In June 2017, a catastrophic fire in London’s Grenfell Tower killed 72 of its inhabitants and made many more homeless. This 24-storey tower block, like many managed by borough councils across the capital, was home to the largely black and brown urban working class, people on low wages often servicing the lifestyles of the super-rich living only a few streets away. Many of their ancestors would have hailed from what were once British colonies in Africa—colonies in which millions were massacred by the likes of Field Marshal Francis Wallace Grenfell, the colonial commander whose legacy was memorialised in the naming of the Grenfell Tower upon its completion in 1974.
This deeply tragic and ironic concatenation reveals the striking interconnections between Britain’s violent colonial-capitalist legacy, enduring racial inequalities, urban segregation and the privatisation of public housing. Grenfell Tower, like all post-war housing blocks built by British local authorities, was constructed with fire-proof concrete walls and internal doors. But following decades of marketisation and outsourcing of council housing management to under-regulated profit-making firms, Grenfell’s new cladding was cheap and highly combustible, enabling the fire to spread extremely fast externally, engulfing the building before many could escape (Hodkinson, 2019).
From Grenfell to Granby
Across the other side of the country, in Liverpool—once the preeminent port city of the British Empire and nerve centre of the North Atlantic slave trade – Britain’s most established black community has been subject to a far less dramatic, though no less traumatic, war of attrition. Whilst no slave ever set foot in Liverpool—despite the fact that one in five African captives were carried across the Atlantic in Liverpool-built slave ships—thousands of seafarers from around the world travelled through the city and many settled in neighbourhoods near the docks, such as Granby.
By the 1960s Granby was by far the most multicultural area of Liverpool, enriched by waves of migration from the Caribbean, West Africa, Somalia and Yemen, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and China—alongside the Irish population largely descended from refugees fleeing the Irish Potato Famine caused by British colonial plunder—with shops, cafes, bars and clubs lining its streets, abuzz with life. Yet through the 1970s and 1980s—as Liverpool’s maritime economy was devastated by global economic restructuring, shedding jobs and losing close to half its population—Granby went into a spiral of decline.
Unlike other areas of Liverpool facing similar conditions of mass unemployment, Granby’s decline was exacerbated by racist urban policy. By 1981, some 40% of men in Granby were jobless—a figure as high as 90% for black teenagers—condemning Granby as Liverpool’s ghetto (Merrifield, 2002). Coupled with longstanding institutional racism, this had severe repercussions in 1981 when rioting erupted in reaction to police brutality. The so-called Toxteth Riots—or what locals prefer to call the 1981 Uprising—resulted in street combat with police, cars set alight, buildings burned down, and violent repression from the state with the unprecedented use of teargas upon citizens of mainland Britain.
In the decades since, Granby residents have felt “punished” for the riots—as I document in my historical study of Liverpool’s contentious urban politics (Thompson, 2020). Deeply damaging discriminatory practices of ‘redlining’—in which banks excluded ethnic minorities from accessing affordable finance especially for mortgages on houses—conspired with the city council’s wilful neglect and failure to provide adequate public services such as street lighting and rubbish collection. This left the neighbourhood without the continued investment required to maintain its remarkable architectural heritage or its once bustling economy and close-knit community. The trauma inflicted on Granby can be likened to what Mindy Thompson Fullilove (2004), writing about comparable experiences in the US, describes as ‘root shock’. In this article, I tell the story of how local activists combatted root shock to grow a collective alternative from the grassroots.
Resisting Root Shock
With intensifying territorial stigma combining with Liverpool City Council’s unofficial policy of ‘managed decline’, Granby was effectively left to rot. By the turn of the millennium, housing dereliction and neighbourhood abandonment necessitated state intervention, or so it was claimed. In 2003, the £2.3 billion Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders —a ‘mixed communities’ regeneration programme inspired by its predecessor HOPE VI in the US (Bridge, Butler, & Lees, 2012)—sought to clear and redevelop urban areas facing what its architects described as ‘housing market failure’ in nine cities across the north of England. For many remaining residents of Granby, however, market failure was not so much a natural outcome of neighbourhood decline as a willed objective of public policy. By forcing people out of their homes, and boarding up properties, the policy helped materialise the very symptoms of decline it was intended to resolve.
Huge surpluses were to be made out of attracting large government grants to compulsorily purchase properties at deflated prices, consolidate empty homes into sufficient parcels for sale at a mark up to private developers who then built higher value suburban homes in place of the old Victorian terraces—thereby securing greater tax revenues for the local authority. This political coalition of local authorities, housing associations and commercial house-builders—the ‘grant regime’—clearly had skin in the regeneration game. Financial incentives trumped public interest.
Hundreds of owner-occupiers and tenants—largely ethnic minorities—were either dispossessed or evicted from their homes and forced to move to other parts of the city or even further afield. Britain’s oldest black community was broken up. Only a few homeowners—many of whom, ironically enough, managed to buy their council homes through Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy—remained to contest the demolition of their neighbourhood. The bulldozers were faced down by brave residents blocking the streets with cars and their own bodies. They painted doors to properties earmarked for demolition with anti-vandal paint in a pointed signifier of the ‘civic vandalism’ being perpetrated by the grant regime.
Amongst those most active in the struggle were women like Dorothy Kuya. Born and bred in Granby, Dorothy was actively involved in race equality and black cultural history throughout her life, becoming Liverpool’s first Community Relations Officer in the 1960s and seen as the city’s greatest fighter against racism. She was also a lifelong member of the Communist Party and a tireless campaigner for the Granby Residents Association—her house was amongst those she was fighting to save from demolition.
Growing Granby from the Grassroots
Sadly, Kuya passed away in 2014, a few years too early to see the community’s anti-demolition vision bear fruit. While the area was under threat, resistant residents, almost all women, began transforming the streets from neglected dereliction into a horticultural commons. They set about clearing up rubbish, painting walls with colourful murals, growing climbing plants up buildings, cultivating food and flowers in planters and bringing garden furniture into the street to create a revitalised public space. These green-fingered activists ran a monthly street market selling everything from everyday essentials to art and craft, with home-cooked food and live music, attracting hundreds of people from across Liverpool.
Such ‘guerrilla gardening’ formed the foundations for an alternative community-led vision for rehabilitation of the last four streets still standing. In 2011, residents established the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust as a vehicle to take on the ownership of empty homes and restore them for community use. Community land trusts (CLTs) are an innovative not-for-profit form of collective ownership of land for affordable housing and other community uses, first developed in the 1960s American Civil Rights movement for black empowerment, and imported to the UK in the 1990s to address rural affordability problems.
Granby Four Streets is amongst the first British CLT to adapt the model to urban regeneration, pioneering for tackling contexts of decline and disinvestment. The democratically-governed trust structure of a CLT is underpinned by an ‘asset lock’, which means that all surpluses generated by rents are reinvested for community benefit and that no assets held by the CLT can be sold off into the market. This means that any housing taken into CLT ownership is made permanently affordable and under community control.
In the very same year as the founding of the CLT, the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme (England’s HOPE VI) was prematurely terminated; the era of austerity heralding the withdrawal of funding for large-scale regeneration generally. Consequently, Liverpool City Council began looking for alternatives to expensive demolition. A trial of the council’s ‘homesteading’ model, in which dilapidated homes were sold for a nominal £1 to newcomers to do up properties through sweat equity and personal savings, was never going to be sufficient alone. So the council began taking the CLT vision seriously.
The deal was sealed in 2015, when Granby Four Streets CLT won the prestigious national art award, the Turner Prize—the first architectural or housing regeneration project ever to do so, causing quite a stir in the art world. The award recognised the creative work of the architectural collective “Assemble” in bringing residents together in a democratic do-it-yourself rehabilitation process—what they call ‘community homesteading’. Assemble’s vision takes the logic of the council’s self-help homesteading approach but applies it more socially to draw on and build up community capabilities.
Notwithstanding its success, the choice of “community homesteading” as a label conjures up problematic connotations. Influenced by the barn-raising traditions of North America and the homesteading of settlers going west, this sits uneasily within Granby’s historical context as a multicultural inner-city neighbourhood in which indigeneity is claimed by various ethnic groups arguably subject to a new kind of settler-colonialism. Indeed, there are now concerns that the project has been so successful as to make arts-led gentrification—once unthinkable in Granby—a very real possibility, as artists, entrepreneurs and young professionals are attracted by the media publicity generated by the Turner Prize victory.
Crucially, the Community Land Trust provides just the institutional mechanisms for negotiating these tensions. CLT membership is open to anyone living or working in the area; its structure promotes open democratic governance, with an elected board drawn from member-residents, the wider community, and other stakeholders, enabling broad-based popular participation for long-term place stewardship and wider community benefit over resident-member benefit alone. The local Men and Women’s Somali Groups each have board representation, as does the Steve Biko Housing Association, established in 1982 to provide local black people access to social housing in the context of racial discrimination, now helping develop and deliver the CLT housing allocations policy.
Significantly, the CLT prioritises the allocation of its newly refurbished homes to precisely those former residents forced out of the area by racist urban policies—as a partial reparation. For residents who viscerally feel that their homes and community had been “stolen” from them by the state, the CLT represents a powerful reappropriation of collective ownership.
Reconstructing Public Housing on Stronger Foundation
Acting alone, however, Granby’s CLT has neither the resources nor skillsets to draw upon to effect the kind of widespread transformation required of Liverpool’s housing crisis—let alone the broader national and transatlantic housing crises around homelessness, empty homes, gentrification, tenant exploitation and foreclosures created by the commodification of housing to generate unearned wealth. Indeed, Granby Four Streets CLT relies on a number of external sources of finance and support, from various philanthropic funders to the local authority gifting public assets into community ownership, and even from the central state. So despite its troubling complicity in colonial-capitalist practices of accumulation by dispossession, racial segregation and social exclusion, here and elsewhere, the state remains an important and powerful institutional support for the replication and expansion of such community-led alternatives.
Figuring out how collective housing alternatives—from CLTs to cooperatives and co-housing—can be replicated, scaled-up and eventually institutionalised as a more socially just mainstream form of public housing is the subject of my new open access book Reconstructing Public Housing (Thompson, 2020). In bringing to light the relatively undocumented and unknown history of collective housing alternatives in Liverpool, my aim is to make visible the struggles of communities like Granby Four Streets to transform their neighbourhoods through collective action and institutional experimentation in the face of destructive and exclusionary urban policy. I aim to draw out lessons for how to make such extraordinary practices an ordinary feature of housing management and regeneration—to reconstruct public housing on more democratic and cooperative foundations.
Historical Connections and Future Prospects
In particular, Reconstructing Public Housing traces the historical place-based connections between Liverpool’s growing CLT movement—of which Granby is but one successful example, alongside Homebaked on the other side of the city—and previous movements for collective alternatives. It explores how Granby’s four remaining Victorian streets were originally saved from an earlier, post-war round of comprehensive redevelopment in the late 1960s by a pioneering participatory regeneration project led by the homelessness charity Shelter. Shelter’s Neighbourhood Action Project—or SNAP—pioneered practices in community engagement and holistic neighbourhood rehabilitation that would inform the nascent community development movement.
Moreover, SNAP activists helped set up Liverpool’s first rehab housing co-ops in and around Granby in the 1970s, which in turn led to the flourishing of a housing cooperative movement across the city region, with around 50 co-ops still owning housing in common today. Liverpool’s so-called ‘cooperative revolution’ or ‘Co-op Spring’ was ignited by Weller Street, the country’s first new-build co-op to be designed, developed, owned and managed by its working class member-residents, who were previously tenants of council housing. Importantly, the movement flourished only through generous state subsidies and professional support from secondary development agencies—a supportive infrastructure which was quickly dismantled by hostile neoliberal reforms following Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979, leading to the movement’s termination.
Setting collective housing alternatives like co-ops and CLTs apart from direct state provision is their renewed focus on democratic governance for a much closer connection between living in and managing housing for tenants otherwise alienated by distant, bureaucratic, absentee public landlords. At the same time, creative use of common property rights protects community-owned land and assets from the depredations of inflation, speculation, gentrification, aggressive acquisitions and other incursions of capitalist markets.
In a political system which places so much weight on property rights, these legal mechanisms also protect housing far more effectively than can the state, whose assets remain vulnerable to political attack. In neoliberal Britain, half of all publicly-owned land and assets have been privatised since 1979—representing a shocking 10% of the total land mass, worth an estimated £400 billion (Christophers, 2018)—significantly accounted for by the privatisation of council housing under the popular Right to Buy programme and through large-scale stock transfer to housing associations.
Such processes of privatisation—part of the neoliberal assault on the public sector—were arguably the true culprits of the Grenfell Tower disaster (Hodkinson, 2019). During the fire, residents were advised to ‘stay put’ in their flats—the standard fire procedure for high-rise buildings in the UK—authorities not realising that the building’s design safety features were fatally compromised by the privatised outsourcing of its maintenance. A bitter irony inheres in the fact that in London, the epicentre of financialisation, residents of public housing estates are more usually forced to leave their homes than asked to stay put— rehoused often hundreds of miles away in the name of regeneration, in what many critics denounce as state-led gentrification (Bridge et al., 2012).
Activists in London are now using the CLT model as a tool in the fight against estate renewal and its violent displacements of public tenants. CLTs articulate in legal form the ‘right to stay put’ as advocated by Chester Hartman (1984), the first director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. While we are still a long way from seeing CLTs and other collective housing alternatives mainstreamed in the UK, this growing movement has certainly planted seeds for the democratic renewal of public housing.
Matthew Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Liverpool.
Bridge, G., Butler, T., & Lees, L. (Eds.). (2012). Mixed Communities: Gentrification by Stealth? Policy Press.
Christophers, B. (2018). The New Enclosure: the appropriation of public land in neoliberal Britain. Verso.
Fullilove, M. T. (2004). Root shock: how tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it. One World/Ballantine Books.
Hartman, C. (1984). The Right to Stay Put. In C. Hartman (Ed.), Between Eminence and Notoriety: Four Decades of Radical Urban Planning. (pp. 304–318). CUPR Press.
Hodkinson, S. (2019). Safe as Houses: Private Greed, Political Negligence and Housing Policy After Grenfell. Manchester University Press.
Merrifield, A. (2002). Them and Us: Rebuilding the Ruins in Liverpool. In Dialectical Urbanism (pp. 53–73). Monthly Review Press.
Thompson, M. (2020). Reconstructing Public Housing: Liverpool’s hidden history of collective alternatives. Liverpool University Press.