Saturday, 31 January 2015

March for Homes: Council tenants across London come together to protest against London's deepening housing crisis

March for Homes: Tenants demand rent controls and more affordable and secure public housing
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2015

Britain mourned Sir Winston Churchill's passing in January 1965, writes Paul Coleman.
Construction cranes loomed alongside the Thames as a boat carried the wartime Prime Minister's coffin along the river as part of the funeral procession.
Scroll to 31 January 2015.
Another procession raucously chants and drums through central London in biting wind and sleet.
Overlooked too by construction cranes.

Hundreds file over Tower Bridge under the banner of the March for Homes.
Historically, too, this procession could also be seen as a funeral march.
Mourning the death of public, or council housing across London.
In 1965, cranes over London helped build thousands of council homes needed by Londoners on average and lower incomes.
But, in 2015, cranes are building new properties for the world's wealthy property speculator elites and for London's affluent upper middle classes.

London is one of the richest cities on Earth.
But cannot adequately or securely house the people who make the city tick daily.
Hundreds of people on the March for Homes say most Londoners simply cannot afford to live in their own city anymore.
Younger people, on stagnant wages in Britain's post-financial 'meltdown' economy, face rising rents. 
Astronomical house prices make home ownership evermore unattainable.

Enough is enough
And, worse still, these new luxury homes and apartments are demolishing council estates under the guise of 'regeneration' - such as the Heygate in south London and West Hendon in north London.
Tenants on the March for Homes cheerily sang 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner'. 
They explain darkly that council-backed and developer-led 'regeneration' is forcing working class council tenants and leaseholders out of their homes. 
Hurling them towards an uncertain future outside London.
Enough is enough, say the protestors. 
One banner proclaims 'We Just Can't Take Anymore'.
'No to social cleasing,' chant protestors.
'Yes to council housing.'

The March for Homes actually consists of two converging processions.
One rallies and marches from Shoreditch Church in east London.
The other from Elephant and Castle in south London.
United, they march on City Hall near Tower Bridge to call on the Mayor of London Boris Johnson to reverse his policy of backing luxury housing developments.
But the Mayor is ideologically wedded to the free market, especially property.
Johnson is unlikely to support the wholesale refurbishment of existing council homes and the building of genuinely affordable rented homes with secure tenancies.

But that would be to miss the point of the March for Homes.
The event brings together for the first time a cluster of groups locally resisting developer-led 'regeneration' schemes. 
These schemes include luxury homes, backed by local politicians, at places like Earl's Court, Battersea, West Hendon, Shoreditch, Stratford, Elephant and Castle, Peckham, Brixton and Tottenham.
Even the organisers seem surprised by the size and stridency of the marches and rally.
But London's chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes adversely affects and angers hundreds of thousands of Londoners.
In this sense, too, the day's event and tone ought to serve as a warning to local and national politicians as a sign of more discontent to come - particularly if they persist with this model of developer-led 'regeneration'.
Of Mayor Boris Johnson, though, on this Saturday afternoon, there is no sight or sound.

But the victory of the New Era estate tenants and the March for Homes also relays a wider question to developers and investors seeking to demolish London council estates and redevelop luxury apartments for the global market.
Do you really want to subject your shareholders and their precious money to this kind of increasingly vociferous and potentially volatile protest?

© London Intelligence 2015

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2015

Monday, 26 January 2015

London council estate tenants and leaseholders vow to resist developer-led 'regeneration'

New Era Estate Tenants' Association chair Lindsey Garrett (speaking),
with Lynsay Spiteri (secretary, centre) and Danielle Molinari (vice-chair)
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2015

Fight all you like.
Campaign until the cows come home.
But you’ll never win.
They’ll eventually take your council homes.
Dispossess you. 
Demolish your estate.
Displace and compel you to leave the neighbourhood.
Where you went to school.
Where you grew up.
And, years later, raised your own children.

At least, that's the common narrative.
About the relentless power of developer-led, council-backed ‘regeneration’.
Underpinned increasingly by large housing associations.
Developers and councils; they win every time.
Working people lose everywhere across London.
And this narrative contains some depressing truths.
That test the mettle of dozens of residents and tenants groups across London.
As they campaign against troikas of developers, councils and larger housing associations intent on turning traditional working class neighbourhoods into enclaves for the nonchalantly affluent.
Transforming swathes of London into a casino for overseas property speculators.

But it’s a pessimistic narrative forcefully rejected by Lynsay Spiteri, Danielle Molinari and Lindsey Garrett – three leading lights of the New Era Estate Tenants Association in Hackney, an estate set up in the 1930s for people on low incomes.
They came to Brixton in south London last night (Monday, 26 January) to encourage and offer help to tenants and leaseholders in Lambeth trying to halt various 'regeneration' juggernauts.
New Era, they say, shows working people can win.
Tenants and residents can save their homes and neighbourhoods.
But only if they get organised and fight back.

Garrett tells the Brixton gathering how 93 New Era households organised to combat the property consortium that had bought their estate and then threatened to triple rents and compel residents to move.
“We had an initial feeling of shock and anger,” recalls Garrett, who has lived on the New Era all of her life.
Garrett explains how they set up a tenants' association and fought a strong campaign.
A property management company withdrew from the New Era due to the tenants’ fiery opposition.
Finally, new owners Westbrook sold the New Era to the Dolphin Foundation charity as the fierce New Era campaign generated wider support and media attention.

Right to left: Unite union organiser Janet MacLeod, and New Era tenants
Lindsey Garrett, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari (© London Intelligence 2015)

“We’re negotiating with Dolphin about the long-term future of the estate but we’re definitely in a much better position than we were seven months ago,” says Garratt.
“It’s been an incredibly hard campaign. 
"We’re all single mums and work full-time.
"It was relentless but we were very passionate.
"Mainly because we had lived there all our lives and so had our families.
"And we felt very passionate about the situation in Hackney and right across London where rents are being inflated and people are being forced out of London.
“We love Hackney.
"We love London.
"And we didn't want to go."

March for Homes
Garrett, Spiteri and Molinari spoke to about 50 local residents and housing activists at a meeting in Brixton (below) organised by the Lambeth Unite Community trade union branch (Monday, 26 January 2015).
Unite union organiser Janet MacLeod is one of a number of people at the heart of an attempt to pull together tenants struggling against various 'regeneration' schemes across London.
Such schemes affect tenants and residents on the West Hendon Estate, West Kensington and Gibbs Green at Earl's Court, Carpenters Estate in Stratford, John Walsh and Fred Wigg towers in Leytonstone, Ward's Corner and Love Lane in Tottenham, Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth, and the New Era in Hackney.
Thousands of tenants and leaseholders from across London are expected to join The March for Homes on Saturday, 31 January.
Two protest columns, from Elephant and Castle and from Shoreditch, intend to converge on City Hall.
Residents will urge London Mayor Boris Johnson to introduce rent controls, save council homes from demolition, and provide genuinely affordable homes with secure tenancies.

Tenants and residents discuss ways to resist council estate sales and demolition
© London Intelligence 2015

A fuller version of this story will appear here shortly.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2015

Monday, 19 January 2015

'Devo' London: No Taxation without Construction

Would Londoners get more new homes built if they had more control over their taxes? 

New homes for Londoners via fiscal 'devo'?
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2014

'Yuk,' you might think, writes Paul Coleman.
Income Tax.
Value Added Tax.
Council Tax.
Stamp Duty on property.
Londoners pay them all, through the nose.
Well, not if you're a corporation that retains tax lawyers as sharp as tacks.

The vast bulk of London taxes end up at the Treasury.
The Chancellor spends this London money across the United Kingdom on welfare benefits, the National Health Service, schools and the military.
But what if Londoners could spend a significant chunk of their taxes on new homes and infrastructure specifically for London?
Londoners controlling where their taxes are spent is an idea gaining extra credence since Scottish independence narrowly failed in the referendum of September 2014.
Devolved Scotland and Wales have managed their own spending without any problem since 1999 - and they have smaller combined populations and Gross Domestic Product than London.
Then, the 'Devo London' question arose again in November 2014, when Greater Manchester secured greater control over its own affairs.

LSE London research centre director Tony Travers, speaking at NLA
© London Intelligence 2015

So, zip forward to a chilly winter's night (Monday, 19 January, 2015).
LSE London research centre director Tony Travers laconically outlines his blueprint for London's 'fiscal devolution' to a West End audience convened by New London Architecture.*
Travers can be a tricky speaker to photograph.
View Travers on one of his frequent TV 'appearances, rolled out by TV news producers for a reliable academia 'soundbite'.
Travers often seems to speak with his eyes shut.
But Travers openly and astutely answers tonight's NLA question: 'What would devolution do for London?'

Own way
"London is very unusual by international cities in having such a small tax base," says Travers. "London exports taxes even though London earns enough money to pay its own way."
Travers chaired the London Finance Commission in 2012-13 that concluded London needs a wider tax base than just Council Tax, the capped household tax that - surprisingly - raises only 5% of all UK taxes.
"Your family and friends mightn't see it this way, but for every £1 they pay in Council Tax, they'll pay £19 in other taxes," chimes Travers.

The LFC, echoes Travers, believed Council Tax, Business Rates and Stamp Duty Land Tax might all be spent far more wisely if controlled by an elected and devolved London government.
Of course, initially, London would lose government grant.
"But then London would be able to use the full suite of locally raised taxes in London to deliver housing and other infrastructure more rationally," says Travers.

"London government would be much more autonomous," adds Travers.
"If you live in London you get the need for capital investment. 
We all use the Underground and the railways. 
And we know about the housing shortage.
We understand because we live it - the need to invest more.
The average Londoner is more likely to vote for investment in London than the Middle England voter.
The Mayor of London and the boroughs would have a powerful incentive to stimulate growth and to drive forward developments that bring up tax yields to pay for the construction of infrastructure."

Travers cites Battersea as a good example of 'locally raised taxes' being put to this kind of constructive use. 
It's a massive development around Battersea Power Station made possible by an extension to the Northern Line tube, "itself funded by taxing the high density development nearby".
The development will also have to pay for Section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy funding for schools, housing and other community benefits.

Battersea, though, isn't a popular development, chiefly due to it being targeted successfully at overseas property speculators.
And, for not being allocated to Londoners on average and lower incomes in dire need of genuinely affordable new homes.
As Travers himself says, an alternative was possible.
But the 'market state' at national and local level refused this route outright.
"The Government could've paid to renovate the power station and build the Northern Line extension," he says.
"And to build low rise affordable housing. But we haven't chosen to do it that way."

Green Belt
Growth, also, means different strokes to different folks - whether the money is raised through devolved local taxes or taxing developers on their high-value land.
Ben Harrison of Centre for Cities tells the NLA gathering: "Just building on one per cent of Green Belt land in London could unlock 800,000 to one million new homes."
To many Londoners, anxious to protect the Green Belt, this would be a dire environmental consequence of London's fiscal devolution.
Similarly, would locally funded growth mean more public services?
Or would the market state - local politicians serving corporate interests rather than local people - simply fund carving open more public services to private companies?

Politically,  though, London 'fiscal devo' might carry a hefty kick.
"If London seriously devolved, then UK central government wouldn't be left with a great deal to do," says Travers.
The sound of Westminster politicians and Whitehall civil servants squealing as they lose their jobs might prove popular with weary voters.
But Travers prefers to calmly advance the positive benefits of Londoners retaining and controlling their taxes.
"London needs this kind of freedom to generate the infrastructure it requires to meet its rapidly rising population," says Travers.

* Tony Travers, director of LSE London - a research body at the London School of Economics - spoke at 'What would devolution do for London?'; an evening debate hosted by New London Architecture at The Building Centre in central London on Monday, 19 January 2015.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2015

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

'Not for Sale': John Walsh and Fred Wigg Towers, Leytonstone

The loss of council homes on another London estate means an uncertain future for tenants.

Residents and campaigners protest against the loss of their council homes
© London Intelligence 2015

By Paul Coleman

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower…
'Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.’

No, this isn’t written about London in 2015.
Urban sociologist Ruth Glass wrote this about London in 1964.
In the book, London: Aspects of Change’,* Glass inserted ‘gentrification’ into London’s urban vocabulary.

To some observers, Glass’ description remains brutally apt for 21st Century London.
To others, ‘gentrification’ - where middle class people cheaply buy and renovate rundown properties - seems far too gentle.
They say 'social engineering' continues to eclipse ‘gentrification’.
By social engineering, they mean a process where property developers and local politicians - key elements of London's 'market state' - systematically dispossess and displace working class people from their traditional homes and neighbourhoods in virtually every London borough.
Local councils sell public land and council homes to developers.
Developers refurbish or demolish these homes and sell new luxury apartments to High Net Worth Individuals and global property speculators.
'Market state' politicians throw in a low percentage of often unaffordable 'affordable' homes for sale and rent to massage public opinion.

Jasmine, member of Focus E15 Mothers
© London Intelligence 2015

The residents of Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers are seen as the latest targets of this market state ‘regeneration’.
On Wednesday 14 January, a band of 'Fred and John' residents and housing activists brave a bitterly cold evening in Leytonstone in north-east London.
They systematically drop leaflets through letterboxes.
They knock on doors and encourage council tenants to resist plans by Waltham Forest Council to 'temporarily' decant tenants whilst the 'Fred and John' towers undergo a six-year 'refurbishment'.

Overlooking the open spaces of Wanstead Flats, the Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers on Montague Road, completed in the 1960s, have provided council homes at genuinely affordable rents to thousands of households over decades.
Some may remember too the Ministry of Defence controversially placed surface-to-air missiles on top of the towers to bolster security at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
But, last November, the north-east London borough of Waltham Forest agreed to cut the number of council homes in Fred Wigg and John Walsh from 234 to 160.

Local residents face being removed from the 'Fred and John' towers ahead of the six-year 'refurbishment' scheme.
A number of new flats in a third block to be built between the Wigg and Walsh towers are planned to be sold on the open market.
Leading to accusations the Council wants to privatise the blocks at a time when 20,000 people wait for a Waltham Forest council property.

Waltham Forest Council is working with Ascham Homes to 'improve the estate'. 
Ascham Homes run a 'project shop' in between the blocks to explain the scheme to tenants.
The author was denied access to the 'shop' and told to make an appointment.

© London Intelligence 2015

Displacement looms as a big worry for Fred Wigg and John Walsh residents. Several residents, speaking on their doorsteps, worry they might be forced to move out of London altogether given the city's chronic shortage of genuinely affordable homes.
They worry their children face disrupted schooling.
Family life could face severe challenges.
Chloe, another tenant, tells the campaigners: "I don't think this building is structurally sound enough to be reduced back to its core and refurbished."

Waltham Forest Council says revenue from private sales could raise three-quarters of £40 million needed for the refurbishment.
Waltham Forest cabinet member for housing, councillor Khevyn Limbajee, says every resident will get a chance to return to the refurbished towers. 
Renovation will provide better homes, says Limbajee.
“We’re not privatising the blocks,” adds Limbajee. 
“But selling some of the flats is needed to finance the build.”

Residents and campaigners speaking with other residents
 © London Intelligence 2015

Some residents, like Barbara, say they might be prepared to move.
But only if provided with a secure council tenancy elsewhere in the borough or in north-east London.
"I'd like to move but with all my rights intact," says Barbara.

Social housing campaigner Alice then tells Barbara that council tenants could be moved to private rented housing rather than an equivalent secure council tenancy.
"I wouldn't agree to that," replies Barbara, who has lived in Fred Wigg for 13 years with her two sons.
Jasmine, one of the Focus E15 mothers, a group of mainly women that fought evictions from the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, adds: "A lot of people are being put in private accommodation and many are being sent to Manchester and Birmingham."
"I won't let them send us out of London," replies Barbara. 
Barbara then tells Jasmine and Alice she will attend a 'Fred & John Towers Not for Sale' campaign meeting scheduled for Tuesday, 24 February at the Epicentre in Leytonstone.

Council tenancy
Limbajee says Focus E15 are acting as "scaremongers".
Yet residents say they don't believe council politicians and officers when they say refurbishment of 'Fred and John' would mean only a temporary move away.
When the Council says 'temporary', they believe the Council really means 'permanent' exile.
Daniel, a ground floor resident, says: "I'm not sure this is a fight we can win. 
"But if they're kicking us out of our council homes, we will tell them we don't want any housing associations but a council tenancy."

© London Intelligence 2015

* Glass, Ruth: London, Aspects of Change, University College London, Centre for Urban Studies, MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1964.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, January 2015