This article first appeared on History Workshop Online on 13/03/2019. It was commissioned by Dr. Rachel Moss during her History Workshop Online Editorial Fellowship.
In January (2019’s) issue of Tribune the geographer David Harvey explores housing commodification’s corrosive impact upon society. Reflecting upon his childhood home in suburban Kent, he shows that his family’s “house was a use value — stolid in its ordinariness”. In political economy use value refers to an object or a structure’s practical value to the user, whilst exchange value refers to the object’s potential financial or barter value if it is sold or exchanged, meaning that when Harvey’s parents owned it, the house’s purpose was primarily to provide the family with shelter and somewhere to build their lives. Harvey contrasts this with the highly financialised place of housing in contemporary society, arguing that in “…the city of speculative gain: occupancy becomes unstable and ephemeral, social solidarities and neighbourhood commonalities disintegrate.”
This trend has played out dramatically and with highly detrimental results in Birmingham’s Selly Oak area, as I discovered while working on a public history project which uncovered the role that universities – as institutions foundational to the knowledge economy – play in transubstantiating housing’s use value for commodity value.
That project was Activist Selly Oak. Funded by the Heritage Lottery and based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern British Studies, it brought together students and settled residents, to co-produce and creatively express a history of social, political and community activism in Selly Oak between the 1950s and 1990s.
For those unfamiliar with the geography of south Birmingham, Selly Oak is the suburban area lying immediately south east of the University campus. Largely developed between the 1880s and 1940s, its housing stock is mostly terraces and semi-detached houses historically occupied by a mixed working and lower middle class community. Over the last three decades as the student population of the University of Birmingham tripled, becoming the fourth largest in the country in the process, this traditional social milieu has been almost entirely displaced. Buy-to-let landlords have purchased former single occupancy dwellings and converted them into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), whilst speculative property funds have completed thousands of student bedrooms, demolishing swathes of the area’s high street in the process. By the 2011 Census out of a total population of 26,000, 16,500 Selly Oak residents declared themselves aged between 20-29: prime student demographics.
As the area has become increasingly monocultural, in common with similar “studentified” areas in other British cities, it has locally become seen as simultaneously farcical and tragic. Selly Oak is a sad joke: often refracted through the pages of the local newspaper, where tales of messy, noisy students sit alongside reports on poor, bizarre and easily flooded housing.
This environment creates tension between student and non-student residents. These tensions formed part of the rationale for undertaking Activist Selly Oak. We hoped that bringing together transient students and longstanding local residents to co-produce public history would grow connections between the two groups. Contemporary community relations aside, we also wondered whether we could discover historical examples of solidarity and mutual support between members of the University and wider Selly Oak community.
Pleasingly, when we went looking we unearthed these examples in abundance. In the late 1950s university members engaged in joint campaigns with settled Selly Oak residents as part of the local chapters of the CND and anti-apartheid movements. Later the University of Birmingham was at the forefront of national trends after 1968 towards student community action. Part of the Student Guild, contemporary documents and our oral history testimonies indicate that Birmingham students engaged in student community action (ComAc) were often especially radical. From 1969 ComAc members worked in concert with local residents to establish a claimants union in Selly Oak. This was political action of a self-organising kind that was replicated and extended in the 1970s by joint actions to squat unoccupied buildings, establish wholesale food co-ops and community venues. The most successful examples were the creation by leftist community and student activists of the radical, yet non-partisan: 632 Books Shop in Bournbrook on the Bristol Road, and the Selly Oak People’s Centre roughly two hundred metres further up the road. The People’s Centre opened in late 1975 and operated until 1982, playing host to a range of organisations’ meetings – benefit gigs for Rock Against Racism among other causes – and advice clinics. Two Law School alumni who came on one of our walking tours recalled volunteering at a legal advice clinic in the space.
This ecosystem of voluntary action, which also included less overtly political activity like producing local news bulletins, running holiday clubs for children and an annual Selly Oak Carnival, was sustained through the 1980s into the 1990s, with a similar blend of community and student involvement. Strong campaigning ties between students and local residents are evident in the Guild of Students’ Annual Reports from the 1990s. The Report on the union’s work in 1996-7 singles out a successful joint campaign, comprising letter writing, petitioning and protest action, against the proposed alignment of the A38 relief road through Selly Oak as a major achievement. In their framing, the report’s authors place collaboration with Selly Oak residents in opposition to the road on environmental grounds as key to victory in the face of the plans being supported by both the local council and the University.
However, by 1997, the number of student HMOs was beginning its inextricable and socially disruptive rise. A process driven by higher education undergoing an analogous transformation to housing, shifting in discourse and ideological conception from primarily having a use value, whether individual or for society at large; to being in all essence a commodity. For students buying into commodified higher education, university exists to render them more readily saleable souls, driving today’s atomised students to aim at Magic Circle internships as opposed to honing their skills as barrack-room lawyers in a squat.
To the detriment of students and residents – and the benefit of landlords – the homogenisation and commodification of Selly Oak springs from the marketisation and commodification of university life. Returning to David Harvey, the alchemy that has transformed Selly Oak from being a community capable of sustaining a vibrant activist ecosystem into the homogenised and atomised space that it is day, is bleakly straightforward. Selly Oak’s traditional mixed community, a “[relatively] …low income population has been evicted to make way for [a relatively] upscale investment… and conversion… opportunit[y]” renting to students.
When they were comparatively fewer in number, University of Birmingham students tended to live in the now-affluent Harborne, Kings Heath and Moseley areas. As houses prices and rents rose there in the 1990s and 2000s, students were displaced in favour of wealthier professionals, furthering their concentration in Selly Oak. Conversely, because being a student landlord generates such profits, Selly Oak HMOs today often change hands for sums comparable to similar sized houses in Harborne, Kings Heath and Moseley, vividly illustrating how commodified housing in the suburb has become.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, given the generally very left-wing milieu of current and former residents we engaged with, the same points were made by our interviewees. They were unanimously angry about the impact of university expansion into Selly Oak. However, the also had a lot of sympathy for the students, who they considered exploited by their landlords and neglected by their institution. In contrast to much popular rhetoric, not one of them suggested that too many people today benefit from higher education. Contemporary Selly Oak is a bleak postscript to what was a fun, expressive and genuinely collaborative project, but provides a clear cut case study from very close to home of contemporary capitalism shattering a community in pursuit of profit.