"The story of the Haggerston Estate is the story of social housing in Britain"

The estate in 2007. Image: Edward Betts/Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel House, London E8, used to stand on the north bank of Regent’s canal to the east of Kingsland Road. On Google Street View it still does, and an anonymised woman in sandals is perpetually wheeling her anonymised child in a pram past the façade.

It’s July 2014, according to the photo’s tag, and it looks like a warm day: mum’s in a sunhat and they’re both in sandals. By this point most of the windows have been smashed out, and if you follow the canal and turn right up Clarissa Street, the fort of demolition-site hoarding continues into a grilled gate. Through it, you can see a crane looming behind the building: here it’s still May 2014 and cloudy. Click through the gate, though, and it’s suddenly September 2011 in the courtyard, with sunlight falling on cars, hanging baskets, brightly-painted bollards and a lone removals van.

The story of the Haggerston Estate is the story of social housing in Britain – a story told by James Meek in the London Review of Books – in microcosm. London County Council built it between 1935 and 1948 as a slum-clearance project, trying to plumb in the edifying qualities of English Literature by theming the building’s names round the novelist Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). In 1965, the Greater London Council took over, and by the Seventies they’d reclassified it as a “problem” estate, sacking the resident caretaker, withdrawing maintenance, withholding repairs, and prompting rounds and rounds of rent strikes.

When it passed to Hackney Council in 1980, some of the buildings were emptied for refurbishment and tenants not offered the opportunity to return. This was the era of Right to Buy; an awakening to the logic of the market, and a dismissal of the project of social housing as an idle, unproductive daydream. The key workers who’d been moved in didn’t hang around when the policy of permanent neglect became clearer, and by the 1990s Haggerston had been branded the heroin capital of Europe.

The artist and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman moved to Samuel House in 1997, among people who had, in many cases, been told they were there temporarily. By 2004, the building had – officially at least – stopped accepting tenants.

Hackney Homes made its intentions vividly obvious in April 2007, when it covered the windows of the empty flats in the intimidating orange colour more commonly used for hazardous chemicals. The residents were balloted on a stock transfer to the housing association L & Q, pending the demolition of the estate and their rehousing elsewhere. Having fruitlessly campaigned for the estate’s basic maintenance for 30 years, they voted 71 per cent in favour. Demolition began on the estate 2010, and reached Samuel House by 2014. By February, the building was deserted; by October, it was gone.

If those decades sound like a kind of limbo, Zimmerman’s recent film Estate: A Reverie (2015) shows it as a space of sudden possibility – a period in which, basically left to their own devices, the tenants turned it into a mini-utopia. In 2009, she, another resident called Lasse Johanssen, and a photographer called Tristan Fennell made portraits of the people who still lived there to paste over the orange boards.

The film shows them going up, and goes on to extend them over longer, more intimate spans. We start with a name, and a number of years’ residence. Matilda (52 years) is the longest; we meet her dusting her immaculate living-room and telling us she feels it’s part of her, this place; part of her husband, and of her daughter. Even one of her grandsons was born there. “I’m funny like that,” she tells us. The brilliantly dapper Eric (30 years), by contrast, doesn’t want to die here; he wants to go back to Grenada, where his girlfriend’s ashes are.

Elsewhere, Anna (19 years) paints polka-dots in the stairway and goes inside with her family to pray to a plaster Virgin Mary; Elam and Lorna (19 years) go through a photo album. We watch John H (33 years) lost partly in the spasms of Parkinson’s and partly in enjoyment as he watches himself play accordion on Zimmerman’s laptop. Jeff (31 years), is also visibly ill, and tells us a life story full of homelessness, of being forced in winter to do something which would get him a cell for the night. He comes up in the film’s dedication, with the handful of others who didn’t live to see it finished.

Estate doesn’t idealise what was often a difficult place to live: early in the film, Julia, who’s being living there 24 years, walks round the building and remembers how her grandfather had come there in 1937 from up in Hackney, where he’d had a donkey, a pony, ducks, geese and chickens. When he moved in, he gassed himself – and his dog, Dinah – because he couldn’t keep even her. Animals become a motif, taking us away from the solely urban but also towards Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), Alain Tanner and John Berger’s film about a group of characters connected by names, a farm, and the possibility of a different, more utopian future.

Berger, in fact, read sections of his novel King (1999) over Taskafa: Stories of the Street, Zimmerman’s 2013 film about Istanbul’s attempt to sever its links with its past by culling its street dogs. He wrote this about Estate:

I believe this project will achieve something very significant for the times we are living in. It will remind us – and how appropriate this is for the medium of film ­– that, both politically and humanly, the past is not behind us, not obsolescent, but beside us and urgent.

Who knows how long it’ll take Google to update their photos. Maybe the photo car will come back around when the tenants of Haggerston Estate have been rehoused nearby, and the new building, The City Mills, is finished; prices for the still-available 2– and 3–bed flats in the “Skyline Collection” run from £839,950 to £999,950.

But for six weeks some of the film’s spirit of community and solidarity travels down the road to the PEER Gallery, Hoxton, for Real Estates, a six-week series of events on housing and spatial justice in East London which takes Estate as its starting-point. The Focus E15 Campaigners will have the fifth week. The DIG Collective – about whom Iain Sinclair recently wrote – have the fourth. Other weeks look at homelessness, demolition and redevelopment.

The exhibition will run from 18 February to 28 March.

 

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust