In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, it is agonisingly clear that housing has become the barometer of social inequality in the UK. Dispossession (2017) is a timely and deeply unsettling exploration of the neglect and chronic shortage of social housing in the UK.  Using footage of brutalist skyscrapers and model garden estates juxtaposed with the gleaming edifices of new luxury private developments on council land, Paul Sing’s documentary paints a disturbing portrait of the inequality engendered by the housing crisis.

Dispossession opens by introducing the historical background to social housing, beginning with the immediate post-war social house building projects.  By the end of the 1970’s, 42% of the population lived in social housing. It was only after 1980, when Margret Thatcher introduced the Right to Buy policy, that the denigration of social housing began.

Successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have prevented local authorities from spending the money received from the sale of council houses to build new ones. The film claims that today 1.4 million are on the council house waiting list. In a desperate attempt to remedy the neglect and chronic shortage of social housing, councils across the country have embarked on estate ‘regeneration’ projects with private developers.

The stories of the residents currently living on estates undergoing regeneration or facing neglect provide the emotional heart of the film. From St. Ann’s in Nottingham, the Gorbals in Glasgow, to the Aylesbury and Heygate estates in London; Dispossession highlights the plight of social tenants across the county as councils ignore their concerns and private developers seek to maximise profits. Commentary on these struggles is provided by an impressive range of housing campaigners, journalists and politicians including Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon.

Yet director Paul Sng always bring the focus back to the residents of the estates. Their struggle to preserve their homes and communities belies the ‘poverty porn’ image of council estates splashed across the TV. One former social tenant of Balfron Tower in East London wistfully reminisces on the spectacular views of London he could see from his flat before he was forced to move out when the tower was refurbished. “I could see all of London, except when it was foggy it was like looking into the void”, he says.

We see the mutual support and solidarity of communities as they resist being decanted from their estates. Residents of the Cressingham Gardens estate in South London even present alternative detailed plans for refurbishing their estate at a lower cost and without forcing people to move. “Our community is special but it’s almost as if they see you as just a thing or a number” says one resident who has lived in Cressingham Gardens for most of her life.

Dispossession doesn’t try to answer the question of what anyone is going to do about the social housing crisis. However, it is a rallying call for change, laying bare the shocking extent of the crisis and challenging the stigma of social housing.  As one of the many commentators declares, “Housing should be a basic right for everybody.”

Check out Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017) here, more from Velvetjoy Productions here, and Screening Times here.

For further reading on the housing crisis in the UK: Anna Minton’s “Big Capital”, Lynsey Hanley’s “Estates”, and these two websites.