Film review: Dispossession

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle is an important film that arrives at an even more important moment for social housing.

Even before the Grenfell Tower fire it would have posed vital questions about the speed at which we are running down the stock of social rented homes. In the wake of that awful night in June they have become existential ones about the way we house our poorest communities.

The documentary by Paul Sng tells the story of what’s happened to social housing since the introduction of the Right to Buy turned expansion into decline in the late 20th century and especially since regeneration of existing estates became a contentious issue in the early 21st century.

I finally caught up with it this week but there are plenty more screenings in cinemas and other venues around Britain over the next few months.

Narrated by Maxine Peake, it’s a story that will not be new to people who know housing but may well be to a more general audience

It’s about how we got from the Bevan and Macmillan building booms via the Thatcher property owning democracy and Tony Blair’s ‘no forgotten people’ speech on the Aylesbury estate to the demolition and diaspora of the Heygate.

But where do you pin the blame for all that? That’s the argument raging across London between Labour councils that see themselves as pragmatically achieving the best outcomes they can for their communities and a burgeoning protest movement that condemns what it sees as neoliberal collaboration with the market and Tory central government.

For protestors, estate regeneration is a process by which the poor are cleared to make way for homes for the rich. For supporters, councils have to do the best with what they have and private investment is a way to increase affordable housing for everyone.

And that is of course just the most audible part of a bigger debate about the nature and purpose of social housing and what the role of ‘social’ landlords should be.

Dispossession does not claim to be neutral in this. Watch the opening and closing scenes on the Cressingham Gardens estate in Lambeth and it’s hard to disagree that something important is being lost in the service of the market.

As one resident puts it: ‘They told us “nothing will happen without your approval”. Well that was lie number one and it’s never changed.’

However, the film also makes some questionable assertions along the way. Most glaringly, within the first three minutes we are told that ‘at the beginning of the 1980s 42% of the population lived in social housing. Today that figure has fallen to less than 8%.’

I’ve seen this comparison before on social media and I’m not sure where it comes from but it is a factoid twice over.

Except in Scotland, where more than half of the population lived in council housing in the early 1980s, social housing never reached those levels.

In 1981 just under 33% of the population of Great Britain lived in social housing. The only way I can make sense of the 42% figure is if it is for all rented housing, social and private combined.

The ‘less than 8%’ figure for now is only true if you do not count the other 10% that is live in housing association homes and you regard stock transfer as ‘privatisation’. Otherwise the real figure for social housing in England is 17%.

If such exaggeration is a unnecessary (the real decline of social housing is shocking enough on its own), the film’s portrayal of the estates at the centre of regeneration battles in London in the last few years is undeniably powerful.

The segments on the Heygate and Aylesbury in Southwark, Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets and Cressingham Gardens capture the sense of waste and powerlessness felt by residents.

Anyone who does not know the stories already will come away bewildered at what has happened. Anyone who does will wonder whether they have been looking at the wood or the trees.

How could the estates be demolished or emptied of residents against their wishes? Why have Labour councils and housing organisations seemingly been so desperate to drive the process through?

These are vital questions but we never get to hear the landlords’ side of the story, except in clips of council meetings. For me, that leaves the film with blank spaces where some of the main characters should be.

It also left me wondering why there were only passing references to similarly controversial estate regenerations by Tory councils such as Barnet and Hammersmith & Fulham.

And the film might have made the point that some of the same issues about councils ignoring local communities and homes being demolished rather than refurbished arose when slums were being cleared to make way for council estates in the first place.

I’m assuming that Southwark and Lambeth councils and Poplar Harca declined to put anyone up for interview but the net result is that we are left guessing as to why the landlords took the decisions they did.

However, that criticism could just as easily be turned around: if the councils and social landlords involved are so convinced that they are acting in everyone’s best interests, why were they not prepared to justify their decisions in front of the camera and what have they got to hide?

Maybe they assumed that the film would take a negative view of all regeneration and so there was no point in taking part but in the wake of Grenfell it leaves them looking badly out of touch.

That point is amplified by the fact that Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon does appear in the segment of the film about the regeneration of parts of Glasgow.

While she blames her Labour predecessors for some of what has gone wrong, that means the film also looks at some of what has gone right and presents a more nuanced picture of regeneration in the city that looks beyond social housing to the community as a whole.

The same is true of the segment that looks at the St Ann’s Estate in Nottingham, which is both an exploration of the stigmatisation of social housing and social tenants and a celebration of the sense of community that exists in spite of it.

Add a brief look at the potentially devastating impacts of the Housing and Planning Act and that is huge amount of material to pack in to 82 minutes of documentary.

At times I was left wanting more interviews with residents and fewer opinions from a large cast of talking heads.

However, by the end that also gives space for discussion of the broader issues, with some context about the financial pressures facing local authorities and the choices made by central government to subsidise housing via housing benefit rather than investment.

Where the film works best is in showing the impact of all that on the lives of people on social housing estates.

Paul Sng has previously written and directed a documentary about the Sleaford Mods and has another coming up on Poly Styrene.

He set up his production company in 2015 ‘to explore the lives and works of individuals who have been neglected, marginalised or misrepresented in mainstream media’.

Dispossession succeeds in that and it gives social housing residents a voice at exactly the time when they most need to be heard.

If you work in housing, and especially if you work in regeneration, the film will challenge you with some awkward questions about the work you do. Which is exactly why you should go and see it.

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3 Comments on “Film review: Dispossession”

  1. John Wade says:

    An excellent summary of the film I think Jules. It’s flawed but still essential viewing for anyone interested in housing or some wider social changes happening right under our noses.

  2. Martin Davis says:

    I agree that the film you describe (I’ve yet to see it) will be flawed if it omits an analysis of the forces pushing local authorities to generate capital out of its housing stock by regeneration to higher densities, under the auspices of public-private partnerships. We know it has not, so far, generated additional stock for those in housing need. Given the trends in tenure you have illustrated in previous articles, as things stand, housing costs will continue to rise, as more of those who lack ‘effective demand’ are forced into the private sector (via state funding where available). The housing association sector itself is moving away from its historic core purpose of not-for-profit provision, as private finance (encouraged by government) is now by far the major source of capital for developing new units. Housing (public and private) is continuing to move in entirely the wrong direction: one can only hope that political change (which the film will hopefully contribute to) will ensure that government policy reinvents housing provision for a less in-egalitarian 21st century.

  3. julesbirch says:

    Thanks for the comments – yes totally agree. The reason I thought it was wrong not to include the views of the local authorities and social landlords was not so much on grounds of balance as that this means it can’t look at their motivations for what they are doing. They will probably argue that they have no alternative in the current political and economic climate – apart from doing nothing which would mean fewer homes overall – whereas in the film they are only cartoon cut-outs of evil neoliberals. But the point is to challenge that current climate which is what makes the film worthwhile.


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