Friday, 5 May 2017

Council housing: for whom does the bell toll?

'Dogma': Pre-demolition Heygate Estate © London Intelligence 2017

Writers tend to pen obituaries long before their subjects die, especially about the famous, the seriously ill, or at risk ‘pre-dead’. 
Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn once recited an obituary of Prime Minister Harold Wilson to a fuming Wilson himself. The BBC had asked Benn to write it several years earlier.
As the 8 June General Election approaches, some commentators have already written obituaries marking the imminent death of British council housing. For instance, ‘A Conservative election victory could spell the end of council housing’ tolls the tombstone headline inscribed above a doomsday article by Dawn Foster in The Guardian (5 May, 2017).
But, it’s a fair question; if we accept that Britain’s council housing is at risk, is it seriously in peril, or even ‘pre-dead’? 

The Conservative Party nakedly pursues a dogmatic aim to remove the state from housing provision. By 2016, a staggering 1.87 million homes have already been lost in England under Right to Buy since 1980, according to government figures. But the Theresa May government continues to pursue the extension of Right to Buy from council housing to housing association homes. Conservatives still wishfully think homeowners tend to vote for them.
Yet, under Theresa May, as under David Cameron, the Conservatives primarily regard housing not as the provision of homes but as the spread of commodified and hyper-financialised real estate assets, including swinging publicly owned land into private corporate ownership. This process burgeons a secondary market of interest-bearing loans, commissions and fees to swell a plethora of lenders, builders and agents that inflates personal debt against income. All of this bloats a global pod of international investors and developers with a plankton of profit. 

Foster, in her article, says ‘council housing pays for itself over a lifetime, in terms of reducing housing benefit, healthier, happier families and reduced strain on local health and social services’.
But ask good folks in London boroughs like Southwark, Newham, and now Haringey – and they will tell you that it is actually Labour councils that have spent the past ten years or so selling off publicly owned land at huge discounts and demolishing council estates in Stratford, Walworth and now Tottenham, displacing council tenants away from their neighbourhoods where their families have lived for generations. Labour councils’ consent to developer-led estate ‘regeneration’ schemes even involves serving compulsory purchase orders on Right to Buy leaseholders; so much for Right to Buy’s ‘own your council home for life’ mantra. 

Councillors in these boroughs, clad in Labour clothing, seem spellbound by the powerful aroma and glitter of global real estate. Like zombies, they slither and shuffle with developers and global property players at annual real estate jamborees such as MIPIM at Cannes and the London Real Estate Forum in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square.
Leading Haringey councillors have fallen into bed with Lend Lease to set up a joint 'development vehicle' that threatens council tenants in a myriad of council estates across the borough. Elsewhere in the borough, residents and traders at Seven Sisters are fighting compulsory purchase orders that could see their homes, shops and enterprises lost to a residentual scheme proposed by developer Grainger that includes no council homes.
Some councils, like Islington Council in north London, try to stem this tide but at significant cost. Apparently, the Labour council has spent more than £6.2m buying back homes that it was compelled to sell to people for less than £1.3m under Right to Buy. 

Market state 
But, generally across London, a local ‘market state’ -  a coalition of Labour politicians and property profiteers - continues to replace council homes homes with new housing for private market sale, private rent and mortgage-driven shared ownership. They replace council homes with increasingly ubiquitous ‘Affordable Rent’ housing, with rents charged at up to 80% of local average market rents.
Leave aside that Affordable Rent offers fixed rather than secure tenancies. Rents continue to rise and overheat in most parts of London rendering Affordable Rents unaffordable to average and lower income households. The politically Affordable is socially unaffordable – an Orwellian doublespeak that might’ve even raised a George Orwell eyebrow. 

Originally philanthropic but now profit-driven, housing associations are also slated for lustily nailing the coffin lid. For instance, Notting Hill Housing, with the backing of Southwark’s Labour leadership, remains hell-bent on demolishing 2,750 homes on the Aylesbury council estate in Walworth, south London, including many ex-council homes bought by former council tenants and now leaseholders under Right to Buy.
Notting Hill Housing intends to replace the Aylesbury’s 2,750 homes with 3,575 new homes of which 1,750 will be ‘affordable’. But this involves a net loss of between 778 and 1,166 genuinely affordable and secure tenure social rented homes.
Housing associations across the country are also going cap in hand to government for funds that are only released on condition that the money is used to build Affordable Rent homes offered at 80% of local market average rents. 

Labour’s pre-manifesto promise is to help councils and housing associations build one million new homes. But the deeper challenge for Corbyn’s Labour – and, indeed, for any emerging ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, Greens and left-leaning Liberal Democrats - is to shed the developer-led ‘regeneration’ approach to building new homes, even when the developer is a registered and regulated housing association.
If that message could somehow be impressed upon the electorate before 8 June, then maybe those ‘inevitable’ obituaries could be waste-basketed and reports of the extinction of British council housing could be classed as greatly exaggerated.
Yet, with council housing, as with most things, ‘if’ remains one of the most telling words in the English language.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017

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