During my US housing road trip last year (and on numerous previous visits) I came to the firm conclusion that US and UK housing policy were converging around a neoliberal axis that spells doom for working class communities in both nations. The Housing and Planning Bill is further evidence of this. But as I visited US neighbourhoods battered and ultimately destroyed by the forces of privatisation, it was with a grim certainty that such things were already happening in the UK. As in the States, the three card trick of ‘mixed income communities’ has been played on council estates for over a decade. I visited another of its victims recently, the Dollis Valley estate in Barnet, the London borough where Thatcherism never died (she was the local MP).
Dollis Valley is a classic example of a place that doesn’t fit the neoliberal worldview. It’s at the northern end of the Northern line on the outskirts of London where it meets the Hertfordshire countryside. The estate itself is further isolated, as many of its US counterparts are, by poor public transport links and a design that reinforces separation from the surrounding area, which is predominantly leafy suburban semis. This clashes with the late 60s/early 70s architecture of the estate and the current sensibilities of the regeneration industry which falsely claims that the root of social and housing policy problems – and their solution – lie on the drawing board (ironically, the same mistake their predecessors made). I’ve studied similar places to Dollis Valley where the design team talked about ‘undoing the damage of the 70s’. This self-serving narrative is a subterfuge to advance the interests of the private property industry. However well intentioned or executed (and it’s sometimes both) the end product is always a reduction in the amount of council housing (and its replacement with less affordable homes), displacement and corporate re-branding.
This seems to be what’s happening at Dollis Valley, as the first photo indicates. I don’t know the place in any detail and there has undoubtedly been a long and twisting road, littered with dishonesty and political expediency, that has arrived at the current situation. Some of the seeds appear to have been sown when new estate residents (some of them previously homeless) were denied permanent, secure tenancies, making them vulnerable to removal and facilitating the divide and rule tactics that are an inherent feature of such estate regeneration projects. This compound marginalisation is manna to the snake-water salespeople who present their glossy prospectus as the only answer to years of institutional neglect of housing that is actually perfectly adequate (with proper investment, maintenance and management), but occupies valuable land coveted by developers. So begins a process of clearing the estate not only of existing residents and the council housing they live in, but removing any sign that they were once here.
Dollis Valley and scores of other council estates are living the Housing and Planning Bill nightmare today, but their fate will be shared by many others if we don’t Kill the Bill. The government is hoping to steer its battered housing flagship through parliament next Tuesday, 3rd May. We need to be outside the House of Commons to protest and inside to lobby our MPs and ask what they are doing to stop the council estate clearances.