By Manchester University Press
As the tragedy of the Grenfell tower fire has slowly revealed a shadowy background of outsourcing, private finance initiatives and a council turning a blind eye to health and safety concerns, many questions need answers. Stuart Hodkinson has those answers. He has worked for the last decade with residents groups in council regeneration projects across London. As residents have been shifted out of 60s and 70s social housing to make way for higher rent paying newcomers, they have been promised a higher quality of housing. Councils have passed the responsibility for this housing to private consortia who amazingly have been allowed to self-regulate on quality and safety. Residents have been ignored for years on this and only now are we hearing the truth.
Stuart Hodkinson is a Lecturer in Critical Urban Geography. His main research focus is on the ‘new urban enclosures’ with a specific interest in the politics, policies and day-to-day realities of housing privatisation, urban regeneration and state-led gentrification in the UK.
1. Sum up your book in one sentence
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Safe as Houses shines a light onto the murky world of social housing regeneration in the UK, helping to better understand why Grenfell happened and how it could easily happen again unless radical action is taken to change our housing system.
2. How long did it take you to write the book?
The book took around 15 months to write from when I started, but in reality probably about 6 months of full-time writing. I had hoped to write it much faster but I had to fit in writing around my existing academic teaching and administrative roles, plus wade through an enormous amount of research data I collected and keep on top of the evolving Grenfell revelations.
3. Who are the main contributors to the book?
The book is authored by myself, Stuart Hodkinson. I am an academic and campaigner focusing on different dimensions of the housing crisis. I have been at the University of Leeds since 2005 where I am Associate Professor in Critical Urban Geography. The main focus of my research is on the politics, policies and lived experiences of housing privatisation and regeneration. The majority of my research is on the UK, and specifically England, but I have also been part of international research projects looking at housing privatisation and gentrification processes in Europe and Latin America. I first became involved in housing activism in 2006 in Leeds when I supported a local residents’ association’s struggle against a housing PFI scheme that threatened their homes. As a committed action researcher, I have been supporting residents’ groups and housing campaigns across the UK ever since. In particular, since 2011 I have been researching residents’ experiences of unsafe council housing regeneration and refurbishment schemes under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which form the basis of the Safe as Houses book.
But although I am the sole author, the book is based on the contributions of many other people. Primarily dozens of residents across England - in Islington, Camden, Lambeth, Manchester, Kirklees, Leeds, Ashford, Lewisham, Reading, Salford, and North East Derbyshire - who agreed to participate in the research. In particular residents in three council housing PFI schemes - Islington’s Street Properties, Camden’s Chalcots Estate and Lambeth’s Myatts Field North estate - who shared with me their stories appalling treatment from both the PFI companies and local authority landlords. I also interviewed civil servants, former ministers, councillors, officers and private sector actors, and some of the book's most damning evidence came from former employees of PFI companies who turned whistle-blowers. I also could not have written the book without the support and advice of many people, especially campaigners in People Versus PFI.
4. What are you hoping to achieve from writing the book?
I hope to achieve many things from writing this book but I suppose three stand out.
The first and most important aim is to contribute to the excellent and inspiring work being done by Grenfell survivors and other residents to raise greater awareness that the factors behind the Grenfell
Tower disaster were not unique to that refurbishment scheme or the local authority but are present in social and private housing up and down the country. I want to put forward the clearest possible account of why unsafe regeneration happens, who or what is to blame, and who profits. It's vital to get across that the next Grenfell could just be around the corner because of the destructive impact of decades of privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation policies in construction, safety and housing management and maintenance. Thanks to policies like PFI, we, in a collective, regulatory sense, have lost control of the built environment to self-regulating, profit-maximising corporate actors. Just like at Grenfell, residents up and down the country are also routinely ignored, deflected and even silenced by their landlords and their contractors - the institutional indifference is deeply-rooted.
Secondly, I want to do justice to the immense human suffering and yet dignified resistance of all those residents I encountered in my research on housing regeneration. Each of those painful human stories deserves their own book to really deal properly with how they - as both individuals and as members of households, families and communities - were treated, how their lives were put on hold, ruined and sometimes devastated by the self-regulating cowboy builders and landlords that had contracted them. So I deliberately focus on a handful of individual stories that for me best exemplified the kinds of dehumanisation that residents were subjected to.
Thirdly, as well as supporting the many brilliant proposals already out about how to change policy course, I really want to contribute some new ideas for reform in three key areas: the need to restore accountability and power to residents; the need to re-regulate construction and housing provision in the interests of safety; and the need to end the privatisation disaster through a programme of gradual reforms that will gradually phase out PFI and outsourcing, push back the financialisation of housing and land, and restore a reinvented public housing model based on the Bevanite principle of treating housing as ‘a social service’ and not a commodity that is democratically accountable to its residents.
5. What motivates you?
The same thing that has always motivated my academic work - social justice. I have always aligned my teaching and research with social justice concerns and that is what got me so interested in housing back in 2006. I could see how residents were routinely locked into David and Goliath battles, sometimes winning against the odds, but far too often being steam-rolled by powerful financial interests seeking to profit from so-called regeneration. That's what drew me to researching council housing regeneration schemes with a focus on residents lived experiences. While I wasn't surprised at what I found, I was still shocked at how bad some of the work was, how negligent the various contractors, regulators and landlords were, and how profit always trumped safety and treating residents as human beings deserving to live in decent homes. Yet, until the Grenfell Tower Disaster, I had struggled to write up that research - it was daunting. But as so many people have said, Grenfell changed everything. I realised I was sitting on damning evidence from ‘other Grenfells in waiting’ that pointed to exactly why this had happened, evidence that could help campaigners in their struggles to prevent another Grenfell happening again. So the book was ultimately motivated by my need to respect the memory of the 72 people who needlessly died in the Grenfell fire and all those they left behind to fight for justice, by making sure what I had found made its way onto the public record.
'A timely and important book, exposing how private profit and reckless privatisation have caused unspeakable tragedies to social housing in this country.'
David Lammy MP
'This is an intricately researched, powerfully written, dramatic and sometimes painful analysis of how private interests have denatured social housing, always tethered to the experiences of the people who live in it. It's a brilliant, insightful and very human study.'
Zoe Williams, the Guardian journalist
'Essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the outsourcing - for which read privatisation - of social housing over the last 30 years.’
Anna Minton, Reader in Architecture at the University of East London and author of Big Capital: Who is London for?
‘A hugely important and powerful book.’
Pilgrim Tucker, community organiser and housing campaigner
‘A searing exposé of the policy choices which made Grenfell 'a disaster foretold'. Combining forensic detail and righteous anger, he describes the multi-faceted attack on public housing and its ethos which underlay this man-made tragedy’
John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing
Watch the Safe as Houses book launch here:
Join the conversation this Saturday where Stuart Hodkinson will join Paul Dennett, Rohan Kon and Hannah Wheatley to discuss socialist housing policy in the 21st century.
See event details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/343835602847588/
7 June 2019