Dispossession – putting profit before people

Harry Woodward, Tenant Participation Officer, Dunedin Canmore, writes in a personal capacity about Paul Sng’s documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle.

Built Environment Forum Scotland’s joint screening of Paul Sng’s film ‘Dispossession – the Great Social Housing Swindle’ with Tower Block UK was relevant, topical and added to by  a lively and interesting debate at the Screening Room in George Square on 26 July.

Sng’s previous film, ‘Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain’ was a documentary that captured the story of the band mentioned in the title against the background of the 2015 General Election. Dispossession is another documentary in the style of ‘someone who tells the stories of people who challenge the status quo.’ And a good story it was too.

Paul Sng himself was present to take part in a debate after the screening chaired by BEFS Director, Euan Leitch, which comprised Tom Slater from Edinburgh University’s School of Geosciences, Edinburgh Tenants Federation (ETF) Chair Betty Stevenson and ETF Executive Committee member Heather Ford.

The debate was perhaps less focused on the film and more on Edinburgh’s housing situation. Stevenson and Ford between them combining years of social housing tenants’ activism, answered questions about how Edinburgh Council responded to poor housing situations they had experienced. Stevenson did, however, provide useful insight into the demolition of the Red Road flats in Glasgow, which featured in the film, with residents from the flats interviewed saying the communities in Red Road were destroyed by the demolition. Stevenson had met with residents of the flats herself and said that many people she spoke to were desperate to move; there was a significant amount of people affected by stress and mental health issues from living in the blocks  and overall Stevenson’s message was people in communities have to work together with officialdom to improve communities; regeneration isn’t just about blowing down and then building up again, in a people as well as a physical sense.

In fact, this was the main theme of the film: communities from Bath, Glasgow, Nottingham and the high rise blocks in the London areas of Lambeth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets showed the corporate machinations that were preventing local people from remaining in the areas they lived and loved in, captured beautifully in the images and interviews shown in the film. The story is best viewed to form your own conclusions on how bad the situation is in the areas featured in the film, whether you blame it on ‘market forces’, the demise of local government house building programmes or just the predatory greed of large development corporations to acquire land to generate more profits for their shareholders.

If you haven’t seen it, the opportunity for that should be forthcoming again soon in Edinburgh with a showing due at the Cameo in September and in local community centres (part funded by Unite the Trade Union), hopefully giving more people the chance to view a film that could do for social housing what Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’ did for the Welfare Benefits system. Try and catch it if you can.

The lack of time prevented perhaps a more detailed discussion on Edinburgh’s housing situation, where the huge land values and the need for a  greater programme of new build affordable housing might have led to more insights from the body of politicians, academics, students and community activists who attended, but overall well done to those who organised it and especially to Paul Sng for a timely film that, on the back of the Grenfell tragedy, reminds people that housing is for people to live in, not for rich people to invest their money in.

Harry Woodward