Crime Of Destroying London’s Social Housing: Significance (Or Not) Of Jeremy Corbyn’s Response – OpEd


A great crime is taking place in London — the destruction of social housing estates by councils, who, squeezed of cash by central government, and, for decades, prevented from spending money on social housing, have entered into deals with private developers, in which housing — primarily estates — that the councils claim they have no money to refurbish are demolished, and replaced by new developments that offer huge profits for the developers, but that provide no social housing, or a risibly small amount.

In recent years, the purely private developers have been joined by housing associations, the preferred choice of governments, since the time of Margaret Thatcher, for managing social housing. However, with their central funding completely cut by the Tories since 2010, they have also been obliged to embark upon more and more developments featuring a large component of private housing to subsidise their properties for rent.

A further complication is that, in one of the most cynically breathtaking acts of spin in modern British history, the social housing provided is generally what is officially termed “affordable,” but which, in reality, is not affordable at all for most Londoners. Boris Johnson, during his eight destructive years as London’s Mayor, set “affordable” rents at 80% of market rents, and in most of London — if not all — market rents are so out of control that those on the median income in London (the level at which 50% of workers earn more, and 50% earn less) are paying up to 70% of their wages on rent, when the acceptable model — in pre-Thatcher days — used to be that no one should pay more than a third of their income, just as, before the insane bubble that has more or less existed since New Labour took office in 1997, the acceptable cost of a house was no more than three and a half times a worker’s income.

Figures are hard to ascertain, but the median annual income seems to be around £21,000 a year, while average monthly rents are £1,564, and when it comes to buying, of course, even three and a half times the London average income, which seems to be around £37,000 (in other words, around £130,000), wouldn’t even buy a one-bed flat in one of the least desirable and far-flung corners of outer London.

In order to get away with the destruction of people’s homes, councils lie and cheat to get tenants and leaseholders to vote for their own dispossession, and if the results should go against them, they either completely ignore the result, or, it has been suggested in some cases, rejig the figures to give them the desired result. And in almost every case of “regeneration”, a pattern is depressingly clear — the destruction of estates involves wholesale social cleaning. Tenants are scattered to the winds, never to return, and so too are leaseholders — those who bought into Thatcher’s great ‘Right to Buy’ scam — whose faith in home-owning is betrayed when councils compulsorily purchase their homes for far less than the market value, obliging them too to move out of the area.

In a further condemnation of the “regeneration” scandal, a revolving door exists between the council and the developers. With eye-wateringly large profits up for grabs, an entire culture of greedy companies, consultants and lobbyists has sprung up, with everyone schmoozing at international trade fairs and conferences, where plans for the destruction of estates are firmed up, and where properties are sold off-plan (before they’re even built) to foreign investors. As a reward for their dedication to the lies and spin required to make immense profits from making their own constituents homeless, numerous councillors are then given lucrative jobs with the developers for whom they have enabled vast profits to be made.

Perhaps most shockingly, for those who believe that the sole repository of evil in British society is the Conservative Party, most of the social cleansing in London is actually being undertaken by Labour councils — in Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney and Haringey, to name just four of the worst culprits. There is, in some quarters, ferocious denial about this, but it is absolutely true, as the entirely commendable pressure group Architects For Social Housing never tires of demonstrating, and partisan politics are ultimately self-defeating when looking at the scope of the “regeneration” scam, to which, to the best of my knowledge, no council in London is immune.

Without a serious change of mentality, in central government and at council level, it is unlikely that the current toxic mix of lies, spin, social cleansing and colossal profiteering can be stopped, but if it is not, it is not unrealistic to foresee a million Londoners driven out of the capital over the next ten to 15 years.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn?

In response, last week, Jeremy Corbyn — who, since he became leader of the Labour Party two years ago, has refused to say anything about his own party’s massive complicity in the modern equivalent of the clearances — finally broached the social cleansing scandal in his speech to the Labour Party conference, to giddy enthusiasm from the left-wing media. In the Guardian, for example, Aditya Chakrabortty and Dawn Foster, who both have a proven track record of supporting social housing and opposing the rigged, predatory nature of the housing bubble and the attendant dispossession of the poor, turned in articles that spoke glowingly of Jeremy Corbyn’s position.

Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on Labour councils over housing’, Chakrabortty wrote, while Foster filed ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s bold pledges will halt social cleansing of estates.’

Chakrabortty’s article included a thoroughly commendable analysis of the current unacceptable position regarding the destruction of social housing, noting “a wearily familar pattern”, in which “[f]amilies are booted out of their homes, the bulldozers tear down publicly owned property, and on the ruins are erected hundreds of expensive flats and a risible number of ‘affordable’ homes. The developer makes their mark-up, the council gets some loose change, and the Evening Standard has something to fill its property pages. Everyone’s a winner – apart from those now deemed too poor to live in their former homes.”

However, while Chakrabortty is correct to note that this was “a Labour leader making the strongest commitment to social housing in over three decades,” in which he “moved Labour policy forward by miles” with a speech that attacked the corrupt regeneration industry, and proposed “[r]ent controls in cities, a tax on landbanking by big developers, and forcing slumlords to bring their homes up to scratch,” the big question mark, which Chakrabortty doesn’t fully address, is the extent to which Corbyn’s speech means that, on “regeneration”, he is “effectively going to war with some of the most powerful Labour councils,” who, “[f]or decades … especially in London, have invited in big developers to ‘regenerate’ public housing estates,” a process that, he notes, the academic Paul Watt calls state-led gentrification.

To be sure, as Chakrabortty states, “many Labour council leaders in the audience must have had a start” when Corbyn began, “After Grenfell we must think again about what are called regeneration schemes”, and he is right to point out that this applies to estates including “the giant Aylesbury estate in Southwark, Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, Love Lane in Haringey, and the Ferrier in Greenwich,” as well as “the giant Woodberry Down estate in Hackney”, about which, in 2014, he and Sophie Robinson-Tillett produced a powerful report.

The list, as he also notes, goes “on and on”, and it is particularly heartening that he links to the work of ASH, who, as he describes it, have ”identified 195 council estates in the 21 Labour-run London boroughs that have been through this process, are going through it, or are faced with it.”

As Corbyn stated in his speech, the result of these schemes is “forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out.”

However, as Chakrabortty notes, “He could have added: as tenants and leaseholders of Labour councils are turfed out by the party many of them have voted for all their lives.” The reality, however, is that he didn’t, so while his words sounded all the right notes, how much will is there to follow through on them, if it means tackling corrupt council after corrupt council in boroughs controlled by Labour? How, as I mentioned above, will there be “a serious change of mentality” to stop “the current toxic mix of lies, spin, social cleansing and colossal profiteering”?

As Chakrabortty describes it, Corbyn has promised that, “if elected to government, he will compel councils to ballot all tenants and leaseholders before any regeneration”, and he has also promised that “all tenants on a redeveloped site will be entitled to move back to the same estate, on the same terms and conditions.” As Corbyn himself described it, “No social cleansing, no jacking up rents, no exorbitant ground rents.”

This is significant, as rigged votes and lies about the right to return and affordability are central to the regeneration process, but how will they become reality in a party in which, as Chakrabortty concedes, “[h]is remarks are almost certainly miles from the estate-renewal scheme” that Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, “is drawing up in London’s City Hall”?

Chakrabortty proceeds to explain how, in Haringey, the Labour leadership “is pushing ahead with a plan to shunt housing estates, school buildings, libraries and other public property into a £2bn private fund – despite the opposition of local Labour MPs, the local trade unions, constituency parties and even many Labour councillors”, a process (the Haringey Development Vehicle) that takes social cleansing to a new and alarming level, and which I wrote about here, and which my band The Four Fathers supported at a benefit gig last weekend.

The plan, as he adds, “has sent the local Labour movement into a bitter civil war.” but although Corbyn, as he describes it, “has effectively taken sides in that war – and it is against council leader Claire Kober,” what does that mean when Haringey immediately, and imperiously, responded that, as councillor Alan Strickland, who holds the housing and regeneration brief, put it, “We will continue to put comprehensive and meaningful engagement with residents at the heart of our regeneration plans, but we do not expect to start using yes/no ballots.” As the Guardian explained, Haringey “cited guidance” from Sadiq Khan, which warned that ballots “can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways over many years into a simple yes/no decision at a single point in time.”

All of this wheedling sounds to me like nothing more than a cheap effort at a conjuring trick, a sleight of hand to distract from the reality that, for many tenants, the only outcome they want to is to be able to say no to regeneration, and to insist that, unless there are fundamental structural problems with their homes, which, in many cases, there are not, the only just response to properties needing care and attention is refurbishment.

This is a process that ASH not only defends, but has also drawn up plans for in relation to a number of threatened estates. As housing experts who assess the situation objectively repeatedly point out, refurbishment is far cheaper than demolition, and, of course, it also shows a fundamental respect for tenants and leaseholders that, for the most part, is anathema to councils and developers, who, whatever they might say, are actually motivated almost entirely be greed — and, often, by both racism and a contempt for the working class.

At the same time that Haringey responded, so too did Southwark’s head of housing Mark Williams, who alleged that opponents of Southwark’s social cleansing “had wrongly claimed many tenants were being forced out of the area, when 95% of those who had moved still lived in the borough.” Research by dedicated and incredibly hard-working campaigners in Southwark, including 35 Percent and Southwark Notes, demonstrate, however, that this is patently untrue.

In its article on Haringey’s opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals, the Guardian also noted that “Corbyn’s plans do, however, tap into longstanding public opposition to some of the schemes”, like Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, a charming little estate unfortunate enough to overlook Brockwell Park, whose residents “have fought a long battle against the council’s plans to demolish what they say is a vibrant community.” Jo Parkes, one of the campaigners, told the Guardian that, “after Lambeth declined to ballot residents on its plans, her group did, and found 86% of households opposed them, with a 72% response rate.” She added that “she believed campaigns such as the Cressingham one had helped push Corbyn into action”, in the Guardian’s words.

As she said, “Absolutely. We’ve been talking about it for some time, and it had been a bit disappointing that Corbyn was silent on this before now. You can understand that as a politician he didn’t want to wind up his Labour councils, but now it seems the grassroots within the party are influencing policy, and he’s got to put his money where his mouth is.”

Architects for Social Housing – and the latest sad news from Lewisham

While we wait to see what develops, I recommend those interested in further reading on this topic to read the detailed analysis of Corbyn’s speech by Simon Elmer of ASH. Simon is very skeptical about how, if at all, Corbyn’s fine words might be implemented, concluding, instead, that the Labour Party has no intention of changing its policy on estate regeneration. As he puts it, “Claire Kober is lying in Haringey town hall; Lib Peck is lying in her new £104 million Lambeth town hall; Philip Glanville is lying in Hackney town hall; John Biggs is lying in Tower Hamlets town hall; Peter John is definitely lying – over and over again – in Southwark town hall; Steve Bullock is lying in Lewisham town hall; Robin Wales is lying in Newham town hall; Sadiq Khan is lying in City Hall; John Healey is lying in the Houses of Parliament; and Jeremy Corbyn – yes, even Labour’s saintly Leader – is lying at this conference about estate regeneration. But then the entire Labour Party is lying – to residents, to constituents, to its own supporters.”

Ironically, as I mentioned on Facebook and Twitter, and as Simon Elmer also noted in his article, “On the same day that Corbyn made his speech to his adoring audience in Brighton, back in London Lewisham Labour council announced the demolition of Reginald House and the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford.” Campaigners have fought for years to save the community garden, but the council has never lost its enthusiasm for cleansing this part of Deptford. Its original plans involved the demolition of a number of social housing blocks, but although those plans were scaled back, that won’t be very reassuring to the residents of 2-30a Reginald Road, who never asked to have their homes demolished.

Lewisham Council has just postponed until October 25 another social cleansing decision that was meant to be taking place next week, regarding the proposed demolition of an estate in New Cross, Achilles Street, which has the misfortune, like Cressingham Gardens, to overlook a park — a location beloved by developers as much as lakeside and riverside sites are.

In his article, Simon Elmer proceeded to state, in a withering analysis of the Labour Party’s collective betrayal of the people it is supposed to represent that I’m happy to co-opt as a conclusion for this article, that “Corbyn’s promises are too late for them [the residents of Reginald Road in Deptford]. There are well over 150 London estates threatened with regeneration by Labour councils alone. Even if Corbyn is elected Prime Minister in five years’ time, it will be too late for them too. Until the Labour Leader gets off his soap box, stops grinning at that ridiculous and facile song sung by middle class idiots who do not live in council housing, and calls an immediate stop to every single estate demolition scheme being implemented by a Labour council, we will continue to hold him responsible for leading a political party that will forever be known as the Number One demolisher of working class homes in the history of this country.”

If you care about genuinely affordable housing, and think we need a massive not-for-profit homebuilding programme, then it’s time to get involved. Sitting on the fence, or believing too readily the sweet words of politicians, is not enough. It’s time to stand up and be counted.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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