HOW appropriate that on the day a national memorial service was held to honour the 71 who tragically died in the Grenfell fire, a film about the country’s dilapidated social housing stock was shown within a brisk walk of the tower.
A screening that was attended by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and a film that was disparaging of both local and national politicians – and of all political allegiances.
Labour, Conservatives and even the Scottish National Party all got a proverbial beating in the film for social housing failures although only Nicola Sturgeon had the balls to go on screen and defend her policies.
The coruscating film, Dispossession, was screened before a packed audience at the Curzon Chelsea on the King’s Road, Chelsea. A road more associated with the swinging 1960s and now a mecca for the rich to shop until they drop – not a sniff of social housing anywhere to be seen.
Afterwards Corbyn, who was seeing the film for the first time and had earlier attended the Grenfell memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, participated in a Q&A hosted by Anna Minton, author of Big Capital: Who is London for? Joining them on stage was Paul Sng, maker of the film.
‘An absolutely brilliant film,’ acknowledged Corbyn. ‘It helps to form debate. Some 15,000 people are sleeping rough at any point in time. The hostels are full.’
He went on to assure the audience that ‘we will make it a national crusade to deal with the housing crisis’. He added that councils would be allowed to invest in social housing with tenants offered life-time tenancies. He also said housing policy would be framed around building more social housing, effective regulations and an end to homelessness.
He called for more housing co-operatives which he said helped create a ‘sense of community’ – a number, he said, were already doing great work in his constituency of Islington North. He also took a swipe at housing associations for selling homes. ‘Housing associations selling places on the open market is just wrong,’ he declared. ‘You end up with less and less housing for those in desperate need.’
Corbyn warmed to an idea put forward by Sng to ensure key workers – such as nurses and teachers – were given council housing in London. Sng said such a policy would help remove the stigma that often attaches to social housing – that it is only there for scroungers, a perception accentuated by programmes such as Channel Four’s Benefits Street.
Despite the warm reception Corby received from the audience, this was no walk in the park. He was attacked for not doing enough to highlight the flaws of universal credit which was leaving some tenants helpless and threatened with homelessness. He confirmed, as he has done in the past, that its rollout should be suspended.
He was also urged by someone to ensure that all ‘victims’ of the Grenfell fire – not just those who had lived in the tower – should be given help. ‘Why is help based on geography?’ asked one woman who had been evacuated on the night of the fire and suffers from mental health issues. ‘How do I get noticed?’ she asked. Corbyn agreed that support should be a ‘bit more generous’.
On the wider issue of Labour councils wishing to demolish social housing so that expensive (not ‘affordable’) private homes or flats can be put in its place, Corbyn was almost lost for words. As Sng said in introducing the film, there is a current ‘disconnect’ between what politicians such as Corbyn promise and what Labour controlled councils do on the ground .
Indeed, this ‘class cleansing’ of the country’s big cities is a recurring theme in Sng’s powerful documentary. The film, narrated by Maxine Peake, uses as its foundations a number of locations. These include Aylesbury Estate, south London – where Tony Blair in 1997 made his first speech as Prime Minister proclaiming: ‘There will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build.’ How ridiculous that now sounds.
Also singled out by Sng for attention are Heygate Estate (again south London), Balfron Tower (Tower Hamlets), Cressingham Gardens (south London), St Ann’s in Nottingham, Govanhill and the Gorbals in Glasgow.
He then uses these locations – and the (wonderful) people who live there or did live there – to highlight the decline of social housing and the chronic under-investment in it. In some cases, cash strapped councils are intent on demolishing estates to make way for lucrative private housing.
Gentrification, class cleansing, the hopelessness felt by residents threatened with their home being demolished, unscrupulous private landlords (Govanhill) and in the case of St Ann’s close social bonding (despite reputational issues) are all explored. Social housing, Sng tells us, is no longer aspirational. It suffers from stigmatization and estates are often (wrongly) seen as ghettoes.
Councils, Governments (past and present, starting with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy in the early 1980s’) and the media are all to blame for the decline in social housing.
The film provides no answers. But nobody, including Corbyn, would have walked away from the film’s screening without Sng’s words ringing in their ears: ‘The housing crisis is this country’s single biggest issue. Bigger than Brexit. It requires a single will, a single purpose [to solve it]. The 650 people sitting in the House of Commons – they are key.’
Time to listen. Maybe Sng should send a DVD of his film to all 650 MPs. Starting with Theresa May.
Director: Paul Sng
Find Out More: www.dispossessionfilm.com