Didier Pasquette’s 2007 attempt at a high wire walk between two of the Red Road flats’. Image credit: Chris Leslie.

In 2013, the organisers of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games announced that the demolition of Glasgow’s infamous Red Road flats would form the grand finale of the Games’ Opening Ceremony. Where  had once been a symbol of Glasgow’s ’regeneration’ from its post-industrial past, they had more recently been known for their decline. Their demolition, insisted the organisers, signified ‘a bold and dramatic statement of intent from a city focused on regeneration and a positive future for its people’. Of the six high rises remaining, they intended to target five for demolition during the ceremony.  The sixth block, not marked for demolition, housed asylum seekers, who were to be moved out during the show, and then expected to move back in following the demolition of the neighbouring buildings.  Only when the plans met significant public resistance were they ultimately abandoned.

This episode illustrates the cumulative violence of gentrification processes on marginalised urban residents, and its disproportionately discriminatory effects on racialised and bordered minorities.  In our study, ‘The role of asylum in processes of urban gentrification‘, we show the ways in which processes of gentrification overlap, interact or collude with the processes involved in the accommodation of asylum seekers in the UK.

Gentrification is a term that refers to the way in which the spatial economies of the built environment leverage space, property and socioeconomic relations to ‘recreate space for the more affluent, [white] user’, and ‘refashion social relations’ in favour of consumer citizenship and capital’.  These objectives are often achieved through processes with racialised and classed logics that ‘mark’, stigmatise, and devalue both residents and properties in areas with ‘rent gap’ potential – a term which refers to how gentrification occurs in areas where the potential use value of land and property outstrips the current use value.  These processes enable urban planners and developers to ‘displace’ residents from stigmatised and devalued areas, so that they can capitalise upon their rent gap potential, replace old residents with those with enhanced consumer capacity, and exponentially increase profit.

Gentrification might therefore be understood as a process of ‘accumulation through dispossession’, with distinctive spatialised, racialised and classed logics.

It is a process which must also be understood as something which does not simply happen to the city, but which is done by the city, and which implicates urban actors, spaces and infrastructure in the production of racialised and classed inequalities.

In our research in Glasgow, we found that asylum seekers and refugees were frequently accommodated in urban areas vulnerable to gentrification.  Alongside other classed and racialised minorities, this meant that they were susceptible to the processes of gentrification, displacement and dispossession.

This compounded existing experiences of poverty, housing precarity, social isolation and social hardship, all related to their ‘displaced’ immigration status.  In addition, though residents of gentrifying areas experienced disadvantage related to gentrification processes, asylum seekers frequently experienced additional disadvantage, exclusion or injustice, a factor illustrated starkly by the Red Road example, where asylum seekers were expected to continue to live in a site undergoing demolition, long after other residents had been ‘cleared’.

The Bird Man of Red Road: ‘Jamal, the so-called Bird Man of Red Road, a destitute asylum seeker from Iraq, had lived in one other block alone for 8 months with only two canaries for company. Whilst the rest of the buildings around him lay derelict and pending demolition, he refused to leave his flat, knowing that had he done so, he would likely have been deported from the country’. Image credit: Chris Leslie.

Our research therefore found that, for asylum seekers, processes associated with gentrification and asylum accommodation were likely to be mutually disadvantageous, with one compounding the other. It also found that these conditions were not simply the result of two thematically related processes operating within the same geographic area, but rather were the result of a series of mutually reinforcing processes that had established a dynamic of exchange over time.

Asylum seekers are accommodated in Glasgow through the UK Government’s Dispersal Scheme.  Dispersal is a coercive and regulatory policy that gives asylum seekers no autonomy over the location or conditions in which they live.  This is instead a decision which is made first by the UK Home Office, which oversees the Dispersal policy, and then by the local agents contracted to UK Government to provide asylum seeker accommodation, who themselves make their decisions in response to the local urban economy. Asylum seekers in need of Dispersal accommodation have no choice over where in the UK they are placed, or the type of accommodation they are placed in.

When the Dispersal Scheme was first implemented in 1999, responsibility for service delivery was initially contracted to Glasgow City Council, bringing the logistics of asylum seeker accommodation into the orbit of the local social housing economy, which, at the time, was suffering the effects of a century of failed urban regeneration strategies, characterised by unsuccessful strategies of ’depopulation, demolition and dispersal’, which were routinely aimed at areas of the city in socioeconomic difficulty.

In this climate, Dispersal, and the funds it brought from central government, offered a solution to empty, declining and economically inefficient housing stock. Dispersal funds allowed the Council to employ local tradespeople to work on declining housing stock and improve conditions for the residents living there.

We argue that in these early years, Dispersal funds were therefore used to transform vacant housing back into commodities, but largely operated a closed economy of ‘regeneration’ for local housing stock; however, by the later stages, this had changed.  By the time the Council lost the Dispersal contract, it had accumulated sufficient savings from Dispersal funds to propose a programme of full-scale ‘regeneration’ for ex-Dispersal sites.  This revived the Council’s old ‘depopulation, demolition and dispersal’ strategy, and as with the case of Red Road, saw old infrastructure and residents ‘cleared’ to make way for new developments, with private tenants and buyers.  In this phase of Dispersal, we argue, it is possible to see how Dispersal funding had become integrated into the local spatial economy, and that the commodification process had begun to shift, viewing asylum seekers as commodities, rather than the properties they inhabited, the accommodation of which attracted Dispersal resources, which could be used to accumulate wealth.

This dynamic rapidly changed again when the UK Government privatised the Dispersal contract in 2012.  Whilst central government still continued to provide the funds for Dispersal, it now funnelled them to private contractors, who had been awarded the contract on the basis of ‘cost-saving’ promises, to a tune of £140 million over 7 years. Stakeholders reported that in the intervening period, the terms of this contract prompted contractors to move away from ‘traditional’ areas of Dispersal, in which the costs of ‘regenerated’ housing was now too high.  This meant that housing was instead sourced from (1) accommodation in new areas of socioeconomic decline, with no history of Dispersal and (2) lower quality accommodation.  It also meant contractors frequently housing more people in existing units.  Privatised Dispersal accommodation was frequently characterised as ‘peripheral’, unsafe, unsanitary, in poor condition, and crowded.

We argue that though this latter form of Dispersal has clearly therefore not prompted gentrifying processes in the same way as its predecessors, it nevertheless has ‘refashioned’ the spatial economy of Glasgow City according to ‘dispossessive’ logics.  By modelling its provision on privatised, ‘cost-saving’ measures, this phase of Dispersal incentivises housing providers not to invest in property maintenance or refurbishment; rather, it encourages ‘undevelopment’, or the suppression of the rent gap of the area in which the property is situated.  Indeed, this model of Dispersal allows contractors to leverage the rent gap in reverse, meaning that rent gap conditions that would otherwise be disagreeable to property development are less of a barrier to profit, because capital is less about the quality of the container, and far more about the number of ‘units’ – asylum seeking individuals – that can be put in it.

Finally, we argue that these cycles of ‘depopulation, demolition and dispersal’, ‘regeneration’ and ‘undevelopment’ which have characterised the Glasgow skyscape, do not work in the favour of residents living in sites either of Dispersal or of rent gap potential.  The combination of gentrification/Dispersal processes in these sites is parasitical: feeding off asylum seeking and other marginalised residents for resources and rent, and moving onto the next location once they have been exhausted.  However, whilst all marginalised residents are vulnerable to the effects of Dispersal/gentrification, the consequences of these effects are uneven and unequal.  In the UK’s ‘hostile environment’, asylum seekers have very little consumer capital or ‘potential’ for consumer citizenship.  As a result, though gentrification processes are happy to extract the resources associated with the process of accommodating asylum seekers, they have little interest in the wellbeing or citizenry of asylum seekers themselves. Thus located outwith the neoliberal logics of consumer citizenship, asylum seekers can be moved and removed, placed, displaced or re-placed from sites in which they are resident with little scrutiny and few consequences: a figure which can be constantly and cyclically consumed, but cannot itself consume.

‘Better Homes Better Lives’ and Demolition: Red Road, October 2015. Image credit: Chris Leslie.