London’s housing in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Paul Watt
Over a year ago, Anna Minton and I began our article in City on ‘London’s housing crisis and its activisms’ with this quote from China Mieville taken from his book London’s Overthrow:
‘London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.’ (Mieville, 2012, cited in Watt and Minton, 2016: 204).
At the time I had no firm idea what the apocalyptic ‘something’ might be that we were ‘pre’, but it seemed that London’s housing – and its often mentioned crisis – had something to do with it. The Grenfell Tower fire may well be this ‘something’ since it has revealed the injustices, deprivations, expulsions and brutalities that are routine in the lives of ordinary, working-class, multi-ethnic Londoners. These include: overcrowding; being ‘regenerated’ and watching your home and neighbourhood crumble around you; being shunted into unsatisfactory temporary accommodation; being displaced out-of-borough; being ignored and/or patronised by political elites; being invisible and not counting; and not even being properly counted. How many people lived in Grenfell Tower? No-one knows. How many are dead? No-one knows. Disposable homes, disposable lives.
All of this is occurring at the very same time that London’s skyline is full of cranes building luxury tower blocks for London’s ‘winners’, as at least one developer has labelled its denizens. But these new private developments are ‘not for us’, as young homeless people living in Newham presciently said with reference to the 2012 Olympic Games’ related housing (Watt, 2013; Kennelly, 2016; Watt and Bernstock, 2017). Media interviews with the residents of Grenfell Tower show that – just like the homeless youth in uber-gentrifying Stratford – they are only too well aware of their subaltern position within the surrounding unequal neoliberal urban landscape with its associated social cleansing.
All capitalist cities are riven by the contradictory gap between exchange values and use values in the field of housing. Everyone needs a place to live, a place they can call home, a place where they can be safe and secure. Under capitalist relations of production, however, housing is primarily produced in commodity form for surplus value extraction so that exchange values (housing as property investment) dominate use values (housing as home and meeting needs). In 21st century London, this exchange/use value gap is a mile-wide crevice which slices through the city, giving rise to deep social faultlines. The super-rich living in London’s ‘Alpha Territories’ (Glucksberg, 2016) over-accumulate bedrooms and under-use their luxury apartments, including letting them lie empty, while breadline Londoners have to squeeze themselves into ever-diminishing residential space, guided and coerced by a burgeoning rentier class (Dorling, 2014; Minton, 2017). Politicians of all stripes have “in too many cases […] been complicit in gearing housing production and distribution in London towards maximising real-estate exchange values at the expense of fulfilling use values and meeting housing needs” (Watt and Minton, 2016: 218).
Housing is conditional – upon keeping up rent and mortgage payments. Default and you are displaced. In the terms of Saskia Sassen’s (2014: 1; original emphasis) ‘new logics of expulsion’, eviction and displacement in London are ever-present threats and realities. ‘Home’ for many private renters – as well as council tenants and leaseholders on regenerated/demolished council-built housing estates (Watt, 2013; Flynn, 2016) – is less a place of security than of gnawing existential angst. In fact, the termination of an assured shorthold tenancy in the PRS is now the main reason for loss of the last settled home among the nation’s homeless applicants, and was “behind 40% of all statutory homeless acceptances in London” in the third quarter of 2016 (Wilson and Barton, 2016: 3).
Public, council housing offered a partially decommodified form of housing which post-war working-class Londoners relied upon – ‘take yourself down the council, they’ll sort you out’. Now the council don’t sort you out – they ship you out. If you are evicted and you lack a regular, large salary, you might apply to the council as homeless (Watt, 2017). This involves going to the council’s housing office on the day of your eviction and waiting there for many hours only be told, ‘we have no social housing, but there’s emergency temporary accommodation in Hastings or Welwyn Garden City’ (if you’re ‘lucky’) ‘or Birmingham or Manchester’ (if you’re ‘unlucky’) – ‘but you have to go now’. Don Corleone would approve – it’s an offer you cannot refuse. If you do happen to refuse, then you’ve just made yourself ‘intentionally homeless’ and the offer will be rescinded (Watt, 2017). In Sassen’s terms, you will have been expelled from the housing arm of the welfare state. But if you accept the offer, you have rescinded your right to the city. You will be expelled from the city, from your family and support networks. Such expulsionary logics are now routine in London. Displacement is forced upon Londoners by an insecure and expensive PRS, as reinforced by Local Housing Allowance cuts (Powell, 2015), coupled with chronic shortages of council/social rental housing, the only really truly affordable housing for ordinary, low-income Londoners. What there is of the latter is all too often being dismantled by regeneration/demolition schemes which a Greater London Authority report has demonstrated contributes towards a net loss of social tenancies (London Assembly Housing Committee, 2015).
London’s expulsionary logics have been revealed in all their brutality in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Unsurprisingly it appears the traumatised survivors have said they don’t want to live in sub-standard B&Bs, and that they want to be rehoused near their neighbours and not to be displaced from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. As such, they are rejecting the dominant expulsionary logic of being forced to go anywhere that the authorities tell them to go. But it should not take such an emergency for ‘right to the city’ values to prevail since all Londoners deserve a right to their city.
Ultimately, the deep exchange/use value gap has to be drastically narrowed. This can only happen if monetary values around housing-as-property are subordinated to use values of home and need, and this will only begin to be achieved once a growing proportion of housing production is decommodified. This would mean recreating large-scale social (preferably public) rental housing programmes. It would also mean preserving what social housing already exists. Social housing represents a precious jewel in London’s crown which is largely responsible for stalling the several waves of gentrification and especially its 21st century state-corporate variety (Watt, 2013). Demolishing council-built tower blocks is therefore a chimerical ‘solution’ to the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy that some London politicians, including Labour politicians, have mooted (Independent, 2017; Khan, 2017). Those blocks and estates were built during periods of sizeable state funding, funding which has been pared to the bone following decades of neoliberal housing policy coupled with shorter-term austerity cutbacks (Hodkinson, et al., 2013). Knocking down council-built tower blocks will simply exacerbate London’s housing crisis as it affects ordinary Londoners.
London, England, UK. 16th June 2017. Hundreds protest at the Department for Communities and Local Government march to Downing Street and to BBC broadcasting house demand Justice for Grenfell victims. Photo by Paul Watt
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Watt, P. (2017) ‘Gendering the right to housing in the city: Homeless female lone parents in post-Olympics, austerity East London’, Cities, online,
Watt, P. and Bernstock, P. (2017 forthcoming) ‘Legacy for whom? Housing in Post-Olympics East London’. In P. Cohen & P. Watt (Eds.), London 2012 and the Post-Olympics City: A Hollow Legacy? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Watt, P. and Minton, A. (2016) ‘London’s housing crisis and its activisms’, City 20(2): 204-221.
Wilson, W. and Barton, C. (2016) Statutory Homelessness in England. Briefing Paper, No. 101164, 20 December 2016. London: House of Commons Library.
Paul Watt is Reader in Urban Studies at Birkbeck, University of London and housing campaigner