The everyday story of a housing crisis

In my 26 years working and campaigning on the subject, I’ve never known housing get so much political and media attention.  This level of concern is long overdue.  It’s just a shame it took the deaths of innocent people at Grenfell Tower for it to happen.  For years, the establishment has turned a blind eye to the plight of millions struggling to find or keep a roof over their heads.  This chasm between political action and social concern has been one of the clearest signs of our democratic deficit.

Grenfell changed that.  It’s not a permanent state of affairs, but for now, housing is politically important and sensitive.  Time will tell whether this actually changes anything.  But the demand of decent, secure, truly affordable and safe homes for all is part of securing Justice for Grenfell – and we may not get a better chance of winning it.

The ultimate proof that housing inequality has hit the middle England mainstream is The Archers.  The everyday story of country folk is currently doing a pretty decent job with a story-line that highlights how the crisis is spreading through the country, up the social ladder and blighting people’s lives and communities.

I should perhaps out myself as a committed Archerite.  I tend to listen to the omnibus in the gym, desperately hoping I’m never exposed as training to cows mooing instead of high-energy garage.  I often struggle to remember who’s who and have an additional confession that my favourite character is Brian Aldridge.  But while I’m at it, I like Hugh Grant too!

The housing plot revolves around a proposed new development in Archer-land.  A property developer wants to build a relatively small number of homes on formerly agricultural land.  This has unleashed a host of tensions and conflicts in Ambridge, most of which ring true.

Predictably, there’s the NIMBY question.  Some of the better-off residents oppose any new homes in their rural idyll.  This is an issue that underlies a lot of housing policy impotence and inertia in the “real” world.  Politicians in many parts of the country are petrified of any appearance of “concreting over” the countryside or green-belt.  Lynda Snell, a vocal Ambridge resident, has articulated another fear of new development: that the homes will be bought by “part-time resident strangers with lives elsewhere”.

This aversion to new housing development is not a luxury afforded to people living in cities, but in any event, is based on a false argument.  Only a fraction of the UK land-mass is devoted to housing.  It would take a lot more than Justin Elliot’s scheme in The Archers to turn Ambridge into Singapore.

Stopping landowners building homes wherever they like is why we have a system of planning control, albeit one that is much abused.  The Archers gave a good snap-shot of how developers use self-serving, dishonest tactics to get what they want.  The Ambridge Parish Council was presented with seductive arguments that come close to emotional blackmail.  In a typical manoeuvre Damara Captial, the shadowy developer, used the promise of affordable housing to get backing for its plans, enlisting the support of Emma, one of the locals in housing need.

If The Archers reflects reality, Emma will be betrayed and disappointed.  The term “Affordable Housing” has become so misused that it should always be placed in parenthesis.  It’s tragic to hear Emma pinning her hopes for the future on a lottery.  Damara are out to maximise profits, which means minimising the number of homes that aren’t sold at full market prices.  Once they’ve got planning permission, they’ll use a new string of bogus arguments to pretend that homes that Emma might be able to afford are “unviable” (an issue recently addressed by Channel 4 News, with a cameo appearance by me).

The new homes in Ambridge have created divisions within the community and sadly, that’s also a feature of our housing malaise.  The elevation of housing as a commodity and signifier of social status is exploited by those who have no interest in solving the problem.  We need to take back control of housing and planning policy from the likes of Damara Capital.  After Grenfell, we need to drive the profiteers out of our homes.


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The Bridges of Montgomery County

[What follows is thanks to David Rotenstein, a historian in Silver Spring, Maryland who uses his skill and knowledge to challenge establishment orthodoxies that seek to present versions of the past that render certain experiences, people  and places invisible. See more of David’s work here.]

The selective preservation and erasure of memory is universal and timeless. It’s the essence of history. But nowhere is it more true than the USA. I sometimes think the foundation myth of European ‘America’ spread across the virtual genocide of Native Indians is the biggest cover-up in history.  But like other societies, America continues to tell itself sanitised stories that foreground ‘official’ histories without acknowledging that they’re contested.

This issue is very current in the context of attitudes to relics of the civil war. A debate is raging in the US about whether statues celebrating the Confederate South should stay or go. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war) recently said of monuments like the one in his city to Jefferson Davis (who was president of the Confederacy):

“Equal part myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time – a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago – not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.” (Mayor Levar Stoney, DC Express, 23rd June 2017)

But there are many mundane distortions of the past that are perhaps more ideologically powerful and pernicious than statues. David Rotenstein showed me some of them during a “dirty tour” of his home town, Silver Spring in Maryland, just north of Washington DC.

The strange social geography of DC makes any definition of place contentious. This city-state imposes itself on the local landscape with a rigidity under-written by Federal law. By most standards, Silver Spring would be just another suburb. But its history makes it more than that and presents a microcosm of the American experience.

The first thing David showed me was this mural, decorating the side of a multi-storey (no pun intended) car park.

We’ve all become used to anodyne municipal and corporate art deployed to dress-up reinventions of place. I still get infuriated by the artifacts (cranes, winding gear, random chain links) littering London’s ‘Docklands’ in a fake gesture to historic preservation. But this mural is more provocative. The clear message is the equality of the two sides in the civil war.

Post-conflict expressions of peace and reconciliation are natural, particularly after civil war and all wars are messy and complex. But in this mural there’s no way of knowing that one side was fighting for the preservation of legal human slavery.

David showed me several other examples of Silver Spring’s attempts to depict its past in a way that conceals some facts and concocts others. In an adjoining mural, black people are shown catching commuter trains in the 1950s at a time when, David says, they would not have been allowed to use the station unless they were working there. Silver Spring remained segregated by custom and practice until the early 1960s, significantly later than DC. More African-Americans moved to the area around this time when a government office opened there, but they not only found it hard to buy a home due to racist restrictions, they couldn’t even buy lunch. David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles. What it does commemorate is the figure of Francis Preston Blair, a former slave owner who ‘discovered’ (like Columbus discovered America) the silver spring from which the city takes its name (see photo below).

African-Americans, both free and enslaved, had been living in the Silver Spring area for generations, particularly in the settlement of Lyttonsville.  As my book describes, the history of US housing is entwined with racism, so it’s no surprise to learn that Lyttonsville didn’t get running water and paved streets until the late 1960s – and only after a fight.

Today, Lyttonsville has been absorbed into the wider Silver Spring conurbation, but the difficulties for US society in reconciling its present with its past don’t end there.  The Talbot Avenue Bridge links Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring.  It’s an elegant structure that’s typically American.

Now the authorities want to demolish it (allegedly to make way for a new train line).  The contrived arguments being used to justify this – poor maintenance, structurally unsound, beyond economic repair – are precisely those used to justify the destruction of US public housing and UK council housing.  They all illustrate an enduring disrespect for the homes, histories and lives of working class communities, with ethnicity a potent additional factor.

In the Age of Trump, demolishing bridges and building walls (actual or metaphoric) assume ever greater significance.

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From Ronan Point to Grenfell Tower: How many more?

(I’m writing this in a state of thinly controlled sadness and fury.  Apologies if that’s reflected in my writing.  I’m conscious the full facts about Grenfell Tower aren’t known.  But that’s another reason for my anger.  As at Hillsborough, how long will it take to get to the truth?  Because when powerful vested interests are threatened, working class lives don’t matter.)

The most infuriating thing about Grenfell Tower is that local people (some of whom I know) have been warning it would happen for years.  Those with the responsibility and authority to do something didn’t listen.  That goes to the heart of the matter.  But the reasons why lives were put at risk are more complex – and the charge sheet is long.

Top of my list is the construction industry.  I’ve worked in it.  It has a culture of wanton disregard for anything but money.  It’s characterised by macho chauvanism and a contemptuous attitude towards ‘the client’, particularly if that’s a local authority and people who live on council estates.  Of course, this is not a reflection on all the individuals who work in the industry.  I recently had a meeting with the site manager of a big development near the council estate where I work.  He told me his attitude is that people working on his site should not do anything they wouldn’t want done in their own home.  Sounds simple.  But it’s the exception that proves the rule.

On the whole, the construction industry is wasteful of materials, money and lives.  In due course, contractors will be shown to have put profit before safety at Grenfell Tower.  They’ve been doing it for years.  Their negligence has been used to undermine both the structure and reputation of council housing.  This became apparent with the partial collapse of Ronan Point in Newham in 1968, when four people were killed.  The government commissioned inquiry was quite explicit that shoddy cost and corner cutting by private contractors were responsible.

There’s a wider issue about high-rise blocks.  They’ve become a symbol of the stigmatisation of council housing, but this lazy association ignores the political, financial and social context.  Council tower blocks were originally promoted by the 1950s Tory government who offered councils and contractors more money the higher they built.  Design and maintenance were secondary considerations.

I’ve been responsible for looking after high-rise council blocks in the past.  Good day-to-day management becomes even more important than usual when, as was tragically demonstrated at Grenfell, means of escape are paramount.  There are ways that risks can be mitigated.  But they depend upon adequate resources, training and the co-operation of various agencies (housing departments, fire service, building control etc.) all of whom have seen both money and staffing cut.

But the argument that high-rise housing can’t work is false and is often exploited by those hostile to council housing.  Some of the most expensive and desirable homes in the world are in high-rise blocks.  This is a class issue.  The ultra-modernist, ‘brutalist’, concrete-built towers of the Barbican centre are just up the road from where I work.  A flat in there will cost you £millions.  What would happen if Barbican residents expressed fears about health and safety?

There’s an underlying attitude of mind that exacerbates financial, technical and management problems.  In this, local councils have a particular responsibility and culpability.  I’ve worked in housing since 1991 and been involved in numerous projects involving councils working on peoples’ homes alongside private contractors.  I can’t think of many that didn’t leave residents feeling frustrated, ripped-off and demeaned.  The most annoying thing about that is that, during my 26 years in the field, little, if anything, has been learned.  Still, there is a practice of bogus consultation, lack of transparency and a fundamental disrespect that conveys a message of ‘we know best’.  Problems are inevitable and it’s not possible to please all the people all the time.  But councils should remember the words of one of the tenants where I work – ‘It may be their property, but it’s my home’.

Another element at Grenfell Tower is the role of the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO).  I currently work for a TMO and have worked for several others in the past.  At their best, they offer a mechanism for residents of council estates to have more control over decisions that affect their home.  It’s not a panacea, but I have seen TMOs deliver a better quality of day-to-day housing management than the mainstream.  One of the reasons it does this is that it’s locally based and directed, providing an immediate and (crucially) personal service that has been lost by remote and bureaucratic housing departments.

I don’t know the detail of the TMO responsible for Grenfell Tower.  What I do know is that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (K and C) set up a borough-wide TMO to manage all of its council housing.  This is the antithesis of how resident management should work and I’ve always thought looked like a Tory council that’s hostile to working class people in general and council tenants in particular, shuffling-off responsibility.  No doubt when the buck-passing starts in earnest, K and C will say it’s all the TMO’s fault.  But like any organisation, TMOs are only as good as the people in them and the system around them.  As someone who does the same job, my heart goes out to whoever was managing Grenfell Tower.  But I’ve seen TMOs go badly wrong.  This happens for a variety of reasons (ego and empire building, weak controls, incompetence).  When they do, the council has an over-riding responsibility to intervene.

A lot of attention is focusing on what might have made the fire spread so quickly and extensively.  This relates to some of the points above, but there are other issues about health and safety at home that have cost lives at Grenfell and elsewhere.  I was involved in the procurement of a cladding contract about ten years ago.  Perhaps naively, I was astonished to find such a large, lucrative industry selling an expensive product that seemed to have very dubious benefits.  Supposedly, the main reason for cladding is improving insulation, a very important objective.  But in my experience it became quickly obvious that saving energy (and perhaps fire safety) was less important than appearance.

Cladding becomes a particularly distorted feature when it meets prejudice against council housing.  I remember some of the early estate regeneration programmes and asking a senior colleague about the colourful cladding on the side of a tower block.  He replied ‘It cost a lot of money, but at least it looks nice.’  Questions of appearance are inherently subjective.  But three’s a lot of evidence to suggest that dislike of council housing has become enmeshed with dislike of how it looks.  It’s as though those who would really like to get rid of council housing might sometimes settle for trying to hide it.

This country has an excellent institution for assessing domestic health and safety.  The Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford is full of people who know how to build safe, energy-efficient, well-designed homes (and they’re not alone).  BRE used to be a public agency, but was privatised in 1997.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Although my heart wasn’t in it, last night I went to a talk about social housing in Vienna.  It wasn’t a retro-fest about Red Vienna in the 20s, but an account of how the city has built on that tradition to maintain a commitment to providing high quality, innovative homes available to a large proportion of its citizens.  (60% of Viennese housing is state-subsidised).  We were shown photos of developments built within the last 20 years with roof-top swimming pools, Turkish baths, ‘dementia gardens’, libraries, restaurants and youth facilities: all non-market housing, all rented for less than 800 Euros a month.  Grenfell Tower was about a mile away, but it felt a lot further.

I once read something by a Berlin writer entitled ‘You can kill a man with bad housing’.  This week bad housing has killed women and children too.  We have to decide.  Do we allow this to continue, or, perhaps in the name of the victims of Grenfell Tower, demand homes that give to lives, instead of taking them?



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BOOK RELEASE: There’s No Place

My book, There’s No Place: The American Housing Crisis and what it means for the UK, will be published in June.  Here’s what some people are saying about it:

“Glyn Robbins knows what he’s talking about.  If words are weapons, this will be just the ammunition we need to fight for an end to homelessness.”  Ken Loach

“I don’t know of any text that takes on as many of the key housing challenges in a single volume.  It’s also unusual because it’s grounded by clearly voiced views of local housing activists.”  Professor Larry Vale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“This is a gripping and thoroughly accessible read: an essential tool for everyone concerned with the housing crisis – what needs to be done and what activists are doing to campaign for secure, affordable housing for all.” Professor Marjorie Mayo, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Glyn Robbins brings a sharp and sympathetic eye to contemporary US struggles to Save Our Homes in the face of privatisation, deregulation and cuts.  Readers will find much to resonate and reflect on as global capital tightens its death grip on our communities.” Michael Kane, Executive Director, National Alliance of HUD Tenants

The book comes at a critical moment for the future of housing in the US and UK.  The election of Donald Trump makes a property developer “the most powerful man in the world”.  For Americans with low-incomes, the limited help to keep a home they can afford is at risk.  In the UK, the pending general election finds housing at a crossroads between a revival of non-market housing or letting the market rip.

There’s No Place tells the story of resistance and struggle at local level through the voices of those fighting to save their homes.  Each chapter covers a different aspect of the trans-Atlantic housing crisis based on detailed field research and interviews in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington DC.

If you’d like to pre-order a copy, please contact me via this blog, Twitter, Facebook or email redroofpublishing1@gmail. com

Price is £10 ($12), plus post and packaging.  All proceeds after costs will go to US and UK housing campaigns.

(Please get in touch if you’d like to organise a meeting, lecture or event around the themes of the book.)


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Happy birthday (and international women’s day) Fatima!

After a slow start, I’ve come to know some brilliant women in my life.  (I’ve even helped raise some!)  On International Women’s Day, I want to pay tribute to one of them on what is also, fittingly, her birthday.

That’s Fatima, standing second from the right of the back row in this Ahmad-Robbins family photo.  She came to live in the UK four years ago after her life in Syria was turned upside down by war.  Like all refugees, Fatima wanted to live her life in peace with her family, friends and neighbours .  Now they’re scattered to the winds and don’t know if they’ll ever see each other or their country again.

Fatima was forced to leave her home with her two children and after a sometimes difficult journey, was able to join her husband in London.  She escaped the trauma of one place, but replaced it with the alienation of another.  A strange home in a strange city.  But from the moment she arrived, Fatima has spread love, kindness and strength all around her.  In the process, she’s helped her two daughters settle into school, where they’ve both achieved outstanding academic results and equally importantly, followed their mum’s example as caring, generous members of our society.  Meanwhile, Fatima has given unstinting support and care to an older woman with dementia – my mum – a labour of love for which we can never thank her enough.

Fatima’s English is getting better, but my Arabic isn’t, so we’re not always able to communicate directly.  But what I see in Fatima, as well as a person of immense courage and resilience, are human qualities that transcend words.  Fatima gives life to a thousand expressions of solidarity and compassion.  Her deeds are the most eloquent refutation of bigotry, prejudice and racism.  In a metaphorical and literal sense, Fatima is international woman.


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Three Big Problems with Project JC

I hesitate to enter these waters.  If there’s one thing we don’t need it’s more pontificating about the state of the Labour Party, its leader and the left.  As someone once said ‘the point is to change it’.  But like many others, I’m increasingly worried and frustrated that the huge potential harnessed by Jeremy Corbyn’s election is in danger of changing nothing.

This is not primarily about the individual.  I don’t know Mr Corbyn and my only brief personal contacts have confirmed the view that he’s a decent fella with a genuine commitment to social justice.  I can’t comment on his leadership qualities (which is a bit of a fake science anyway), but if his style is more consensual than autocratic, then that’s a good thing.  The election of a genuine socialist and trade unionist as Labour leader was a great moment.  I would probably have re-joined the Party if I’d thought they’d have me.  The fact that they probably wouldn’t is indicative of the first problem.

Until Corbyn’s election, the Labour Party had been in decline as a democratic, participative, campaigning organisation for most of my life.  Yes, it could still win elections, but the organic sinews of a party rooted in working class communities had been withered by long-term social changes, short-term political opportunism and bureaucratic manoeuvres.  That can’t be reversed overnight, or in 17 months.  However, as I understand it, the foot soldiers for beginning the process of making the Labour Party more relevant to people’s everyday lives is Momentum.  Leaving aside the organisation’s internal issues, the major problem I perceive with Momentum has been its failure to adequately engage with grassroots campaigns and this is linked to its initially confused, but eventually prescriptive attitude to membership.  Requiring that members of Momentum can only be members of the Labour Party excludes many of us who might otherwise have been enthusiastic to work within a broad alliance to oppose austerity and neoliberalism and who knows, maybe join the Labour Party at some later point.  Momentum’s narrow dogmatism has reinforced those on Labour’s right wing who have conspired for years to exert central control over the party, while taking it ever further away from being a socialist organisation.

The second problem is linked to the first and concerns the mainstream political culture which privileges an inner-core of apparatchiks over the rank-and-file.  That’s true of all hierarchical organisations, but part of the appeal of Project JC was a sense that it would do things differently.  I’m not sure it has.  To illustrate this, I think of two encounters I’ve had with Mr Corbyn since he became leader.  The first was last July when I bumped into him at Euston station.  He was on his own, buying a magazine and chatting to people in W H Smiths.  The second was in October when he was surrounded by staff and advisors and appeared unable to relate to an issue which, three months earlier, he’d naturally connected with.  Of course, we all have our off-days and there’s no question the incredible strain he’s been under will take its toll.  But I think this contrast reflects the way the political establishment strangles any attempt to devolve power away from its sanctum.

This in turn feeds into the third problem which is the appearance that Corbyn and his allies are being held hostage by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).  Again, the assorted right-wing, Blairite and careerist MPs were never going to relinquish power easily, however big Corbyn’s mandate from the party membership.  But just like media hostility, that’s a given.  The task for Project JC was to move beyond the Westminster constraints and appeal to people who have become disillusioned with mainstream politics.  The Copeland result and the Stoke turnout show that it’s not happening.  Last week I spent some time in Hull and I’ve rarely felt more sympathy for those who lash out through UKIP, Brexit and worse to remind the establishment they still exist.

There are no simple answers to these problems, but at the moment, it feels like Project JC has run out of ideas and is in danger or running out of road.  Here are three suggestions for things that could be done.

  1. There’s been a lot of talk of Corbyn’s use of three-line whips lately, but I think the party leader should instruct every Labour MP to attend the Save Our NHS march this Saturday. Some, of course, will be there anyway, but imagine a phalanx of 228 MPs joining their constituents to defend one of our proudest achievements.  Those who don’t should be named and we can draw our own conclusions.
  1. There are hundreds of empty shops in places like Hull. Labour should rent one of them for two weeks and use the time to develop a real dialogue with local people – and not one based around the attempt to win votes.  John McDonnell and his colleagues have lots of good suggestions for how to rebuild the economy, but they haven’t penetrated working class communities and don’t engage them with the process of developing local campaigns for change.
  1. The Labour Party, including Momentum, needs to own the issue of housing. It remains a massive problem for millions – either directly or as a proxy for other frustrations – and one where the government is failing spectacularly.  It’s a political open goal that’s constantly being missed.

It’s not too late.  The Tory government is gathering superficial strength and confidence, but in reality is weak, divided and faces huge problems it has no answers for.  It’s time for Project JC to stop moaning and start organising.



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Cathy and Daniel

Sorry to name-drop, but I’ve been spending a bit of time with Ken Loach lately, the man and his work.  On 2nd February, ‘Axe the Housing Act’ jointly-hosted a special screening of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, with Ken doing a Q and A, at the Genesis cinema in Mile End.  We were overwhelmed by the response.  All the tickets sold within 48 hours and we had to arrange a second slot later in the evening.  Overall, about 1,000 people came through the door.    This is testament to the esteem in which Ken is held, both as a film-maker and someone who uses his position to speak out against social injustice, but also to the power of a film that depicts a feature of contemporary Britain with sympathy and understanding instead of condemnation and judgmentalism.  Whatever complacent Tories and their media say, Daniel Blake’s experiences are shared by millions of people.  That’s why there are now hundreds of local screenings scheduled in communities around the country (something I don’t think has ever happened with a film before), which I’m sure pleases Ken as much as a BAFTA.

On 12th February I was asked to say a few words at a screening by the Socialist Film Co-op of ‘Cathy Come Home’.  I hadn’t seen it for a while and was very struck by the links between two Ken Loach films separated by 50 years.  Cinematically, there’s an obvious consistency in style – there’s one scene in ‘Cathy’ where the Ray Brooks character shows children how to light a storm lamp that has an almost exact parallel with Dave Johns in ‘Daniel’ – but that’s not my field.  What the two films also capture is how current housing and social policy is turning the clock back.

‘Cathy Come Home’ is often credited with having woken the country up to a crisis in its midst when it was first shown as a BBC television play in 1966, which in itself seems a long way from the current unreality TV diet of escapist dramas and talent shows.  The housing charities Crisis and Shelter both emerged from the after-shock, although they’ve become incrementally less critical of the policies that create the conditions they exist to alleviate.  Cathy’s experience follows a downward spiral from hope to despair that has become all too familiar.  ‘You’re only two pay cheques away from being homeless’ has become a cliche because for many, it’s true.

As she and her family fall out of the relative security and independence of council housing, Cathy becomes increasingly itinerant, subject to the vagaries of the private rented market and dependent on paternalistic philanthropy.  But shocking as her story still is, what’s more alarming is that the situation for people in a similar situation today is even worse.  I had some passing behind-the-camera involvement in ‘I, Daniel Blake’ when I took the actress who plays Katy (Hayley Squires) to meet Ariam who I’d got to know when her life took a similar turn to Cathy’s (read Ariam’s story here).  Ariam was relatively ‘lucky’ because unlike Katy, she wasn’t rehoused hundreds of miles away, as has become almost the norm.  Of course, at the root of the problem is that, unlike 50 years ago, we’ve virtually stopped building council homes.  Today, like Cathy, people are finding their lives distorted and damaged by the abandonment of housing policy to the whims of a market even this Tory government admits is broken. But as Peter Marcuse (or possibly his dad: I can nevr nail down the quote) has said, we don’t have a housing crisis because the system isn’t working, but because that’s the way the system works.

Edits from the Ken Loach Q and A at the Genesis are here.



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