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The social cleansing of London council estates:
everyday experiences of ‘accumulative
Loretta Lees & Hannah White
To cite this article: Loretta Lees & Hannah White (2019): The social cleansing of London
council estates: everyday experiences of ‘accumulative dispossession’, Housing Studies, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02673037.2019.1680814
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Published online: 14 Nov 2019.
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The social cleansing of London council estates: everyday
experiences of ‘accumulative dispossession’
and Hannah White
School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK;
Cambridge House, London, UK
London’s council estates and their residents are under threat like
never before. Council tenants are being forced out of their homes
due to estate renewal, welfare reforms, poverty, and the precarity
of low-income work. Social cleansing can be understood as a geo-
graphical project made up of processes, practices, and policies
designed to remove council estate residents from space and
place, what we call a ‘new accumulative form of (state-led) gentri-
fication’. We outline these accumulative processes, practices and
policies, but more importantly we present grounded, empirical
evidence of council tenants and leaseholders’everyday experien-
ces of dispossession, focusing our lens on three south London
boroughs identified as eviction hotspots.
Received 6 March 2019
Accepted 11 October 2019
welfare reform; precarity
In 2012, Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, criticized councils moving housing
benefit claimants out of the capital, saying he would not have ‘Kosovo-style social
cleansing’on his watch. Yet the social cleansing of council estates—the large-scale
removal of members of a social category regarded as undesirable or disposable—has
continued apace in London and council estate residents are under threat like never
before. This dispossession is not a singular process, rather it relates to several co-
evolving and indeed accumulative processes including but not limited to: council
estate renewal/gentrification (Lees, 2014a, 2014b; Watt and Minton, 2016), changes in
housing and welfare policy (see Hamnett, 2010,2014), and the growing precarity of
low income work.
Since 1997, 54,263 units have either been demolished or are slated
for demolition on council estates of more than 100 units in London
; a conservative
estimate is that 135,658 households are being displaced. The estimates in previous
reports have been 50,000,
this is substantially higher. Council properties are being
further decimated through right to buy (see Disney & Luo, 2017). At the same time
‘reforms’intended to cut the welfare bill such as the bedroom tax and tax credits,
plus the simultaneous rise of zero hours contracts, have hit the working poor hardest.
CONTACT Loretta Lees firstname.lastname@example.org
ß2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Nationally rates of eviction from local authority properties have been rising steadily
mainly owing to rent arrears, and a number of London boroughs have been identified
by Shelter as eviction hotspots. In 2014 on average, one in thirty tenant households
in the three south London boroughs of Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham received
a possession order, meaning they were subject to legal process where their home was
at risk (Shelter 2014).
This social cleansing of London’s council estate residents is underpinned by all four
features of David Harvey’s(2003) accumulation by dispossession: privatization, financi-
alization, the management and manipulation of crisis, and state redistributions. Social
cleansing can be understood as a geographical project made up of processes, practices,
and policies designed to remove council tenants from space and place. Social cleansing
is scalar (from the individual to whole council estates) and operates along a continuum
of percolating violence that can be slow but also at times very fast (see Elliot-Cooper
et al., 2019). Since 2010 there have been a number of commentaries by geographers
and others on the privatization of council housing, housing benefit cuts and welfare
reforms, which points to the residualization of council housing and dispossession of
the poor (e.g. Hamnett, 2010,2014). This work, however, tells only one part of the
story, for it has ignored the large-scale dispossessions due to the gentrification of coun-
cil estates, what Elmer and Dening (2016) have called ‘the London clearances’.
Likewise, there has been much work done around theorizing accumulation by dispos-
session and discussing the policies implicated in it, but much less on empirically inves-
tigating the lived experiences of dispossession. Hodkinson & Essen (2015) ask that we
ground our discussions of eviction and displacement in everyday life, looking at the
specificities of how dispossession plays out and is experienced by people on the ground.
In this article, we do just that through in depth empirical research with council estate
residents in south London experiencing dispossession from their homes.
In so doing, we extend other emerging research in this field (e.g. Glucksberg, 2017;
Minton, 2017; Watt, 2018) by following Londoners being dispossessed of their council
estate homes: we follow them out of their original council estate home, into the
county court room, and into public inquiries, providing important insight into the
processes, lived experiences, and indeed possibilities of resistance to this social cleans-
ing. Where Glucksberg (2017) looks back to the 1990s, we look at the contemporary
time period. Where Watt (2018) looks only at homeless people in temporary accom-
modation we look at those that have had more secure, permanent, council tenancies,
including leaseholders. Watt (2018) argues that two dynamics are at play in London’s
current housing precarity—urban regeneration/state-led gentrification and austerity
urbanism, our research shows other important dynamics, including poverty, low pay,
the vagaries of zero hour contracts, and the bureaucratic failures of the benefits pay-
ment system. We believe that these multiple dynamics add up to an ‘accumulative
dispossession’that adds significantly to the estate renewal household displacement
numbers we cited earlier. We use the term ‘accumulative dispossession’as distinct
from ‘accumulation by dispossession’here to underline the accumulation of policies
and practices that have been put in place in attacks on council estates and their resi-
dents, and to highlight the layering of these processes of dispossession over time and
space. Cooper and Paton (2017) provide the broader context in which this discussion
2 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
sits when they talk about the new urban frontier of everyday evictions in the UK as
part of state involvement in housing and austerity; but here we zoom in on London,
a hyper-gentrifying city with the highest land values in the UK (and amongst some of
the highest internationally), where these processes are playing out especially violently.
Following MacLeod (2002) we keep an open mind as to the possibilities of resisting
this social cleansing and in so doing consider those vestiges of the British welfare
state that act as protections for the poor.
The accumulative attack on council housing
In 1893 London County Council (LCC) built London’s first council estate in the
Shoreditch/Bethnal Green area in East London.
For the next 50 years LCC built
council estates in inner and outer London. The interwar push for ‘homes fit for her-
oes’and subsequent Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 was a watershed
moment in the provision of council housing for working families (if not the poor).
The Housing Act of 1930 encouraged mass slum clearance and councils set to work
to replace slums with new build homes, trying initially to rehouse people back into
the communities they were forced to vacate following the demolition of their homes.
Following World War II many slum areas remained and had been made worse by
bombing during the war, council house building redoubled and by the 1960s over
500,000 new homes had been added to London’s stock. Post war architects and plan-
ners saw slum clearances as an opportunity to enact a modern urban vision—high
rise estates with ’streets in the sky’. Dunleavy (1981) showed that the lion’s share of
British high rise housing was built in London (36.2%). The clearances were different
in different boroughs, in Southwark large swathes of terraced housing was bulldozed
to make way for large council estates, e.g., the Heygate Estate and the Aylesbury
Estate which we focus on in this article. But by the time the Aylesbury Estate was
built in 1977 the high rise ideal was all but dead in the UK and there was a shift
from large scale clearances towards the preservation and rehabilitation of
The first political/policy assault on council housing was from Margaret Thatcher
and the New Right (see Hodkinson & Robbins, 2013), although it had been threat-
ened by poor management, under investment, and paternalism from at least the early
1970s. From the late 1970s, when London’s population was shrinking, some Greater
London Council (GLC) tenants had managed to buy the homes they rented but then
the Conservative government’s 1980 Housing Act gave all council tenants the right to
buy their council homes. Thatcher’s‘right to buy’legislation saw the council housing
system begin to implode (see Hanley, 2007; Malpass, 2005). Since 1980 1,843,830
council homes have been sold through right to buy in England, 16% of these
(287,384) have been in London (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/
live-tables-on-social-housing-sales, Table 685). The number of properties managed by
London councils started to shrink; 1990 was the peak year for right to buy. In add-
ition, the 1986 Housing and Planning Act gave councils the option of transferring all
or part of their housing to another landlord (stock transfer), such as a registered
social landlord, this further cemented council housing’s decline (see Forrest & Murie,
HOUSING STUDIES 3
1988; Cole & Furbey, 1994). The Thatcherite attack on council housing was aided by
geographer Alice Coleman (1985) who argued that the design of British high rise
council estates was to blame for the social problems on them (see Jacobs &
In 1994 there were 645,588 council rented dwellings in London, by 2017 this had
declined to 393,938.
The borough with the largest number of council properties,
Southwark, declined from 55,803 in 1994 to 38,553 in 2017; the next largest Lambeth
declined from 44,531 to 23,715. Continuing in the same vein, in 1995 Thatcher’s suc-
cessor as prime minister, John Major also condemned multistorey estates: ‘There they
stand, grey, sullen, concrete wastelands, set apart from the rest of the community,
robbing people of ambition and self-respect’(Meikle, 1995).
The attack on council estates was instigated by Thatcher but continued by New
Labour. New Labour’s assault on council estates has been well documented (Watt &
Jacobs, 2000; Lees, 2014a, 2014b; Hodkinson & Robbins, 2013), clothed as it was in
language about the moral failure of council estate residents and social responsibility
to take the poor and disadvantaged out of ‘sink estates’(see Johnston & Mooney,
2007; Slater, 2018). Of course the story of why poverty and social problems became
concentrated on council estates is complex and part of the history of council housing
in the UK (see Hanley, 2007), indeed the language of moral failure was evident before
New Labour in publications from the free market think tank the Institute of
Economic Affairs in the 1980s (e.g. Murray, 1990). New Labour’s solution was to
rebuild council estates as mixed income communities. Demolition occurred in a com-
plex and spatially uneven manner out of the third way reform of the governance and
financing of council housing away from local authority ownership and control
(Hodkinson & Robbins, 2013; Watt & Minton, 2016). Critical urban scholars have
charged that council estate renewal through mixed communities policy was/is
‘gentrification by stealth’(Bridge et al.2011) socially cleansing the inner city of low-
income communities. They have also raised questions about the underpinning ideal
of ‘mixed communities’as a poorly conceptualized and ineffective policy panacea for
social ills (Lees, 2008; Cheshire, 2009; Tunstall & Lupton, 2010). A London based
study by Arbaci and Rae (2013) found that mixed communities policy in London exa-
cerbated social inequality and masked deprivation. In their Islington study area they
found that affluent professionals had displaced low income populations of Greeks
and Somalians, and that council tenants were being pushed further out of London to
places such as Enfield and Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. The much touted shared-own-
ership schemes were taken up almost exclusively by young professionals from outside
of the neighborhood.
In 2004 the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) was established by Iain Duncan Smith
as an independent think-tank to make policy recommendations to tackle the root
causes of poverty. Like New Labour, the CSJ argued that living on a council estate
affected your life chances. The CSJ was commissioned by the then Leader of the
Opposition, David Cameron, to develop a new poverty-fighting agenda for the
Conservative Party which resulted in the 2007 Breakthrough Britain report,
argued for an end to any obligation to provide council housing and that we should
encourage private landlordism instead. In many ways this report was an extension of
4 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
New Labour’s urban renaissance agenda, for example, Section 3.2 repeated the New
Labour mantra on delivering socially mixed communities. But they pushed it further
by underlining that council housing was to be a spring board and not a safety net
(p.95). This was followed by a report ’Principles for Social Housing Reform’,
Localis, recommending councils should ‘exploit [the] huge reserve of capital value’in
their houses and the land by selling it off and charging ‘market terms’. London based
Housing Associations got in on the act, for example, Kate Davies, now Chief
Executive of Notting Hill Genesis, contributed an Introduction to the 2008 CSJ report
in which she said that ‘council estates are ghettos of needy people’,
‘council homes are subsidized by the taxpayer’, council tenants ‘often pay little or no
rent, and get their home maintained in good order for free’. She also maintained that
‘living on an estate can affect your health, your ability to work, the type of education
your children will get and your life chances’. She added that ‘social housing is not a
desirable destination’and that ‘private ownership is preferable to state pro-
Such reports were the supporting planks to assault three, the Coalition govern-
ment’s changes to housing benefit payments, which, from 2013, allowed local
authorities to pay not the median local rent but a payment equivalent to the 30th
percentile of local market rents, which almost immediately exacerbated already-exist-
ing processes of displacement. Reduced tenancy rights followed when the statutory
right to lifetime tenancies for new council housing tenants in England and Wales
were axed. Indeed, Hodkinson & Robbins (2013) argue that the Coalition govern-
ment saw a return to the Thatcherite agenda and class war conservatism, enacting
Harvey’s(2003)‘accumulation by dispossession’by halving the affordable housing
budget from £8.4 billion to £4.5 billion, 2011-2015. The predictions that low income
Londoners would experience ‘mass displacement’(Fenton, 2011) and that such poli-
cies would pave the way for a new wave of gentrification (Hodkinson & Robbins,
2013) are already materializing. To ‘kick-start and accelerate’that process, the gov-
ernment launched a £150 million Estate Regeneration Programme of loans to pri-
vate developers ‘redeveloping existing estates’on ‘a mixed tenure basis’so as ‘to
boost housing supply’and ‘improve the quality of life for residents in some of the
most run down estates in London and nationwide’(HCA, 2014).
Reform and Work Act 2016 sustained the attack on disadvantaged groups (within a
landscape of austerity) with benefit caps and freezes, and changes to carers allowan-
In assault four Cameron’s Conservative government
announced in 2016 that it
would blitz poverty and improve the life chances of the disadvantaged by demolishing
the UK’s worst ‘sink estates’. This announcement was aided by a report from prop-
erty consultants Savills who argued that such an approach would help catalyze the
building of hundreds of thousands of new homes in London alone. Redeveloping
council estates with market housing was touted by both the Conservative Minister for
Housing, Brandon Lewis (2015),
and Labour peer Lord Adonis (2015),
as a way
to address deprivation and increase housing supply without public funding, showing
the cross party support for demolishing council estates. Hodkinson & Robbins (2013)
are surely right to say that such interventions were designed to
HOUSING STUDIES 5
‘unblock and expand the market, complete the residualization of social housing and
draw people into an ever more economically precarious housing experience in order to
boost capitalist interests’(p. 1).
In fact, London was already ahead of the sink estate strategy, as the Mayor of
London’s (2014) Housing Strategy called for the ‘vast development potential in
London’s existing affordable housing estates’(p. 59)
to be unlocked through private
redevelopment. And borough councils argued there is no alternative to estate renewal
at a time of cuts to local authority budgets and restrictions on municipal finance.
The, now somewhat diluted, 2016 Housing and Planning Act
is set to accelerate
social housing losses and make social housing more generally a less secure tenancy
through the selling of higher value council housing and pay to stay, etc.
For the moment, council estates remain home to a large number of Londoners
and offer secure and truly affordable accommodation, but they are massively under
threat. Add to this the C21st precarity of low income work, like zero hours contracts,
and the everyday realities of poverty and marginality, and a perfect storm has been
created. The outcome of the 2018 Social Housing Green Paper, a ‘new deal’for social
housing, is yet to be known. The Grenfell fire tragedy caused panic at central govern-
ment level, resulting in a Green Paper which in theory was meant to address the stig-
matization of social housing—but which has not yet resulted in any concrete
proposals. In what follows we present grounded empirical data on the lived experien-
ces of these assaults on council estates and their residents in London.
Everyday experiences of dispossession on London council estates
Our research lens is focused on those south London boroughs identified by Shelter
(2014) as eviction hotspots. Eviction can occur due to serious anti-social behavior,
such as drug-dealing or domestic violence, rent arrears, or estate renewal. The latter
two are the most statistically significant and are analyzed here. We draw on a mix of
primary and secondary data from four interlinked research projects,
this allows for
a much needed longitudinal view. The primary data includes in-depth interviews with
those displaced from the Heygate (n¼20) and about to be displaced from the
Aylesbury (n¼35) estates in Southwark. These interviews were undertaken between
2011 and 2018. The interviews focused on both council tenants and leaseholders
experiences of displacement and its economic, social, cultural, and emotional impacts.
We also collected postcode data on displacement from both the Heygate and
Aylesbury estates, mapping where people were displaced to. The primary data also
includes research undertaken at Lambeth County Court over 3 months in 2015 shad-
owing solicitors acting as duty advisers for the court.
This access provided us with
the unique opportunity to observe solicitors helping council tenants in the boroughs
of Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark facing a dispossession order on their home.
Judges also gave us access to some of the court cases, in which we were able to follow
the tenant and duty solicitor into the courtroom. We were able to examine the rea-
sons why tenants found themselves in arrears and facing eviction, and their experien-
ces of this. We were also interested in how local authority housing and the law
protects those who are ‘vulnerable’and/or on low incomes from dispossession. In 15
6 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
randomly selected visits to the court we were able to observe over 50 cases, and made
detailed notes on 43. Statistical analysis of the duty scheme data for 2014/15 (based
on 790 unique visitors) also provided information on the gender and ethnic origin of
those facing a possession order in court, the type of landlord and the order made.
In what follows we begin by looking at dispossession due to council estate renewal,
then we turn to council possession orders, of course these different forms of dispos-
session can be layered on top of each other. It is what Watt (2018, p. 96) calls the
‘the vicious intertwining’of ‘long neoliberal policies coupled with short-term austerity
cuts’, but it is more than that too, for poverty, ill health, zero hour contracts, and the
vagaries of the benefits system are all evident. There are no doubt cases of council
estate residents that may be experiencing both displacement due to council estate
renewal and dispossession due to a possession order at the same time, although
thankfully we did not come across anyone in this unique situation. The enormity of
the ‘accumulative dispossession’that London council estate residents are facing
becomes evident, as does their lived experience of the dynamics at play. What is clear
is that the state, government policy (or the lack of government policy in the case of
reeling in the injustice of zero hours contracts and low pay), is to blame.
Dispossession due to council estate renewal
The Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle was sold by Southwark Council to the
international property developer Lendlease for £50 million. Southwark then spent
over £44 million moving the 3000 plus council tenants and leaseholders out (Lees,
2014b). One in three secure tenants were subjected to eviction proceedings (on the
connection between state-led gentrification and state-led evictions, see Paton and
Cooper, 2016). The Heygate Estate has now been demolished, its replacement—
Elephant Park—was sold off-plan in East Asia. There were 1194 council flats, the new
development will have no council flats but it will have 82 ‘affordable’units, affordable
means 80% of London’s super-heated market rent, more than double the level of
council rents. As the displacement maps in Figures 1 and 2show both Heygate coun-
cil tenants and leaseholders have been displaced from their homes. Just one in five
secure tenants managed to stay living in the neighborhood, that is the wider SE17
postcode, the rest were displaced across Southwark and beyond. Tenants were asked
to find a new home through the Council’s Homesearch waiting list and bidding
scheme and were given only 6 months to do so: ‘it took six times …if you don’t
accept any of the bidding you go back to the bottom again …I think I got mine after
the third bidding’(ex Heygate council tenant who was displaced, interview 2013).
Then the council began to issue eviction notices over the heads of those who failed
to find their own council place or refused the council’s offer of alternative housing.
One ex-Heygate tenant who had lived on the Heygate for 14 years, between 1995 and
2009, was a single mother living in a one bedroom, privately rented flat that was very
expensive for her at £650pcm. She said that her 22 year old son was sleeping on the
sofa, that she was on the housing register for Gravesham Borough Council but did
not have enough points.
This was not her first move since leaving the Heygate,
indeed as is often common in stories of displacement she moved multiple times
HOUSING STUDIES 7
(Watt, 2018, calls this recurrent displacement), first to Surrey Quays, then to
Rotherhithe to housing association accommodation where she lived for 2 years before
moving to Kent. She said: ‘Because I moved away from London …I don’t think I
might be moving back …I still have sisters that live in South London …I still see
them on the train you know. But I lost contact with friends …I still have their num-
bers but it’s the distance and everything’(interview, 2013). Displacement is rarely a
singular move, more often multiple moves occur before people settle.
Interviews with council tenants being displaced from the adjacent Aylesbury
Estate (see Figure 1 in Hubbard & Lees, 2018) backed up the stories gathered on
the Heygate Estate. Of course, the impacts on the elderly and those with health
issues were even worse. One elderly council tenant in the process of being evicted
from the Aylesbury had onset dementia, as such the interview was done with
‘Well …the only way she wants to be coming out of here is in a box …at the end of the
day they are not listening to what she is saying which is just “leave me here!”. Because
they’ll move ‘em out, it will be just like the Heygate. The blocks will stand up year after
year …my mum’s 83, she’ll be long gone before the blocks. So part of me thinks just
leave her here, just leave her alone. So that’s what I say’(interview, 2013).
The impacts on the elderly are especially acute. Another interview with a widower
who had lived on the Aylesbury Estate for 25 years showed clearly what he felt he
was leaving behind when he accepted a replacement council flat in Kennington Park,
it also shows the impact of the slow violence of these regeneration schemes as he
begins to withdraw his sense of place:
‘As you can see I put a lot of effort into this flat. I worked hard on it. I sanded the
floors. I’ve got a mural that I can’t take with me …It’s not to everybody’s tastes …but
it’s to my taste, at least it was to my taste 10 years ago …but basically I’m decorating
the new place in a similar way. When I moved in here it was a combination of my ideas
and my wife at the time, so the difference between that and me doing it by myself is,
err, yeah, you know. When they announced that they wanted to demolish the place …it
Figure 1. Council tenant displacement from the Heygate Estate, London (Source: Lees et al.,2013;
London Tenants Federation et al.,2014; also reproduced in https://www.dispossessionfilm.com/).
8 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
changed things for me, in a sense that I didn’t feel as inspired to decorate and to keep
the place. Like, it doesn’t look like it did. The floor was immaculate, I let it go a certain
amount. I didn’t deliberately let it go I felt like, you know, I had this thing hanging over
my head. That’s one of the reasons I decided to move’(interview 2013).
Even for those that have been able to move nearby, the feelings of loss are acute:
‘(The new flat is) 10 mins from the old one, it’s so small, dad can’t get in the bathroom
or take a shower. He was in hospital and he’s at my mum’s now …he can’t move here.
The kids miss their grandma, they’ve never been in a place where grandma was not
there, they will cry at night …“I want to go to Nans”.I’ll say wait until the weekend
son. He cries he wants to move back to the Aylesbury. Mum’s losing her marbles, she’s
lost so much weight, she lost her friends …one is in Cooks Road, one is in Nunhead,
she hasn’t seen them since she moved. She hasn’t seen any of them’(interview 2017).
Baxter and Brickell (2014) have called this ‘home unmaking’and they are clear
that some home unmakings like the ones in this article are brutal, alienating and dis-
criminatory. Supportive familial and community networks are undermined and
The whole process of dispossession of council tenants from the bidding process for
a replacement home to the demands of viewing potential (but often unsuitable) new
homes was highly stressful and destabilizing. One interviewee who lived with her eld-
erly, disabled mother who spoke little English, and had two young children, one at
nursery, the other at primary school, said:
‘Things have been really mad. We were offered to view a flat but mum couldn’t get
there but mum said it was okay for me to look and to see if there was enough room for
the children. The council don’t care and only offer us 2 bedrooms but I am at the point
now that I just don’t care, I’ve had enough. The flat was really small and only 2
bedrooms. There were disabled rails like in the bathroom. The kitchen is very small, the
lounge very small, but I told them we couldn’t take it because there was no lift so how
could my mum get up there? She cannot use stairs. They said they didn’t realize my
mum is disabled. We were offered to view another place and I went there. I was waiting
in the cold for 35 minutes and no one turned up! Now they say our bidding is
suspended! It has been for the last 2 weeks. I asked why and they said I never turned up
for the viewing! But I did, I was there for over 35 minutes and didn’t see no-one!’
Leaseholders on both the Heygate (see Figure 2) and targeted blocks on the
Aylesbury (see Figure 2 in Hubbard and Lees, 2018), who had bought their flats
through right to buy, were issued with Compulsory Purchase Orders and the council
made them ‘low ball’offers. Each leaseholder was made an offer on an individual
basis (so the same size flats in the same block might be given a different offer), a
council ‘divide and rule’tactic that they hoped would both reduce what they had to
pay and stop leaseholders coming together to resist council offers. The last lease-
holder to be forcibly evicted from the Heygate (where he was refusing to move until
he got market value for his property), a teacher, commissioned an independent sur-
veyor who valued his property, a 3-bed maisonette, at £240,000; £80,000 more than
the Council’s surveyors. The council’s surveyors argued that their’swasagoodoffer
given that the properties were soon to be demolished. Obviously value should not
have been linked to other properties about to be demolished but to market rates in
HOUSING STUDIES 9
the area. The council resorted to Rachmann
like tactics to get this leaseholder out,
turning off his gas and electricity, and barricading in the near empty estate. On
being evicted from the estate, the council billed him for his eviction, and he was
forced to move in with his partner as he could not afford to buy another property in
the area. Another leaseholder from the Heygate was offered a flat in the nearby
newly built, high rise, Strata Tower. She was given £150,000 for her 3-bed flat on the
Heygate Estate, but flats in the Strata Tower ranged from a studio flat at £240,000 to
3 bed flats at £775,000. The 2-bed penthouse was on the market at the time for £1.6
million. The leaseholder had worked three jobs, seven days a week to pay off her
mortgage and saw her ‘right to buy’flat as an investment for her children. To buy
in the Strata (or indeed elsewhere in London) she would need to get another mort-
gage—not easy on her low income and with insecure jobs and new mortgage restric-
tions—her life security and investment was destroyed (Lees, 2014b). This was/is
nothing less than domicide (Nowicki, 2014). Porteous and Smith (2001) define
domicide as ‘the planned, deliberate destruction of someone’s home, causing suffer-
ing to the dweller’.
Leaseholders on the Aylesbury Estate who fought the CPO told similar stories of
below market value offers and dirty tactics by the council to get them out. One lease-
holder who was involved in the first and indeed second Aylesbury Public Inquiry was
put to the severest of tests. The list could not be more disturbing: the council built a
high fence around her block (see Figure 3) making it very difficult for her to access
the property that she owned, she had to wait for a security guard to let her in to her
own home; the council got the postcode of her block deleted meaning she could not
receive post, including benefits, a replacement fridge etc. They began demolishing the
blocks around her (see Figure 4), this seemingly caused a gas leak in late 2016 that
Figure 2. Leaseholder displacement from the Heygate Estate, London (Source: Lees et al.,2013 and
London Tenants Federation et al.,2014; also reproduced in https://www.dispossessionfilm.com/).
10 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
saw her hospitalized for gas poisoning (interview, 2016). Moreover, on her return
home from the hospital she got stuck in her block’s lift for 90 minutes when it failed
due to non-maintenance, only to get in her door to find the council had left her
cooker on the whole time she had been in the hospital. When asked how she man-
ages to survive all this she said ‘I have no alternative!’.
The results of the (first) Aylesbury Public Inquiry were released later in 2016. The
leaseholder testimonies and academic research presented to the inquiry looked at the
eradication of home against the will of its dwellers, to the sweeping destruction of
families, communities and ways of being. They gained a precedent setting win, as the
ruled that the CPO would have significant negative impacts on
protected (BAME) groups, thus breaching Public Sector Equality Duty. In his follow
on ruling, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said that
the owner-occupiers refusing to move should not be forcibly evicted. He too was con-
cerned that the impact on the majority of the estate who are from BAME back-
grounds would be disproportionate and that they would have to move out of
Southwark if the Order was confirmed (see Rendell, 2017; Hubbard & Lees, 2018).In
the 2018 revised Aylesbury Estate public inquiry there were further wins with a
change in Southwark’s policy for dealing with the CPO of leaseholders (see Lees and
Hubbard, forthcoming), even if ultimately this did not stop the dispossessions. The
demolition of council estates in London is ongoing and is having detrimental impacts
not only on the number of council homes available but also critically on people’s
everyday lives. But welfare changes and the vagaries of working poverty are also
Figure 3. Aylesbury Estate’s‘Alcatraz fence’built by Southwark Council around Chiltern House
(Photo: Loretta Lees, 2018).
HOUSING STUDIES 11
pushing Londoners out of council housing and indeed the capital. It is to this related
dispossession that we now turn.
Dispossession from council homes due to possession orders
As Hamnett (2014) points out London accounts for the highest share of UK housing
benefit (26%), and housing benefits make up the lions share of total benefit spending
in London (50%, bar pensions and child benefit). He charges that London is witness-
ing ‘welfare policy generated social cleansing’(p. 501), but welfare cuts (including
caps on housing benefit, the bedroom tax) are only one part of the story, for the neo-
liberalization of the world of work (e.g. zero hours contracts), low incomes, and the
bureaucratic vagaries of how benefits are managed, are also significant factors causing
rent arrears and dispossessions. Those facing eviction proceedings at Lambeth County
Court faced multiple challenges, despite 67% being in full or part time work the over-
riding reason for their rent arrears was poverty (cr. Malpass, 2004, on residualization
in social housing). Those in care and service industry jobs were simply not paid
enough to cover rent, council tax, utility bills, food and travel, even when living in
low cost council housing. Similarly those who were self-employed or on zero-hour
contracts described struggling to budget and manage rent payments due to insecure
working conditions, inconsistent hours, delayed housing benefit payments and with
no contingency to cover periods of sickness or family crisis. The precariousness of
tenants’circumstances and the fine line for many between being able to just about
manage and falling into arrears was stark:
Figure 4. Demolition of the blocks behind Chiltern House (Photo: Loretta Lees, 2018).
12 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
‘The landlord, Lambeth Council, is seeking a suspended possession order. The woman a
nursery nurse officer works full time. She earns £1156 a month. The monthly rent is
£636.35. The arrears built up when her parents died, one after the other. She spent her
rent on travel to the Midlands to make arrangements for the funerals’(Field
During our visits to the court we also saw, first hand, how ‘benefit reform’
intended ‘to reduce welfare dependency’in the Welfare Reform Act 2012
ectly increased the threat of dispossession (see Fitzpatrick & Watts, 2017, on the wel-
farization of English social housing). In one case a woman in her sixties who had
lived in her two-bed council flat in Lambeth for 30 years, was facing a possession
order for rent arrears after her housing benefit payments had been cut by 14%. The
woman was self-employed and earned £107 a week, her rent was £126.94 and she
simply did not have enough money to cover the shortfall. The ‘under-occupancy pen-
alty’(bedroom tax) also left people without enough money to pay their rent and
tougher benefit sanctions introduced in 2012 led to people’s housing benefit being
wrongly withdrawn and consequently receiving a possession order. For example, a
couple with learning difficulties had been served notice after falling behind with their
rent as a result of their housing benefit being suspended because their adult daughter
was suspected of earning more than she had declared. Their housing benefit had
since been reinstated, but arrears had built up and the couple had failed to keep up
their payments. When the solicitor asked why they had stopped paying their contri-
bution, the woman admitted that when she got ‘stressed out’she couldn’t cope and
‘things had fallen apart’. In another case a young, black man suffering from depres-
sion, anxiety and psychosis had had his employment and support allowance (ESA)
and housing benefit stopped after he was assessed as being physically fit for work.
The man was in the process of appealing against this and although his housing bene-
fit had since been reinstated he had no other income to pay off the arrears and was
living from food-banks and handouts from friends. During the hearing the Judge
asked why people evidently in need were having their housing benefit stopped.
Under current law, housing benefit should not be automatically suspended when
an individual is subject to other benefit sanctions. However, The Guardian reported
that the Department for Work and Pensions’computer system had been wrongly
informing local authority housing benefit departments that those subject to sanctions
had had their benefits cancelled rather than temporarily withdrawn.
This led to
housing benefits being wrongly suspended or stopped, as in the case above. This
increased the risk of homelessness, while adding to the national welfare bill, as
increasing numbers of people faced eviction proceedings over unpaid rent. It was also
apparent during the research that administrative mistakes by under-resourced hous-
ing benefit departments were jeopardizing people’s homes.
Of the 43 cases we observed, 28 claimed housing benefit and 2 were awaiting a
claim to be processed. In half the cases delays or a mistake in housing benefit pay-
ments had been a contributory factor to their rent arrears. Problems encountered
included: delays in processing claims, delayed payments for those on zero hour con-
tracts and/or flexible working arrangements, and ‘clawing back’—the practice of
deducting sums from housing benefit payments owing to a previous over payment.
These issues were critical for those struggling to make ends meet and contributed to
HOUSING STUDIES 13
people’s homes being put at risk. In another case, a woman had had her housing
benefit suspended when she went to Pakistan for two months owing to a family
bereavement, despite informing the housing benefit office that she would be away.
On her return it was reinstated in full, but five months later she was still waiting for
a payment to cover the arrears and it was this debt that led to the landlord filing a
Section 8 eviction notice. The Judge adjourned the case on the basis that the notice
had been filed incorrectly, however in the absence of this oversight, the Judge would
have had no option but to grant a possession order.
For those on low incomes, the process of ‘clawing back’meant that tenants were
unable to budget and pay their rent. For example, despite this single parent working
part-time and studying (she was still awaiting her first student loan payment), she
was struggling to make ends meet:
‘Crying and hardly audible she explains that she has had to borrow money from family
and friends and that she has paid all she can and has no more money (the day before
the hearing the tenant paid £700 towards the arrears). She says the housing benefit issue
is due to a mistake on her claim and as a result she has not been getting any assistance.
Herself and her son are living off £20 a week. She says she wants to pay but can’t. In
order to go to University she has to borrow an oyster card from a friend because she
can’t afford to top up her own card’(field notes, 2016).
We observed three other similar cases of lone-parents who were students, strug-
gling to manage their student loan income and housing benefit entitlement. In each
case the tenant had not understood what benefits they were entitled to or how they
should manage the loans and budget for the holidays. In one of the cases, the wom-
an’s original debt dated back to 2003. Since then she’d been paying back the arrears
at £3.75 a week. Notice had been served after her payments became erratic, due to
her student loan being delayed, the NHS bursary she was expecting suddenly being
halved, and changes to her housing benefit payments. In court, neither the Judge,
solicitor or housing officer could make sense of her housing benefit entitlements or
payments and the case was adjourned and a housing benefit officer requested to be
present at the next hearing.
We observed the impact of benefit sanctions, historical underpayments and delays,
but it was also apparent that the system itself was under resourced and in disarray.
Amongst tenants facing eviction proceedings, there was confusion regarding what
benefits they were entitled to and many claimed they had not received any paper
work or advice regarding a housing benefit decision which had resulted in them not
being able to pay their rent. For example, a single parent, working two days a week
at Sainsbury’s supermarket and in receipt of full housing benefit, claimed she’d been
unaware that she was in arrears until she received the court summons. In court, it
was apparent from the housing benefit record that despite there being no change in
her circumstances her housing benefit had been suspended and then later reinstated,
but the arrears payment put into her account did not cover the entire period her
benefit had been stopped for.
For those struggling with a range of issues such as ill health, depression, caring for
a dependant, poverty, and problems with benefits, the court experience was traumatic
and served to worsen their situation. In one case, a single woman with an adult child
14 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
living with her who had agoraphobia, anxiety and depression was facing eviction pro-
ceedings because she did not have enough money to pay her rent. During her con-
sultation with the duty solicitor it was apparent that due to her fluctuating income
she was eligible for housing benefit, however it had been delayed owing to a query
on her case. She was also struggling to pay council tax and although she was the pri-
mary carer for her son she was not eligible for a carer’s allowance. The duty solicitor
explained that because the woman’s income was so low if she received a suspended
possession order she wouldn’t be able to keep up the arrears payments and was at
real risk of losing her home and as such sought an adjournment. After the hearing
we interviewed the woman about the possibility of losing her home:
‘I made it a home for 26 years and to lose it you know …I’m getting on in life. It’s not
a good thing, the stress of it and being under all the stress makes me worried that I
won’t be able to do my job properly, if at all. I might lose my job. If I am made
homeless I will lose my job because I get sent my rota at home, it has personal
information about service users and that can’t be urm …[starts to cry] disclosed to
anybody, so I will lose my job too, as well as my home’(interview, 2016).
On paying her rent she said:
‘I was never in dispute of it: I simply don’t have enough money. I go to bed every night
with a sandwich and a cup of tea [still crying]. I can’t even have a proper meal. I
understand that it’s got to be done, but urgh …it just feels like a punishment for the
poor. If I was in Dickensian times I would be in debtors prison’(interview, 2016).
Disproportionately at risk of eviction in South London were women with depend-
ents and ethnic minorities. According to the 2014/15 duty scheme records, 18% of
clients were white British, 27% black/British African, and 20% black/British
Caribbean. Similar demographics were recorded during our duty scheme observa-
tions: 23% were noted as being white British and 60% black/British African and
black/British Caribbean. Women were also overrepresented, 61% of the 2014/15 duty
scheme clients and 67% of those we observed were female. Of the female clients
observed, 15 had a dependent child living with them, 3 lived with a non-dependent
child, and another 3 lived with a non-dependent child with care needs. Only 4
women with children lived with a partner. These figures reflect the BME populations
of council estates in South London that the Planning Inspector and Secretary of State
were so concerned about in terms of ethnic cleansing of the Aylesbury Estate (see
It was apparent during our observations at the court that the duty scheme and
solicitors, and indeed many judges, were essential for keeping council tenants in their
homes. The atmosphere at court was frantic and when listening to tenants it was
clear that many did not understand the eviction process and some were even unclear
as to why eviction proceedings had been taken against them. Solicitors were able to
advise tenants on what type of order or ruling they should apply for, suggested realis-
tic amounts for paying back the arrears, negotiated with housing officers, and in
court were able to ensure that due process had been followed. It became evident that
these safeguards were essential for protecting council housing tenants from homeless-
ness. Of the 19 local authority cases we observed, only one suspended possession
order, one outright possession order, and one warrant application were upheld. It
HOUSING STUDIES 15
was also evident that secure council tenancies provide extra protections in the evic-
tion process. A local authority can only forcibly evict a council tenant by seeking a
possession order through the court, and when in court they must demonstrate that it
is reasonable for an order to be made. Given the extremely difficult circumstances
that both life and the benefits system has put some tenants in, this safeguard proved
essential for protecting the poor and otherwise marginalized from homelessness. In
order to evict a tenant, a council or housing association must follow a number of
steps (see White & Lees, 2016). In cases where the tenant is facing potential eviction
over unpaid rent, before the council or housing association begin proceedings they
are first required to follow the pre-action protocol for possession claims introduced
in September 2015.
When a case reaches court, if it is proven that the pre-action
protocol steps have not been followed by the landlord then the Judge can adjourn
(postpone) or dismiss a case. The court can also adjourn a case or suspend an order
if a council or housing association tenant offers to pay the rent arrears back by a
mutually agreed amount (this should be affordable and based on the tenants income,
with minimum payments starting at £3.75). If an order is suspended a tenant will
only find themselves back in court if they fail to meet the agreed payments. The pri-
vate rental sector does not have these inbuilt protections for its tenants (see Cowan,
2011, on the legal context of social housing).
Although housing associations should follow the same guidance as local authority
landlords, they, as well as private landlords can speed up the eviction process by seek-
ing outright possession of a property using a Section 8 Notice. This means that if the
tenant is more than eight weeks in arrears at the time the summons is served and/or
the case is heard, and the notice has been served correctly, the court has no mandate
to intervene and the tenant can be evicted. During the research one of the duty solici-
tors suggested that increasingly some housing associations were resorting to progress-
ing evictions more swiftly. Given the large number of stock transfers of council
estates (accelerated by the Decent Homes program and PFI schemes) to housing asso-
ciations in London, e.g. Notting Hill Trust, now merged as Notting Hill Genesis, is
redeveloping the Aylesbury Estate, this is especially worrying. Those council tenants
who do get to move back onto the original footprint of their estate into new HA
homes will nevertheless lose the protections discussed above built into council hous-
ing tenure, potentially opening them up to future dispossessions. In addition, those
dispossessed council tenants who end up in the private rental sector are even more
vulnerable to eviction proceedings than housing association or council tenants.
Significantly, between 2005 and 2015 private rental stock in Southwark, for example,
rose by 26.1% from 61,096 to 77,023, while in the same period council rented stock
fell by 11.8% from 43,885 to 36,687 (Southwark Council 2015, Southwark Key
Housing Data, p. 15). Where Hodkinson & Essen (2015) show legal frameworks
assisting in accumulation by dispossession in people’s everyday lives, in this paper we
also show how legal frameworks can offer protection to council tenants facing dispos-
session. Protecting these protections should be paramount for future scholar-activist
work (cr. Layard, 2018).
In our observations at Lambeth County Court it was clear that the duty solicitors,
council tenancies themselves, and the judges all played a critical role in protecting (or
16 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
at least trying to protect) low income council tenants from losing their homes. But
the Ministry of Justice closed Lambeth County Court in 2017 in further cut backs,
despite widespread concern over the potential impacts on those facing an eviction
order, as a result of increased travel times to other courts (now also under threat of
closure) and costs (Cambridge House estimated 10% minimum of a tenant’s weekly
budget), and concerns over whether the duty scheme would be able to continue.
Access to justice itself for those facing dispossession is becoming increas-
‘I’m a council tenant. I stay council tenant. I die council tenant. Simple as that!’
For over a century now council housing in London (as in the rest of the UK) has
provided secure and affordable homes for the working and workless poor, as part of
a welfare state deal that protected people from homelessness and acted as a counter
to the private rented sector. This protective shield is disappearing as we speak.
Council estates are being demolished and ‘regenerated’, and their residents pushed
out of their homes and communities. The benefits system no longer provides essential
safeguards for council estate tenants, partly the result of the 2012 Welfare Reform
Act, but also due to errors in the housing benefit system, which has seen, according
to the charity Crisis, one-third of housing benefit claimants subject to a sanction on
their un-employment benefit, having their housing benefit suspended or withdrawn.
Many more have been affected by delays in processing claims, mistakes and under
payments, while a lack of communication means that many are not even aware that
their home is at risk. This situation will only worsen with the rolling out of Universal
Credit, intended to simplify the benefits system by merging together the six existing
benefits, including employment benefit, tax credits and housing benefit.
The attack on council estates and their residents which began in the 1970s has
escalated over time. Recent benefit cuts have coincided with the aggressive disman-
tling of the council rented sector through the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
is underpinned by the principle that the market should provide the nation’s housing
needs either through owner-occupation or the private rented sector. This ideological
attack on council housing combined with benefit reform, we argue, can be viewed as
a‘new accumulative form of (state-led) gentrification’that has chipped away at ten-
ants’rights, forcing the working poor and those on benefits out of the capital, it is
even shutting down the courts where they seek justice. As we have shown there is a
violence to this ‘accumulative dispossession’, whether in the displacement due to
estate renewal or the austerity policies that have dismantled the social systems that
used to buffer against economic hardship (see Cooper & Whyte, 2017). Thinking
about these processes as ‘accumulative dispossession’forces us to see this as a stealth
dispossession that is multi-layered and ongoing.
In July 2018 the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, introduced a new rule
(the first in the UK) that major estate regeneration schemes involving the demolition
of homes must have the backing of residents through an estate ballot, before receiving
HOUSING STUDIES 17
City Hall funding. The newly elected Mayor of Lewisham said: ‘Balloting residents on
estate redevelopments means that existing communities are truly at the heart of
changes in their area. Lewisham will be balloting residents as part of our ambitious
program to build new social and genuinely affordable homes’.
Welcome as this
might be it only stands for future regeneration schemes, the numerous council estates
which already have planning permission are exempt. Nor does the ballot extend to all
households on an estate, e.g. private tenants who have been on a council’s waiting list
for less than a year, or who are not on the waiting list at all (this is important given
that 40% of council homes sold under right to buy are let to private tenants) and
homeless households living in temporary accommodation (see Watt, 2018).
Moreover, Sadiq Khan secretly signed off on funding for 34 estates before announc-
ing the new ballot, including a number (like the Aylesbury Estate) in the 3 south
London boroughs we have focused on in this article.
The state, as we have shown here, plays an active role in coordinating new forms
of dispossession and diminishing the power of the poor in favor of the rich. The
2018 Social Housing Green Paper
has continued the dismantling of council housing,
offering no funding to build new council homes but offering all tenants a way into
property ownership through shared ownership schemes. How those on zero hours
contracts struggling to pay council rent could ever afford to buy through shared own-
ership was not discussed.
London’s Mayor and its borough councils are facing increased resistance to this
‘new accumulative form of gentrification’; yet resistance is not enough, we also need
to create alternative blueprints to gentrification that regenerate without displacing
and socially cleansing low income groups. As Hodkinson & Robbins (2013, p. 72)
have said: ‘within this context, not only will housing and tenant campaigns be crucial,
but so too will the role of academics in critically dissecting the purpose, mechanisms
and effects of these policies
as well as offering intellectual resources to help nourish
the creation of alternative policies and paradigms’. No easy task but urgent
1. See https://antipodefoundation.org/2012/04/16/precarity-and-housing-politics-in-austerity-
2. This database has been collated as part of an ongoing ESRC project, PI: Lees,L; CoIs:
Hubbard,P. and Tate, N. Gentrification, Displacement, and the Impacts of Council Estate
Renewal in C21st London 2017-2020 [ES/N015053\1]). The database is not static and will
be updated until the end of the project.
4. See Boughton (2018) on the history council housing in the UK more widely.
including-vacants table 116).
6. Iain Duncan Smith was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2010–16, Leader of the
Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition 2001–2003.
18 L. LEES AND H. WHITE
12. The role of Conservative Think Tank policy wonk Alex Morton as advisor to the
Cameron government explains the radical nature of the 2016 housing and
16. On what was enacted and what was not adopted in the 2016 Housing and Planning Act
17. This includes research into the gentrification of council estates (funded by a 2012
Antipode Scholar-Activist Award, plus interviews from an associated urban studies
internship at KCL in 2013, and work with the Aylesbury Leaseholders Group for the
2015 public inquiry, plus the ESRC project [ES/N015053\1] listed in footnote 1) and
research into council tenants facing possession orders at Lambeth County Court
undertaken in 2015 with Cambridge House (funded by a University of Leicester Impact
Acceleration Award 2015-16).
18. In a scheme funded by Legal Aid and managed by Lambeth Law Centre a number of
legal advice centers and firms of solicitors from Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark
provided duty advisers for the court. A duty adviser is there to represent defendants who
come to court without legal counsel—usually because they can’t afford it. The cases they
deal with are all possession hearings.
19. Each local authority has its own allocations policy that determines the criteria to qualify
to be on their register for a council home.
20. Cooks Road is in Kennington, Nunhead is in Peckham, some distance from the
21. Peter Rachmann was a landlord in London in the 1950s notorious for the intimidation of
his tenants. His actions were associated with the ‘winkling’of tenants out of their homes.
22. See http://35percent.org/img/inspectorsreport.pdf
29. See White and Lees (2016).
A special thanks to Karin Woodley at Cambridge House, Just Space, The London Tenants
Federation, Southwark Notes Archive Group, 35% Campaign, the Lambeth County Court duty
solicitors, all the interviewees, and to research assistants Sue Ansarie, Gavin McLaughlin and
HOUSING STUDIES 19
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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