I thoroughly agree that Owen Hatherley, and many of his ethically-challenged self-entitled chums, are certainly to blame for the gentrification of Balfron Tower, and also for the overall dismantlement of social housing in the United Kingdom in general, during a housing crisis.
But they are not the people that have to live with the consequences of what they support, or apologise for; they are not displaced from their communities, they have not been thrown out of their homes so they can be sold off to rich people who have come into Poplar and brutally attacked our working class community, following Poplar Harca’s CEO Steve Strides proclamation of “doing God’s work in Poplar” to create “a new Shoreditch”, brutally displacing working class communities and demolishing our social housing, dismantling the social tenancy system to build part-ownership models, financially out of the reach of almost everybody in our community, whilst their advertising hoardings boast of “affordable” housing that is being delivered in such small numbers it cannot be considered anything more than tokenism. Most of these people do not even live in the communities that they are waging class war against.
Nobody ever voted for Poplar Harca to operate as a local authority, yet they operate in this exact way. Nobody ever voted for them to operate or control parks, schools, markets, housing, transport, police, pubs, arts centres, community centres or to brand their name across every school child in Poplar.
Welcome to socialism in 21st Century Britain.
A few social housing tenants and leaseholders did get to vote for Poplar Harca, in a ballot transfer many years ago, where billions of pounds of publicly-owned housing stock was transferred, mostly free of charge, to a “Housing Association and Regeneration Communities Association”, who then mortgaged our entire community, via Bernadette Conroy, a Poplar Harca board member and a Vice President of HSBC, all with full liability firmly placed upon the Tower Hamlets tax payer.
But these tenants were lied to, they voted for Poplar Harca because they were told that they would be given new windows, new kitchens and new bathrooms. They were not told the truth that they would be brutally and ruthlessly thrown out of Balfron Tower, or their estate demolished and their family displaced, so Poplar Harca could do sleazy deals with sleazy property developers, like Londonewcastle.
I wrote a short thread on twitter, exploring some more of the people who are “all to blame”, read not to blame, for the social cleansing of Balfron Tower, from the blatant eugenics-like hatred of the working classes from Arts Council England funded Bow Arts, to apologists for social cleansing such as Anna Minton of the University of East London and Owen Hatherley.
We are not “all to blame” for the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. But a lot of people are; from property developers, journalists, politicians (all Labour), artists, arts organisations, Arts Council England, Historic England, National Trust, British Council, University of East London and University of the Arts, amongst many others.
It is not now, nor will it ever be acceptable to invest in, or live, in a regenerated Balfron Tower that has 0% social housing. The experiment in privatising our social housing has not worked, and it’s time to nationalise all housing built with public funds, or housing that as been built to replace it. The attacks on our working class communities have gone too far and people must be held to account. Owen Hatherley’s defence of Studio Egret West, and the vandalism done to both the building and the community will not be forgotten.
Balfron Social Club has campaigned since 2014 to retain 50% social housing in a refurbished Balfron Tower. The current amount being offered is zero. This is not good enough. My advice for those considering purchasing or living in the all new-improved Balfron Tower, would be to familiarise yourself with High Rise by JG Ballard.
Balfron Social Club is regularly asked for help by researchers, journalists and students, so we have compiled a list of useful links and resources, for your easy reference.
This list will be updated regularly. If you have a suggestion, or have written something you would like us to include, please get in touch. This guide does not include work on the Balfron Social Club blog, so don’t forget to look at all the great content on our blog too.
It was with great excitement and optimism when in late 2010, at the cusp of attaining my MA in Photography, that I wrote a proposal for my next project: Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out, a plan to work with the architecture and community of Ernö Goldfinger’s 27-storey brutalist masterpiece Balfron Tower in East London.
I wrote a proposal to turn the tower inside out using large format transparencies, an optimistic and ambitious aim considering Balfron Tower had been in a state of flux since 2007 when housing association Poplar Harca took control of the tower and was in the process of ruthlessly clearing out the tenants, many who had lived there for generations, so that the tower could be redeveloped into luxury flats. I submitted a proposal to Bow Arts, who were renting flats in the tower to artists, “end of life” properties where I was told “you can do anything you like except knock walls down.”
The first few months in the tower were a strange and isolating experience. It became clear very quickly that Bow Arts had alienated most of the remaining residents in the tower and that there was an active campaign to disrupt and sabotage the work of the live/work scheme artists. A formal ban on film & photography, already in place by the time I arrived in February 2011, was being aggressively enforced.
No filming and no photography (Pic: Copyright @BalfronSocial)
Despite some minor disruption to one of my project’s ‘A Delicate Sense of Terror” which was to be made in the communal areas of the tower, I carried on regardless, aware that my main project did not breach the ban as it was to be made entirely within people’s homes upon their invitation.
Fully aware that things were not as Bow Arts had made them seem in their literature, and were not addressing issues we were facing in the building, but who were still happy to send me in to the tower, my rent money and security deposit attained, but with no advance warning of the hostilities or issues that they had already caused in the community.
I was later told by an artist neighbour, who had been in the tower since the beginning of the Bow Arts scheme, that they believed that I would just give up and abandon my work, as so many other artists who had come in to the tower to create work had already done, following a lack of co-operation from the community.
Bow Arts and Poplar Harca had already commissioned an artist to produce their master artwash event, in which the community got to take part by standing on their balconies as a photograph was taken of the building. Few residents chose to take part with many boycotting the event as a way of protesting their evictions. They were not being offered any possibility to express their opinions on the landgrab and ‘regeneration’ of their homes that would later see a raft of star architects and designers drafted in, whilst Poplar Harca ruthlessly set about dismantling an entire community, using a host of tactics that would send most people with a conscience into a state of shock.
What particularly shocked me was how they used divide and conquer tactics amongst the community, playing people according to the level of resistance they would give and the level of education they had attained and their ability to fight for their rights. This included threatening ‘difficult’ leaseholders with Compulsory Purchase Orders, and in one case reportedly attaining leasehold possession of a flat from a resident with learning difficulties for £14,000.
I didn’t hear of a single occasion where tenants were offered anything that would allow them to attain a similar home in the area with their settlement for surrendering their homes, with the exception of the resident’s committee, who had been purposefully disruptive to artists, but who overall remained silent on the subject of the brutality with which Harca were ripping through the community.
In hindsight it was with no surprise that Bow Arts intimidated and bullied artists in the tower, making it clear that we were to turn a blind eye to the ruthless attacks on our (new) neighbours. Was our privilege as artists just there to be abused? The promises of gallery flats and community funding were shallow and empty lies, lies to be reinforced with Terrill’s commissioned portrait of the tower.
Large and frequent rent increases meant that most artists in the tower were forced to give up their studio spaces and take in flatmates, whilst those that complained privately about rent increases on Facebook, received intimidating letters from Bow Arts, or were summoned into their office and confronted for innocently speaking to an interested media.
It seemed artists were just here to pay up and shut up about the way our community was being treated, but also to carry on regardless and pretend that what we were witnessing in front of us was not happening. I could never accept that we were simply there for artwash and were to avoid and ignore our new neighbours and the predicaments they were in over their evictions. Sadly, it seems, for many artists who have heralded from greater wealth and privilege than I did, this did not seem to raise many ethical dilemmas for them and they seemed quite happy turn a blind eye to what was going on, if not actively engage in the artwash process.
Having been made aware reasonably quickly after moving into Balfron Tower that things were not quite as they seemed, I got my head down and started working, I had thrown everything I had into this work, and failure was not an option. I didn’t put notices up in the lift seeking participants, notices that would have been removed immediately anyway. I set about getting to know my neighbours by word of mouth, discovering through degrees of separation how isolated, alone and vulnerable many of the remaining tenants in the building were.
Living on the 2nd floor of a 27-storey building, where the lift was the most sociable place, made meeting my neighbours difficult and progress was initially slow. Many artists simply refused to participate in my work, but many did and this allowed me to shoot a number of flats and build up a small catalogue of work which better allowed me to visually explain to other residents what my plans were and what their role was within them. Slowly doors started to open, particularly when residents started to become more familiar with me around and about the building, and slowly the archive of homes I had photographed grew.
Promises made to residents of Balfron Tower by Poplar Harca ahead of the nil value stock transfer.
It was really only when doors started opening for me that I really started to hear the horror stories from an embattled community over how they were being treated. Poplar Harca lied to the residents of Balfron Tower over their plans to refurbish their homes, promising new windows, bathrooms and kitchens if they voted to transfer the housing stock to them, free of charge from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. They also told many residents that they could return to their homes, only for them to find out after they had already moved that they could not return.
It was very clear to me from the start that all was not well with the decant of Balfron Tower, and the stories I heard were heart-breaking, but consistently told of ruthless and nefarious tactics to clear the building so that the homes could be redeveloped by a luxury property developer and sold off with zero percent social housing.
It is wrong to believe that residents did not value what they had, that it was wasted on them. It was rare to meet anyone who did not speak passionately about the building and / or their community.
As more residents took part, the lightboxes grew (Pic: Copyright @RabHarling)
As the number of participants in my project grew, and as more and more people took part in my work, allowing me into their homes to document and record their private interior worlds, the more the hostility increased from Poplar Harca. Despite some early co-operation, they quickly stopped assisting me, perhaps aware that I was photographing the homes of people they were desperately trying to evict, and were worried that my work could be used to highlight the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. This wasn’t something that was in my original proposal, but was something that I was finding it more and more difficult to ignore.
By the time Bow Arts started forcibly inspecting our flats, widely rumoured to be so that artists who had made their mostly dilapidated flats into something habitable, could be evicted to make way for event & meeting rooms, supper clubs and theatre productions etc. I had already been invited in to photograph nearly 120 of my neighbour’s homes. Despite receiving no funding for the first two and half years, but dozens of rejection letters, I sustained and supported my work by eating at Occupy LSX and volunteering my time in exchange, just so I could continue to buy film and pay for processing.
Throughout this process Bow Arts seemed to be actively working against me, refusing to provide any support or assistance whatsoever, omitting my name from internal mailing lists that would have assisted me etc. It became very clear that they were using artists to artwash the tower, abandoning us to be ruthless pawns in the game of social cleansing that they were engaging in; to artwash and change the demographic of the local community, and were offering us very little in return.
Artists whose work challenged or threatened this shiny happy example of community engagement / valuable revenue stream, challenging or criticising the role that artists play for property developers, were targeted and intimidated.
By the time I had made numerous formal complaints to Bow Arts, following the complaints procedure outlined on their website, the intimidation had not stopped and demands to inspect my flat were being made daily, under the guise of a gas meter inspection. My request for a Gas Safe engineer to attend were refused. A subsequent phone call to Marcel Baettig, the CEO of Bow Arts, advised him that the intimidation by his co-director had not ceased despite earlier promises to me that it would, I raised a question that had been on my mind since a rent increase several months earlier, which advised me for the first time ever, that Bow Arts were taking a significant proportion of my rent and donating it to themselves as a charitable donation, a sum total of over £5,000 over three years; money I could have quite happily used to buy film, and food. I raised this and expressed my dissatisfaction that this money was being forcibly taken from me and donated to themselves.
I received an eviction notice in the post the following day.
Revenge eviction was the perfect way for Bow Arts to punish me. Completely legal and required no explanation beyond a simple lie, a lie lapped up by everybody in authority.
The view East from Balfron Tower (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)
I remain adamant that I should be able to choose freely with whom I give any charitable donation, and that I would not and do not choose to give it to an organisation that uses artists to artwash social housing on behalf of property developers and fails to provide anything that they claim to offer in their PR regarding community engagement in return.
By this time, I had received a Leverhulme Trust funded artist residency for my work in Balfron Tower, hosted by UCL Urban Laboratory (after two and half years of rejected funding applications.) Bow Arts had done nothing to assist with me this, other than act as a slum landlord, and attempts to negotiate with them over my impending eviction and their purposeful sabotage of my work were fruitless.
There was simply no negotiating with them and they aggressively pushed for an eviction on 31st December 2013. Bow Arts had purposefully decided to try and destroy my work and then they employed High Court bailiffs to expedite the process of removing me from my home in the tower (nearly three years before the ultimate decant date of August 2016). I subsequently spent two and half years homeless, desperately trying to keep my residency at UCL together, to make films, host exhibitions and give talks about my work at Universities, all whilst living in a squat with no power or water.
During this period, I spent as much time as I could trying to highlight what was going on at Bow Arts. Their literature promoted themselves as a community arts organisation, yet I had been made homeless for actually successfully working with my community. Meanwhile, homeless charity CRISIS defended their ongoing partnership with Bow Arts, despite being signatories to the campaign to end revenge evictions.
Why were Bow Arts so aggressive toward me just for questioning why part of my rent was being donated to a charitable cause? Why was a charity promoting community arts trying to use me to help displace a working class community from their homes, so they could be sold off to luxury property developers, all using public funds received from Arts Council England? It didn’t take a great deal of research to discover that Bow Arts were taking public funds to do something that they were not providing, but nobody was listening.
What followed was two and a half years of hell. Trying to get anybody to believe what was happening in Balfron Tower; that artists were being used in this way; that I was apparently volunteering to give my landlord nearly £2,000 a year donation without even being aware that I was doing so. I reported my complaints to the police, to Arts Council England, to the Charities Commission and to HMRC.
And nothing happened. Nobody wanted to know. Bow Arts had also retained my tenancy deposit claiming I had vandalised the flat, the near-derelict end of life property rented to me as an art studio, which I used: as an art studio. I was broke and homeless. I tweeted, I shouted and I did whatever I could to raise awareness of what was going on. It was outrageous, a publicly funded charity had evicted me from my home, had sabotaged my work and was now threatening organisations where I was engaged to speak, such as The Royal Geographical Society and Goldsmiths.
Balfron Social Club (@BalfronSocial/BalfronSocialClub.org)
It was in late-2014, still incensed by what was happening at Balfron Tower, that I started Balfron Social Club, an activist campaign to try to put pressure on decision makers and expose the privatisation of the tower, and to demand that a minimum of 50% social housing is retained in all regeneration projects.
It is unfortunate that in the solidly Labour borough of Tower Hamlets, with Labour councillors, Labour MP’s and a Labour mayor that they were steamrollering ahead with the social cleansing of large swathes of the borough, pioneering Tory policies to disrupt and displace working class communities whilst they profit from the regeneration of their homes.
Robin Hood Gardens, Tower Hamlets (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)
The most notable attacks on communities in the Eastern side of Tower Hamlets being the anticipated demolition of the Smithson’s brutalist masterpiece Robin Hood Gardens, as well as the regeneration of Balfron Tower which will contain no social or affordable housing whatsoever. This is not to mention dozens of other estates, all in the process of being ‘regenerated’ to dismantle the social housing element, instead favouring private sale and part-ownership models. No community is safe in the hands of so-called Registered Social Landlord Poplar Harca.
Despite a successful campaign to upgrade the listing of Balfron Tower to a Grade II* status by David Roberts of UCL and architect James Dunnett, the plans for the redevelopment of the tower were announced to great surprise.
Balfron Tower’s fenestration: before & after
The recommendations in the heritage listing had almost been completely ignored and plans are afoot for a Goldfinger theme park, visually aimed at hipsters and bankers, but even more critically aimed at investors. Figures released recently for one of Poplar Harca’s preferred developers Telford Homes show that 93% of their sales were to investors, with only 7% to owner occupiers. The proposals were to dramatically modify both the interior and exterior of the building. Despite it’s recent heritage listing upgrade, the proposed plans were approved by Historic England and were accepted unanimously by the planning committee for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets on 16th December 2015.
Mayor Biggs interrupts proceedings during the vote to approve planning permission for Balfron Tower (Pic: Copyright Rab Harling)
But why did Cllr Sharia Khatun, now Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets, fail to disclose her current and former interests in Poplar Harca, something she had declared on previous occasions and something that would have made her ineligible to vote? Why did Mayor John Biggs interrupt the committee mid-session and then take a seat directly in front of them and glare at them whilst they voted? Claims that the majority of the timber-framed windows in Balfron Tower’s iconic elevation were dilapidated and beyond repair were also not true, as is witnessed in my photographs. Plans have been approved to replace this beautiful fenestration with aluminium frames and sheet glass, fundamentally changing the visual appearance of the tower.
Balfron Social Clubs’ Change.org petition
A petition organised by Balfron Social Club objecting to the privatisation of the tower had gained over 3000 signatures and had forced the planning meeting to be conducted in a public session, but was otherwise completely ignored. The decision seemed to have already been made and our protestations on both architectural and social grounds fell on deaf ears.
Debating the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords on 5th November 2015, Lord Cashman of Limehouse, speaking in a debate about regeneration legacies following the London Olympics, declared “there has been incredibly poor communication with, and an incredibly poor attitude towards, tenants and leaseholders from the current landlord Poplar HARCA over the decant and refurbishment, with changing plans, the insidious decanting of tenants, years of delay and an eventual declaration that Balfron Tower would be 100% privatised”. Lord Cashman also stated that he did not consider our demands for 50% social housing as too vigorous.
I remain committed to exposing the swindle that is the removal of Balfron Tower from public ownership into the hands of investors and will continue to fight to ensure that those involved in the process are exposed.
The use of artists in this role must also be challenged, especially when artists are being forced, just by association with Bow Arts to fund their involvement in artwash on behalf of housing associations turned property developers, like Poplar Harca in East London and most recently Peabody in Thamesmead.
In June 2016 I made a formal complaint to the Fundraising Regulator to complain about charitable donations taken from me by Bow Arts. Taking ten months to reach a decision, the regulator has ruled that the statement in Bow Arts tenancy application pack that “all successful applicants will have to be committed to supporting the arts, arts events and arts education in the local area” was adequate notice that I was willingly and knowingly making them a charitable donation.
The regulator has made a decision that without my knowledge Bow Arts can take £5k from me and use it as they see fit, even though I remain fundamentally opposed to their use of artwash on behalf of property developers.
All choice has been taken out of my hands. The regulator has chosen to ignore a witness who has spoken out, on the record, to a journalist investigating corruption, that confirms that Bow Arts in no way advised us that we would be making a charitable donation to them during our initial visit to the tower as they have claimed, and has been accepted by the regulator.
Allegations by another former Balfron Tower live/work resident that match my own experience of bullying and intimidation have also not been investigated. According to the regulator, if they do not complain to them, then it simply did not happen. The regulator seems to take no responsibility to actually investigate nor follow-up allegations.
Despite being made aware of others speaking out, on the record, the Fundraising Regulator has shown no interest. It has also failed to address allegations and evidence that Bow Arts lied to tenants claiming changes in government legislation to absolve them retrospectively of fours years of Gift Aid donations taken without permission or authority.
According to the Fundraising Regulator, Bow Arts do not need your permission to make themselves charitable donations and claim Gift Aid against your taxes (Pic: @RabHarling)
Regardless of how the regulator has chosen to rule, including finding Bow Arts in breach of Section 5.2(h) of the Fundraising Standards Code, I remain adamant that I was never advised of any charitable donations and that I fundamentally do not nor have I ever approved of making donations which are in any way associated with an artwash agenda. I believe that I should have the right to choose where and how I give money to charity or charitable causes. The regulator has chosen to side with Bow Arts on the basis of probability, despite the availability of witnesses and evidence which dispute their conclusions.
Following this ruling, artwash is now funded and supported by everybody that has a studio space with Bow Arts. You do not have a choice anymore. Art no longer equals freedom of expression, but forced oppression, a violent assault on working class communities by a class of educated and privileged people who choose, in the most part, to turn a blind eye to what is going on, at least until it directly affects them.
I chose to stand up and protest the forced use of artists in this way, and the consequences I suffered were barely imaginable. Bullying and intimidation by some some arts administrators has left all of us in the arts worse off, and a climate of bullying and fear have ensured that few people attempt to challenge the worst offenders.
Organisations who abuse and exploit artists, that force artists to contribute to processes of artwash on behalf of property developers; that use artists to artwash the social cleansing of social housing need to be exposed. It is time that funding models serve communities and artists, and not just the needs of an arts organisations and their PR machine.
The East End is ripe pickings for developers as London expands eastwards, and the arrival of organisations such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the London College of Fashion and the Wellcome Trust in Poplar would be a lot more welcome if they weren’t working in partnership with the developer that is brutally dismantling our social housing, and if they were offering something genuine to the local community, rather than documenting, displacing and replacing it.
It is not acceptable to force artists upon communities that were doing just fine before an Arts Council funded artist turns up to collect community memories on behalf of whichever property developer is currently ‘regenerating’ their home.
Funding bodies such as Arts Council England need to address the corruption at some of their National Portfolio Organisations. Property developer led agendas do not serve artists and they do not serve communities. They are turning communities against artists, exposing us for exactly what we have become; the shock troops of gentrification.
All the while, the City creeps nearer. Beacons. Warning signs. Shiny neoliberal lights. Precursors of forthcoming “redevelopment”. Glass fronted. Flimsy giants. Harbingers of impending gentrification. They are coming. They will come. They will erase generations, feast on the past, wipe clean past lives, past happiness, past hardships. Brutal.
Call in the artists, the property guardians, dark soundtracks, bleak CGI mock ups trumpeting “We’re coming home, baby!”
Not yet. Just Sitex doors. Left possessions tipped in skips. Locks. For now.
Business suits, fluorescent-clad workers, white-shirted private security guards. Builders or destroyers?
A Sitex door bars access to the former home of an elderly Balfron Tower leaseholder, bullied from his home through the courts with threats of a Compulsory Purchase Order (pic: @balfronsocial)
Balfron Tower was a refuge for its many social housing tenants. Soon it will be another vacuous space filled with neoliberal lifestyle choice, as empty of lives, real lives, as the empty promises made by the local “housing regeneration and community association” and the luxury residential property developers. A haven for thieving City bankers. Left-empty overseas billionaire investments. Hedge fund safe bets. Tax evasion. Buy-to-leave.
And now the last resident has gone, decanted to God knows where, they have wiped the soul from Balfron Tower. It will never return. They will make sure of it. They have replaced people with assets for private investors, homes with a “new world” bereft of communities – another dead world of capital investment. A global world of shadowy deals and care-free exploitation. Their world.
Cinema. Launderette. Play Room. Garden Room. Cocktail bar. Goldfinger Archive. Trunk Store. Treehouse. What? Social housing transformed into 1960s “design icon”, how lovely. How incredibly ironic. How to “unlock the potential for an unprecedented cast of stakeholders”.
So wrong. So, so wrong.
Up for the Yoga Room, down for the Music Room, design proposals for the Balfron Tower regeneration (Source: unknown)
And yet, Balfron Tower remembers its proud past. Its residents will never forget. Their ups and downs are cast in screed. Their births and deaths, breakups and marriages haunt stairwells and walkways. Lifts murmur songs from decades of everyday living. Everyday hymns to everyone and no one.
Balfron Tower, like its past residents, remembers. Together, they remember things heard and overheard; seen, unseen and overseen; touched and untouched. Spoken, now muted, conversations. Different people, living together high above London, through good and bad. Sharing. Learning from one another. Partying. Playing. Fighting. Living. Always living.
Inversion / Reflection shares little bits of some of these stories. Resident’s lives. Balfron Tower’s life. The film is not a crass product of socially engaged artists in the pay of profiteering property developers or housing associations hell bent on gentrification by a wryly smiling social art practice that paints a thinly disguised veil over gentrification. It stands sensitive. Understated. Peaceful. Honest. Proud. A fitting commemoration of those displaced at the hands of unbridled gentrifiers who will, with their own rabid teeth, devour themselves eventually. Cindy. Gavin. Felicity. Shiraz. Evelyn.
Inversion/Reflection: What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You? A short film by Rab Harling
It didn’t have to be this way. Those involved didn’t need to exploit people. They didn’t have to lie. They didn’t have to socially cleanse.
This is not what Goldfinger planned.
He turns in his grave as capitalist greed stamps out the dying embers of our hopes and dreams for social housing. Balfron Tower was and still is a symbol of our welfare state. Built on optimism. Killed by selfishness. Justice for all replaced by the dog-eat-dog world of possessive hyper-individualism and neoliberal capital accumulation by dispossession. Systematic asset-stripping and land grabbing.
Balfron Tower is another battleground in a class struggle – a class war. The rich elite may have temporarily taken control but one day we will assert our right to the city and we will take it back!
A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard
After nearly ten years of bullying the social tenants from their homes in Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, so-called “social housing” provider Poplar Harca, with the full support & backing of Tower Hamlets Labour, who created Poplar Harca in order to transfer billions of pounds worth of property into the hands of their friends, have now gained vacant possession of the tower. Hurrah!
Ernö Goldfinger’s icon of brutalist architecture Balfron Tower on 31st August 2016, the day its final residents left ahead of refurbishment (pic: @balfronsocial)
For an organisation that claims to be a “charity” and a “social enterprise” their motives couldn’t be seen more clearly than in their intentions for this iconic purpose built 27-storey social housing block.
Poplar Harca have engaged the services of “luxury” property developers LondoNewcastle to manage the conversion of the tower into 100% privately owned investment properties, along with developers Telford Homes and United House, who both specialise in the conversion of publicly owned social housing into private investment “units”. Figures recently released show that 93% of the homes that Telford Homes develop, most commonly on land they have acquired from Registered Social Landlords, is sold on as investments. Only 7% have been sold to owner occupiers, people who actually want to live in the area.
The “decant” of Balfron Tower has been particularly “brutal”. Poplar Harca used all sorts of nefarious tactics to get vacant possession, including lying to tenants to remove them from their homes. Balfron Tower’s social tenants were initially told, when they were asked to vote for the NIL value stock transfer from council ownership into RSL ownership, that they would be given new windows and new kitchens. They were later told that they would need to leave their homes for the work to be carried out, but could return post-refurbishment. These were blatant lies. Many moved out having been told they could return, only to be told after they had left that they could not move back. We are in no doubt that Poplar Harca and their bible-bashing Chief Executive Steve Stride, knew exactly what they were doing. How can “street-fighting man” Stride actually have any empathy with the communities he is destroying? He is on record as saying that he plans to turn Poplar into “the New Shoreditch”, another part of London where the wealth and selfishness of the City’s rich uncomfortably co-exists with those struggling with and being ground down by poverty. Steve Stride’s salary in 2016 was £159,197, upon which he received an additional £19,000 bonus.
Poplar Harca’s intention is clear. The development of the world famous iconic Balfron Tower would serve as a flagship property, a jewel in the crown of an area with little but run-down housing stock, and bland high-density modern investment units, all uncomfortably close to the HQ of global capitalist corruption, Canary Wharf.
Labour peer Lord Cashman debates the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in the House of Lords, November 2015 (click HERE for the full video on parliamentlive.tv)
Another tactic in the arsenal of the social cleansers was so-called “artwash”, the use of young middle-class graduates to change the demographic of the area. This may have seemed like a good idea to Poplar Harca, in their dastardly plan to dismantle this traditional working-class East end community, but things don’t always go to plan.
Artists, desperate for studio space in a city evicting them further out to the margins as their studios are developed into luxury flats, were shipped in by Bow Arts Trust, a local Arts Council funded studio provider, who then bullied and intimidated its new creative inhabitants to discourage them from speaking out about the social cleansing of the tower, threatening them with evictions if they spoke to the media, or even wrote anything at all about them on Facebook, especially if it fell foul of their “artwash” agenda, and often even when it didn’t.
Poplar Harca, then despicably evicted a large number of property guardians they had contracted to be put in place by Ad-Hoc Property Guardians, and then gave the guardian contract to Cambridge-educated Katharine Hibbert, who set up “social enterprise” Dot Dot Dot. Dot Dot Dot with the help of Poplar Harca then forced its guardian’s, mostly young middle class graduates, to volunteer in the community in order to keep their homes. Dot Dot Dot were another organisation that treated many of their residents like vermin, who along with Bow Arts, illegally refused to carry out any maintenance or repairs in the flats they were charging a considerable rent for. Dot Dot Dot, an organisation that was purposefully created in order to offer social cleansing services to Housing Associations like Poplar Harca, were funded, at the request of Poplar Harca, by another local “community” organisation (that Harca’s CEO used to be a director of), the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.
Sadly, in an age of neoliberal austerity, the funding of social cleansing of a community by an organisation like Bromley by Bow Centre, that is itself funded with public funds to support the community, doesn’t even seem to raise many eyebrow’s.
Recent comment by a Dot Dot Dot guardian who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Many young middle-class graduates and “socially-engaged” artists like Simon Terril and 2015’s Turner-prize “winners” Assemble Studios have shown a severe lack of social conscience and have been happy to take the money being offered to them and get involved with the social cleansing of this traditional East end working-class community. Perhaps due to the level of privilege their parents money has bought them, they have failed to relate to the people whose homes and communities they are destroying, trampling all over them, and serving their own agenda rather than those who really need their assistance, not their top-down patronising, selfish and destructive attitude.
Poplar Harca, Bow Arts and Dot Dot Dot all failed to take into account that not all of these incomers herald from elitist privilege. I believe that this is why the bullying and intimidation was so fierce. It is now easier to scare people into remaining silent, than it is to be ethical with public money, especially given that this level of brutal community destruction is sanctioned by the privileged in their well paid administrative positions, who view social housing as being wasted upon the poor.
Some of the mess left behind in Balfron Tower following the departure of its temporary residents (pic: @balfronsocial)
Thanks to the perseverance of some artists, evicted from their homes for questioning the widespread fraud, corruption and bullying at Bow Arts, and their involvement in tax fraud and tax evasion, using public funds gained from Arts Council England, the reputation of Balfron Tower will now forever be known as “the socially-cleansed Goldfinger”. After significant attempts to cover up the criminal behaviour of Bow Arts Trust’s directors, the authorities are currently investigating Bow Arts for their charity tax fraud and tax evasion. Meanwhile, the ethics of Poplar Harca are clearly visible in the fact they continue to engage the services of Bow Arts and Dot Dot Dot to this day.
But where is the Mayor? Where are our MP’s? (ALL Labour, incidentally). Who in authority is fighting for the rights of the people Balfron Tower was built for in the first place? The reality is that the level of collusion between those that are supposed to protect us, such as local government, the “free” press, Historic England and the National Trust, is thoroughly frightening. They have shown that the greed of the neoliberal asset-stripping generation will stop at nothing to get their way. They will destroy lives; destroy communities to line the pockets of property developers and bankers at Canary Wharf. This is not what they were set up to do, and they need to be stopped. Is there anybody in authority out there prepared to look past the glossy PR and the recent £4m Poplar Harca re-brand to see and intervene in this devastating attack on the city’s working-class communities?
Respectable comment from @charliegilmour in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, 14th September 2016.
Balfron Tower has been one the worst examples of state-planned gentrification and social cleansing. But it is not alone. There are many examples out there, particularly in London, where property prices have forced the middle-classes to seek out homes in places that 3 years ago they would have planned a route around to avoid.
So, next time you wonder why a small flat in a social housing block is on sale for £350,000 or “affordable” 1-bed flats are being marketed for £495,000 and why this outrageous land grab and dismantlement of social housing is scarcely covered by the mainstream media in any depth, ask yourself, who benefits?
We at Balfron Social Club reiterate our demands that Balfron Tower remain at least 50% social housing after refurbishment. In the word’s of Lord Cashman, a “not too vigorous a demand”. Please help us make this happen and expose and penalise the worst offenders, like Poplar Harca, intent upon dismantling our social housing.
The way Poplar Harca have mismanaged the decant of Balfron Tower has been phenomenal. They have treated people like dirt, whether leaseholder, tenant, artist or property guardian.
There are still residents and leaseholders living in Balfron Tower who are fighting for their homes, and there are former residents and leaseholders that want to return to their homes, as they were promised they could do, only to later discover that they were lied to.
At least Secret Cinema acknowledge the level of fear they are likely to create amongst embattled residents
The long drawn out and mismanaged decant of Balfron Tower has been a painful event for a community being ripped apart by greedy Poplar Harca. Their incessant social cleansing only exacerbated by their co-optation of creative people to collaborate on their PR offensive.
We think that the forthcoming Secret Cinema performance of 28 Days Later at Balfron Tower is distasteful and inappropriate. There is little surprise that they decided to keep this location secret. This collaboration with Poplar Harca in Balfron Tower only furthers an aggressive social cleansing agenda that is destroying our communities, particularly whilst embattled residents continue to fight for their homes.
Tickets for the Secret Cinema event at Balfron Tower are priced at a shocking £65 each, making a £4 bowl of cereal seem almost reasonable. The event is anticipated to run for a 6-week period from mid-April. No doubt there will be zombies etc. running around the building, disturbing residents, occupying busy lifts, temporarily repurposing empty flats, many that have been ‘void’ for years and some of which were specifically made vacant for spectacles such as this.
Meanwhile, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is housing desperate families in B&B’s and in temporary accommodation on Harca estates earmarked for future development, whilst turfing many more out onto the street. First they dismantled the social housing, now it is being rapidly passed into the hands of private property developers. Meanwhile, the housing crisis rages unabated.
Rage. But whose?
Balfron Social Club continues to fight for a minimum of 50% social housing to be retained in Balfron Tower post-refurbishment. Despite promises of no loss of social housing, Harca currently propose 0%; a wholesale land grab.
Balfron Social Club calls on Secret Cinema to kindly address the inappropriateness of the situation forthwith.
Balfron Social Club
16 March 2016
On 16 March Secret Cinema responded:
Hope you’re well?
I work for Secret Cinema on our 28 Days Later project. I’ve just seen the open letter about Balfron Tower and the concerns among residents.
I just wanted to re-assure you that we’re not using Balfron Tower for our event and we are not working with Poplar Harca, it’s being staged in a different (non-residential) London location. We’ve used images of the tower because it’s a prominent part of the original film, not because it’s the location for our event.
I’m really sorry if our images have caused anger amongst the residents / former residents of the tower, that certainly wasn’t our intention.
If you have any questions feel free to give me a ring / get back to me on my email.
This article by architect James Dunnett originally appeared in Architects Journal on 8th January 2016 under the title “Historic England is Failing in its Mission” and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author with its original title.
Former DoCoMoMo-UK chief James Dunnett questions whether Historic England is doing
enough to protect the nation’s built heritage
According to the opening sentence on its website, Historic England is ‘the public body that looks
after England’s historic environment’. The organisation also pledges to ‘champion historic
places’. But has it really been doing that?
On two successive evenings at the end of last year (16 and 17 December) London Borough
planning committees allowed transformative works to major listed buildings on the strength of
approval by Historic England (HE), even though both schemes had faced opposition from
statutory amenity societies and numerous other conservation bodies.
In other words, the objections by the unofficial or popular groups have been rendered ineffectual
by the approval of Historic England. I refer to the proposed transformation works to Erno
Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Balfron Tower and to the 19th century Coal Drops in King’s Cross.
The Balfron Tower proposals developed by Studio Egret West are linked with the sale of the
block onto the private market. The scheme would strip out all the existing flat plans – except for
one of each type to be retained – and replace them with ‘open plan’ layouts by Ab Rogers
Design. The project also includes the removal of all the surviving original white-painted timber
windows – half of the present total – and the stained timber boarding, and their replacement with
box-section brown anodised aluminium windows. They are thinner, but of similar layout on the
West front but quite different on the East. The internal character will thus be transformed as will
fundamental external relationships between key façade elements.
Detailed objections were submitted by the Twentieth Century Society, DoCoMoMo-UK, and
numerous local resident groups concerned at the loss of social housing. But all was approved by
Tower Hamlets Council on the say-so of Historic England.
The Coal Drops on the King’s Cross railways lands, meanwhile, were designed in the mid-1850s
to allow coal to be delivered at high level by train and then transferred for local delivery by
gravity through traps in the bottom of the wagons and onto horse-drawn carts below.
The buildings are interesting in section and have impressive long arcuated façades topped by
plain slated saddleback roofs. There are two, roughly parallel, blocks – the East Coal Drop being
listed Grade II and the West not. However, both are in the Conservation Area. Centrally placed
in Argent’s wider King’s Cross Central development, they are now designated as the site for its
‘main retail offer’.
This means there is a demand, not present in the masterplan approved in 2006, for the provision
of ‘anchor stores’ of much larger floor area than the small ‘craft’ units in the bays of the structure
that were originally envisaged.
Heatherwick Studio’s scheme envisages hoisting these extra units and floorspace up into the air
in the form of an additional storey spanning across the courtyard between the two Coal Drops,
whose slated roofs will be twisted up and forward into giant curves so that they meet in the
middle, becoming ‘kissing roofs’. This fanciful notion seems quite alien to the sturdy functional
character of the Coal Drops, whose original roofs will be largely destroyed, and the extra storey
spanning the courtyard between them will transform it from an open-air to a covered, darkened,
space, and will also block views along its length from both directions.
But Historic England believes that while there will be harm to the listed structures it will not be
‘substantial harm’, and therefore acceptable in view of the benefits to the public of yet more
retail space. This view was opposed by the Victorian Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the
Islington and Camden Civic Societies, the King’s Cross Development Forum and the Regent’s
Canal Conservation Area Advisory Committee. But on the say-so of Historic England, the
Camden Council committee approved it. The efforts and opinions of all these voluntary groups
have thus been negated by the ‘champion of historic places’.
Eight years ago, when I was co-chair of DoCoMoMo-UK with Dennis Sharp, I wrote an article
published in the Journal of Architectural Conservation questioning the record of English Heritage
(the predecessor of Historic England) in regard to 20th century buildings, very cautiously entitled
DoCoMoMo-UK – Questions of Assessment.
In the cases discussed, starting with Erich Mendelsohn’s Cohen House, and including the Royal
Festival Hall, the Barbican Arts Centre, the Royal College of Art, and Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower
(all listed), English Heritage had supported proposals which DoCoMoMo-UK and the Twentieth
Century Society had opposed. I was careful to acknowledge that it had ‘done admirable work in
persuading the government to list many important modern buildings’ while questioning ‘whether
in all cases the local and regional officers responsible for administering the protection do so
I also lamented that in the listings the importance of space was ‘by no means always recognized
… Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick Towers are listed, but not the spaces in front and around
them, which are the point of their design’. Last year, in face of the prospect of Balfron being
privatised and in an attempt to rectify this omission, I nominated Balfron for a listing upgrade and
Goldfinger’s surrounding work and spaces for inclusion in the listing.
Balfron itself was indeed upgraded, and nearby Glenkerry House was included, but in all other
respects the nomination was rejected by Historic England and none of the surrounding space
nor ancillary buildings were included. Indeed they lost the partial protection they previously had
under the former ‘curtilage’ rule. So the important spatial factor remains unrecognised.
Only the previous year, English Heritage had belatedly recommended Goldfinger’s work at the
Elephant & Castle for listing (rejected on previous occasions, with the result that much damage
was done in the interval), and this was confirmed for the government by an appreciative
minister, Ed Vaizey. But unfortunately English Heritage had decided to omit from the listing the
block actually housing the Elephant & Castle pub – small, but the cornerstone of the
composition. It was promptly covered by full-height advertisement hoardings and much of the
remaining original detail trashed, with the result that the listing of the remainder of the
composition was rendered almost ineffectual. As at Balfron, smaller ancillary buildings may look
secondary but can be of primary importance.
On the same evening as Tower Hamlets was approving the transformation of Balfron, Professor
Wessel de Jonge, co-founder of DoCoMoMo, was giving a talk illustrating the many important
buildings, such as the Zonnestraal Sanatorium and the Van Nelle Factory, for whose careful and
exemplary conservation of Modern Movement buildings he has been responsible, respecting for
example not just the original character of window frames in detail, but of the glass also.
There was just one junior Historic England officer present. But this talk illustrated the kind of
care and attention to detail on which Historic England should be insisting – in the more recent
‘heritage’ as much as the earlier.
Alongside this, there appears to be a failure of spatial understanding, resulting in the exclusion
from listing of vital elements of compositions such as at Balfron and the Elephant & Castle, and
the approval of the works to the Coal Drops, which will evidently have a catastrophic effect on
the space between them.
Historic England, and English Heritage before it, has of course suffered a succession of budget
cuts, which have doubtless undermined its confidence and the expertise on which it can draw.
For the sake of our heritage, they need to be restored.
I am not so idealistic as to think there was no conflict in a mixed
demographic, but a society will always find conflict regardless of
the social strata. For the statutory services it seems that in times
of greater austerity, then the goal is to reduce cost to one’s own
organisation and to profit regardless of the human lives fragmented
in the midst of the business transactions. There seems to be
ignorance of the reality that for us all to function we need the
complex mix of people, who provide all the services, the support to
their community, friends and families and that wholesale export of
those with low income will destroy that delicate balance.
The London I loved as a teenager was one of diversity, a city where
rich and poor lived in close proximity with cross-fertilisation of
cultures and ideas. My grandfather lived in Ilford and we would drive
to East London from Kingston-Upon-Thames in the late 1970s, passing
Blooms Restaurant in Whitechapel, to visit him on Sundays. Before
retirement he used to work at Truman’s brewery in Brick Lane making
copper pots. I’m sure that the drive through London cemented my love of the East London. I also wonder whether my father’s working-class start
grounded me with a sense of gratitude for my own privilege and a
respect for others who are down on their luck or living happily on a
lower income. This has never left me and despite now realising I am
part of the problem, as a property owner, I also feel the need to
speak out for those who are being treated as if their connections and
lives were transitory and insignificant. There has always been social
cleansing and gentrification, but if feels now as though we should
know better and not allow councils that want to remove ‘these
people’, who may cost more in terms of support needs than the
wealthy new tenants of privatised developments.
The view from Balfron Tower. pic: @BalfronSocial
I bought my Balfron Tower flat in 2001; I love tower blocks, the
solid build of old council flats, the Goldfinger ethos and
architecture, the history and the area and I wanted an investment
property to rent out. In 2010 I received a letter re: a meeting for
tenants and leaseholders regarding the refurbishment of the block.
From the meeting the original provisional cost proposed was £120k
for my flat alone: this is always a risk as a leaseholder, but
perhaps rare to incur such an extreme cost. In October 2011 I wrote
for an update, in the absence of communication from Poplar Harca, and
was told that the start date for works may be at the end of 2012 or
the start of 2013. There was uncertainty for the tenants, with no
definitive decision as to whether they would be able to return, nor
an explanation as to what was causing the delay in decision making.
Transparency would have been appreciated. I was
asked to move my tenants out in December 2013, when I checked whether
their tenancy could be renewed. I believe I am one of around 10
leaseholders and am awaiting a notice re: the detailed works, the
date of which keeps slipping and is now around September 2015.
There has been very poor communication (despite
a named person for a very small number of leaseholders), shifting
deadlines and money wasted in leaving the block empty. The money
needs to be made somehow for a Grade II listed concrete tower block
to be refurbished, but I question why there has not been ongoing
maintenance given the very high service charges (nearly £4000 per
year for a 4-bedroom flat)? However, given the <10% leaseholders,
perhaps this service charge has only been realised for <10% of the
flats. Also given the heritage interest I wonder how much grant money
/ philanthropic investment options have been explored, in order to keep the
properties predominantly as social housing. If the situation is that
only Balfron’s sale will make enough money to provide many more
low-rent homes, then there needs to be transparency through a
financial breakdown available to all. I am not convinced the
wholesale loss of social housing is for altruistic means, nor that
there will be the local good quality low rent properties available to
those being moved out. The communication I have received has been
incredibly vague and intermittent. As a tenant the stress of the
unknown and whether to leave or hold out must have been pretty
unbearable and potentially led to some forced decision making.
The View from Balfron Tower pic: @BalfronSocial
also feel that some housing organisations do not maintain their
housing well, sometimes pay obscene rents to private landlords way
above an acceptable level and do not manage empty properties. My
(perhaps naïve) view is that there should be rent caps for landlords
and there needs to be improved legislation re: taking back empty
properties and refurbishing them at a reasonable cost. I support
private housing supporting the costs in a mixed property with a
shared entrance; I do not support forced eviction of individuals and
families. I would support assessing the desires of all residents /
owners when such a project is proposed, but not in a tokenistic way
if this is not going to affect the outcome. If I have had
difficulties getting appropriate responses and adequate property
maintenance from Poplar Harca, I fear that tenants will have had a
much poorer response. The mail had piled up, despite an agreement
that Poplar Harca were to manage the post. There was also a late rent
payment to me, with little concern for the fact: would this have been
their response if a tenant had been late in paying their rent? This
is not a great role model for an organisation that is quick to
challenge tenants for their behaviour.
I was not happy to hand over the keys to Poplar Harca without some
form of contract, which took quite some chasing up to achieve despite
the transfer of tenancy having happened. Poplar Harca took on the
flat 12th January 2014 and have been paying the rent
(value as confirmed by the estate agents) ever since; the rent for a
four double bedroom flat on two floors was £1500 per month. In
December 2013 I was given the following information re: the potential
cost to me as a leaseholder: ‘looking at an average cost slightly
above the £70k mark’. In September 2014 I received a letter from
Poplar Harca with cost to owners possibly from £105-135k. This is
the time when it became known to me that there would be no social
housing in the block.
Has the sun set on mixed community in Balfron Tower? pic: @BalfronSocial
As much as I am an advocate of the arts, even as a leaseholder
hearing via social media of various arts projects in the block and of the use of ‘property guardians’ was galling: perhaps a personal invitation may
have showed some recognition of the lives in the block. There is a
story to be told by the block, but I think these art projects
backfired, as it brought attention to the story of the attempted
gentrification and failure to honour the history and residents of the
block. Residents whose lives were in that block have been dismissed
despite no work occurring. I reflect on what role the ‘property
guardians’ are fulfilling (although fully understand why a person
would be one) and why Poplar Harca is paying me rent for well over a
year when I could have been saving them money and getting that rent
from tenants? I just wish that Occupy, Focus
E15, Our West Hendon, the New Era group, Tower Hamlets Renters,
Action East End and the other excellent collective housing saviours
had been there in 2010, so that a campaign could have started whilst
tenants were resident. The insidious creep to total privatisation
over more than 4 years has precluded this.
I would like to thank Balfron Social Club
for inviting me to write this article. Their hard work, passion and
unending knowledge of and dedication to challenging poor practice and
raising awareness of the injustice of social cleansing has been
inspiring. They have supported and guided me in making key links with
other excellent people, who will not stand by and see the most
vulnerable people in our community be treated so badly. It is only by
our collective action that change will happen.
Trellick Tower in West London. A mixed tenure block that Balfron Tower should aspire to emulate? pic: @BalfronSocial
I am currently working in the shadow of the equally glorious Trellick
Tower in West London, more famous and more coveted than Balfron over
the years, yet still maintaining mixed residency. I think it is still
not too late to challenge the plans for Balfron, as the Section 20
agreement has not been issued. Balfron is a landmark for low cost
housing and could be an amazing model for mixed private and social
housing, with a community that supports each other with skills and
ideas. Or it could become the vision described in J.G. Ballard’s
‘High-Rise’ where the rich create their own ‘Lord of the Flies’
in their battle over the status of floor level in 21st
century tower block envy.
It has come to our attention that a new and ‘innovative’ art practice is coming to the area. It is an organisation that engages in… wait for it: ‘Social Art Practice’.
This post is not about this particular organisation, it about the very existence of such organisations. It is about the artists, theorists, and community workers who are contextually obliged to work in this area of art practice. It is about the times we live in, social cleansing in the UK, and the ways in which policy makers and developers are colluding to expropriate art practice for their own ends. It is about how talented and well meaning people are fed through an art world, increasingly co-opted by their very own educations, to foster and facilitate the process of social cleansing. It is about the ways in which councils, developers, and the government are using the word ‘art’ to create chaos and homelessness, forging policy and a community aesthetic that actually implicates the very people it displaces.
Social practice is the new ‘relational’, an art practice with a long history. Art education, generally, has become increasingly aimed towards that which ‘engages’, art that generates ‘dialogue’, art that allows for a participatory medium, art that offers and creates a ‘desired path’ for both practitioner and the community he or she is working in. From galleries to grass level projects, the practice of art has become ‘socially engaged’, ‘participatory’, and is designed to foster ‘social change’.
All very well, we say. Art and its practice is cyclical and reflects the needs and desires of its times. However, it must be recognized that our current ‘times’ have been co-opted at every turn. The ‘practice’ of our everyday lives is channeled through commodified movements around and within our city. Our private lives are curated from without, and it is near impossible to resist the puppet string, let alone recognize it exists.
There is a two-fold problem when it comes to art practice in our time: firstly, universities and institutions themselves are increasingly coming under pressure to conform to and woo corporate funding. Austerity cuts have seen the field of education funneled through practice that ‘benefits’ society, in a way that is measured out by successful funding grants, bursaries, and transfer payments.
The two-fold aspect in play is that austerity and government pull back on funding for education, the arts in particular, means that much of the money available is private, and or publicly funded with corporate interest at play. This is reflected in the increasingly managerial university or institution. This is reflected in the ways in which projects and individuals are funded. This is reflected in the production of the ‘art professional’, the ‘art policy maker’, the ‘artist manager’, the ‘head of creativity and innovation’. This is reflected also in how an emerging artist who truly wants to engage in their practice in any meaningful way either becomes completely marginalized and unable to work, or they join the club to make ends meet. The ‘cultural sector’ job becomes the prize.
There you have the perfect storm: the birth of the community based Social Art practitioner, feeling lucky to get that first commission, that first residency, that first step in the ‘art world’. The community based Social Art practitioner, is ready made, pop up, and funded by the lottery, in partnership with councils and developers. The Social Art practitioner is placed in sites of contestation, and asked to do the footwork of those who really are creating concrete social change: the social cleansers.
The material conditions of these sites of contestation are complicated, and there is a blind field. While social policy makers sit in premium locations like the RSA to discuss and tweak a ‘response’ to (response being a code word for ‘how do we talk about this so it doesn’t look so bad?) community ‘problems’, real artists that struggle to exist economically and spiritually are not invited to the table. They are outsiders, and are excluded. That is until they are ‘commissioned’ by the agents of ‘social cleansing’ to go into the community and ‘work’ with residents.
There is a double narrative in play here in London and Poplar, a particularly difficult site for policy makers to navigate simply because the architecture itself is literally ‘hot property’. We are seeing a revival in appreciation for Brutalist architecture generally. Specifically, Balfron Tower, its history and its architect render it materially necessary. Unlike other social housing sites in and around the UK, Balfron Tower must stand; demolition and the erasure of its bricks, mortar, and social history cannot be achieved. It is to be socially cleansed, and we make no bones about the actual desires and wishes of the community; that there is maintained a minimum of 50% social housing on the site. However, as Poplar HARCA systemically clears the site of its original community, it is replacing the real community with a community of artists. It is using the élan of ‘art’ to sell up, to create a ‘new and vibrant’ community that justifies the huge price tickets on developments nearby.
Balfron Tower is literally ‘hot property’, prime real estate, simply because it has been stolen from the community and replaced by a purposefully curated arts community. Increasingly, the terms and conditions of this new and innovative community are that they conform to an aesthetic. Their work and their projects are checked for their degree of acceptability against a backdrop of community decimation. Those that do not conform meet with intimidation and eviction. It is risky for these struggling and emergent talents to speak out, to produce truly politically engaged art. There are some severely unhappy artists facing homelessness, and or giving up on their art careers altogether if they do what is their trade: produce work that reveals that which lies beneath the surface. They have been forced to produce and reproduce a surface veneer, and are changing how regeneration looks. They are scared to speak out. But there are rumblings echoing in the drying rooms and the lift shaft, mysteriously stripped of their machinery.
Enter the clowns: the eminent arrival of Social Art Practice. Funded by its partners in both government and UnPopular HARCA, their aim is self-generated. Their aims are: “engaging more citizens creatively; providing viable options for artistic employment; and initiating positive social change through ‘self-direction’, ‘wellbeing’, and ‘community feeling’.”
We have seen this time and again at other sites, now long since demolished. Housing developers, and indeed socially engaged, council funded arts organisations use a similar language. There is a new currency: ‘social capital’ and ‘enterprise’. ‘Social practice’ and ‘place-making’ are the new policy buzzwords. Planning and policy is being forced through this language, and it changing how regeneration looks, and presented up as ‘grassroots’. All the while, meaningful grass-root community led practice is evicted, torn down, decanted.
We here at Balfron Social Club are loathe to criticize the organisation, or the people who must do this work, as we are more than aware that they too, are pawns in a much larger game, being moved about a chess board created by high finance and a neo-liberal agenda for ‘social change’ that does not have room for any of us. ‘Community feeling’ is a precursor for decanting. If we can all feel good about our pop up art, our participation in dialogue, if we can just be kept that busy…when the eviction notice hits the floor maybe, just maybe we will play along.
But no, the ‘positive social change’ being suggested by this new arrival is nothing short of a rebranding exercise and an attempt at damage control. We at Balfron Social Club are not fooled by the arrival of an ‘arts’ practice, sponsored by the very organisation that effectively swept through the estates, asset stripping as they went.
There was a time that housing was seen as a right. Now it has been created in the image of asset management. This is being curated by policy makers and planners, through development companies, councils, and rebranded through arts practice. There is an undercurrent at Poplar, it is getting louder and there are some very unhappy people.