Home Is Where The Heart Was
As was aptly pointed out in his introduction to his latest documentary ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ (2017), director Paul Sng mentioned that the release of a new piece of work is generally cause for celebration, first at it’s completion and then the opportunity to present the extremely hard work, toil and perseverance of all the crew for the entire previous year.
The recent horrific fire at Grenfell Tower (a social housing block in Kensingston, West London) changed all that, Paul respectfully and fittingly honoured all that have suffered and have been lost by dedicating the screening to them.
That’s a tough note to start on when stepping into a documentary. More often that not there is a distance in time (or geography as in this Central London screening) to the subject of a film, maybe years, maybe months, but the devastating events of Grenfell had happened just days before, and the subject of ‘Dispossession’ was not only pertinent, but disturbingly prescient of a system being pro actively and literally demolished.
Social housing as a concept is indeed just that, a concept. Prior to the World Wars much of living accommodation was privately owned, effectively entirely deregulated and conditions reflected that freedom of restriction or standards, basically ‘Dickensian’ slumlords reigning over abject squalor, rife with suffering, illness and infection.
After World War I in particular there had been a sea change in this approach as clearly humanity as a ideology had a vicious reset after the devastation and mass murder that swept the continents. No longer was suffering the subject of certain demographics, it was on everyone’s doorsteps, if indeed your door still stood. To rectify that Lloyd George launched The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act) and began the first large scale social housing construction initiative for the masses.
There was huge national debt in the UK that circled around the Great Wars, from £7.4 billion in 1919 to £21 billion (exceeding 200 percent of GDP) after WWII. The focused escalation of social housing was welcome on many fronts primarily in regards the responsible care of an ever growing nation’s population, but also in a slightly more sinister way in that it was to open up an ‘opportunity’ later on in regards the ideology of mortgages. Where once the majority of individuals effectively rented from the state, contributing fees back into the system to maintain that very profitable and functioning system, a new era was on the horizon culminating with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right To Buy’ Housing Act 1980. Now tenants were intensely encouraged to become owners of their state built properties and as a direct result that eco system would no longer be able to look after itself, as the populace were told that ownership was the only real satisfactory way to exist. Of course this new ridiculously short term approach asset stripped the entire system in reducing council housing numbers from availability to 42% of the population in the early 1980s to 8% today. 40% of flats sold through Right To Buy are now owned by private landlords who rent at vastly increased rates, and it also made sure that there was continuing revenue for private banks and institutions, who of course are not renowned for particularly moral tax returns, if any at all. The system and society began to suffocate.
The film coherently, diligently and very admirably builds the background to all this using some beautiful vintage imagery, footage and some startlingly concerning info graphics that patiently educates the viewer in what on the surface is an incredibly complex subject, and clearly deliberately complex.
Once the foundation is laid, we are able to come up to more recent times and the subsequent governments who have ruthlessly and systematically eroded a horrendous amount of the stock of social houses throughout the UK, with little or no new stock being constructed to replace this enormous shortfall. The main benefactor of this myopic and vicious policy change has been private enterprise and individuals (a great deal of MPs are private landlords) who’s coffers swell at the ebbing cost of standards and wellbeing of society in general.
Showing the severe national issue that this approach has created, the film visits multiple sites around the country to investigate the current situation, and it is truly and shockingly damning. We are introduced to multiple everyday individuals, families and generationally woven supportive communities who through no fault of their own are methodically targeted by massive corporations that basically want the land they’ve lived on most if not all of their lives. Not only are the threats psychologically aggressive, devious, bizzarre, litigious (with the parallel removal of Legal Aid to tenants), but malicious in the insulting compensations packages that are frequently offered, effectively instigating social cleansing on a grand scale.
A clear and massive flaw with modern journalism is the lack of depth into any story, not so with ‘Dispossession’. We are warmly invited into the homes of every walk of life in what is one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the threats and startling stories these inspiring individuals are experiencing they truly represent all that is great about the UK. We are given the time to clearly see these are very decent folk who are treated with frightening indifference by ideologically focused profiteering agencies, and that the treat is astronomically escalating under the current Conservative government, though they certainly aren’t the only ones to blame.
For a very long time in the aftermath of 9/11, the books that dominated the reading lists of most outlets in the USA were about American foreign policies, as folk sought understanding and answers for the world changing destruction they had witnessed. ‘Dispossession’ wonderfully offers that same understanding of the destruction that is being carried out by stealth in the UK. To be able to rectify a dreadful situation, you have to understand what is happening, to understand the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, you have to understand what contributed to it, and indeed was repeatedly and morbidly forecast by the very families who lived there. To it’s credit the movie doesn’t pontificate or act hysterically, it calmly presents the facts allowing the viewer to call their own judgement. The result of which will depend on your level of humanity and empathy.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has written about where pluralistic ignorance (situations where a group remains inactive to a situation in the belief that another individual will step up to address it, the result of which may end in tragedy) has enabled dreadful outcomes. What is happening in social housing is one of those situations. It has already and will have further horrific repercussions unless EVERYONE steps up. Seeing this film is the first act in that.
Normally there would be a score for a movie we review here, but that is based on a scale of excellence. Every so often a movie or documentary is immune from that judgement, as they can be categorised as ‘Essential’. ‘Dispossession’ is one such movie.
‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’ is an independently crowd funded project and is currently on tour showing in select cinemas in the UK. Check dispossesionfilm.co.uk for more information on screenings and Q&A’s