Lambeth Living Well, or Making Ill?

housing debateAt the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate last month, organised by residents of Cressingham Gardens, an estate threatened by potential demolition, a tenant angrily questioned the six-strong panel of Councillors and academic experts “This is a community! Do you know about community? Do you live in a community?” Since recent research shows that around 1 in 10 people in Britain can’t name a single one of their neighbours, they perhaps did not. If decision-makers may have no first-hand experience of being part of a community, how can we expect them to value let alone protect this rare asset? We therefore might wonder, as another audience member rightly queried, is the impact of such ‘regeneration’ schemes on mental health and wellbeing being taken into consideration in decision-making? At present it seems not. Should it? Yes – here’s why, according to Lambeth’s own aims and ambitions.

Lambeth Council are facing severe and compounding housing, mental health, and social isolation problems. On top of this, their budget has been slashed by 50% since 2011;  no easy picture. The borough has one of the longest council housing waiting lists nationwide. 21,000 people are currently hoping to get a council owned property in the borough, a 210% increase since 1997. A further 1800 families are in temporary accommodation or homeless, while yet another 1300 are living in severely overcrowded conditions. If that wasn’t enough, half of the borough’s council stock is yet to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Simultaneously, and very likely to  be linked, according to the 2010 Marmot Review, the number of people using mental health services in Lambeth is three times the national average. In 2007, Lambeth was spending £276 per capita on mental health care, the fourth highest amount in England. In 2013, it was reported to have the highest number of benefits claims for mental health problems of any London borough.

A further interlinked factor is social isolation. As a nation, we are reputedly the loneliest in Europe. Particularly, a reported 25% of Londoners say they feel lonely all or some of the time. For adults using social care services, according to a Health and Social Care Information Centre report last year, this is especially the case. While the percentage of users who said they had ‘little social contact with people and feel socially isolated’ is 5.5% in England, that rises to 7.7% in London. In Lambeth, the figure is 9.8%, one of the worst in the country. In addition to the mental health crisis, our growing (and co-morbid) loneliness crisis is one that councils should be striving to avoid, not contribute to, at all costs – for cost it does, socially and financially.

Yet, following heavily criticised evictions from its so-called ‘shortlife’ housing co-ops, and a growing number of unpopular redevelopment plans on yet other estates such as the Guinness Trust and Myatt’s Field, as well as sheltered housing in Leigham Court, Lambeth’s current destructive approach to housing and thus its own fragile social fabric will arguably result in heavy long-term costs, both economic and social. Perhaps Lambeth Council do not realise just how compounded these issues are? However, if we are to take at face value the remit of one of its flagship initiatives, set up in 2010, the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’, then, actually, they do. So why the lack of joined-up thinking?

The ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’:

lambethlogoThe ‘Collaborative’ brings together commissioners, providers of health and social care services, service users and carers in order to implement the much-touted idea of ‘co-production’ to “radically improve the outcomes for people experiencing severe and on-going mental health problems”. It is intended to be a ‘demonstration site’ as part of Lambeth’s ‘Co-operative Council’ experiment; an experiment aimed at involving citizens more in designing and running services and  lampooned as a gross paradox considering the borough’s dismantling of many housing co-operatives. Leaving the much-commented-on irony of the ‘co-operative council’ aside, a further contradiction lies in the Collaborative’s own vision: “that The Lambeth Living Well Area will provide the context within which every citizen…can flourish, contribute to society and lead the life they want to lead.” This is to be achieved by taking a holistic “Total Place” approach – “because the wider determinants of health have the most significant impact on health outcomes” – including housing and community.

One of the most progressive aspects of the Collaborative, for whom I did some work during a short stint at the Innovation Unit back in 2012, is their recognition of the detrimental effects of social isolation, and therefore their emphasis on building people’s resilience and “community-based interdependence” as a preventative approach to tackling mental ill-health, moving away from medical models of treatment. Part of this involves pumping money and resources into creating “lasting and sustainable support” for those experiencing mental distress “in their own communities and networks”.

According to Collaborative figures, the Council’s spends £3.4 million annually on supporting ‘social inclusion’ in the Voluntary and Community Sector. A further £3.15 million is provided by NHS Lambeth’s Clinical Commissioning Group to support a range of third sector organisations, including many activities focused on developing people’s safety-nets through social links, such as via Certitude’s ‘Connected Communities’ initiative and peer support, as well as building their ability to live independently.  In 2012 Lambeth spent an additional £100,000 setting up three pilot ‘Timebanks’ in the borough – part of a nationwide campaign to “inspire a new generation of volunteers” in a reciprocal, and transactual, exchange system where time is the unit of currency given and received; the idea being that volunteering and being part of a social network is positive for mental wellbeing.  All similar to the sorts of well-meaning ‘palliatives’ that (as mentioned in my last blog) George Monbiot wrote are being thought up to banish our loneliness epidemic.

While I am not knocking these efforts on their own terms, it seems supremely negligent and self-destructive to be priming the pump on the one hand, attempting to re-connect broken community links through expensive, artificial, top-down incentives, while at the same time, being involved in ripping up and shredding well-functioning, sustainable, and organically developed communities that are in existence. Why are Lambeth currently in the process of destroying some of the very precious few genuine communities that do exist in its borders? In particular, why are a Labour council dismantling housing co-ops, which Tessa Jowell has said to be “Britian’s best kept secret”, stimulating “active community participation”?

Lambeth’s communities shattered:

As Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Parliamentary Candidate, pointed out at the Housing Crisis Question Time debate, rare communities that help and look after each other are under threat. Thanks to a campaign, one such community in Streatham, where elderly and terminally ill people cook for each other, and are involved in the day-to-day of each others’ lives, was recently saved. This was not the case for another man, already evicted from his ‘shortlife’ housing co-op on Somerleyton Rd to make way for re-developments, who spoke of the devastating effects on his life of having his community destroyed: “I ended up in SLAM (South London and Maudesley hospital) because my mental health deteriorated”. Yet it’s not just the effects on those displaced. The dismantling of such communities impacts on us all.

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Rectory Gardens residents protest the sale of their homes. *Photo borrowed from Lambeth Save our Services: http://lambethsaveourservices.org/2012/10/31/rectory-gardens-protest-halts-auction-viewing/

Take the further example of Rectory Gardens ‘shortlife’ housing co-op in Clapham Old Town, about which I am currently involved in making a documentary film. Residents, who have made these council-owned properties their home since the 1970s, are being evicted so that Lambeth can sell off the street of 28 houses at auction to raise funds. As I have written about in another blog, it is solely down to self-directed, co-operative efforts to maintain and improve the once dilapidated houses, through sharing skills and investing their own time, money and labour into their renovation, that the houses could now be worth around £500,000 on the market. Yet, as an OHCR global report on forced evictions and human rights uncannily describes, these sorts of development processes almost always affect the poorest members of society, and tend to be justified on economic grounds or as a ‘public good’. All too familiarly, Lambeth have sought to do just that. Cllr. Matthew Bennett, Labour Cabinet Member for Housing in Lambeth, told our film crew that since they cannot afford to refurbish the houses, which he says are ‘unfit’ for habitation (despite people residing there for 40 years with the Council’s permission), the council’s only option is to sell them on the private market, putting the proceeds towards the building of “1000 new council homes”.

They have so far made £56 million on the sale of 120 other shortlife houses; money which, incidentally, has not been ring-fenced for direct spend on housing. But residents have never requested for the council to spend money refurbishing the properties they themselves have done up over the years. They have suggested they keep looking after them as part of a wider Super Co-op, becoming secure council tenants in the process. This solution, which would have preserved the community, has been rejected. Yet, according to Lambeth Collaborative’s own policy on building social resilience, Rectory Gardens housing co-op as it exists today is precisely the sort of ‘natural’ community that the Council should be rushing over to support, promote, and publicly champion.

The houses may not be tidy specimens of a pristine suburbia, epitomised by the modern, gated housing block next door; the paint is peeling; bricks are crumbling; nature is pushing through crevices. But it is precisely this organic, imperfect condition, which also characterises the self-help community, upsetting some neighbours for its untamed ‘messiness’, that makes Rectory Gardens of such immense value – and I don’t mean economic.

The real and costly tragedy lies in the destruction of that rare modern urban entity – an organically developed, self-supporting community of diverse people, including young and old, families and unique characters, looking out for and helping one another without top-down ‘incentives’. Neither friendship clubs nor so-called ‘community development’ are needed here. Some of the residents are elderly; others have physical and psychological disabilities. One co-op member explains to me that, as a result, some contribute more to the community than others, based on their ability – this is the nature of being in a ‘co-op’. It is not transactual, nor always equal – unlike the concept of Timebanking, marketed on the idea that you get as much as you give.

Let me be clear – it is by no means a utopia. There are internal politics and tensions, as within any of the most cohesive of families. Yet this is what makes it all the more genuine – not perfect, not pristine, but raw and uneven, not something that can be easily manufactured nor constructed. As one resident put it “it’s like a village in the city here. We aren’t all friends, but we all know each other, and have learnt to live together, and there’s always someone to help you.” Building new council homes is a fine thing to do. But at the expense of stable communities that constructively and independently absorb and support a range of vulnerable peoples? I don’t think we have the idea of ‘value’ right if so. Furthermore, the idea of other co-ops being formed to take its place elsewhere, as Cllr. Bennett has implied, reminds me of the notion of biodiversity offsetting – an ecosystem is inimitable in its complexity. Are we to understand this as a casualty of apparently fungible social capital?

A further danger lies in the effect of residualisation – as social housing stock declines, those who do end up being council tenants are those most in need. Fabians calls this ‘poverty tenure’. This in turn compounds ill-health, concentrating the likelihood of developing mental ill-health in ever ghetto-ised social housing, increasingly located in neighbourhoods characterised by greater poverty – Rectory Gardens is indeed one of the last remaining social housing stocks in Clapham Old Town, a neighbourhood now largely affordable only to the wealthiest individuals. Residents have been re-housed elsewhere. The co-op houses will become private property. This does little to contribute to genuinely diverse and mixed communities in a fast gentrifying borough, while increasing the chances of later mental health repercussions.

One house on Rectory Gardens has already been sold, apparently to a foreign investor who lives overseas and is renting it out to two young professionals on the private market. It is the only property to look ‘smartened-up’; freshly painted white, with a polished front door, and a Banham security alarm adorned on its front. I’ve been told that the new tenants do not stop to say hello to anyone on the street; nobody knows their names. In the other houses that are slowly being evicted one by one, property guardians from Camelot and VPS have moved in. They are friendly enough, but they will soon be in and out – a transient and shape-shifting community at best. Semi-aware of his own unfortunate, and technically blameless, role in turfing the community out, one says “this street will definitely just become another characterless, soulless street of posh, expensive houses, no doubt about it.” Welcome to the new Rectory Gardens, now next door to one of a growing number of Lambeth’s ‘gated communities’. Is this the future that Lambeth Council envision? Pursuing present policies, it sadly appears so.

The repercussions of losing that community forever are yet to be fully known, or accounted for. It reminds me of Labour Councillors Nigel Haselden, Christopher Wellbelove, and Helen O’Malley who, in their 2007 election leaflets, said “these communities provide a welcome permanence to the borough” and “it would be senseless as well as expensive to evict them”. Yet shortly after they were elected they reneged on these promises. The only one who remained supportive, O’Malley, was de-selected. I wonder who will be proved right in the long-term.

Yet, in an interview for the documentary, and once again at the housing debate, Cllr. Matthew Bennett, was extremely pejorative about the co-op, which he claims did not take the opportunity to formalise itself with the Council. In actual fact, the Council never gave them that option. This in itself is telling of an attitude that sees bottom-up, non-institutionalised initiatives as a potential threat to be eliminated. Over on Somerleyton Rd the Council are involved in “setting up” what Bennett calls a “genuine” co-op; presumably a Council-sanctioned and initiated one, and one which Carlton Mansions shortlife housing co-op had to make way for earlier this year… Hardly befitting the ‘co-operative council’s’ claim of wanting to “transfer power to its citizens”. MP Steve Reed, who initiated the co-operative council concept in Lambeth, writes “handing power to the people is not straightforward because it means taking power away from those who currently hold it; they will often resist this change both individually and organisationally. Councils are structured to provide top-down services, and these structures need to change if we want citizen-led services to thrive”. It seems the radical implications of their own policies have not yet filtered through into action. Transferring power means stepping back and making space for the unplanned and non-bureaucratised; of letting things sprout through and emerge in untidy ways, not ‘tidying up’ and out those who dare to think and do differently.

Lambeth Living Miserably?

Back at last month’s Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time Debate, Dr. Paul Watt from Birkbeck University concluded that, in almost exact contradiction to the Collaborative’s stated aims, “many of these regeneration schemes are actually producing sickness” rather than delivering “decent conditions in which people can live healthy lives”. Perhaps this is because Lambeth fails to recognise the difference between a ‘house’, a roof over one’s head, and a ‘home’, a place full of a sense of belonging, meaning, identity and community. Pressured by their long council house waiting list combined with severe budget cuts, it is no wonder that the council are looking for quick-fix answers that fulfil the minimum need. But this is terribly short-sighted. Yes there is a housing crisis. But if Lambeth are to tackle the other most severe and critical issue it faces – that of rising mental health problems and associated costs – it must think about housing in terms of providing and supporting the concept of ‘homes’, not merely four walls and a ceiling. It must value community and wellbeing above short-term economic gain.

That we are unclear on the long-term repercussions of so-called ‘regeneration’ schemes is evident in the fact that, as panellist Michael Edwards from UCL pointed out, regrettably there are almost no long-term studies being done to follow through these processes and assess wellbeing impacts. One such rare example that I’ve sourced online – a 2011 briefing paper by the Glasgow-based 10-year research programme GoWell, investigating the impact of investment in housing, regeneration and urban renewal on health and wellbeing in the city – tellingly found that while “[t]argeted housing improvement has generally had a positive effect on mental health…the effects of area-led regeneration are either absent or shown to have negative consequences.” More research is required to corroborate and map this more widely. I would also add to the bigger question, that as these communities become rarer and rarer, what do we stand to lose as a broader society? Without these functioning, self-created examples, we are all the poorer in our collective social imagination and aspiration.

Neither the aims of the ‘cooperative council’ nor the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’ are being served by the current local government’s short-termist attitude to housing, epitomised by current struggles in the borough; an approach that means we all lose in the end.

Housing crisis, economic crisis, mental health crisis, loneliness crisis – how many crises does it take to change the ideological lightbulb?

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To read more about Rectory Gardens, take a look at another recent (and apologies also lengthy/detailed!) blog by me on the Spectacle website, here.

If you want to listen to the full audio recording of the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate organised by Cressingham Garden residents, click here.

To learn more about housing campaigns in Lambeth, visit the Lambeth Housing Activists website.

To learn more about housing campaigns in London, visit the Radical Housing Network website.

 

(Blog republished on Brixton Buzz: http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2015/01/lambeth-living-well-or-making-ill-housing-in-crisis/)

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Cllr. Matthew Bennett’s Rectory Gardens slurs and errors

“We’d all like to live for free in million pound homes in Clapham”, Cllr. Matthew Bennett, Labour Cabinet Member for Housing in Lambeth, told Spectacle in a recent interview for our documentary about the eviction of residents from Rectory Gardens housing co-op. Yet, Spectacle’s film reveals that this statement, and numerous others Bennett made, is based on gross inaccuracies, calling into question the evidential basis for Lambeth’s decision to sell off the houses, a decision that Lambeth Labour MP Kate Hoey has told us “will go down in history as one of the worst the borough has made”.

Million pound homes?

In the mid-1970s, Lambeth Council Compulsory Purchase Ordered the L-shaped street of 28 Victorian terraced houses in the heart of Clapham Old Town for as little as £2000 – £4000 each under ‘slum clearance’. Along with numerous other ‘shortlife’ homes CPOd in the borough, the properties were effectively abandoned due to lack of funds to do them up. The only work ever to be carried out by the council since was to deliberately damage many of the interiors in order to prevent occupation. But a few years on, as was common at the time, squatters found a way to move into what had become derelict houses. Realising that this was a way to help them maintain the properties, the council then decided to welcome them as ‘short-life tenants’. Similar events took place across the city. “The Council were even handing out keys. They didn’t seem to care at all that we were there; in fact they seemed happy about it”, said one resident. Forty years later, and Lambeth are one of the last London boroughs to deal with their shortlife portfolio, having dithered about for decades, during which time a whole community and way of life has flourished. But in 2011, in the context an over-inflated London property market and government cuts, the Council decided to sell off what have become people’s long-standing homes at auction to raise cash. Evictions are currently in process.

Yet, if Lambeth are hoping to make one million pounds each on these houses, they must be dreaming. So far they have made £56 million on the sale of around 120 ‘shortlife’ houses. That’s around £466,000 for each one. There are now only around 50 shortlife properties remaining in the borough, and the Council aims to sell off the last remaining homes by the end of 2015. Rectory Gardens represents most of this tail-end stock. But rather than one million, the average sale price for a co-op property at auction is half that. Both houses already sold on Rectory Gardens went for under £500,000. It is unclear how much Lambeth anticipate making on the sale of the remaining houses; Spectacle have requested a figure.

How is this money to be spent? In our interview, Bennett said decisively that the money would be used to “build 1000 new council homes”, yet, a few moments later, he made more general statements about money going into a “pot” to pay for “road refurbishments, new primary school places” and seemingly other unspecified public services. His predecessor, Pete Robbins, said that the money raised from sales of co-op homes would plug a gap in the funding the council received for housing repairs. The money raised seems to be covering a lot of bases that it cannot possibly stretch to. Freedom of Information requests submitted by Lambeth United Housing Co-op (LUHC), (a campaigning group set up to protest similar borough-wide evictions), to find out exactly how the money will be spent have been unanswered. Spectacle has requested information regarding exactly where the new houses will be built, by when, and how much the total build is expected to cost.

Not only are these funds not being ring-fenced for housing, but the current £56 million windfall does not take into account the £1.8m spent so far on staffing and legal costs of eviction, nor the unknown additional sums spent on surveyors, auctioneers, vacant property managers, for which information Lambeth Council recently blocked another freedom of information request by LUHC. Neither does it factor in the added costs of re-housing people, which LUHC have estimated to be between £6 – £13m, nor the unknown long-term social welfare bill of caring for now isolated elderly and disabled residents, who had found support and care within the co-op community on the street, something the council seems keen to support in theory through its health and wellbeing policies and ‘Connected Communities’ project, but clearly not in practice when the community is already in situ.

Living for free?

Furthermore, the Council seems to refuse to acknowledge that it is thanks to the hard work, resources and energy of residents alone that houses that they once abandoned are now lucrative cash cows. Rather than living “for free”, in 1982, the majority of residents who came to settle in the houses formed a self-supporting co-op. Members paid into a pot, from which money was used to purchase materials or support substantial renovation works. These were carried out through a process of skill and labour sharing. Indeed, Labour Councillors Nigel Haselden, Christopher Wellbelove and Helen O’Malley in 2007 campaigning leaflets said: “Some of these homes would not be standing if it was not for the work of the people living in them.” Two of these Councillors, Wellbelove and Haselden, once elected did a complete U-turn on their promise to ‘fight for the rights of residents to stay in their homes’, now supporting the current eviction policy (O’Malley was deselected). Cllr. Bennett claimed no knowledge of this.

Correcting Bennett further on the matter of paying rent, he asked Spectacle to whom and how much were people paying. He then said “I heard it was no more than £1 a week. That’s almost nothing”, adding, as a different tack, “they’ve paid nothing to the Council”. First, the council never actually allowed any rent to be paid (more of which later), second, the actual membership fee was set at £5 a week (though rates varied across all co-ops), to reflect the low-income of those in the homes, all of whom were already on the council housing waiting list. This small fee was also designed to encourage residents to work on their own properties, which, contrary to Bennett’s claim that “people have not shown any willingness to spend the money necessary to bring [the houses] up to a decent condition”, they did, adding their own energy and labour. This included re-roofing, plastering, re-wiring, building new chimneys, installing windows and doors where there were none, putting new boilers into every house, building staircases, installing gas, and much more. Yet Bennett claims that “at least five properties are completely derelict” and that others have “fallen into disrepair” and “not been maintained”. He is clearly unaware, as he himself admitted during the interview, of the condition of the properties when they were initially purchased in the 1970s. Spectacle has sent him the below photographs to demonstrate the actual situation.

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“Million pound” homes? The derelict condition of CPOd houses on Rectory Gardens in the 1970s before the co-op took over renovations.

In addition, Spectacle pointed out that since the residents have been paying council tax for years, according to the Valuation Office for England and Wales this legally qualifies them as ‘dwellings’ suitable for habitation, hence they could not possibly be “derelict”. A spate of recent articles concerning one property on the street said to have a tree growing through an illegal extension with dangerous electric wiring, rented out to sub-letters, is not a house that is part of the co-operative, yet it is being used to tarnish the community. Filming in a number of co-op homes, Spectacle found them to be comfortable, homely and safe. Having referred to a couple of other incidents with some houses in the street during his interview, Spectacle made the point to Bennett that crime is a social problem, not the fault of one set of people, neither should the actions of one mar the whole community, be that Rectory Gardens or ‘shortlife’ co-ops in Lambeth generally. He was unable to comment further.

Moreover, the idea that we should measure people’s contribution to society based on ‘how much they pay’ in monetary terms – (to the Council, in this case) – implied by Bennett’s statement, demonstrates an indefensible attitude of income-based prejudice. Looked at in entirely different way, the residents of Rectory Gardens have collectively done as much, if not more, to contribute to their community as many other rent-paying citizens do to theirs, and have a stable community that is not reflected by some of the highly transient ‘neighbourhoods’ that surround the street where occupants regularly move on and private rentals stay empty for long periods. The self-proclaimed ‘cooperative council’ should be falling over itself to recognise and reward those who voluntarily invest into making their ‘patch’ a positive place. Residents of Rectory Gardens have been behind numerous artistic and community-based initiatives in the area over the years, such as Cafe on the Common, the Tea Rooms, Studio Voltaire, and even the skate park on Clapham Common, activities which no doubt contributed hugely to making the area a now-desirable postcode, propping up the very market prices that Lambeth seek to capitalise on today.

There Is No Alternative?

Adding further insult to injury, despite the accusation of ‘living for free’, paying rent to the council was never given as an option. At no point since the establishment of the housing co-op have Lambeth Council sought any financial arrangements with residents. Bennett’s version of history is that “Other co-operatives took the opportunity to charge social rents and take a regularised position… Rectory Gardens did not go down the route [of] becoming a proper cooperative… We’ve spoken with the housing co-op on many, many occasions about ways in which they might want to finance taking their over as a co-op on their own, they haven’t been able to work with the money.” In fact, Rectory Gardens was not allowed to go down this route of ‘rationalisation’ and the council has never seemed to want to make them tenants – something that Tulse Hill Labour Councillor Mary Atkins said should have happened years ago. The Council has had opportunities of resolving the situation numerous times over the years, but has stopped deals going through, deciding not to come to a resolution and consistently using the threat of legal action as a first port of call. For example, the community embarked on years of without-prejudice negotiations with housing association Metropolitan Housing Trust and the Council, involving a lot of time, effort and money for the deal to evaporate because the council revalued the site.

On three occasions between 2012 and 2013, Lambeth United Housing Co-operative proposed to the council that residents begin to pay rent and become social housing tenants as a solution. They also came up with the idea of the ‘Super Co-op’, a proposal backed by housing experts that would see ex-council stock being recycled and refurbished by a borough-wide umbrella co-op while simultaneously skilling up local people. These solutions were rejected without being fully discussed. The Council even refused payment of their own legal charge, developed in-house; a so-called ‘use and occupation’ back fee seemingly designed to coerce people from the properties. A judge suggested a defendant pay in installments but Lambeth promptly declined this, presumably worrying that accepting payment could mean a case for tenancy rights in court.

As part of the eviction process, residents have been offered priority re-housing via the council’s Choice-Based Lettings system. Yet some of those that have accepted and found re-housing have reported damp, mould and asbestos, among other problems, not to mention the psychological difficulty of being forcibly displaced away from their community. Residents wish to remain in their homes, where they have raised families and built a robust community, and would be happy to pay council rents rather than needlessly displacing others on an already overburdened council housing waiting list. Yet Bennett argues that selling off this rare social housing stock will help the “21,000 people on our housing waiting list, the 1800 families in temporary accommodation and the 1300 living in severely overcrowded homes” because it is “not affordable” to spend money refurbishing them, money that could go towards new homes, or road refurbs, or primary school places… New council homes are of course welcomed, but should this be at the expense of existing council stock?

To top this off, at no point have residents asked the Council to spend money on the homes; rather they have proposed that they would take this on themselves via the Super Co-op. Bennett adds “It costs five times as much (£60 – £70,000) to refurbish a house on Rectory Gardens as it does to refurbish an existing council home.” Uncertain where these figures have come from, Spectacle have asked for the data used to make this claim. We have also written to Bennett to suggest that there are other options. The Super Co-op was one, but housing expert, and Director of Self-Help Housing, Jon Fitzmaurice has also told us he “continually comes up against large organisations who say it is uneconomic to do up houses but it is erroneous to take that view, as communities and small charities can make things happen for much less.” In Liverpool, a recent case he came across, saw a commercial builder estimate that a property would cost £30,000 to refurbish. It was finally done by a community group for £6,000, with the labour provided by co-op members and the only costs those of materials, a surveyor and building supervisor. Surely, as a ‘co-operative council’, Lambeth is aware that the co-operative way is often one of the most affordable and socially productive around. A bit more imagination, a bit less short-termism, might work wonders.

Pursuing the eviction policy, one of the worst outcomes would be, as housing expert Jon Fitzmaurice told us, that properties are ‘flipped’ and the council end up renting the properties back off a private landlord for social housing, which would be expensive, wasteful and self-destructive, as the eviction policy is already proving to be. Over in Southwark, campaigners have found that similar council promises to build ‘new’ ‘council’ homes, on closer inspection, have resulted in the selling off of public assets to purchase private land and build houses that are only partially available for social rents, the remainder being offered for private sale or shared ownership. Without a firm and open statement from the Council on exactly where the money is going, it is difficult to hold such promises to account.

Meanwhile, residents of Rectory Gardens are on the move, or in court, with some spending maybe one last Christmas in their self-created homes.

(Blog first published on Spectacle’s website – http://www.spectacle.co.uk/spectacleblog/rectory-gardens/cllr-matthew-bennetts-rectory-gardens-slurs-and-errors/)

Vivienne Westwood speaks out about destruction of Rectory Gardens housing co-op

Vivienne Westwood is known for her outspoken attitude, both in her fashion and activism. Sticking to trend, today she spoke out about the destruction of long-standing housing co-ops in her home borough of Lambeth, lending her support to the documentary Spectacle are making about the fate of Rectory Gardens and its residents who currently face eviction by the council.

This sort of short-termist policy is “incredibly stupid, shocking and horrible. It’s terrible to put people through that distress” and will simply add to the “growing list of people waiting for housing”, said Vivienne. In 2011, Lambeth recalled the properties it previously handed over to the self-forming housing co-op back in the 1970s as a response to cuts, spurred on by the now-booming London market. Vivienne spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about Rectory Gardens: “There is no traffic, so children can actually play together and knock on each others’ doors. People are all working together, it’s absolutely great.” The enforced break-up of such a community is “disgusting”, she added.

Vivienne moved to Clapham in the 1960s, when she recalls that London was a “dilapidated” yet “creative” and “living” city. Echoing the words of artist Maggi Hambling, who Spectacle interviewed two weeks ago, “There was always something to discover. It was full of craftspeople and artists”. Now, she says, London has been “cleaned up” and priced out through short-sighted government policy that is “killing the actual reason why people want to live here in the first place.”

With a deep love of London’s theatres and cultural centres, such as the National Gallery, Barbican, and particularly the Battersea Arts Centre, Vivienne argued that these sorts of enterprises tend to emerge from the ground up, through artistic communities that are allowed to grow organically, like Rectory Gardens itself. “These sorts of communities are so important to what makes London such a buzzing, active, cultural place”. But in a world dominated by concern for “profit” alone, in which “people are just treated as commodities”, she fears that all such creativity is “being obliterated and swamped”.

Vivienne highlighted the fact that the government is currently planning to build over 200 high-rise luxury flats in the City; an action she deemed “an absolute scandal”, since, at the same time, “the housing list is growing while council houses are being pulled down and housing co-ops are being evicted. Where are people going to live?” Arriving in London almost 50 years ago as a school teacher, Vivienne said that even at that time it was very difficult to find a flat. With her then boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, they found a place that had been squatted by “hippies” and painted entirely red on the inside – “it looked like the inside of a phonebox! It was great!”. This was the only way they were able to secure a home. “I don’t know how people manage today. It’s dreadful.”

Referring to the soaring prices of London property, Vivienne spoke of the case of Maritza Tschepp who is being threatened by eviction from her ‘short-life’ house in Stockwell to the potential tune of around £700,000 for the Council at auction. Not a penny of that would go the former resident, despite the fact that it is her invested energy and money alone that has maintained and increased the property’s market value over the 33 years she has lived in it. At those prices, suggested Vivienne, who earlier this year attended a demonstration outside another boarded-up co-op house on Lillieshall Rd to protest its sale, it’s likely only to be speculators or those after second homes that can afford to move in.

“The government is doing only what’s good for business and profit – they’re not thinking about people. This is bad economics and is storing up trouble for the future”, argued Vivienne fervently. A long-standing Lambeth resident, she understood that the council was facing enormous pressure from its budget being slashed in half by government austerity measures. But argued that they should be resisting and raising the alarm about the scale of cuts, rather than backing the Government in “trying to work a system that is a short-term disaster for people and a longer-term, unimaginable disaster for the planet”. She urged that people should “stick together” to protest against the “false economy” of austerity.

Reflecting her broad activist perspective, Vivienne was keen to stress that the story of Rectory Gardens should be seen as part of a bigger systemic problem of greedy capitalist profiteering resulting in the destruction of communities and the environment, “happening everywhere”. “We need a green economy based on collaboration, respect for people, fair distribution of money, community. A green economy is a people’s economy – it is urgent and necessary. If you protest against the acquisition of these co-op houses, you are protesting against everything that is ruining the planet.” In her own true-to-form, outspoken words, that is: “a world in which politicians’ only care is to syphon off all profit for the super rich”.

 

To thrive, we must get radically political – not just commit to private actions for happiness

Last week, I attended an evening presenting Richard Layard and David Clark’s new book Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies hosted by Action for Happiness, which Layard co-founded. Underlining the core thesis of their book, Layard and Clark spoke about the immense potential for evidence-based psychological therapies to alleviate the burden of mental illness in the UK; if only we invested more in these services. They encouraged us to write to MPs to ask Commissioners to do so. This is in the tailwind of Mind releasing a report last month in which Local Authorities were rightly lambasted for spending ‘unacceptably low’ amounts on mental ill-health prevention services[1]. While funding for mental ill-health represents only 1.36% of the national budget, we spend four times as much on anti-smoking initiatives. Yet suffering from mental illness can shorten lives more than smoking and is the single largest source of burden of disease in the UK.

This demonstrates the terrible inequality between the way we treat physical and mental illnesses that must cease. Spending on provision for mental health needs to be ramped up to high volume. Agreed.

What concerned me about the Thrive event, however, was a feeling that we were skirting around the core issue – that is, the political and economic background against which the mental health crisis has exploded, has itself thrived. It is no coincidence, in my mind, (and many already agree), that we have seen the escalation of mental health problems coincide with the rise of a neoliberal political ideology that, since the 1980s, has promoted individualism, competition, commodification, marketisation, and privatisation of common goods and services. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that the resultant visible securitisation of our physical environment in cities and towns has created a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety, undermining trust and social cohesion further, and contributing to mental illness. A report published in 2010 by the Mental Health Foundation directly links mental ill-health to our individualistic society. We are the one of the most unhappydistrusting, and lonely countries in the world, with one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe.

At the same time, we have seen the welfare system hacked back, with direct implications for those struggling with mental ill-health. Last year, Mind reported a 50% increase in the number of calls to its Infoline, according to the Guardian, with callers reporting severe financial worries. Oxfordshire Mind received £336,078 (I am curious how the £8 was decided on…) from the Big Lottery Fund to deal with some of this fallout through its Benefits for Better Mental Health service. The recession has been found to have hit those with mental illness hardest, with fears for the impact on yet further social exclusion. How can we talk about calling for more funding for mental health without talking about austerity and health privatisation and what the broader ideology behind this is doing to our societal capacity for wellness?

Take social anxiety; the most common anxiety disorder, which David Clark spoke about at the launch. Social anxiety relates to an excessive level of self-consciousness and fear concerning what others are thinking about you, leading to avoidance or intense anxiety of social situations. A social dis-ease. As a very shy young person, I experienced this myself and know how crippling it can be, even far into adulthood. There are many things one can do – investing in more access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to ‘correct’ thinking and put it into perspective is one (although this approach itself requires critical examination). But, shouldn’t we be asking, what kind of society creates this condition in the first place? Why are we so afraid of one another? Or, perhaps, why have we not made space in our society for shyer more reserved peoples (worryingly, Social Anxiety Disorder reaches back to concepts of shyness in its historical development) – something that Susan Caine, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, deems to be the result of a cultural ideological ideal of extraversion, which fits hand in glove with our other cultural holy grail of brash individualism and competition. Perhaps we should look at social anxiety as a symptom of the cultural myth of the confident, self-made individual clamouring for recognition, which has no time for the quiet, the uncertain, or the not-yet fully formed, fully ‘self-branded’ person. For this reason, perhaps it is no surprise that Social Anxiety Disorder is most common in the young – particularly those in their 20s.

Describing how psychological therapies can help such conditions, and many others, Clark concludes that a ‘large proportion’ of mental health problems are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic. Hang on a minute… Rewind…  ‘…are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic.’

Stop.

If that is true, then shouldn’t we be asking – what’s going on with us that we don’t provide that for each other? Why must I go to a therapist to have this basic human need and capacity offered to me? In a society dominated by so-called ‘communication skills’ and communication technologies – have we forgotten what it means to listen? Do we not know what it’s like to be heard until we enter a therapy room? How tragic. I can’t help but feel that our capacity for true empathy (I dislike the word sympathy) is swallowed up by the ticking clock, the over-bombardment of advertising and images, and the relentless me-first mentality that we are led to believe is necessary to ‘win’. Only those we pay have the time and skill, or perhaps the permission, to listen. For to admit that we are mentally unwell is to admit that we are not so sure that we are ‘winning’. And to listen to another – to truly hear empathetically – is to perhaps admit that neither are we…

According to George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article, this ‘Age of Loneliness’ – of individual striving and surviving – is killing us. Loneliness is a significant cause and augmenter of mental health problems, as well as factor contributing to reduced life expectancy. Monbiot attributes its pernicious prevalence to that ‘life-denying’ neoliberal ideology that ‘enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.’

Echoing similar analysis, Action for Happiness state on their website: ‘We live in an increasingly competitive, self-obsessed culture which encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions as a route to success. This is supported by our political and economic systems that are focused on maximising economic growth above all else… [O]ur focus on materialism and self-obsessed individualism is leading to serious problems across society. We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, lower levels of trust, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.’ At the same time, Layard and Clark write in their book that ‘mental illness does seem to be more common in countries where there are low levels of support, trust, and cooperation, and excessive levels of competition for position’.

But both Action for Happiness’s and Layard and Clark’s response is woefully, inadequately non-political – ‘By focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, helping others, meaningful activities, keeping active, and having a spiritual dimension or greater purpose to our lives.’ In one swift movement, Action for Happiness brings us to the brink of the structural problem, and then whisks us away into the private realm of personal and family life, where it is promised that ‘small actions’ will ‘build a happier society’ and a ‘social movement’ for change.

In a similar vein during the event, Layard argued that of course we need to address attitudes and social values, moving away from competition, consumption and material status aspiration. We must foster communities that put altruism at their core to counter these forces. As if to initiate this, the Chair, the Director of Action for Happiness, was anxious to keep encouraging us to ‘think of small actions we can do ourselves’ to make the world happier, asking us to write a ‘pledge’ on the back of a small credit-sized card we were each given on our seats. If only these personal credits could outweigh the structural debts on the balance sheet.

Of course small actions matter – they matter to people here, now, the starfish that was put back in the sea; but this perspective ignores the conditions that structure our responses. How can we create an altruistic, meaningful, spiritual, community-minded society in the context of vast inequality, insecurity, and the creed of competitive individualism that is ingrained in the logic of our institutions, even within our infrastructure? The GREAT DREAM of the ’10 Keys for Happier Living’ that Action for Happiness promotes is curtailed and crippled by the very economic and political structures that had to dream it. Our capacities for Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying out, Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, and Meaning are all socially defined and constrained.

Neither altruism, nor small personal actions, can ever be enough if we’re talking about the scale of change we need. It is like being told to eat a healthy diet in the face of the billions spent on advertising junk food to halt obesity… Or putting little pictures of blackened lungs and rotting corpses on packets of cigarettes to prevent cancer… Or telling us to switch off our lights and unplug our mobile phones to prevent runaway climate change… Or investing more into psychological therapies for those struggling with mental ill-health… They are good things to do, but they don’t solve the root problems; rather, conceal them.

This obfuscation is duplicated in Layard’s own analysis – he argues that the majority of those who are least satisfied with their lives are most likely to be suffering from a form of mental illness, which itself causes more misery than poverty or unemployment. Whilst definitely seeking to reject the pathologising of sadness and wanting more from life, isn’t long-lasting dissatisfaction and unhappiness often a cause of mental illness? And physical illness, poverty, and unemployment are all factors that significantly increase the likelihood of developing mental health problems as self-reinforcing factors. Comparing the suffering caused by mental illness to that of poverty is a misnomer – mental illness emerges out of a whole combination of layered factors, including poverty or unemployment itself, and is often a symptom not itself a cause. This shows up the danger of simply focusing on treatment and not prevention or the wider causes for its manifestation. If we segregate mental illness from factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social fragmentation, we wind up in an apolitical situation in which ‘happiness’ simply becomes a thing that we try to create in our spare time, rather than seeking to build a conception of mental wellness into the very logic of our social system.

Layard says that we need to rethink the concept of ‘deprivation’ to reflect what is going on inside someone’s own mind – for mental illness spans income inequalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Both poor and rich can suffer. Yet, pinpointing mental illness as an individual phenomenon again misses the point – this is a social, structural crisis, not just a personal one.

Wanting to appeal to a wide audience, Action for Happiness state that is has ‘no political, religious or commercial affiliations’. This is bigger than party politics; that is true. Yet, stopping short of challenging the neoliberal logic we find ourselves forced into, it only ends up standing by the political, dogmatic, and commercially-minded ideology that is framing the existence of this social movement in the first place.

The mental health crisis should be understood as a social limit to growth – that is, a social warning system sounding the alarm against the relentless pursuit of endless economic growth within the current paradigm, as Action for Happiness themselves seem to recognise. But if we are serious about, say, Gross National Happiness as our measure of progress, then we must recognise that this entails a supremely radical shake-up of our entire economic model and cultural ideology. At its logical endpoint, we are talking about challenging the very ideology of growth itself. As Monbiot concludes, ‘Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people’ (And isn’t ‘Action for Happiness’ just such a palliative?) ‘But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.’

I am not sure whether Action for Happiness, or indeed Layard and Clark, are aware that their stated ambitions, to create a ‘happier society for everyone’, and a ‘positive change in what we mean by progress’ away from ‘materialism and self-obsessed individualism’, are much more radical, and political, than they themselves perhaps wish to admit.

In the last sentence of their book, Layard and Clark say that with regards to mental health ‘Apart from global warming, there is no other major problem which is so neglected worldwide.’ I agree – and would add that both are at root the same problem; as one audience member put it – a system that itself is psychologically unwell, in the manner of Joel Bakan’s pathological corporation. The solution to both can only be system-level change – a confrontation with the fundamental neoliberal logic of our entire current mainstream politics and economics. What could be more radically political – and more mentally sound – than that?

[1] As an aside – I am always amused and irritated in equal measure by such turns of phrase as ‘mental health prevention services’ or, in chit-chat, ‘she’s got mental health’ – as if people being well, that is mentally healthy, is the thing that is bad. Let’s get it right – we’re talking about mental illness not wellness here, sadly.

Local artist Maggi Hambling condemns Lambeth Council’s ‘Jack the Ripper policy’ towards urban development

Painter, sculptor and Clapham resident, Maggi Hambling, told Spectacle that ‘Lambeth Council, rather like Jack the Ripper, seems to be ripping its way through the whole feel and importance of this area’ through its short-termist policy of selling off cooperative housing, such as that of Rectory Gardens, just round the corner from Maggi’s sunlit studio.

‘What I think is most extraordinary is that Lambeth calls itself the ‘Cooperative Council‘ when it has destroyed and is still destroying every cooperative around me. It’s terrible, to put it mildly’, she says. In an interview for Spectacle’s documentary about the breaking up of Rectory Gardens Housing Co-op, Maggi describes Lambeth’s ‘money-grabbing, short-sighted, and morally criminal’ behaviour towards Co-ops in the borough. In nearby Lillieshall Road, only two of 15 houses remain, while residents of Rectory Gardens are currently in the process of being evicted.

‘The creative community, as I have known it over all these years, has changed from an enormous mix of different people living together and caring about each other into this gentrified place where money, money, money, rather than any kind of feel for the community, rules. Every bit of creative spirit is being exterminated with a very heavy hand. Nothing but destruction is coming from above.’

Maggi moved to the area in the 1960s and remembers the wide variety of people who once made this their home, including artists and craftspeople. The systematic eradication of co-ops, she fears, is the product of a policy of greed that will ultimately destroy what makes this place special to live in.

‘Clapham and places around here will just become dormitories for people in the city who can afford the extortionate amounts of money they’re paying for their little bit of castle. This area is trying to turn itself into Mayfair. Something that the totally un-cooperative Council is probably very happy about to the detriment of healthy communities and anything that breathes any life.’

‘Rectory Gardens is the last bastion of the cooperatives and is hanging on by its teeth. Whatever anyone can do to save it must be done now. I would ask the Council to look at their own greed and lack of foresight and vision. Otherwise, this sort of Jack the Ripper policy is going to amount to a London that is extremely boring, to say the least.’

Despite anger, Maggi optimistically concludes that ‘it is possible to win these battles. The so-called Cooperative Council should be emphatically made to see how blind they are being and how cruel.’

But, she wonders, as many might, ‘why does everything have to be a battle?’

(First published on Spectacle’s website – http://www.spectacle.co.uk/spectacleblog/rectory-gardens/local-artist-maggi-hambling-condemns-lambeth-councils-jack-the-ripper-policy-towards-urban-development/)