A lot of what we do before we get anywhere near producing a feasibility study or designing a scheme is advising residents on how to save their homes from demolition, how to propose a financially feasible alternative for their refurbishment, and how to build the homes in which they can afford to live. The procedure by which councils, developers and architects go about trying to demolish and redevelop residents’ homes is, by now, a fairly standard one, using the same arguments and employing the same tactics. Because of this, we find ourselves giving out the same advice over and over again. We thought it would be useful, therefore, to write this advice down within a framework that residents and housing campaigns can use without necessarily having to contact us. And in a spirit of optimism perhaps justified by the complete moral bankruptcy in which our current housing policies have left us, we also want to make this information available to councillors, architects and — why not? — even developers and politicians who are looking for a way out of our current impasse. To do this, we want, in our book, to provide the following information.
- A map of the development process through its various phases:
- Legislation, policy and strategic development
- Urban design, master-planning and brief development
- Project design and the planning process
- Construction, management and maintenance
We’re going to look at this in greater detail in Part 2 of this presentation; but our primary concern is that, within this long and drawn-put process, architects are currently only brought in at phase 2 at best, and most often at phase 3. What we want to do is get them involved far earlier in the process, when all the big decisions that determine the agency of the architect are made. Doing so, however, is not only a task of architects, but of all the agents of a socialist architecture.
- The options available for housing provision and their social, financial and environmental costs.
For example, you’re living on a council or social housing estate and your landlord, whether the local authority or housing association, tells you they want to demolish and redevelop your estate. What does that mean for the residents? What are the social, financial and environmental costs of demolition and redevelopment? What consequences do those costs that have for the tenure and price of the new residential property built in their place? How does that effect the ability of residents to return to the new development? What are the alternative options? And what benefits do they have for both existing and future residents — socially, environmentally and economically? At present, little or none of this information is made available for residents facing this all-too-common situation, and what they are told are lies. We want to make the truth about their situation available to as wide a range of people as possible: not only to residents but also to architects and councillors.
- The questions residents should be asking local authorities, developers (including housing associations) and consultants (including architects).
The centre of the book, in many ways, are a series of questions that residents and other would-be agents of a socialist architecture can and should ask of the landlord, their private development partners and the consultants they employ to misinform residents about their situation. Residents are invariably told, quite early in the development process, that demolition and redevelopment of their homes is the only financially viable option. What we want to do is give residents the questions they need to ask about how this decision has been reached, and to challenge what they have been told. This means giving residents the knowledge they need — which they often acquire themselves but usually too late — to ask these questions. Not only on the estates for which ASH has produced design alternatives to demolition but on the many more we have advised, we’ve found that residents asking the right questions slows the whole development process down. It places the organisations trying to rush the process through as quickly as possible on the back foot. And it helps to arm resident campaigns with the tools they need to defend themselves and their homes. In this aspect, For a Socialist Architecture will be a practical manual for combating the considerable legislative, financial and propaganda power behind the estate demolition programme and the housing crisis.
- The questions architects should be asking themselves, residents, clients (including local authorities and developers) and policy makers.
However, in addition to arming residents with information, ASH believes we also need to talk to and convince architects. In the UK, at least, across the development process, it’s very hard to talk to councils, who are all but totally unaccountable to either residents or campaigners. It’s even harder to talk to developers, who have neither interest in, nor obligation to consider, the social value of their product. Architects, however, do have a duty that derives from their Code of Conduct under the Architects Registration Board. As we’ll examine in detail in later presentations, it’s a greatly diminished one, and it is rarely if ever upheld by the ARB; but in principle, at least, it binds architects to something like a medical professional’s Hippocratic oath. From the very beginning of our practice, therefore, ASH has reached out, in both protest and comradeship, to put pressure on architectural practices to observe and honour not only its codes of conduct but the wider reach and responsibility of the profession. This means questioning who, exactly, is the client of the architect. Is it the council or developer that employs them and writes their brief; or it is the users of their product? These are questions architects need to start asking of themselves, first of all, but also of their clients and, we would say, policy makers too. Again and again, we are told by architects that, yes, they agree with what we are saying, but then they plaintively ask us what can they possibly do within the current policy and funding framework? There are things we can do, and ASH is not alone in demonstrating that in practice.
- The questions councillors, civil servants (including planners) should be asking themselves, residents, developers and their local, municipal and governmental authorities.
This questioning of the logic — and certainly of the results — of Neo-liberal housing policy extends beyond residents and architects to individuals, at least, if not the institutions in which they work, within the development process. There are councillors, there are planners, there are even politicians who are dismayed at the housing crisis they are complicit in producing, and are looking for what is commonly called a ‘solution’, but would be more accurately described as the practices of what they would probably be horrified to call a socialist architecture.
- The available financial, management and ownership models for housing provision.
When confronted with the single option for the demolition and redevelopment of their homes, residents are told that it is financially unviable to do anything else. This has led many resident communities to explore not only alternative financial models for infill housing on their estates without demolition, but also to look at ways to take management and even ownership of the estate out of the mismanagement of the council and into their hands. The most popular means has been through applying for the Right to Transfer the management of their homes into a Tenant Management Organisation, and/or taking ownership of their homes into a Community Land Trust; but there are many other financial, management and ownership alternatives that are being kept from them by councils and the consultants and architects they employ. We mean to make this information available to residents, and show them that there is always an alternative to the disastrous estate regeneration programme that is demolishing and privatising council housing in the service of property developers and investors.
- The changes we need to make housing policy and legislation serve housing need.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is change the capitalist framework within which all of us are forced to operate. For the moment, we’ll leave the revolution to another day — perhaps another five or ten years; but what we can change today is housing policy and legislation. Certainly, in the UK — and I’d imagine around the capitalist world — Neo-liberal housing policy is quite clearly not working, if by housing we mean a home in which the population can afford to live. Everybody can see that. Even the companies making a fortune out of the housing crisis can see how unsustainable it is. The question is: what should replace it? Answering that is difficult, not least because of the huge amount of disinformation and outright lies told by the ideologues of Neo-liberalism about the viable alternatives. To combat these lies, ASH also writes housing policy proposals that we promote whenever we can, and which we’ll look at in a later presentation.
4. Glossary of Housing Terminology and Procedures for Residents
‘The truth’, as Oscar Wilde once quipped, ‘isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl’; and the bourgeois state takes the same condescending attitude towards us. Within the ideology informing housing policy, the truth isn’t slightly at variance from its justifications; nor is it a corruption of the facts: it is, in fact, the exact opposite of what we are told. One of the ways the makers of policy get away with this is through the terminology in which housing policy is phrased. A lot of what ASH does in advising resident and housing campaigns is to translate the lies with which the local authorities and their contractors are trying to deceive them into the very real consequences those lies will have for them should they believe them. For this reason, another section of For a Socialist Architecture will be composed of a glossary of terms that are used again and again in the arguments, promises, justifications, reports, policies and legislation through which the housing crisis is produced. In the UK, seemingly generalised phrases such as ‘affordable housing’ and the ‘right to return’ have very particular, policy and legislatively defined meanings that are very different from — and indeed the opposite of — what most people would understand by them; and it’s the former that will define their application to the development process. Informing residents what these precise meanings are can help them in the process of questioning everything they are told by the agents of capitalist architecture, all the lies with which they are being deceived. This glossary of housing terminology includes, but is not limited to, the following phrases:
- Joint ventures, special purpose vehicles, wholly-owned companies, and other means of privatisation.
The most recent example of this is the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmiths Street redevelopment in Norwich, which was celebrated not only by Norwich City council but by every architect and journalist as council housing when it was, in fact, developed by the Norwich Regeneration Company, the council-owned development, management and lettings vehicle. Although Norwich council owns the company shares, the company itself is a commercial venture. This means it will operate at best as a housing association; the tenancies, under existing legislation, will at best be assured tenancies, not the secure council tenancies they have been described as; the company will be compelled to make a profit for its private development partners and investors; and, as a housing association, there’s nothing to stop the company raising service charges or converting what are currently homes for social rent into affordable rents in the future, as so many housing associations are currently doing as a matter of policy. This is by far and away the most benign of the examples of special purpose vehicles being used to implement estate demolition schemes, with most being used to develop overwhelmingly market-sale properties; but all are a means of stealth privatisation, and residents told that such vehicles are public housing need to understand what the difference will mean for them.
- Place-making, gentrification and social cleansing.
While ‘placemaking’ is the developer’s euphemism for the enforced displacement of existing communities and their replacement with a different class demographic, ‘gentrification’, which was coined in the 1960s by the British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the influx of the suburban middle classes into working-class urban neighbourhoods with the same but more gradual result, has gone from a social phenomenon to be studied to an ideological model to be implemented. And while academics continue to use the latter term, among housing campaigners both terms have been supplanted with ‘social cleansing’. This has two benefits. First, this term more accurately describes the state-led process through which our cities are being evicted of their no-longer wanted residents to clear the land for equally unwanted residential developments. And second, while the middle classes have reacted to their role in the negative effects of gentrification by arguing that their greater disposable income brings much-needed investment into neighbourhoods abandoned by the state, ‘social cleansing’ makes the class dimension of their complicity in the state’s actions explicit, and has, consequently, drawn vehement denunciations of its use from journalists, academics, architects and other spokespersons of the middle classes. Replacing the former two terms with the latter is an example of estate residents who are fighting for their homes appropriating the language employed to deceive and silence them to their own ends, and is, as such, a model of ideological struggle.
- Tenures and costs of so-called ‘affordable housing’.
‘Affordable housing’ is probably the greatest and most successful of the lies through which the current phase of Neo-liberal housing policy has been implemented. Introduced in 2010 by the Homes and Communities Agency, a quango of housing associations, 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. The almost total replacement of homes for social rent by affordable housing as the recognised form of public housing is testified by the latest figures to come out of the Greater London Authority. These reveal that, of the 31,851 completions of residential units in London in the year 2017-18, 4,703 were classed as ‘affordable housing’. Although this represents less than 15 per cent of the total — with the remaining 85 per cent, 27,148 units, for market sale or rent — and therefore far short of the 35 per cent targeted by the London Mayor, only 433 units, an extraordinary 1.3 per cent, were for social rent. Indefensible as these figures are a decade into a crisis of housing affordability in one of the wealthiest cities in the fifth strongest economy in the world, the truth is the exact opposite of what most people would understand by the term ‘affordable housing’. In furtherance of this doublespeak, this is the last time these figures will be available, as last year the GLA announced that from now on it would be combining its data on social rent and London Affordable Rent into a single category, effectively erasing social rent as a category even of affordable housing.
- The consultation process, resident ballots, and the manufacturing of resident consent.
The consultation process — which only begins long after all the big decisions have been made by the local authority or landlord and their private development partners, including the architects and consultants — is not about informing residents of the available options and helping them to make the best decision for them; it is about manufacturing resident consent for the demolition and redevelopment process that has already been decided. We challenge anyone to find a single estate community that thinks this process has been either open or transparent, and a number of campaigns, including Save Cressingham Gardens, have taken councils to a Judicial Review for the numerous failings of their consultation. To avoid this course of resistance, in 2018 the Greater London Authority introduced resident ballots on the demolition of their homes. However, the terms of these ballots, which includes the stipulation that they be held before a private development partner is chosen, means that residents will be voting on nothing more than promises to which neither the council nor their future partners will be contractually bound. Nor are councils obliged to offer residents an alternative option, such as the refurbishment of the estate funded by infill development, meaning they are forced to choose between the continued managed decline of their homes or their demolition and redevelopment. Far from being a means of resident empowerment, resident ballots are a means of manufacturing resident consent to which councils, developers and architects can point when the true consequences of the residents’ constrained choices become apparent. Once again, therefore, the truth of this housing policy is the exact opposite of how it is being presented.
- The role of financial viability assessments in increasing developer profit at the expense of housing provision.
In principle, such assessments are there to determine whether a proposed scheme is financial viability for the developer. In practice, however, they are used to drive down the provision of anything that detracts from a developer’s profits, such as the percentage of even affordable housing, let alone homes for social rent; the measures taken to reduce the carbon emissions from the construction and performance of the development; as well as the Section 106 agreements and Community Interest Levies that contribute to the infrastructure of roads, clinics, hospitals, nurseries, schools, parks, community amenities and commercial facilities that are required to turn a property development into a residential community. Extraordinarily, these financial viability assessments are produced by the developers themselves, run to many thousands of pages, and invariably conclude that all of the above must be reduced to the bare minimum or removed altogether if the scheme is to go ahead. Councils, even when their cabinets are not composed of lobbyists for the same developers and the same consultants employed by the planning authority, have neither the expertise nor the political will to challenge these assessments. Research by housing campaigners has shown that developers repeatedly use all manner of manipulations to reach their conclusions, such as calculating profits on current house prices without taking account of inflation. Rather than establishing the financial costs of various options, viability assessments are there to manipulate planning authorities into agreeing to an outcome that has already been decided in advance between developers and cabinets. Again, like residents ballots, financial viability assessments are doing the exact opposite of what they claim to do, and residents need to be given the information they need to challenge their use in the development process.
- The ‘right to return’ and other empty promises.
The final, desperate lie told to resistant residents, and the one that goes to the heart of the fallacy on which human rights are founded, is the right to return. Brandished by everyone from government minister and borough councillor to community consultant and contracted architect, the right of existing residents to return to the redevelopment — and to nothing less than a ‘like-for-like’ replacement for their demolished former homes — is in truth entirely contingent upon their financial ability to afford the considerably increased rental and service charges if they are a council or housing association tenant, and hugely increased house prices if they are a leaseholder. The figures on just how few residents are able to enact this right reveal that this financial contingency is sufficiently prohibitive to make it nothing more than an empty promise. But even for those few who are able, this right to return also means the right to lose their security of tenure as a council tenant, and in the case of leaseholders offered shared ownership of a new property, to lose their status as homeowners for nothing more than the legal status of an assured tenant. All of this is contained in the housing policy of the ‘right to return’; and residents undergoing the consultation process need to be informed by some other source than the consultants and architects paid to withhold that information from them. For a Socialist Architecture will lay this out clearly and in plain language, together with references, should residents and campaigners wish to substantiate these truths, to their documentary, policy and legislative proof.
5. The Inadequacies of Human Rights
I want to end by returning to the perhaps well-meaning but fundamentally misguided struggle to have housing made a human right. This is a struggle that dominates so much of our thinking about housing provision; but it is based in human rights that guarantee, in principle, nothing more than our right to compete in the market free of that old bugbear of liberalism, ‘discrimination’. In the UK this ‘freedom’ is guaranteed in legislation by the Equality Act 2010, which offers legal protection from discrimination based on age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation — but not on economic status. Applied to a human need that also constitutes, for the vast majority of the population, our largest single expenditure, the supposed guarantee of a ‘right’ to housing is close to useless as a model of housing provision. So how is it that human rights are held up as the ideal to which not only housing justice but all capitalist legal systems should aspire?
Human rights arose in the aftermath of the Second World War as the favoured ethical framework of capitalism in its defence against the perceived threat of socialism across the world. This was erected, first, through the centralisation of economic and political control in the hands of an unelected leadership that would become the European Union; and second, through the ideological championing of human rights in opposition to the ethical framework provided by socialism. To this end, the European Convention on Human Rights, administered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), came into force in 1953, under Article 8 of which:
‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’
The UK granted individual citizens the right to petition the ECHR in 1966; and the Convention itself became a part of UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998, which adopted Article 8 verbatim, and was passed by Parliament under Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Government.
A decade before this, however, following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, human rights had replaced socialist principles with an ethical order based on the illusions of free-market capitalism and representative democracy imposed on the rest of the world by the military power of the USA with the acquiescence, if not direct support, of the United Nations. With the hope of political revolution and an economic alternative to capitalism apparently crushed forever, the language of human rights described the putative ‘supersession’ of politics by single-issue campaigns focused on the politics of identity, which was administered by the new orthodoxy of political correctness. This erasure of difference by the Neo-liberal ideology of multiculturalism in practice imposed the most homogeneous consumerist culture the world has ever seen, and one ideally suited to the colonial and imperialist aspirations of monopoly capitalism. Any country not embracing this economic, political and cultural orthodoxy was threatened with invasion and so-called ‘regime change’ — not, of course, for its rejection of capitalism or democratic election of socialist governments, but for its violation of the human rights of individual citizens to pursue the ‘American Dream’. This liberal agenda, like that imposed by the missionaries of European colonialism, conveniently concealed the economic inequality systemically produced by monopoly capitalism beneath universal ethical and cultural norms imposed by powerful political and financial individuals and corporations in the service of their private interests.
To this end, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, rejected ‘the right of political rebellion’ but enshrined ‘the right to own property’ (Article 17). It granted ‘the right to equal pay for equal work’ (Article 23), but said nothing about what makes some forms of work less equal than others under capitalism, and thus without the means to attain ‘equal pay’. The Declaration also stated that: ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including . . . housing’ (Article 25). It is from this ‘right to housing’, which Canada recognised in 1976 when it ratified the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that the 2019 National Housing Strategy Act draws its framework.
Human rights have been drawn up as principles without regard to their practical implementation through a legal system that, as I said before, has repeatedly shown itself to be subordinate to political and financial pressures that override those principles. Recent examples of this in the UK are the findings of United Nations Special Rapporteurs Raquel Rolnik on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living in December 2013; of Philip Alston on extreme poverty and human rights in November 2018; and of Nils Melzer on the torture and extra-territorial extradition of Julian Assange into the gulag of the US justice system in May 2019 — all of which have been casually and even contemptuously dismissed by the UK Government, despite it being a signatory to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. These are only the tip of the iceberg of the failure of UK courts and governments to uphold the human rights of its citizens, as well as their passing of legislation in contravention of those rights, most especially over the past twenty years. Yet these examples demonstrate the limits of human rights as a model of good governance and social justice.
But even leaving aside the question of their upholding by the state in practice, human rights, even in principle, guarantee nothing more than the right to compete in the market from a position of unequally remunerated work and hugely unequal inheritance. The framework of property-ownership in which these rights have been written is made explicit in Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which reads: ‘Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions’. And in the UK, we have repeatedly seen the inadequacy of this framework when applied to the housing crisis: of the unequal right to compensation for leaseholders’ homes demolished to make way for new developments they cannot afford to purchase; of the financial contingency of residents’ right to return to the new, far more expensive properties built in their place; of the government’s arbitrary and politicised rejection of an estate community’s right to take over the management of their own homes from the state; of the denial of their right to transfer the estate into their ownership; of the denial of their right to see the financial viability assessments by which the demolition of their homes is justified; of the legal prosecution of their right to assemble in protest against that demolition; and of the financial contingency of their right of access to the law itself to contest the local authority’s decision in court. Faced with the repeated failure of these rights to defend residents and their homes from the overriding demands of capitalism, it is necessary to formulate the principles and practices of a socialist architecture beyond the limitations of human rights.
After forty years of Neo-liberal propaganda, most architects — and certainly the vast majority in the UK — equate socialism either with the bogey-man of totalitarianism propagated by the US culture industry or, alternatively, the social-democratic Neo-liberalism of the European Union. But at ASH we aren’t interested in identities (Labour-voting activists who identify themselves as ‘anarchist’ or ‘socialist’), but in social practice. And over 5 years of practice we have demonstrated that a socialist architecture is not dependent for its practice upon a socialist government, a socialist economic system or even upon socialist architects. And while a socialist architecture must campaign for all of the above, its existence is manifested through practice alone. So, whether or not an architect, resident or campaigner identifies as a ‘socialist’ (whatever that may mean to them personally), we believe that formulating the principles of a socialist architecture will show that it is possible to practice architecture as something other than the obedient instrument of capitalism.
Socialism, in principle, grants equal pay for equal work. But this in itself does not create equality between individuals with very different means, needs and abilities. Only under a communist distribution — which in Karl Marx’s classic formula takes from each according to their abilities and gives to each according to their needs — is an equal standard of living possible. What we are faced with, however, is neither a communist nor a socialist society, but a capitalist one, in which human rights, even in principle, guarantee nothing more than the right to compete in the market from a position of hugely unequal means. Our present task, therefore, is to articulate the principles of a socialist architectural practice within capitalist relations of production, and in doing so lay one of the paths for the transition — perhaps the revolution — to a socialist future. But in the absence of anything resembling even a pre-revolutionary society in capitalist democracies, this is a manifesto for a socialist architecture struggling to free itself from the chains of capitalism.
Architects for Social Housing