Film / Theatre Reviews

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle

Lewisham, Architecture Project

In 2015’s Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, film-maker Paul Sng used the Nottingham duo to tell a story about British working class discontent in the age of austerity. His new film, Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle, takes a longer historical perspective, aiming to examine the failures and dysfunctions of modern British housing. As Maxine Peak’s narration outlines, post-war liberalism championed the country’s new council estates as fulfillments of a democratic promise, ambitious concrete guarantors of secure and dignified shelter. How, the documentary asks, did we get to the present moment, when the term ‘council estate’ is mouthed with a sneer? How did we allow the workforce of major metropolitan areas to be priced out of the cities themselves? And how, goes the unintended subtext, did we get to Grenfell Tower?

Production on Dispossession wrapped up before June’s catastrophic inferno in North Kensington, and the moral catastrophe of the disaster haunts the film. In its systematic approach, mixing graphs, conventional talking heads and historical footage, the doc lays out the multiple political, social and bureaucratic realities which made the disaster possible. The Right to Buy scheme of the Thatcher government is the clearest expression of the period’s rising political hostility to social housing, which has continued in modern institutional attitudes: housing stock that is sold off goes unreplenished; lucrative real estate outfits are courted; existing properties are consistently denied attention, a strategy, multiple interviewees suggest, of ‘managed decline’, intended to run down quality to make an eventual sale easier, regardless of the safety or well-being of actual residents.

Like other contemporary docs interested in the tension between ordinary people and the mysterious, faceless forces of capital, Dispossession dramatises the erosion of accountability and agency. Tenants are cut off from decision-making processes, as councils transfer management to private third-parties and Housing Associations, where, under obscurant clouds of ‘consultation’, their futures are up for grabs. Media propaganda like Vicky Pollard and Benefits Street encourage the identification of council estates with gross fecklessness and criminality, prejudices which supposedly media-savvy audiences internalise, in a failure of imagination and empathy. Dispossession skits around topics a little much, and its central points could’ve done with more detailed unpacking, but the through-line is clear enough: how our conception of what a house is for has changed, and how, as a result of that, a massive part of the populace came to be viewed as near-valueless.

Post-production acknowledge of Grenfell would have given the film a stronger visual and emotional catharsis, but then there are other, more focused, stories to be told about the tragedy. And here, in tenants’ first-hand reports, more ordinary stories of dislocation come to light. One woman remains the sole occupant of an abandoned estate, the Housing Association having encouraged everyone else to sell up; she recounts returning home late at night and having to ring the police because the security guard on duty wasn’t around to let her in. Another man, having previously been homeless, recalls his pride at getting a flat and his heartbreak over losing it so suddenly. When he walks past in the street, he says, voice breaking, he looks up to see if the light’s on.

Apart from trips to Glasgow and Nottingham, Dispossession is mostly London-centric, the most obvious municipal manifestation of housing market madness. But the problems it outlines are larger and have their own insidious presence elsewhere, including, to a less obvious extent, here in Belfast, where luxury flat developments coo at passers-by with aspirational buzzwords. The film gently reminds members of the creative and professional classes, like those who attend documentary screenings in art-house cinemas, that they have their own culpability and responsibilities, a subject ripe for more substantial investigation elsewhere. The problems Dispossession outlines are near intractable, but the film makes its worthy case, soberly and plainly. Conor Smyth

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle was shown at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast on Tuesday 15th August and will be screened throughout the UK over the autumn.

Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.