by Eli Lambe
Released shortly before the disaster at Grenfell, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle is a timely and balanced exploration of the factors that led to the tragedy, and to the wider social cleansing of working class and low income communities throughout the UK. Introducing the film to a packed room in Norwich’s Cinema City, director Paul Sng emphasised the need to counter the “media culture of denigrating people who live in social housing”. The goal of the film, for Sng, was to show that people living in these estates and situations are valuable in themselves, and that the communities that exist there are important and should be preserved, as well as highlighting how this is overshadowed constantly by the prioritisation of profit and private sector gains.
One of the strengths of this documentary is the emphasis on community – with voices from within the estates covered and portrayals of community organizing and resistance to social cleansing.
Narrated by Maxine Peake, the film travels around the UK, looking at social housing in London – where a number of social housing estates are fighting against neglect and demolition – through Glasgow – a city which has been continuously demolished and disrupted and re-built and re-developed – and into the St. Ann’s estate in Nottingham – where residents are fighting the stigma and negative association imposed on them from outside. One of the strengths of this documentary is the emphasis on community – with voices from within the estates covered and portrayals of community organizing and resistance to social cleansing. The documentary presented well-sourced and striking statistics highlighting the effects of prioritising money and private interests over people’s lives and communities, and starkly covered the human cost of these measures.
In the Q&A that followed the screening, Sng was joined by local activists and organizers including Jan McLachlan (all round troublemaker/badass/activist), Samir Jeraj (rent activist and author of The Rent Trap), Su Langdon (of Radical Routes, Ipswich) and Karen Cully (The People’s Picnic). The panel examined possible solutions, how the issues highlighted affect our local community, and hopes for the future. Karen, from People’s Picnic Norwich, talked about the dramatic rise in people using their service, which now sees queues of around 80 people each night, including homeless people, workers experiencing food poverty, the elderly and young families. Karen described an increase in social isolation among the elderly, many of whom have been fundamentally let down by cuts to local services – the closure of community centres and scrapping of meals-on-wheels and care services meaning that, for many, the three nights a week where People’s Picnic serve food has become their only resource for social interaction and hot meals. She pointed to the efforts by local police and media to label the homeless as a “blight” and to push them out of the city during holidays to make it more attractive for tourists and consumers. The People’s Picnic provides a vital service, but is often hampered by a police presence designed to intimidate service users and a city council which ignores their needs – including erecting a 45 foot “tunnel of light” last December in a massively disruptive location, cutting essential services, and aggressively policing people queuing to get food.
A lot of the “solutions” proposed by politicians and local councils are, as the film shows, utterly (and possibly deliberately) inadequate…
A lot of the “solutions” proposed by politicians and local councils are, as the film shows, utterly (and possibly deliberately) inadequate, promising to “regenerate” areas by splitting up communities and making it impossible for them to return. In Norwich, the long-term outlook has been ignored in favour of short-termism through massive cuts. And there was a sense from all panelists that politicians cannot be relied upon to solve this problem – solutions must come from within the community, and must take the lead from it. Su Langdon warned that even community based solutions can face incredible obstacles from local government – Radical Routes, which has managed to build one of the largest networks of housing co-ops across the UK, is often stymied by cuts, which “have a knock-on effect” to networking and organising.
Overwhelmingly, both the film and the panelists pointed to the need to destigmatize homelessness, poverty, and social housing. The public perception of these communities – fuelled by “poverty-porn” such as Benefits Street – makes it easy for councils and central government to see people as problems, easier to devalue the neighbourhoods and ties they build. It makes it easier for people who do not face these situations, who have never faced these situations, to shrug off responsibility and ignore the growing problem. In Karen’s words, “We all play a part in this poverty. We’ve all watched it happen.” There is so much work to be done in breaking free from decades of neoliberal programming that has made us more selfish, more insular and more isolated – programming that has encouraged us to demonise and attack the most vulnerable among us, rather than putting in the work required to build each other up, and take care of each other.
Rather than generating revenue for local councils to put back into the community, taxpayer money is pouring into the hands of private landlords, who hoard it and use it to build on their wealth and power.
There has been a change in attitudes to social housing – what was once aspirational has been branded a sign of failure, stability and community have been devalued in favour of wealth. Rather than generating revenue for local councils to put back into the community, taxpayer money is pouring into the hands of private landlords, who hoard it and use it to build on their wealth and power. Anglia Square is perfect example of this – Norwich’s most diverse area has been sold for “re-development”, a move which has failed to consider the needs of residents and which will drive the cost of housing above what most of the community can currently afford.
Dispossession is a hugely important film, not only through its depiction of the human stories and communities behind the stigma, but through its rigorous contextualisation of those stories through statistics and interviews with the politicians, activists and campaigns involved. Sng finds hope in communities and points to the need for continued work and vigilance against social cleansing.
Featured image from Dispossession Film
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