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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, August 30, 2008
    You can't assume anything
    'Well they didn't give people what they wanted because they were never consulted.
    When you are dealing with people's lives, you can't assume anything, you must get things right.'
    So says a Kensington resident in Chris Allen's Housing Market Renewal and Social Class. The book is a rare piece of academic research in that it reveals the mechanisms by which urban elites are using Housing Market Renewal (HMR) to make profits at the expense of working class people. These mechanisms are usually kept well-hidden:

    The assumption that housing is an investment, and that a person's position on the property ladder secures and defends their social position. This assumption - which justifies the need to 'play' the housing market in various ways - is not held by working class people who view housing as practical dwelling spaces where they live out their lives-with-others, and who in any case are too close to economic insecurity and necessity to entertain any ideas about 'playing markets';

    The assertion that certain types of housing (generally terraced housing on the edge of redeveloped city centres, traditionally working class homes) have become 'outdated' and 'unsuitable for modern living'. This assertion - which opens the way for widescale demolition and the displacement of the resident community - is justified by statistics which deal in terms like 'low demand' and 'high void rate' but which deny the evidence of the local residents whose 'lived view' is that being there (eg in this study, in Kensington) is not a problem.

    The languages of denunciation which are used against critics of HMR, be they local people who are accused by HMR managers of spreading 'misinformation' about their intentions (breathtaking, that, when often the opposite is demonstrably true) or of being 'mischief makers' for asking difficult questions in public meetings, or be they academics such as Allen whose well-researched and carefully expressed critique is neutralized by colleagues working for HMR bodies who denounce it as 'too polemical' or 'intemperate', whilst sidestepping any engagement with the actual issues raised.

    This latter point is the subject of a paper Chris sent me this week, in draft form, which he has titled Silencing Dissent: Languages of denunciation for the neutralization of and criminalisation of 'trouble makers' in Liverpool 08. He's been on the receiving end of plenty of this and there will doubtless be more once he publishes the paper, which he will under the shadow of legal threats that were made against him over the book.

    When you are dealing with people's lives, you can't assume anything, you must get things right. When you are witnessing developers keen to exploit the 'rent gap' in areas bordering central-city prime sites, clearing out their present occupants with their 'unfashionable' terrace houses and 'unsightly' washing-lines to make space for 'exciting contemporary' apartments (all words used, these, in the current Kensington scenario) - then you can't assume anything, you must get things right.

    Liverpool MP Jane Kennedy has described housing market renewal as 'municipal vandalism' and 'social cleansing'. Jimmy McGovern has called the devastation of Kensington 'cultural vandalism' [both quotes here]. Despite slurs of him being 'too polemical' or 'intemperate' Chris Allen is also doing his bit to ensure that no easy assumptions are made.
    I forget what they call it - it's a planning group like for the area. At our first meeting, me being me, I asked, because C7 [housing association] are there, Kensington Regen are there and we actually had some people from Liverpool City Council there, so I asked 'All the boarded properties, that you've managed to acquire on this side at the moment, what is going to happen to them should we win the public enquiry?' And they went 'Uh, well, you're not going to win so we've got no plans.'
    (Chair, residents association)