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A Conversation We Should Be Having: Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle Reviewed
Brian Coney , August 25th, 2017 09:22

Brian Coney hails Paul Sng’s documentary as a vital and all-too timely look at the country’s deep-seated housing crisis

During his introduction of a sold-out screening of the documentary in Belfast, Paul Sng offered up Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle as a conversation about, rather than a solution to the tangled web of legislative failures and societal issues that his film tackles head on. Adding that it’s the value of people and the fabric of community that’s at the heart of the mounting social housing crisis, the Brighton filmmaker kept it brief in favour of letting his exposé spell out the debacle in no uncertain terms.

Beginning with Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier's contention that "a house is a machine for living in” (the first of many quotes stringing Maxine Peake’s clear narrative along) Dispossession wastes little time in unravelling the systematic, ever-worsening neglect of the British working class in social housing over the last four decades. From Thatcher’s ill-fated Right to Buy scheme to the current Housing and Planning Act via several country-wide cases of managed decline, hyper-gentrification, compulsory purchase and inner city class cleansing, Sng succeeds in framing corruption and complicity by spotlighting the flagrant misrepresentation and stigmatisation of those directly affected. In an age when “council estate” is tantamount to a term of abuse and such nigh on unwatchable “poverty porn” TV shows as Benefits Street do no favours for the aforesaid perversion of an entire class, the basic humanity of those invariably depicted, often at best, as feckless by virtue of living in social housing runs parallel with a stream of interwoven case studies and quiet gasp-inducing figures throughout, i.e. 180,000 council houses have been lost in five years; homelessness has doubled in the UK in the last six years; just 8% of British citizens live in social housing today, compared to 42% in the 1980s.

From Cressingham Gardens in London and St. Ann’s in Nottingham to Govanhill and the Red Road flats in Glasgow, the rife colonisation of space and the maddening mistruth of aspiration somehow being aligned with background are just two issues picked apart across the film’s 82 minutes. Dispossession, which premiered five days before the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, is now inevitably framed by the fall-out, unfolding investigation and the ideological overreach of 2016’s flawed Housing and Planning Act. Sng takes a broad slant by honing in on individuals whilst simultaneously tracing generation and country-spanning manifestations of entrenched complicity, corruption and political self-service (even later proposing that the current housing crisis could logically be traced back to 1066 and the advent of the feudal system). The argument is bolstered by the varyingly damning words of the likes of Peter Hitchens, Nicola Sturgeon and various MPs and local councillors, while archive footage and Nick Ward’s gently discriminating and at times beautiful cinematography ensure that space and topography – visual arcs of insolvent and evolving communities – tell their own tales, too.

Bearing in mind the powerful, simple words of one Cressingham Gardens resident (“You cannot recreate community. It's built up over a very, very long time”), Harold Macmillan’s assertion that "Housing is a question of humanity" is one that reverberates throughout the film. While the Housing Minister Alok Sharma recently said that he’s committed to working on social housing policy in the coming months, and Grenfell faring microcosmic of many of the issues presented in Dispossession, no political party, local council or estate agent comes out of the film with any right to feel proud. In offering up an indictment that points the finger at incontrovertible figures stemming from deep-seated legislative failures perpetuated by those in power across the board, any possible defence is gradually rendered void. As a filmmaker who tells “stories of those neglected, misrepresented or forgotten by mainstream media”, Sng – who counts 2015’s stellar Sleaford Mods - Invisible Britain as his sole previous production – has gotten off to a strong start, not least by evading two big pitfalls here that, in lesser hands, could have slipped through the net: denigrating his subjects or thinly-veiled political one-upmanship. Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle may indeed not offer a solution, but it presents the conversation that we really should all be having.