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Who Owns Brighton?

Through my research at the SEASALT student housing coop, I learned about the important work, and eventually became a Director, of the Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust (BHCLT). Last night saw the online launch of the BHCLT's latest project, called Who Owns Brighton (WOB), a participatory research project aiming to empower Brighton residents to better understand and shape different aspects of local planning and development process. Here is a short summary of the evening's discussion, the recording can be accessed here.

The project is funded by the CIVIC Power Fund, the first donor fund in the UK that support grassroots organizing towards justice for oppressed communities. As Mohammed Afridi from the fund reminded everybody at the outset, obtaining justice is not possible without power or organized community action. The WOB project was one of 18 project supported by CIVIC's Community Action Fund in 2023, selected from 950 applications because of its potential to make a difference in the lives of Brighton residents.

It will do so through a series of workshops that will develop a research methodology to study the development of Brighton's Circus Street, the self-proclaimed 'Tech City by the Sea' developed in a partnership between Brighton and Hove City Council, Brighton University and the developer U+I on council-owned land. Participants will research what happened and when; the different parties and stakeholders involved; what the scheme tried to do; whether it achieved it; how it was funded; what it produced and how people experience it. They will also consider what – if any – points of intervention there might have been. Having gathered this information, a hackathon will explore how to present the results in an accessible format, to public audiences including to local decision and policy makers. WOB's long-term aim is to develop a community-led research methodology that gives people the knowledge, skills and tools to scrutinise the planning and development process in their cities and to engage and mobilise at different stages of that process.

The launch event, which was moderated by Martyn Holmes from the Bunker Self-build Housing coop in Brighton who is part of the WOB team, brought together five inspiring speakers who situated what is happening in Brighton within the larger financialization of housing. To start, Anna Minton, a writer, journalist and author of Big Capital: Who is London for? and Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st Century City, explained how the entry of investment funds, private equity capital and dirty money into the UK housing market has led to housing becoming a source of wealth accumulation and extraction. This has not only led to the current acute housing crisis, but also the erosion of local democracy as communities are becoming disempowered in relation to local housing policy and investments.

Sam Freeman, Director of Legal Research and Advocacy at The Shift, a global movement to secure the human right to housing, showed how this financialization has turned housing into an asset class and profoundly impacts people's right to housing. In addition to residential homes, this financialization is now spreading to care homes, homeless shelters and indeed student housing, which is the area I have been researching for the past two years. It was the documentary Push, which follows the Shift's Global Director Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to housing, in her investigations as to why cities around the world have become so unaffordable to many residents, that first got people at the BHCLT interested in the ongoing financialization of housing in Brighton. WOB is the most recent project to find out what is happening in the city.

Rebecca Searle, a historian at the University of Brighton who was written a History of the Housing Crisis in the UK, is also part of the WOB team. She talked about her experiences as a long-term resident of Brighton witnessing a worsening housing crisis inspite of constant new developments. She also reminded everybody of the impact of the 1915 Glasgow rent strike, when members of the Glasgow Women's Housing Association started popular protests against rent increases by landlords following a housing shortage. The strike saw the introduction of rent control, showing how mobilizations and collective action by people can lead to progressive changes. A historical inspiration for WOB!

Jon Silver, a geographer at the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield, housing activist and member of Greater Manchester Housing Action, spoke about the importance of generating knowledge to be able to pressure politicians into more equitable action. He is the co-author of several groundbreaking reports on the financialization of housing in Manchester, the privatization of public land in Manchester and the impact of short-term rentals on the city. Jon's work was another inspiration for the WOB team.

And finally Helen Bartlett, lead organizer of the project, talked about housing cooperatives as one alternative to housing's financialization. As a long-term coop advocate and resident, she shared how housing coops can provide affordable and secure housing. While they only constitute a very small part of housing in the UK, mainly due to lack of regulatory and financial support, in many European countries they make up significant percentages of the housing stock. Another model that was mentioned was Vienna's progressive history of social housing, which started with people building their own homes after the end of the first world war and has resulted in many innovative housing projects. Helen now works for the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH), which just launched its Manifesto for Co-operative and Community Led Solutions to the Housing Crisis.

Following the initial presentations, the 90 attendants of the launch asked some great questions, which I had the priviledge to facilitate as the newest WOB team member. These ranged from Brighton-specific question to technical suggestions, such as using neighborhood plans, land value tax or conditional planning permissions as leverage points for more equitable developments. While all of these can be helpful, because housing financialization is a defining feature of the current housing system, a more fundamental re-imaging of the system at an international scale is necessary. This does not negate the importance of local actions, especially when they find ways to pressure local decision makers into changes that benefit local residents rather than (often foreign) capital. As councils often do not gain financially from such development 'partnerships,' an important question is why they remain ubiquitous. It is here that projects like Who Owns Brighton are so important in enabling local residents to find answers to this question and many others that arise from it.

The project's launch will now be followed by three in-person workshops where participants will design the methodology that they will then use to research the people, processes and money flows of Circus Street. Stay tuned for updates on the project!


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