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  1. Politics
25 August 2017updated 07 Aug 2021 8:19pm

“These issues are high up Corbyn’s agenda“: Maxine Peake on the crisis in social housing

The actress is narrating a new film about how the UK dismantled its council housing stock.

By Harriet Williamson

“I believe that a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn could go some way towards solving this issue. That’s one of the reasons we’re behind him, he’s a viable option and these issues are high up on his agenda.”

Maxine Peake is discussing the housing crisis, and in particular the decimation of social housing that is the subject of a new documentary she is narrating. 

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle tackles the causes of Britain’s social housing crisis and gives a voice to tenants whose homes are threatened by action from local councils and private developers. 

The stats are starkly revealing. In 1980, 40 per cent of Britain’s population lived in social housing. Today, less than 8 per cent do, and around 1.7 million people are stuck on waiting lists.

“Areas in London have just become full of Airbnb rentals,” says Peake. “There’s no community because people don’t actually live there, they just stay for two weeks, four weeks, a couple of days.

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“People think, ‘I can make some money here’ and that just feeds into the sense that housing is about ‘oh, what can I gain?’ The whole purpose of the home becomes lost if it’s seen as an assert to trade on.”

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Directed by Paul Sng (Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain), Dispossession takes the viewer on a whistlestop tour of housing policy from the end of the Second World War right up to the present day. It lays the blame for the depletion of social housing stock at the door of both Conservative and New Labour governments.

“Margaret Thatcher’s a major part of why this country’s in the terrible state that it is, but you can also blame Tony Blair,” says Sng. “In the 13 years of New Labour, fewer houses were built than under Thatcher’s government, because Blair and Gordon Brown ran with Thatcher’s policy.

“It’s now obvious that the market economics that Thatcher forcefully pushed through, the absolute faith in the market to deliver housing – it hasn’t worked.”

Perhaps most disturbingly, Dispossession highlights a deliberate strategy on the part of local councils to allow social housing stock to fall into disrepair, so they can embark on costly “regeneration” projects with private developers. These have seen estates bulldozed and tenants forced from their homes.

Communities are broken apart and people are moved out of the area they may have lived in their whole lives, away from family, friends and support networks. For vulnerable people, this can be an act of terrible cruelty.

Sng spent many years of his young life in social housing, and says “poverty porn” programmes such as Benefits Street are created to make viewers “feel good about themselves” – and to reinforce negative perceptions of council tenants. Dispossession includes interviews with social housing tenants in London, Glasgow and Nottingham.

Eileen and Micheal O’Keeffe have lived on the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill for 41 years, but their home is now under threat from Lambeth Council. They describe attending the weddings of their neighbours’ children, leaving the viewer in no doubt that the sense of community and relationships they’ve built have been formed organically over many, many years. These community bonds can’t be quickly rebuilt elsewhere, should (as they fear) Lambeth raze the estate and sell the highly lucrative land to private developers. (Lambeth Council say that the proposal for Cressingham Gardens is for the estate to be regenerated by Homes for Lambeth, which will be wholly-owned by Lambeth Council and any plans would replace all council properties on Cressingham Gardens, with new homes at council-level rents.)

Dispossession feels very necessary, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It approaches the national scandal of social housing with extraordinary precision and compassion. With an estimated 4,134 people living on the streets in Britain – while 200,000 properties have stood empty for more than six months – it’s clear that our approach to housing needs a radical overhaul.

“I’m supposedly a successful actress and I couldn’t buy until I was 32, and I had to move back up north, because I wanted a house,” says Peake. “This is over 11 years ago, and the situation has become so much worse since then. It’s the younger generation I really feel for.

“Everyone needs to see this film. It’s a documentary about where were are socially and it’s as important as I, Daniel Blake.”

According to Sng, his film is about value. “Not about property values, but about who is valued. If Grenfell can tell us anything, it’s that the people who lived there were not valued by the council, but that’s not a phenomenon that’s just confined to Kensington and Chelsea.

“We need to start valuing people who live on estates and valuing the estates themselves. Bricks and concrete don’t cause societal problems – they’re caused by inequality.”

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle will be screening in selected theatres from August to November.