Rapid response to The London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms Conference, associated with CITY’s Special Feature (issue 20.2)
Text and photographs by Debbie Humphry
A conference review is in CITY, Humphry, D, 2016, 20 (3): 495-506, and online and online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13604813.2016.1196063
The conference was organised by Paul Watt (Birkbeck University of London) and Anna Minton (University of East London) as a launch event for their CITY special feature London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms (Watt and Minton 2016) and a celebration of CITY’s 20th anniversary. Like many of the best conferences, both speakers and audience came from a range of positions, adding activist, political, journalistic and tenant perspectives to the usual academic crowds (Fig. 1). People were brought together by a common passion to fight housing inequality. The fact that the mothers were there with their children was testament to the conference’s inclusivity (Fig. 2). This is not to say there were no differences or conflicts, but overall the mood of the conference was captured by Luna Glucksberg (Goldsmiths University of London) who said, “it was understandable to non specialists, debate was encouraged and everyone who wanted to contribute was able to and listened to. It was passionate and intense but polite enough for contrary opinions to be heard and not shouted down”.
The morning plenary, chaired by journalist Dawn Foster of The Guardian, focused on a structural analysis of London’s housing crisis. Bob Catterall (Editor-in-Chief, CITY) drew on the term “domicide” (Shin 2014) to articulate the destruction in London (Catterall 2016) and beyond of homes and communities, and capture the extremity of the current housing crisis and its devastating human impact (Fig 3).
Michael Edwards’ (UCL) framed London’s extreme housing crisis within the context of financialisation and the privileging of rent as a means of wealth accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003; Edwards 2016) (Fig 4).
Stuart Hodkinson (University of Leeds) gave a sobering yet rousing presentation on the rise of private equity firms as global corporate landlords (GCLs), termed ‘vulture capitalists’ because of their exploitative accumulation of wealth (Beswick et al. 2016) (Fig 5).
Luna Glucksberg (Goldsmiths University of London) provided an accessible insight into capital flows and foreign investment, making the prime market for housing comprehensible for the non-expert as relayed through an ethnographic lens (Glucksberg 2016).
Aditya Chakrabortty, the Senior Economics Commentator on The Guardian and keynote speaker delivered a scorching critique of a political structural process of ‘definining down’ the UK economy that is cutting out particular industries, regions and people via the construction of London as a global and financial centre, including people losing their homes as they become globally-traded assets (Fig. 6).
The workshops focused on activisms, with various groups explaining and dialoguing about their campaigns, which raised challenging questions and heated debate. This included Kill the Housing Bill Campaign (now Axe the Housing Act since the bill was made law on 12th May 2016), who emphasised the importance of building wide activist networks (Fig 7). They contextualized the Housing and Planning Act within the shift from public to private housing provision, explaining how this created a housing crisis for everyone with the inexorable pushing up of house prices and rents, impacting on social renters, private renters and would-be home-owners alike (Axe the Housing Act 2016; Kill the Housing Bill 2016). Focus E15 spoke of their campaign against social cleansing in Newham and beyond, presenting with Tom Gillespie (University of Sheffield), Kate Hardy (University of Leeds) and Penny Bernstock (UEL), eliciting to impassioned debate.
Several workshops focused on the ‘regeneration’ of council estates in Labour-controlled London boroughs. Jerry Flynn (35percent campaign) with Bob Colenutt (University of Northampton) and Nick Perry (The Hackney Society) explained how private developers evade local authority’s planning requirements for affordable housing by use of ‘viability assessments’, secret financial reports that prioritise developer profit over residents needs (Flynn 2016) (Fig 8).
The Save Cressingham Gardens campaign presented what is so special about their estate (Cressingham Gardens) and why they were fighting to preserve it. Designed by Lambeth’s leading 1970s architect, Ted Holamby, the estate is a stunning example of light-filled properties with a community-centred design (Kolan 2014). They related their experiences as campaigners, including how they took their Lambeth landlords to Court, in which the consultation regarding demolishing up to 300 of their homes was judged unfair and unlawful (Douglas and Parkes 2016). They also discussed their ‘People’s Plan’ (Cress
ingham Gardens Campaign 2016; ASH 2015), which they submitted to the Labour-controlled Lambeth Council on 4th March 2016 in an effort to get them to consider a viable alternative to demolition. However the council barely considered it and dismissed it on March 11th, yet again voting on 21st March 2016 to demolish the estate. (Fig. 9).
Architects for Social Housing (ASH), who had worked with Cressingham Gardens to produce their People’s Plan, also held a workshop in which they discussed their work with residents who lived on the two adjacent West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, also under threat of demolition by yet another Labour-controlled Council, this time in in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (Elmer and Dening 2016). This exemplified the central principle of their manifesto that infill, build-over and refurbishment are more sustainable solutions to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s council estates, enabling the continued existence of the communities they house (ASH 2016).
The afternoon plenary session, chaired by Loretta Lees (University of Leicester), combined academic and activist approaches to London’s housing crisis, encapsulated in Paul Watt’s presentation (Birkbeck University of London, Conference organiser, editor of CITY Special Feature) in which he drew on his grounded involvement with housing activism and cerebral engagement with academic theory to deliver an impassioned analysis of the distinctive and inspirational Focus E15 housing campaign (Watt 2016) (Fig 1o).
- Stuart Hodkinson argued activist to make London toxic in order to scare investor away.
- Aditya Chakrabortty called for a ‘taming of finance’ by cutting back its power and redirecting assets to re-include the people and places currently shut out.
- Jasmin Stone of FocusE15 called on the audience to empower themselves and fight;
- Luna Glucksberg urged for government intervention to turn this situation around, including repeal of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
- Kill the Housing Bill campaign – now Axe the Housing Act since the Housing and Planning Act became law on May 12th 2016 – affirmed its commitment to making the Act unworkable, fighting all evictions, continuing to build wide national support, fighting for best outcomes when affirmative regulations are debated in parliament, and ultimately fighting for repeal of the Act. (Fig.12).
- Jerry Flynn described how some local communities are starting to challenge ‘viability assessments’
- Bob Catterall lauded a new spirit of thoughtful action amongst younger activists who were gathering their own knowledge and research and contributing to a fresh type of social movement and alternative kind of information society. (Fig 13)
ASH (Architects for Social Housing). 2015. ‘Category: Save Cressingham Gardens’, https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/category/save-cressingham-gardens/
ASH (Architects for Social Housing). 2015. ‘Manifesto’, https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/about-2/
Axe the Housing Act. 2016. ‘Axe the Housing Act: secure homes for all’, https://www.facebook.com/Kill-the-Housing-Bill-secure-homes-for-all-1535565046764103/
Beswick, J., Alexandri, G., Byrne, M, Vives-Miró ,S., Fields, D., Hodkinson, S. and M. Janoschka. 2016 “Speculating on London’s housing future: The rise of global corporate landlords in ‘post-crisis’ urban landscapes.” City 20 (2): 321-34
Catterall, B. 2016 “Editorial: ‘This place is pre-something…’” City 20 (2): 175-179
Cressingham Gardens Campaign. 2016. ‘The People’s Plan’, http://cressinghampeoplesplan.org.uk/
Douglas, P and J. Parkes. 2016 “’Regeneration’ and ‘consultation’ at Lambeth council estate: The case of Cressingham Gardens.” City 20 (2): 287-291
Edwards, M. 2016 “The Housing Crisis and London.” City 20 (2): 222-237
Elmer, S. and G. Dening. 2016 “The London Clearances.” City 20 (2): 271-277
Flynn, J. 2016. “Complete control: Developers, financial viability and regeneration at the Elephant and Castle.” City 20 (2): 278-286
Glucksberg, L. 2016 “A View from the top: Unpacking capital flows and foreign investment in prime London.” City 20 (2): 238-255
Harvey, D. 2003 The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Humphry, D (2016) “Report: The London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms Conference, associated with CITY’s Special Feature (issue 20.2).” City 20 (3): 495-506. DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2016.1196063.
Kill the Housing Bill 2016. ‘Axe the Housing Act: Secure Homes for All’ website, https://killthehousingbill.wordpress.com/ accessed 22nd May 2016.
Kolan, S. 2014. “Cressingham Gardens: Homes under the Sledgehammer’. Film directed by https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGRf-SENyPk
Minton, A., Pace, M. and H. Williams. 2016 “The housing crisis: A visual essay.” City 20 (2): 256-270
Shin, HB. 2014. “Contesting speculative urbanisation and strategising discontents” City 16 (4-5): 509-516
Watt, P. 2016 “A nomadic war machine in the metropolis: En/countering London’s 21st-century housing crisis with Focus E15.” City 20 (2): 297-320
Watt, P and A. Minton. 2016. “London’s Housing crisis and its activisms: Introduction City 20 (2): 204-221
Watt, P and A. Minton (eds). 2016. Special Feature: London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms. City 20 (2): 204-34
Debbie Humphry is web editor for CITY-analysis, a researcher and photographer, currently a research fellow at University of East London’s (UEL) Centre for East London Studies (CELS), with interests in housing, neighbourhood, class, social mobility, social justice and participative visual methodologies. http://www.debbiehumphry.com