The Challenge of Change: A Fairer Future
"This is where I used to play, this is where I lived. You got happy memories, you got some sad memories...but it's like it's not there no more, it's like you didn't exist, like they're wiping all that away."
- Sandie Reid, former Aylesbury Estate resident, 2015.
In the summer of 1969, Joyce MacDonald stood in her garden in Bagshot Street, south London, pegging out the washing, witnessing modernity grow up around her. The blocks of the recently-commissioned Aylesbury Estate were rising swiftly, one then the next, the stories slotted on top of each other like Lego bricks. Looming over Joyce and her terraced home in Bagshot Street was the biggest block of all - the monolithic Wendover. At twelve-stories high and almost half a mile long, it laid claim to the title of Europe's largest system-built housing block. Like many of her neighbours, Joyce was dumbfounded. She thought it inconceivable, a thing like that, a human mistake of inhuman proportions. She would stare at the walls lancing up, the windows pressed into them, a hundred opaque squares where the sky once was. We are all standing on the threshold of the future. But for Joyce MacDonald, in 1969, the threshold appeared a lot more real than usual.
Along with other concurrent, large-scale developments in Peckham and Elephant and Castle, the completion of the Aylesbury in 1976 marked the climax of a remorseless housing drive undertaken by Southwark Council from the mid-1960s. By 1980, when its house-building programme had effectively dried up, the borough boasted a portfolio of 63,000 homes - more than any other social landlord in London. The thrust was undeniable. Side by side with town halls across the country, and in keeping with central government design, Southwark housed and rehoused as many people as possible, free from squalor, and free from the demands of the covetous rentier. While there was certainly an element of sophistic regret for the shoddy tenements and crumbling terraces that the municipal estates replaced, for most residents, this was a long-awaited and transformative step out of the old world and into the Modern. In 1971, Joyce, her husband Ron, and their three children, moved into a three-bedroom maisonette in the heart of the Aylesbury, leaving behind the tin bath, outside toilet, and rotten window frames of Bagshot Street.
Now, less than fifty years on, Southwark finds itself swept up by the winds of renewal once more. Viewed from the top floor of Wendover, the borough appears like a patchwork of progress: Levelled plots, half-clad superstructures, cranes tilted at their summits, lifts sliding up their flanks. And down at street-level, the chalky odour of construction dust, the constant rumble of trucks and lorries (for locals, the most dispiriting agents of change), the ubiquitous hoardings bearing the corporatized language of a better tomorrow. The Aylesbury itself is creeping along a timeline of its own demise; by 2014, several blocks and strips of urban verdancy had been trimmed from its edges - the final phase of demolition is scheduled to begin in 2023. It follows in the footsteps of the 1974-built Heygate - Southwark’s most recent housing estate to disappear - which, like the numerous terraces, shops and tenement blocks that once stood in its place, was pulled down in the venerated name of improvement - to clear out the ills with concrete and glass. But whereas post-war redevelopment was concerned with housing the local population, this go around, it seems to have gone in the opposite direction. Hundreds of Heygate residents were displaced, uprooted from their homes (and, in many cases, from Southwark), while a site of family, tradition, ritual and refuge, was consigned to the rubble heap of history.
The loss of council estates is a familiar story in Southwark, and indeed across the country. Serving as visual grist for the ideological abandonment of municipal housing in Britain after 1979, large-scale, down-at-heel estates were increasingly razed, many under private sector-led renewal schemes, and especially in millennial London. Paralleled by a growing portrayal - and perception - of council housing as an inferior and undesirable tenure of last resort, estates like the Heygate have come to be viewed as under-capitalised impostors on the neo-liberal landscape, where the potential for market gains is too rich to ignore. In keeping with the strategically softened tone of urban policy language adopted by governments and municipalities from the 1980s onwards, the destruction of the Heygate bore the shibboleth of 'community': Its regeneration would create a 'mixed' and 'sustainable' environment, and this would be achieved by diversifying tenure arrangements (i.e. shedding council homes) and through attracting a greater economic mix of residents (i.e. the wealthier middle-classes). The rational proffered was a moral one - that such an approach would interrupt patterns of social exclusion. But 'socially mixed' regenerations are invariably propelled by an economic logic, particularly in cities, where an estate’s location underwrites its strategic market value. In 2013, it emerged that just 79 of the 2,535 new homes on the Heygate redevelopment site were earmarked for social housing. The developer, Lend Lease, expects to make a profit of £194m from the sale of these homes. It is unlikely that few, if any, former tenants will ever return.
And so it goes on the Aylesbury. Joyce and Ron, along with thousands of others, sit and wait for changes they neither asked for nor control. Now in their eighties, the prospect of being evicted from their home of 44 years seems absurd, unfathomable. With only limited (and more expensive) housing options available to them, many residents are saddled with uncertainty, mired in a kind of debilitating stasis that makes it difficult to plan ahead. Inevitably, estates like the Aylesbury fall well short of the expectations of those outside observers who, in their limited view, only look for the kinds of cultural activity they believe to be valid. But even at the estate's lowest ebb, when all deprivation indicators were nudging the meridian, and when certain cultural trenches had been dug, the substance of community could still be found; its texture sometimes loose and prone to fray, yes, but community nonetheless; meaningful pockets of unity and belonging sunk into a heterogeneous and often unstable socio-economic landscape. Council estates are just homes after all - life's day-to-day trenches. For most residents, they are not architectural crimes or media props or political rationales, and for most residents, they possess a social value that - now more than ever - dwarfs the price of the land they are sited on.
When there is a critical shortage of affordable housing in this country, why wipe out council homes? When private rents are at exploitative levels, why swap inner-city estates with towers of luxury investment units (to be sold overseas and likely never used)? When families are already stretched and harried, why play fast and loose with the roofs over their heads, with the communities they depend on? At the AHRC ‘Challenge of Change’ 10th Anniversary Debate, historian David Armitage spoke about Aristotle’s Eudaimonia and the necessity of human flourishing. “What do human beings need?” he asked. “What do people really need to lead good lives?” As the thrust of the market economy continues unabated, and the polarisation of the social sphere ensues, these are questions that are rarely posed anymore. And this is the challenge. To ask these questions again. To stem the tide of widening inequality. To take big, bold, socially just approaches that benefit everybody in Britain, not just the well-heeled few. As with housing, people need a fair and equitable shake in matters of pay, education, employment, health, and childcare in order to lead good lives. Therefore it is time to recalibrate our measurement of worth. It is time to draw up a new social contract, one in which the rights and responsibilities of the state and citizen are demanded. Finally, it is time to ask ourselves what is more important – the bottom line or human flourishing?
If and when we do reassess our obligations to one another and ask an honest question of what constitutes a good society, the humanities, as always, can point the way forward. They can show us the way we live now – the scale and nature and ground-level impact of inequality; how ordinary people struggle, and sometimes fail, to get by. They can demonstrate to us the association between policy decisions and patterns of social residualisation. They can wrest people and places from the obscuring myths, dehumanising labels, and stereotyped phrases often utilised in political and popular discourse. But most of all they can trace change; they can show us how and why we arrived at this point, and what we can learn for a fairer future. Just 44 years ago, Joyce MacDonald and her family became proud occupants of a respectable new home. Now they, and many like them, have been told that their homes are no longer viable; that it is time to pack up, to make way for the wrecking ball and bulldozer.
Essay by Michael Romyn, Birkbeck, University of London