Paul Sng interview - Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle

“Every time I see a person in a cardboard box in London,” Tony Benn once told parliament, “I say, that person is a victim of market forces.”

“Every time I see a person in a cardboard box in London,” Tony Benn once told parliament, “I say, that person is a victim of market forces.” He explained that, “I do not share the general view that market forces are the basis of political liberty.”

Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, the type of scepticism towards markets articulated by Benn was not abundant in British political life. The process of neoliberalisation that began under Margaret Thatcher (or, arguably, Jim Callaghan) restructured the economy to centre it around private enterprise, increased competition, and reduced collective bargaining; an economic model which lumbered on untrammelled under successive governments, Conservative and Labour. In the throes of the “End of History”, there was never a choice. Market-based reforms were spun as a political and economic necessity.

The housing sector has been at the heart of this marketisation of public services. In Paul Sng’s new documentary Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (in cinemas now) he interrogates the ways in which the actions of central government, local authorities and the private sector have intersected to transform the UK – in fewer than four decades – from a country freshly revelling in the joys of home ownership, to a country where homelessness has risen for six consecutive years, and it’s harder than ever to find a home to live in, let alone own.

New Socialist’s Culture co-editor Jack Frayne-Reid spoke to Sng about the difference (or lack thereof) between regeneration and demolition, the creative process behind political filmmaking, the contradictions between Jeremy Corbyn’s radical left movement and Labour at the local level, and how we should look at social housing in the wake of the Grenfell Fire.

NS: Would you say Dispossession…’s primary concern is the marketisation of housing, and that it’s of the perspective that housing is a human right?

PS: I would say that is the key focus of the film; the fact that council housing and social housing – housing full stop – is now determined by market forces. But really the film is about value and community, and how the value that’s placed on people who live in social housing has decreased over time. That goes back to the last few decades where in the arts and media we’ve gradually seen the stigmatisation – and even, in some cases, denigration – of people that live on council estates. You turn on the TV on any morning or evening, switch on Channel 5 or even Channel 4, and all you’ll see is these “poverty porn” shows like Benefits Street and Council House Crackdown.
I think that’s really helped the private housing market, because nobody really seems to want to live in council housing, because they seem to think that it’s somehow for people that are undeserving or haven’t really “made it” in life. That certainly wasn’t the intention or the reality back in the 50s, in the 60s and even the 70s, but over the last three or four decades the desired tenure of home ownership has just increased and increased and increased. It’s kind of like a perfect storm for council housing, and people that haven’t really wanted to have government support for it. The Tories have been cutting investment in social housing for years and, on council housing, didn’t have an iron-clad agreement with the Treasury to replace what was sold off during Right to Buy. So I don’t think there’s any one cause for the housing crisis, but certainly the way the market and private landlords have been allowed to run away is a major cause.

You say that the demand for home ownership has gone up and up and up. Do you think that with the precarity of the housing market, it’s still going up, or are people placing more value in simply being housed, rather than necessarily owning their own home? Do you think that maybe, perversely, because of the instabilities created by these market forces, that maybe that craze for home ownership might be on the wane?

Yeah, it’s so expensive to own a home, and we’ve seen recently the big estate agents like Foxton’s have seen – I think– a 64% reduction in profits, so clearly home ownership is becoming out of reach for the current generation of people in their thirties and younger. But, I mean, where do they go? Because they can’t get a council tenancy. Finding secure, affordable, stable accommodation in any major city in this country is incredibly difficult, and that puts the power in the hands of the landlords. You saw last year where they tried to put through a bill to make homes fit for human habitation 1 and it was voted down, mainly by Tory MPs, seventy-one of whom are landlords. Home ownership has decreased, but I don’t think it’s because fewer people want to own homes; I think it’s just out of reach financially.

There’s quite a striking figure on the website of the film. In 1980, when Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced the Right to Buy scheme, 42% of people lived in council housing. By 2017 it was an incredibly marginal 8%. I was wondering if you could talk about the part housing plays in the quite fundamental change over the last thirty years in the very way our society is structured.

It’s actually less than 8%. You can’t just blame the Tory government. New Labour didn’t really do enough to fix the problem. They gave a lot of power to housing associations, but they’ve not built in the quantity that’s needed. I think it comes down to both the Tory government and to a certain extent New Labour believing that the market would solve the housing crisis, and I think that was very short-sighted. I think the Conservatives see council housing as something that is akin to Accident & Emergency: it’s something where you’ll end up there, and you’ll be looked after. It’s not something they think people should desire or have any great belief in wanting to actually attain, and I think that’s wrong, because back in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, and even the ‘80s, it was designed for working class people or lower middle class people, or people in jobs that didn’t necessarily pay big wages but were key jobs: nurses, teachers, those kinds of jobs. I think the problem now is that the Tories want to reduce council housing to a rump that will only be for the people that are desperate. And they’ve got similar plans for the NHS, haven’t they? So I think that’s an issue that, if you’re doing alright, if you don’t live in council housing, then you’re not going to particularly care about, but if you’re somebody that lives in it or would like to have the benefits of a lifetime’s tenancy…

I think, essentially, that New Labour also saw council housing as something that was akin to Accident & Emergency at a hospital. The problem with that is that, if you reduce something like council housing to a rump, you then put all your faith in the private rental market or housing associations, and neither of those have been able to provide secure and stable accommodation The relative ease with which the Housing and Planning Bill became the Housing and Planning Act – with very little public interest compared to the junior doctors’ strike or the Iraq War – shows you the lack of interest in council housing, because I think we’ve all been conditioned to see it as something for people who are really desperate, and that nobody would ever choose to live in. I think the problem with that is that there are people who work in key service industries – whether that’s nurses, people who are starting out in teaching, or people who work in the service industry – that need places to live and, if they’re having to spend between fifty and seventy percent of their wages on being housed, it doesn’t create a very fair society.

Can you elaborate a bit on the contents of the Housing and Planning Act?

The government claimed it was designed to address the housing crisis, but I think it was really designed to enable people to own homes, because that’s where they see their votes as being. The reason the Tories brought in the Right to Buy policy was to win working class votes, because they knew that people who lived in council housing generally voted Labour, so that’s why we were then stuck with the Tories for another seventeen years after that. But in terms of the Housing and Planning Act, I think we won’t know the full extent of some of the things it’s introduced until maybe later this year, and then it’ll be ongoing, because it was very much I think a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of an act – various bits of previous policy ideas taken from here and there. But in terms of what it does to end lifetime tenancies, for instance, I think it’s very bad, because that affects families.

For instance, in the film there’s a woman called Rhonda Daniels, who’s got a brother who’s got severe autism. When their mother eventually goes, that flat will be taken away. It’s very worrying in terms of people who’ve got children or vulnerable adults to look after. It was an act designed to enable people to own homes and it doesn’t do very much for council housing, and there are concerns from people like Shelter (the anti-homelessness charity) that it’s going to take away more than one hundred thousand council homes in the end.

How do regeneration and redevelopment factor into the wider narrative about the housing market put across in your film? And how do you think we should reflect on this in light of the Grenfell fire, which seemed to bring together a lot of these concerns about market forces failing people in the grotesque way possible?

I think regeneration, which really means demolition, is a very complex subject. There are certainly going to be estates that need repairs, and in a lot of cases these estates have been allowed to fall into those states of disrepair through a process of managed decline. Council tenants and leaseholders pay service charges, council tenants pay rent, and a percentage of that money is ringfenced by local authorities to pay for refurbishment and repairs. So, in the case of some estates like Cressingham Gardens or the Aylesbury Estate where they’re saying “look, it’s going to cost too much to repair the estate so we’re going to have to demolish it and build a new one” – that’s a bit of a swindle if you’ve been paying money towards that for however many years. The case of the Heygate Estate is a prime example of where regeneration has had a very negative impact: about 1000 homes on the Heygate Estate were demolished, and 2,704 new ones were built – but only around 80 of them will be available for social rent.

That’s pretty disgusting, really, when you look now at what that estate has become. It’s called Elephant Park. The reason that local authorities do this is that they don’t have very much money, they’re in debt, so they think that by building a new development, including social housing but then also having some private housing for sale, they can pay down debts. You can understand why they would do it, but what actually happens is it’s de facto social cleansing, especially when you don’t let the estate’s original residents come back. It happened on Balfron Tower, when (housing association) Poplar Harca received the building when it was stock transferred from Tower Hamlets, and, as you saw in the film, they evicted the tenants and didn’t let any of them back, and now it’s being sold as luxury apartments.

So the problem with regeneration is that it actually means demolition, and there are alternatives. People have proposed building on these estates – in Cressingham Gardens they proposed a plan where they would build more social housing, at a fraction of the cost of what Lambeth had planned, but that plan was ignored because Lambeth need to make money by selling luxury apartments to pay off debts. It’s there in their accounts – you can see how badly their accounts have been managed if you Google something called Lambeth Audit . It was a report into the mismanagement of Lambeth’s finances, and it’s shocking reading. That’s a council that’s just announced that the cost of its town hall is currently £104 million, and this is a borough that’s got 14,000 people on the housing waiting list. So, as councils go, Lambeth are pretty shocking. Again, it’s run by the Labour Party, and it seems to me to be unaligned with what Jeremy Corbyn is saying about what Labour would do in government.

A lot of councils are. There seems to be this wider dissonance between Labour at the local level and the leadership.

Yeah, it’s massive. It’d be good if the Labour leadership would speak out on that. Obviously there’s a need for Labour to try and maintain unity and be seen as a unified party to get into government, but I do think we need to hear from Jeremy Corbyn about what he thinks is enabling the social cleansing of working class areas in London. I’m sure he’s not happy about it, and I know he’s been told about it. His brother (Piers Corbyn) is a prominent housing campaigner who’s urged him to get on the estates and make his voice heard but for whatever reason he’s yet to do that. I think he would give the people on these estates who are fighting to save them a lot of hope. A lot of people look up to him and respect him and I don’t think he can be happy about it, but he hasn’t said anything, and the silence is beginning to become deafening.

He was very well received when he went to Grenfell in the aftermath of the fire, wasn’t he? Especially in contrast to Theresa May.

Exactly. I’m not a Labour voter – I live in Brighton, my MP is Caroline Lucas – but I do think Jeremy Corbyn is a principled and decent man. I don’t agree with everything that he says but he is somebody that, when he says something, you do believe him. I think he’s a man of principles. It would be nice for him to speak out about this stuff, but this is where we are. We’ve also written to him to ask him to watch the film. He wasn’t able to make a screening; he’s obviously very busy but I’m hopeful that he will watch the film and then engage with some of the issues in it.

You managed to get Maxine Peake to narrate the film.

Yeah, Maxine’s great. If she’s free, hopefully she’ll come along. I’m surprised Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t watched it yet as because I think he’s friends with Maxine, so I might have to ask her if she’ll have a word with him and see if he’ll take a look at it.

But, going back to Grenfell, I think it has made the film more relevant. The people in Grenfell were not valued by their council and that’s why so many of them lost their homes and however many of them died – we obviously still don’t know the figure. But those people weren’t valued; they were seen as not worth investing what would’ve been probably a few extra thousand pounds in cladding or materials that would’ve saved their lives – a sprinkler system or whatever else. And that is the problem with council housing up and down the country; that the people who live in it are not valued by local authorities or central government. They make a lot of noise about these things, especially in the wake of Grenfell. You see MPs like David Lammy, who lost a friend of his in the fire, making a real noise about it, which I think people need to do. But in David Lammy’s own constituency, he did very little to stop the £2 billion Haringey development project that’s going ahead. He wrote a letter at the eleventh hour – where was he two years ago when that campaign were crying out for him to do something?

I think he was very moved by losing his friend, so it was kind of an emotional reaction for him. He’s never come from a particularly radical tradition in the Labour Party – I think he’s had, one could say, a bit of an awakening since suffering that horrible loss. However, it’s positive, isn’t it, to see MPs who you’d almost think of as kind of Blairite like Lammy taking these issues seriously, even in the most appalling of circumstances? But from the right-wing Labour MPs and councillors who simply have a lot of faith in markets, to the leadership who, like you say, have not been particularly vocal on these issues, there is a kind of cross-Labour complicity in these problems. Do you think there is a similar level of cross-party complicity?

I was struck by your interview with Nicola Sturgeon, where she gave these quintessential politician’s answers – very careful not to criticise anybody or criticise the policy in question, perhaps because everyone is a bit guilty of it. And maybe that’s a reason why you don’t hear Jeremy Corbyn turn his fire on the social cleansing, whatever you wish to call it, that’s going on on councils’ watch; because he knows a lot of them are his own people and with regular local elections he doesn’t want to be seen to attack Labour’s electoral candidates. Do you think this is a widely held feeling across politics?

Oh, definitely, but Jeremy Corbyn wants to do politics differently, doesn’t he? He made a big thing of “the kinder politics” and how his whole MO is that he’s different. That’s why he appeals to people; because he’s principled. You can see, throughout his career as an MP, what he’s voted on, and the causes he’s supported; I see him as someone who is very fresh. But my question is, is he having to make compromises as a politician? I think he has to play politics now; he’s the Leader of the Opposition. And I do get it. He’s in a very awkward position, but the whole thing with Corbyn was that he’s different. And if he’s going to become like the others…people have said to me, when he gets into power, he’s going to fix those council houses – well, he might not get into power and, when he does, he’s going to have to deal with the aftermath of Brexit and God knows what else.

Deep state interference. MI5 not being happy with a socialist government. Just to get all “tinfoil hat” for a second. But realistically that will happen.

Yeah. And the thing is, the estates that are in need of support… a lot of them will be gone by then. So the time is now for Corbyn to say something. I don’t think it’d lose Labour the council in Lambeth – what I think it’d do is reduce their majority a bit, maybe.

Are you familiar with Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, John Healey?

Yeah, he was invited to do an interview for the film, but his team refused. Interesting, isn’t it? Gavin Barwell also refused, who was the Housing Minister at the time. His team said “call us if you get a TV commission”, but you don’t know that you’re going to get a TV commission until you’ve made the film. So he dodged us too. And, obviously, Lambeth Council dodged us. Poplar Harca dodged us. Whatever you say about Nicola Sturgeon, she found the time and she’s the First Minister of Scotland, so she’s easily the busiest person of the people we approached. Yet John Healey couldn’t find the time.

You interviewed Caroline Lucas as well, another party leader. I was a bit critical of earlier in that she gave very, very diplomatic answers regarding anyone who might be seen as complicit in these policies. But you’re right, at least she did appear and put her case forward. John Healey’s not from the Labour left – he seems to be a bit of a housing specialist, to the extent that I’ve read that he’s kind of unsackable. He resigned when the other sixty MPs did last year to try and get rid of Corbyn, and then he just came back when Corbyn was re-elected, as if they didn’t want to appoint anyone in his place. I’m not sure what it is about John Healey that gives him this kind of iron grip over housing policy in the Labour Party. But in terms of the people you talked to, you did manage to get hold of a couple of Labour MPs, including Karen Buck and Rushanara Ali.

And Jim Fitzpatrick. They made themselves available. We would’ve got (Shadow Education Secretary) Angela Rayner too but we had to reschedule and she wasn’t able to make the second appointment, but she was willing to talk, which was good.

(Journalist) Dawn Foster is a talking head in the film, and is compelling as always; particularly on so-called “sink estates”. What do you think about this concept?

It’s a horrible term, and it was one that Cameron, when he came out with that statement about how they were going to fix however many “sink estates” around the UK…people live on these estates, they’re homes first and foremost, and to describe somewhere as a “sink estate” is not a very nice thing to say, really. It also fits a convenient narrative where you can demonise not only the estate itself, but the people who live on it, because bricks and concrete don’t turn people a particular way in terms of their behaviour; that’s society, that’s deeply ingrained inequality, in areas that’ve been deindustrialised or areas where there may be high rates of crime, but it’s nothing to do with the buildings themselves. I think it’s a troublesome term, and it’s one the media just ran away with and everything became about, “oh, it’s a sink estate!” And a lot of the places are fine. St Ann’s in Nottingham, which is in the film, some people might describe as a “sink estate”, but it’s a great place, it’s got a great community, people there are really tightknit; close together. It’s a media thing, really, I think, this “sink estate” nonsense.

You talk to a lot of residents – particularly in St Ann’s – who really reject the way that their areas and their communities have been portrayed by the media and by politicians. In St Ann’s they talk about this great sense of community. So did you find it really interesting, and also quite moving, I suppose, to go around to all these places and meet the residents? In the estates you visit, such as Cressingham Gardens or Central Hill, there are very strong communities, and people feel like they haven’t been given a fair rap, that they’re under threat, and that they’ve been neglected. In the film, the residents of Central Hill estate in Glasgow talk about almost performative clean-ups of their estate by the council, followed invariably by a rapid slide into decrepitude.

Lots of people have theories around that, and a lot of people think that it’s deliberate neglect reason: some say so that when these estates fall into a state of disrepair they can demolish them more easily, or when it’s a whole area – as was the case with the Gorbals in Glasgow – they can then redevelop it. The Gorbals is pretty much unrecognisable now from what it was in the past. You’ve seen in the film that to rent a flat there costs £600 a month, which people that had been to the Gorbals back in the day would be really shocked at. You do have to wonder – certainly in inner cities where estates are in areas near to good transport links or to parks, like Cressingham Gardens is – why the estate has been allowed to fall into what they say is a state of disrepair. The people of Cressingham commissioned their own private report into it and it’s not the case that demolition is justified.

I think there is an agenda behind it – whether that agenda is driven by what they ultimately see as altruistic motives is another question. I think Lambeth would probably argue that they need to demolish the estate to build more housing, to have greater density and help solve their housing crisis. They’re not doing it from the point of view that they’re just greedy or evil. It’s just the only way they feel they can solve – or make inroads into solving – their housing crisis is by demolishing. And that’ll be the case in other areas as well. Govanhill (in Glasgow) is a very distinct area. There are efforts going into it, it’s just they’re not good enough, and I think there needs to be more money spent on education in that area because there is a high migrant population and people coming from another country don’t necessarily know about things like recycling and that there’s about bloody five different coloured bins for various bits and pieces. The litter problem there is something that could be changed by education and that means not just putting up signs in English but putting up signs in however many different languages you need to, and being able to communicate better with people there.

Do you think that’s a case of local government cutting corners and, rather than investing more in making an estate more hospitable to people from other countries for whom English isn’t their first language, being prepared to just knock it down? But perhaps not entirely through malicious intent – do you think there’s a case to be made that central government offload many of the most grievous cuts to local authorities in an effort to keep their hands clean?

I think so. With the whole issue of council housing and the housing crisis, I don’t necessarily think that there’s a group of shadowy men in suits smoking cigars in some backroom, pushing it through, speaking to their friends in the media to get them to stigmatise and demonise council estates and the people who live on them. I think it’s just been one thing after another that has created this situation, and it’s created a perfect storm. When you’ve got the failure to replace the housing stock sold off from Right To Buy, you’ve got the freedom that the private rental market is given, that there aren’t enough regulations on being a landlord, you’ve got the issue with wage stagnation, you’ve got benefit cuts, austerity, and all of these things when you put all of them together have made it nigh-on impossible for most people to get a stable, secure, affordable home these days.

You mentioned Ken Loach is presenting a screening of the film with you in Bath. Is he an influence on your filmmaking?

Oh, definitely – he’s someone whose films I’ve watched since I was a kid. I saw Kes when I was about ten years old and cried my eyes out, so it’s going to be a big pleasure to meet him tonight. He’s going to be doing a Q&A panel with us after the screening, because we’re working with some people up there on an estate called Fox Hill, which has been given a demolition order by the housing association that owns it. Ken’s supporting the campaign, and we’ve made a short film for them. It’s happening all over the country – it’s ridiculous.

I feel we’ve discussed the contents of your film but not really the process behind it. Do you feel it’s a kind of straight agitprop film, in that you can play it at activist events and tie it in with these local campaigns? How do you approach being a director with political intent?

It’s a big responsibility when you make a film about people’s lives and the issues that are affecting them. The main thing for me is that these are always human stories, and something that I was very mindful of when I started making the film was that you have to earn people’s trust and respect. You can’t just tip up on a council estate and get the camera out and start filming. You’ve got to meet people. You’ve got to get to know them a bit. So that’s something I’m always very mindful of.

My first film is about a band called Sleaford Mods (2015’s Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain.) It followed them on a tour of what later, I suppose, became the Brexit heartlands, and other places, in the run-up to the 2015 general election. That film was very much a polemic, and my politics were very much at the fore in terms of my thoughts about austerity and what happened with deindustrialised communities. But I sort of realised that, with documentary filmmaking, you need to win people over. It was very polemical, and I think that in some cases the people that agree with you think “yeah, it’s a great film”, but you don’t then connect to another audience that maybe would appreciate the film, but because they see it as a polemic were immediately put off.

So I think it was really important with Dispossession… to tell a balanced story. I mean, it would’ve been nice to interview a few more Tories or people on the right but that didn’t happen. The main thing about Dispossession…, one of its strong points, I think, is that it’s a very balanced film. It’s critical of people on both sides of the Houses of Parliament.

That’s true, but without this kind of artificial balance that seeks to draw a false equivalence between these ruinous right-wing policies and, say, socialist or social democratic ones: it draws attention to the inequities of the current system without claiming any alternative would be equally disastrous. It’s not Newsnight getting someone on to defend Nazi protestors in America. It’s fair without trying to shoehorn reactionary views in there to give an illusion of balance.

I think you’re exactly right with that. Having two polarised views isn’t true balance, is it, really? It’s very difficult to get what people would consider to be a fair balance of views, but having two people that are exactly opposite doesn’t leave much middle ground. So I think what we tried to do with the film was present a range of views. Primarily, for me, the most important people in the film are the people that live on estates; people that are fighting to save their homes or have already lost them. I think they give the film its real point of interest, and its soul in a way, because it’s great to hear from experts, whether they’re politicians or people in the housing industry, but ultimately you want to know the people who are affected by this; what they think.

There are some moving stories in the film: the person who took advantage of the Right to Buy and bought their flat, before redevelopment was announced, leaving them as the sole resident of their block of flats.

That was Beverly. She bought the flat on the Right to Buy, then a few months later found out the estate’s going to be demolished. They offered her a paltry amount of money – something like £60,000 – for it; I think the latest offer is £250,000 but it’s still short of what she expects because for £250,000 you’re not going to get a two-bedroom flat anywhere in Southwark. You’re looking at £450,000 plus for that. If she wants a two-bedroom flat she’s going to have to move to somewhere like Manchester; out of London definitely. There are places in the UK, particularly places in the North of England, where you can buy houses really, really cheaply; you can get a house for fifteen, twenty grand. But if an area’s been deindustrialised; if there aren’t jobs, there aren’t very good public services there, you wouldn’t want to live there. That’s the crisis: it’s very acute.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will be in cinemas throughout September, October, November, and will be screened at The World Transformed on September 26th from 5:30 pm - 7:15 pm.

  1. Sng refers to the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill 2015/16, introduced by the Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck – who is interviewed in the film – in order “to amend the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 to require that residential rented accommodation is provided and maintained in a state of fitness for human habitation; and for connected purposes.” 


Jack Frayne-Reid

Jack Frayne-Reid is a writer and musician, and part of the New Socialist editorial collective. He is the host of the Reel Politik podcast.