Housing (and the Red Road Flats) [Primer #4]

Housing (and the Red Road Flats) [Primer #4]

Making a Spectacle out of a Crisis: Glasgow’s New Housing Blitzkrieg.

The latest from the deranged world of Glasgow City Council and the Commonwealth Games 2014 committee is that five of the remaining high rises at Red Road are going to be blown to smithereens as part of a live stream for the Commonwealth Games 2014 opening ceremony. Accompanying the news were some words from Eileen Gallagher, a woman with a job title for our times: she is the Chairwoman of the Glasgow 2014 Ceremonies, Culture and Queen’s Baton Relay Committee:

By sharing the final moments of the Red Road flats with the world as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still, a city that is constantly regenerating, renewing and re-inventing itself.”

Summoning the city as part viral infection, part marvel comic super villain, Gallagher describes Glasgow as a unified whole, an entity that can think and feel, and one that constantly re-invents itself. At one moment it’s a municipal behemoth, building overspill estates and high rise blocks on every spare bit of land within and beyond the city limits. At another moment it has morphed into the “Glasgow Miracle”, or to put it another way, sustained investment in the city centre and sustained dis-investment in the city’s peripheral areas. Now it becomes something more sinister, a giddy torch-wielding Thistle-Man in Lycra running shorts who believes the housing stock of the east end needs the kind of palliative care that only 1250kg of explosives can deliver.

But Glasgow isn’t a thing, it doesn’t ‘do’ things, it is a set of (deeply uneven) social relations. When Gallagher says ‘Glasgow’, she means the City Council, Glasgow Housing Association, and other players in the murky underworld of Glasgow land sales and acquisitions. If she was speaking on behalf of the residents of the city, she might actually talk about the need to build houses, affordable ones, in the east end and elsewhere that have seen mass demolition of former public housing stock with nothing to replace them but burgeoning rent and debt. The obscene spectacle of social housing demolition for the opening ceremony is no mere anomaly. It is reflective of the City Council’s attempts to erase all traces of progressive modernist social housing through disinvestment and demolition in order to maintain the ideology of private home ownership. Gordon Matheson, City Council leader, said in the Guardian:

We are going to wow the world, with the demolition of the Red Road flats set to play a starring role. Their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow, not least in terms of our preparations for the Games”.

The impression given is one of moving into a bright new future, but the expansion of the private rented market that the Council has embraced can be more accurately associated with rent-racking landlords and slum housing in the Victorian era. Let’s not forget that it was the expansion of this speculative rentier economy – propped up by fictitious capital and dodgy loans – that instigated the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The solution to this problem has been more of the same, this time lubricated by enormous bail-outs and ongoing public subsidy. Many people are justifiably outraged by the crass nature of the opening ceremony, sending angry letters to the newspapers, and setting up petitions that have been inundated by signatories. But for us, the proposal exactly reveals the nature of the city Council’s contempt for those who live in social housing in this city. We are tempted to say that we hope they go ahead with it, revealing the obscene underside of Glasgow housing governance to the rest of the world. But that would neglect the dangers associated with demolition in this area which have been covered up by the City Council. News has come to light about debris flying dangerously beyond the exclusion zone in a previous blowdown of one of the high rises at Red Road in May last year. Disgusted tenants living in the blow-down exclusion zone nearby the flats have said they will not move from their homes for such an “insane” and “insensitive” stunt. Who can guarantee the safety of the wider area when five blocks are blown down simultaneously not just one? Yet this ongoing PR gaffe by the City Council and the Games organising committee does catalyst an opportunity for long overdue reflection and discussion on the current state of social housing. This is not just about the Red Road flats. It relates to the decimation and privatisation of Glasgow’s entire social housing stock. We take a closer look at housing in the East End, and Glasgow more generally, below.

The Games and Clyde Gateway: Housing the People?

The Commonwealth Games Village site, probably the major ‘Legacy’ claim attached to the Games, provides a very illuminating cut into the mechanics of urban regeneration in the East End. The site has been massively subsidised. Between 2008 and 2011 the City Council received a £6 million allocation from the Scottish Government’s ‘Vacant and Derelict Land Fund’ for the site. Meanwhile, land and property developers on or near the site have also been awarded around £30 million of public money in total so that land parcels could be assembled for the Village. The most grating deal was done with Charles Price who bought property along Springfield Road in 2005-2006, almost certainly with a nod and a wink form his pals in the Council, for an amount believed to be around £8million, and then sold it to the City Council for £17 million in 2008, or £20 million including V.A.T. At the end of all this, the developers of the Commonwealth Games Village, City Legacy Consortium (containing many major players in the construction industry), obtained the site at ‘nil cost’ entering an undisclosed ‘profit-sharing agreement’ with the City Council whose terms are not publicly available.

The initial claim was that 1,400 homes would be ‘retro-fitted’ and made available after the Games. Yet the figures publicised presently state 800 homes in total with only 300 for ‘social rent’. This is a very paltry return given the extent of public investment on the site. We estimate that around 3,000 people (primarily living in social housing) have been displaced from Dalmarmock in the last few years through phased demolition of existing social housing. It is clearly not possible to relocate all these people on the Games Village site, never mind the limited social housing allocation on it, suggesting that the ‘new community’ on the Clyde will displace the old one rather than add to it.

Clyde Gateway Urban Regeneration Company, whose remit area covers Bridgeton, Dalmarnock, Rutherglen, Calton, and Parkhead suggest that over the next 15 years, the east end of Glasgow is going to see 10,000 new homes built. According to Clyde Gateway’s annual report from 2013–14, a total of 1189 housing units have been built since 2007. When we investigated these claims and where these houses were, Clyde Gateway provided the street names and the housing associations who constructed the houses. By cross referencing this information with the housing associations annual reports, we found that the actual number of houses built has been only 307.

As a body incorporated by the Scottish Government, funding for Clyde Gateway is provided by Scottish Government and Glasgow and South Lanarkshire Councils. When asked about the Scottish Government’s responsibility to build affordable housing in November 2013, Regeneration Investment Manager for the Scottish Government, Billy Love, suggested that as far as housing provision in Clyde Gateway’s remit area was concerned, Glasgow City Council as the strategic housing authority are not funding the provision of houses. Instead, he said, the aim of Clyde Gateway is to “bring derelict/vacant and contaminated land back into use”. This corresponds with a recent statement by Iain Manson, Chief Executive of Clyde Gateway in the Guardian:

We are derisking sites to make them more attractive to business. Our primary role is land assembly, decontamination and providing essential infrastructure, giving people the confidence to invest here”.

This enormous outlay in public subsidy will allegedly stimulate the introduction of new jobs and subsequent investment by the private sector and in doing so attract house builders. If that is the case we can certainly argue that the strategy has been a failure so far. Love also stated that when, or we should say if, these houses are built, “The majority of this would be private sector – owner occupied homes”. We have no idea how much social housing will be built, nor do Clyde Gateway. When we asked what the tenure mix of new housing would be, they said there were no figures for social housing in the plans and that they had simply made up the overall 10,000 homes figure to attract public subsidy. Typical ‘regeneration’ story: heaps of public subsidy for the old formula – public pain, private gain.

The New ‘Shock City’

No-one is building affordable homes in the numbers needed to address the housing crisis in Scotland today. Instead, they are blowing them up, making a spectacle out of a crisis. In the book Tower Block, Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius’s encyclopaedic paean to Britain’s municipal house building of the 50’s and 60’s, the chapter on Scotland is called ‘Give the people homes!’ Scotland’s Housing Blitzkrieg. In the 1960s Glasgow was the ‘shock city’ in the ‘modernist housing revolution’. During this period, nowhere were so many high-rise blocks constructed at once, and some of the highest residential blocks in Europe were built (like the Red Road flats). But if someone wrote another chapter about Glasgow’s ‘social’ housing (no longer ‘public’) since the stock transfer of 2003, you could keep the chapter name, provided the key word ‘Give’ was changed to ‘Take’. There is a ruthless campaign going on to decimate Glasgow’s social housing stock, led by a local state who claim the Red Road demolitions are “a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people”, but whose guiding ethos is to destroy and outsource public services, endlessly affirming debt-producing privatised services where there was once necessary social amenities and infrastructure.

In 1981, 63.2% of Glasgow’s population lived in council housing. The ‘right-to-buy’ policy introduced by the Conservative government in the Housing Act of 1980 was the first major measure in the continuing process of housing privatisation. In 2003, the entire public housing stock of the city (81,000 homes) was transferred to Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) in what was described as “likely the largest public sector modernisation project in Europe” at the time. For modernisation read privatisation.

Where are we now? In City Plan 2, a 20-year development plan approved by the Council in 2009, a dramatic tenure shift from the social rented sector to the private sector is starkly evident. Between 1991 and 2006, private sector stock in the City grew by over 50% (approximately 60,000 homes), while the social rented sector fell by a similar amount (approximately 57,000 homes). Private sector stock has increased from 40% to 60% of total housing provision – fed by ‘right-to-buy’ sales in the city which were still averaging 2,000 homes per year until 2003, and more recently by Glasgow Housing Association’s demolition plans as part of the stock transfer process. By 2018, the proportion of homes in the private sector could be approaching 70% of the total stock under current estimates. Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), meanwhile, is now a subsidiary of the ‘Wheatley group’, renamed, in another disgusting affront to the city’s progressive traditions, after the Red Clydesider most renowned for his role in the Clydeside ‘Rent Strikes’ of 1915 and the Wheatley Housing Act of 1924. GHA now has only 43,000 ‘social’ homes (no longer ‘public’) with 19,000 of those homes being demolished or sold, the rest belatedly ‘second-stage’ transferred to smaller Housing Associations (almost half the GHA stock has gone in a decade).

This is bad enough but it gets much worse. A central plank in the city’s privatising process of housing demolition and renewal is the city-wide ‘Transformational Regeneration Area’ (TRA) programme. Eight different areas across the city are being ‘regenerated’ through TRA’s, with Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Housing Association the main partners. Initially, the aggregate housing element involved in all eight TRA’s was 11,000 GHA demolitions, 6,000 private sector new build, and 3,000 social rented new build. A process which would have seen 8,000 social rented homes lost to the city! But even that wholesale destruction wasn’t enough. The figure has recently been revised, reducing social housing even further to 600 homes while another 500 private homes have been added to estimates. This means a truly astonishing reduction of 10,400 social rented homes (95%) in just one city-wide regeneration project. The loss of the Red Road flats, designed for 4,700 people, is not even included in these figures. Annihilation is the only appropriate word to use in this context.

All this of course is legitimised by the ‘territorial stigmatisation’ heaped on public and social housing, by narratives of blight and decline, by turning social housing into a ghettoised resort of last choice through a cook-the-books ‘needs-based model’, by invoking ‘mixed communities’ when the ‘mix’ is always more private and less social housing, by reducing social housing to create artificial demand for over-priced private home ownership and renting. Since 2007, Scottish Government housing subsidy has been reduced from £77,000 to £44,000 a year, “putting at risk the very existence of the community based housing association movement”. Rents are soaring out of the reach of many: in the UK, the National Housing Federation states that rents currently swallow an average of half of people’s disposable income; in a decade’s time that figure will have rocketed to 57%. House prices are estimated to increase another 35% by 2020, leaving a huge swathe of the population locked out of home ownership for life. With no social homes left, maybe we’ll all ‘choose’ to rent as the property agents are now suggesting. If so, we’ll be facing on average 39% more on rent in the UK by 2020.

The privatisation of public housing, in part through the ‘alternative’ of the Housing Association model, has been an abject failure. The third sector has long been the “weapon of choice” for privatisation as we’ve seen right across the social services. Now that capital in Scotland and the UK makes so much of its money from urban speculation and the rentier economy rather than manufacturing, we should not be surprised to find that public and social housing has been subject to the same external coercive power. For us an explosive demand for public housing is more important than ever if we want to move beyond the ‘post-political’ impasse of fighting for meagre social housing percentages in overwhelmingly private developments. Such a straightforward socialist demand has been repressed (even internally by the Left) for far too long. What is most sickening about the decision to embed the destruction of the Red Road flats into the spectacle of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony is the expectation that the destructive ethos we’ve described here is cause for collective celebration. Not so much ‘bread and circuses’ but the violent power-laden spectacle of the Gladiatorial ring.

* Postscript

On 13th April Commonwealth Games 2014 organisers announced that they were dropping the demolition spectacle from the opening ceremony amid fears of “safety and security”. At a certain level we should celebrate a semblance of ‘people power’ here, after 17,000 people signed a petition to oppose the spectacle, a battery of polemic was unleashed in the media, and tenants nearby the flats said they would refuse to leave the blast-zone. However, the Games chief executive, David Grevemberg, has said that Glasgow 2014 will still dedicate an element of the opening to telling the story of Glasgow’s social history. What kind of history will this be? Who will write it? What buffoonery can we next expect from the people who devised the Red Road debacle? More than that, the widespread decimation of public and social housing in Glasgow we’ve discussed above continues apace, and the social housing legacy for the Games and Clyde Gateway remains dismal. The Red Road Games fiasco for a short time made visible the obscene underside  of Glasgow’s ‘urban renaissance’. Let’s keep that in sight.