What would it take?

Kensington and Chelsea town hall in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire. Photo source: Debbie Humphry ©

Anna Minton

Big Capital came out on June 1st. Two weeks later the Grenfell Tower fire propelled social housing to the top of the news agenda. As the Grenfell Action Group had written presciently on their blog, it would take a ‘catastrophic event’ to expose the scandal over how housing was run in Kensington and Chelsea.
There are many parallels with the tragedy which unfolded at Grenfell and the events covered in the book, chief among them the total lack of accountability that councils and the assorted quangos and companies that now deal with housing, display towards communities.

The chapter attached is from Big Capital and focuses on the demolition of London’s housing estates – ‘estate regeneration’ to use the term favoured by the alliance of councils, developers and lobbyists – or ‘social cleansing’ to use the language of the activists protesting against the destruction of their homes. As at Grenfell, lack of accountability and failures in democratic representation are at the heart of it. Read Chapter 3 online now.

At the Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn addressed these issues directly for the first time, describing regeneration as a “much abused word” which really means “forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out”. He promised that Labour would guarantee residents living on estates undergoing redevelopment would get a home on the same site, on the same terms as before, and that no scheme would take place without a ballot of residents – in contrast to London Mayor Sadiq Khan who does not support ballots.

This felt like a huge victory for campaigners against estate demolition, but was swiftly tempered by the clarification that such policies would only apply under a Labour government, leaving councils like Lambeth, Southwark and Haringey free to proceed with their highly contentious plans. And Corbyn’s words continue to place the accent on redevelopment rather than the refurbishment of what are often potentially high quality homes.

The paradox of Grenfell is that this unprecedented tragedy is shining a light on the multiple failures in housing policy and the tide seems to be turning against estate demolition. But for communities across London, from Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, the Aylesbury in Southwark and Northumberland Park in Haringey, it will take more than rhetoric to save their homes.

Anna Minton is a CITY contributing editor, author of Big Capital and Reader in Architecture at the University of East London.

 

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