Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle

Kate Houghton, Planning Policy & Practice Officer RTPI Scotland, reflects on BEFS screening of Paul Sng’s documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle.

Paul Sng’s documentary, Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, is profoundly affecting, and I recommend that anybody working in the ‘built environment’ finds a way to watch it. Every now and then it is important to be reminded what that ‘built environment’ moniker really means – places, for all of us to live in.

Dispossession briefly charts the history of social housing in the UK, from the response to slum overcrowding in the mid-20th century, to the Right to Buy and the more recent regeneration of social housing. For me though the linchpin on which this story turns is the accompanying rise and fall in the aspiration associated with council housing.

The rolling out of social housing across the UK in the mid-20th century was met by wide-spread aspiration to have the opportunity to live in not just a new, modern home, but an affordable one with security of tenure. Was the Right to Buy, which was introduced in the form we know it in 1979, just an extension and individualisation of this security of tenure? Whether or not we see it that way, the Right to Buy subsumed the earlier aspiration associated with a council house, and consolidated the now taken as given British aspiration to own your own home.  But Sng’s film, more than just charting the decline in social housing as a consequence of changing times, gives a raw account of how people who live in social housing have been demonised by some. What used to be a mainstream housing tenure in a market where the average housing cost is not affordable on an average income, has in the popular imagination been transformed into the destination of last resort.

Dispossession gives a voice to the ‘ordinary’ people from many walks of life who live in what remains of the UK’s social housing stock, primarily in London, but also in Glasgow and Nottingham, and allows them to counter the cartoon negative and moralistic portrayal of social tenants that too often pervades in the media. Their stories are varied, but with a common thread – secure housing offered a place to raise a family, a place to build a settled life, or a place to be part of a warm and thriving community. In all cases, the way that housing has been managed, whether in terms of maintenance, redevelopment or even demolition, left its residents feeling disenfranchised and ignored.

The documentary provoked many questions from me. Stories from three very different cities are told without exploring the different underlying forces bringing about change in those places. There was also an absence of voices of those who might feel they are impacted positively by current decision-making, and therefore stories from which we could begin to see which direction we should be travelling in. Experience tells me that these stories are out there.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that mapping the complex solutions we need is the purpose of this film. Rather its value lies in its impossible to ignore documentation of the human cost of our societal failure to value decent housing for all. We won’t find a structural solution until we listen to, and understand, that human cost.

Planning and planners are increasingly aware that we must give higher priority to more meaningful community engagement, and with a wider spectrum of people. This film channels the voices of people affected by the kind of decisions planners make, and therefore inevitably makes for uncomfortable viewing for a planner at times. It is a timely reminder that sincere community engagement is tough. It means hearing things that we don’t always want to hear, and being prepared to really listen to different views and experiences. One contributor to Dispossession speaks of his warm affection for the Red Road Flats: It’s all too easy to dismiss this unconventional view. But, to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, we have to be willing to listen and see our preconceptions challenged.

Thanks to BEFS and the Tower Block project at University of Edinburgh for the opportunity to view Dispossession in Edinburgh before the film’s commercial screenings in the city and in Glasgow later in the year.