UCL and 'social cleansing'

Oscar Webb

On 29 November, forty students entered and occupied a room at University College London in protest against the college’s plan to build a new campus in East London. UCL Stratford will see the demolition of the Carpenters council estate to make way for a new 23-acre campus costing £1 billion. After a year’s negotiations the plans were given the green light by Newham Council in late October. All of the housing on the site will be flattened and the 700 residents ‘decanted’. Their ‘right to return’ promised in the residents’ charter published by the council ‘will remain subject to availability’.

Many of the residents have lived on the estate for decades. Douglas Ward and his wife have been there since 1971, four years after it was built. ‘We’re getting on in life and we’ve got nowhere else to go,’ he told me last week. Some younger and more mobile residents have left in the last few years – many of the houses are boarded up and the three high-rise tower blocks are mostly empty – but residents claim that neglect of the housing stock is a deliberate council tactic in the push for regeneration, first mooted in 2001. Some former residents have been given new and less secure tenancy agreements in nearby social housing; others have left the borough completely. The council claims that the blocks – three of the largest in Newham – are unfit for habitation, but the top five floors of one of them were renovated for the BBC to use during the Olympics. Newham has a social housing waiting list of 31,000 people, the longest of any borough in the capital, but under UCL’s plans a maximum of 21 per cent of the new build will be given over to social housing. There’s no indication of the minimum.

The council Tenants Management Organisation has hired bouncers to keep residents out of meetings. The residents’ former independent adviser, Paul Reeves, was fired for misconduct; residents say he was ‘too independent’ for the council’s liking. UCL has invited residents to a handful of ‘community drop-in sessions’ where they could see the university’s plans but not comment on them. At a packed meeting on the estate in September, residents made their opposition to UCL’s plans known. ‘I will fight you,’ Mary Finch, an elderly resident, told the UCL representative. Another resident asked: ‘What makes your students’ rights greater than ours?’ Andrew Grainger, the head of UCL Estates, shrugged off their views: ‘Change is gonna happen.’

UCL and Newham Council claim that the new campus will create new employment and educational opportunities for the local population. The Stratford Metropolitan Masterplan predicts that regeneration in Newham will lead to 46,000 new jobs; UCL estimates that the new campus will generate 4500 jobs, 3300 of them in Newham – no doubt including, though it doesn’t say so, many low-wage, low-skill jobs in areas such as cleaning and catering. Despite repeated promises that it soon will, UCL still doesn’t pay its cleaners the London living wage. As for education, UCL says that ‘the presence of the university could enhance awareness of and attitudes towards higher education’, which ‘coupled with outreach work’ and ‘collaboration’ with local schools and further education colleges ‘would engender a material improvement in the Newham skills base over time’.

The students' occupation was all over by last Friday evening, when the College delivered an interim High Court possession order on the space, naming three UCL students. Fearing that they would be personally liable for £40,000 in legal fees, the occupiers agreed to leave. Students are continuing their awareness campaign, however, organising protests on campus and visits to the estate.

Joe Alexander, a vocal member of Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans, has been fighting regeneration since 2005. Describing what the council is doing as ‘social cleansing’, he sees UCL as the newest partner in the mayor of Newham's plan to ‘chuck all the poor people out and put in the people with money’. John Burton, the chairman of the Stratford Renaissance Partnership and director of development at Westfield shopping centres, has said that ‘bringing one of the world's top universities to Stratford will only strengthen its offer as one of the best connected and exciting development areas anywhere in Europe,’ which means exactly what it appears to mean – the people with money are already here.


  • 9 December 2012 at 1:54pm
    SpinningHugo says:
    The phenomenon of poorer areas of London being gentrified has been going on for decades. That is capitalism.

    There are, of course, people who lose out from this process but labeling it 'social cleansing', with the obvious overtones of ethnic cleansing, is deeply offensive.

    • 9 December 2012 at 8:16pm
      John Perry says: @ SpinningHugo
      I don't see why 'social cleansing' is offensive, it seems to me to describe what's going on here (at least as it appears in Oscar's excellent post) and certainly in Kensington - see my post at

      Furthermore, this has become government policy -

    • 9 December 2012 at 8:36pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ SpinningHugo
      You're completely missing the point SpinningHugo. This isn't some abstract process driven by individual decisions and individual spending power in the market, it's an active decision by a council to evict their tenants, demolish their homes, and invite an outside organisation to come in and use most of the space to little benefit to those evictees (or, arguably, other local residents.) It's not something that is just happening, it's the result of particular choices and particular policies. It's also typical of a 'regeneration' process across Britain for the last 15 years that several urban geographers have called state-sponsored gentrification, a characterisation that seems accurate here at least.

    • 9 December 2012 at 9:08pm
      Aivdd says: @ SpinningHugo
      To characterise being forced out of your home as 'losing out' could also be called offensive, but it's very appropriate. When you divide people into winners and losers, poverty becomes failure and privilege becomes success. Newham's dollar-eyed councillors aren't into losers. After all, it doesn't make sense to care about losers because losers are people no one cares about. But that is capitalism (except that councils aren't businesses...)

    • 11 December 2012 at 12:06pm
      Oscar Webb says: @ SpinningHugo
      Yes, it has been happening for decades, but that doesn't mean you can pass it off as something irrelevant as you seem to, saying nonchalantly "that is capitalism". As others who have commented have already pointed out, the effects of gentrification on London have reached acute levels in recent years; social housing claimants being forced out of the capital altogether and property prices reaching such levels that only the well off can afford to buy or rent. If we want to live in sustainable cities, gentrification needs to be challenged.

  • 10 December 2012 at 8:14pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Newham Council have real form:

    Do other councils act in such a totalitarian fashion? Newham councillors certainly seem to me to disgrace their office as public servants when they are so obviously in the grasp of private interests.

    Perhaps Newham Council might care to try to defend its appalling lack of ethics, but I suspect they really don't care what people think.

  • 12 December 2012 at 7:26pm
    SpinningHugo says:
    Is it really necessary for me to post links to what ethnic cleansing actually involved to demonstrate that the analogy is, at very best, inappropriate?

    Capitalism involves allocating resources to those prepared to pay the most. There are, of course, other ways that have been tried in different times and places for the allocation of resources.

    None has met with much success.

    Unless you can come up with a viable alternative, bleating about it is just that.

  • 13 December 2012 at 9:14am
    Harry Stopes says:
    That is indeed how capitalism works. The point is, as Aivdd said, councils aren't businesses. They're supposed to distribute their services, like social housing, according to need.

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