London’s housing crisis is at a crossroads. The Conservative Government’s Housing and Planning Bill has passed to an Act. We have a new Labour Mayor, elected on a manifesto promise to build 50,000 new homes a year on demolished council estate land. David Cameron will soon launch his Blitzkrieg campaign on 100 so-called ‘sink estates’ across England, many of which will be in the capital. The London Land Commission is compiling a statutory register of brownfield land suitable for redevelopment that includes existing local authority housing estates. And the estate demolition plans drawn up by real estate firm Savills that threaten the council homes of over 400,000 Londoners are ready to be implemented through London Labour Councils. It seems necessary, therefore, to take stock of where we are, where we are going, and what we need both to do and stop doing in order to start doing something about it.
Parliamentary Ping Pong
On Tuesday 3 May, Brandon Lewis, the Minister for Housing and Planning responsible for driving the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill through Parliament, rejected 12 of the 13 amendments proposed by the House of Lords. Financial privilege, a convention that deters peers from voting against the Government’s Budget, was invoked in six of the amendments refused, relating to local authorities retaining a percentage of funds from the enforced sale of high-value council housing rather than it all going to central government, the income threshold at which a household will incur market rents, and the limits to the increase in that rate. The Minister’s party backed him up, and the following day, Wednesday 4 May, after a warning from the Minister about the Government’s mandate, the House of Lords failed to insist on all but two of their amendments, 108, on carbon compliance for new homes, and 110, on sustainable drainage systems, and proposed five new amendments in lieu: 10B, on the provision of other forms of affordable housing besides Starter Homes; 47B, on local authorities retaining part of the proceeds from the sale of high value council homes to build replacement affordable housing, including, according to amendment 47C, homes for social rent; as well as 97B, on neighbourhood right of appeal against planning permission, and 109B, on affordable housing contributions to small scale developments. These amendments were sent back to the Commons the following week, and on Monday 9 May they rejected them again, while conceding new amendments to energy performance and drainage. Tuesday they were back with the Lords, who withdrew new amendments 10B on Starter Homes, 97D on neighbourhood planning, 108 on carbon compliance and 110D on drainage, but narrowly insisted on proposed new amendment 47E on the proceeds of high value council housing. On Wednesday the Commons again, and for the last time, rejected amendment 47E, and later that same day, after a further warning from the Prime Minister, the Lords finally withdrew the last of their 13 amendments. The following day, Thursday 12 May, the Bill received Royal Assent.
The week-long stalemate between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is known in Parliamentary parlance as ‘Ping Pong’; but rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic would be a more accurate description of its bearing on the outcome. If the two Houses had not reached consensus over the final text of the Bill before the State Opening of Parliament on 18 May, the Government could have invoked the Parliament Act and forced the Bill through in its original form, without any of the Lords amendments. The Minister had hinted at this threat with his repeated reminders to the Lords that the Bill was part of the Government’s election manifesto and therefore has a democratic mandate. So now, after seven months of debate – first through its two readings in the House of Commons, then a month in the Public Bill Committee, then again in the report to and final reading in the Commons, then for two readings in the House of Lords, a further month in Committee, another report to and final reading in the Lords, back again to the Commons, and then back and forth between Lords and Commons – the Housing and Planning Bill has not changed in any significant way since it was first read in the House of Commons on 13 October, 2015.
Against hopes if not expectations, the Right to Buy will be extended to housing associations, adding to the 40 per cent of council homes lost to Right to Buy that are now being rented out by private landlords. On the pretence of paying for this, local authorities will be forced to sell council homes that become vacant if they are deemed high value according to a threshold that is still to be determined by secondary legislation, but is thought to be around £400,000 for a 2-bedroom home in London, and will apply to nearly 113,000 council homes in England. A total of 214,000 households earning over £40,000 in Greater London and £31,000 in England, rather than the originally proposed £30,000, will be forced to pay market rates to stay in their council homes, but these thresholds will now be based on the incomes of the main two household earners, not include child or housing benefits, and be raised in line with inflation, with a taper of 15p in every pound over the threshold rather than the proposed 20p. Secure tenancies will not be passed from parent to child and new council tenancies will be for 2-5 years. The obligation to build state-subsidised Starter Homes for sale at 80 per cent of market rate on 20 per cent of new housing developments will be an enforceable duty that supersedes any requirement to build affordable housing, including homes for social rent, under Section 106 agreements, but their resale after 5 years at full market price will now be regulated by a taper to be determined, once again, by secondary legislation. And planning permission in principle will be granted to any housing development on sites entered on a statutory register of brownfield land that will include existing local authority housing estates. Following Royal Assent the Housing and Planning Act is the new law of the land, to be implemented by central and local government, and enforceable by the cops and the courts. So much for Parliamentary democracy.
Kill the Housing Bill
Few of us, perhaps, who have read this Bill and watched the Government use every dirty trick in the house to curtail Parliamentary scrutiny of its legislation, expected anything else. Following the constitutional reform on English votes for English laws, the Housing and Planning Bill could draw on a majority of around 90 MPs whenever a vote was required to push it through to the next stage. More damagingly, though, what popular opposition there has been to the Bill in the housing sector, which coalesced around the Kill the Housing Bill campaign at the end of last year, has been almost entirely devoted to influencing the passage of the Bill through this Parliamentary process: first through lobbying Members of Parliament, then through lobbying the House of Lords, and through any number of marches and demonstrations to and outside Parliament. At all of these, however, from the initial demonstration outside Parliament on 5 January to the march to Downing Street on 30 January, a second march to Parliament on 13 March, and another protest outside Parliament on 3 May, plus the various meetings in town halls and lobbies in Parliament, Labour politicians of every rank, from Councillors and Cabinet Members for Housing to MPs all the way up to John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, have been invited to add their voice to the Kill the Housing Bill campaign’s opposition to the Bill – or at least, to those aspects of the Bill that are not being directly implemented by Labour Councils.
This is hardly surprising, since the organisations leading the Kill the Housing Bill campaign are all supporters of, and in some cases supported by, the Labour Party. Whether Defend Council Housing, the Socialist Workers Party, the Radical Housing Network, Unite Housing Workers, the People’s Assembly, Momentum, and all the other organising groups would agree with this statement in theory is irrelevant. In practice they have consistently placed their criticisms of the Bill in the mouths of invited Labour Party spokespersons, and their opposition to its legislation outside Parliament has conformed in every aspect to that of the Labour Party inside. It’s difficult to come up with any other reason for the continued absence from the campaign’s literature and press releases – and even from its name – of anything about the Bill’s legislation on planning, which has been written specifically to extend the estate regeneration programmes that are being aggressively pursued by Labour Councils in Southwark, Lambeth, Lewisham, Newham, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Camden, Walworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, and across Greater London.
The consequences of this duplicity are growing increasingly apparent. As activists for the Labour Party’s carefully circumscribed opposition to the Bill, rather than the grass-roots campaigners they claim to be, the Kill the Housing Bill campaign has spent the past five months turning its back on the numerous estate resident campaigns that have been fighting the demolition of their homes by Labour Councils. To take only one example of many, at Lambeth Labour Council’s Cabinet decision in March to demolish Cressingham Gardens, the large protest by residents that saw Cabinet members barracked from the meeting hall lacked any support from either the Kill the Housing Bill campaign or members of its constituent groups, including Lambeth Momentum. Again, this is not surprising. Any campaigner who went onto an estate currently under threat of demolition by Labour Council regeneration schemes and told residents to vote Labour would find themselves identified not as the defenders of council housing they imagine themselves to be, but as apologists for the Labour Party’s ongoing attack on working-class homes. Since 2000, over 100 council-built estates have gone, or are going through, full or partial demolition regeneration schemes in London. The Housing and Planning Act will increase that number many times over. And the tens of thousands of residents whose homes these schemes threaten know whose logo is on their demolition notices, and for the overwhelming majority of them it isn’t that of the Tory Party.
That the Kill the Housing Bill campaign, despite this, has repeatedly invited Labour politicians to speak at marches, demonstrations and meetings supposedly organised to oppose the Bill represents, perhaps, just another in the long line of betrayals of the working class that make up the history of the Labour Party. But as a result of this betrayal, five months of fruitless lobbying and placing their opposition to the Bill in the service of the Labour Party has left the Kill the Housing Campaign back where it started. It would be wrong to say, however, that it has achieved nothing. It has wasted the time and energy of what popular opposition there was to this Bill on marches, meetings, lobbies and farcical stunts like the recent ‘sleep-out’ in solidarity with the homeless that was little more than a photo-opportunity for the invited Labour politicians. It has represented this Bill’s national assault on the working class as a disagreement in housing policy between two Parliamentary parties. It has refused to draw attention to any aspect of the Bill that implicates the Labour Party in its implementation, and in particular to the changes to planning legislation that will have the most direct consequences for London’s council estates. And most damaging of all, in doing so it has alienated the greatest source of resistance to this Bill for the sake of allegiance to a Party and faith in a Leader who has not only failed to make any statement condemning Labour Council estate regeneration schemes, but whose only response to the mass destruction of working class homes and communities that is happening now is to promise to build more council homes when – or more accurately if – he is elected in four years’ time.
One thing, nevertheless, has become clear from the seven months of Parliamentary debate and five months of wasted campaigning: and that is that any opposition to this Act that aligns itself with the Labour Party, as the Kill the Housing Bill campaign has done from the start, is doomed to parliamentary ping-pong. The fun and games are over, the marches and demonstrations and playing at politics, both inside and outside of Parliament. The real political practice starts now.
The Agents of Change
So let’s start again. And let’s start by distancing ourselves from any organisation that implicitly or otherwise supports the Labour Party and its complete failure to avert the disasters either of the Housing and Planning Act or of the mass demolition of the social housing that is still home to 3.9 million households in England. That means distancing ourselves from the Kill the Housing Bill campaign and all those who will, no doubt, continue to lobby, protest, march and fall in line behind its obedience to the Labour Party. We need to stop asking the people and institutions that want to demolish our homes to give us the means to stop them doing so, and start organising our own resistance on the ground. And let’s begin again by recognising that the greatest source of opposition and resistance to the Housing and Planning Act and the estate demolition programmes it serves are not to be found in Parliament and the consciences of landlords, life peers, hereditary millionaires and company CEOs, but on council estates and with the hundreds of thousands of working class residents whose homes and lives they threaten.
Architects for Social Housing works specifically with resident campaigns fighting the demolition of their homes through estate regeneration schemes. We design architectural alternatives to demolition that increase the number of homes on an estate through infill and build-over. By setting a percentage of these aside for private rent or sale we generate the funds to refurbish the existing homes, and in doing so we provide a way for the communities they house to continue to live together. In addition to this design work, we work closely with residents’ campaigns, sharing information about the regeneration process and what Government housing policy means for them. Over the past year we have pursued this approach with Knight’s Walk, part of the Cotton Gardens estate in Lambeth, where our proposals forced the council to consider alternatives to full demolition and ultimately helped saved half the homes; with Central Hill estate, also in Lambeth, whose residents have proposed our designs as an alternative to the Council’s plans to demolish all 456 of their homes; and with West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith and Fulham, where our designs are part of the residents’ application for the Right to Transfer their 760 homes to a community-owned, resident-controlled housing association. All three of these estates are, or were, under threat of full demolition by Labour Council regeneration schemes.
But we have a problem. As the resistance to their plans has grown, councils have stopped even pretending to listen. The People’s Plan, a 350-page document drawn up by the residents of Cressingham Gardens estate, was dismissed by Lambeth Labour Council out of hand and its authors, despite having the backing of over 80 per cent of residents, have been branded as trouble-makers and bullies unrepresentative of the estate as a whole. Architects for Social Housing received a similar response to the recent presentation of our design proposals to the Central Hill estate resident engagement panel. Following a concerted smear campaign against us in the press, only a single Lambeth Council officer bothered to turn up to our presentation. Across London the consultation process, such as it is, is being reduced to little more than a formal minimum as residents unanimously reject the justifications for the demolition of their homes. On the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates there has been no communication between residents and the council for nearly two years. Tenants and leaseholders alike are beginning to realise that steering committees, resident engagement panels, regeneration surgeries, overview and scrutiny committees, cabinet meetings, and all the other consultation structures supposedly set up by the council to listen to residents’ opinions are in fact there to silent their opposition. The more residents withdraw from these structures and start creating their own, the stronger their voices grow.
None of these resident campaigns is political in the conventional sense of the word. Their contempt for the Labour Party that has abandoned them is as total as it is for the Conservative Government. But over the course of our involvement with their campaigns we have watched residents’ growing politicisation – not to the ping-pong of Parliamentary politics but to the properly political practice of the communities which, under force of necessity, they come to form. And from working with these communities we’ve come to realise what many housing campaigners already know: that there are few stronger motivations to direct action than that of a single mother with two children fighting for her home. It is not by chance that so much of the current form of resistance to the social cleansing of London began with the Focus E15 Mothers, who in August 2013 took it upon themselves to act upon their situation when threatened with being forcibly moved out of London by Newham Labour Council. A year later they initiated a political occupation of the Carpenters Estate, where 600 council homes had stood empty for years since being decanted preparatory to their demolition and redevelopment. If the members of the Kill the Housing Bill campaign left their marches and demonstrations with Labour politicians and worked with residents in their fight to save their homes from Labour councils, they would know that here are the agents of change that will ultimately determine whether this cross-party attack on the working class will succeed or be defeated. Against first appearances, perhaps, certainly against their denigration by Government propaganda in the national press, and most definitely in opposition to the dismissive judgements made about them, their families and their homes by Labour Councils, these are the avant-garde of the movement we must set in motion.
After a year of attending council meetings and listening to council lies, residents know more about estate regeneration and what it means for them than any activist or academic. It is from them that we need to take our lead. In return, they need the support of housing campaigners, political activists, squatters and eviction resistance groups. They need the expertise and skills of lawyers, academics, architects, quantity surveyors, engineers, planners and even developers. They need the financial support of the unions and other organisations with access to funds. They need the solidarity not only of residents on other estates threatened with regeneration programmes, but also of other campaigns of resistance to the dismantling of the welfare estate by this Government, whether librarians, doctors, students, people with disabilities or union members. What they don’t need is to hear more lies from the Labour Party and its activists, or to see the struggle for their homes turned into an excuse for its complicity in the social cleansing of London. Again, if members of the Kill the Housing Bill campaign left their meetings and lobbies with Labour politicians and attended the endless panels, committees, surgeries and consultations with local authorities that residents do, they would know that here are the all-too-willing implementers of the end of social housing – not, as they falsely claim, under duress from Government cuts and the Housing and Planning Act, but in full collaboration with its policy of the social cleansing of our communities.
So let’s begin again. And let’s start by putting the communities that live on council estates at the heart of our resistance, because at the moment few of them know what’s coming their way. If they’ve heard, by now, of the Government’s Housing and Planning Act, and might have read about its plans to ‘Blitz’ a hundred so-called sink estates, it’s still doubtful they’ve heard of the scale of the regeneration programme being drawn up by real estate firm Savills, given legitimacy by think-tanks like the Institute of Public Policy Research and Future of London, promoted by the London Housing Commission and New London Architecture, enacted by the London Land Commission and the London Mayor, financed by builders like Taylor Wimpey, Barrat and Berkley, supported by property developers like Barclays, Lend Lease and Capco, administered by housing associations like Peabody, Notting Hill Housing Trust and London and Quadrant, ratified by the Conservative Government, and then, only then, implemented by the predominantly Labour Councils the residents of these estates elected to power.
Open Garden Estates is an initiative by Architects for Social Housing designed to counter this lack of information. Piloted last year on the three estates we were working with, it was an opportunity for campaigns to galvanise fellow residents into resistance, publicise the struggle to save their homes, and invite people from the local community and beyond onto the estate. The aim was to help banish the myth of council estates as concrete jungles that are home to anti-social behaviour and crime, and show them to be what they are – some of the last instances of community living left in London, and perhaps the only remaining places where the mixed communities we hear so much about in the speeches of politicians have a chance to survive the encroachment of gated ghettos of predominantly white, middle-class wealth. This year, with funding from a charitable trust and in collaboration with the Revolutionary Communist Group, Open Garden Estates is expanding its reach. We currently have ten campaigns signed up to host the event, which is also part of the London Festival of Architecture, and we hope to have more by the time it happens over the weekend of 18-19 June. Our aim, this year, is to reach as many residents with as much information as we can about what the housing policies of this Government, the new London Mayor and their local authority will mean for their homes, and how they can start to build their resistance.
Our current advice to estate residents, which has been arrived at by residents themselves through their own struggle, but which is supported by advice from housing and leasehold lawyers, is that collective resistance by leaseholders forcing Councils to issue compulsory purchase orders against them is one of the most effective ways to resist estate regeneration and potentially save the homes of all residents, leaseholders and council tenants alike. It costs the Councils considerable sums in legal fees, allows residents to question the consultation process at public inquiries and judicial reviews, put forward alternative architectural designs for refurbishment and argue that they better represent the needs of the local community, and delays developers’ demolition plans by years, costing them large amounts of money. It also casts an illuminating light on the Plato’s cave of illusions in which the public is imprisoned by the media and its representation of what is happening to housing in this country. If we can show every leaseholder on every estate in London why they should do this, and why every council tenant on their estate should support them, then the Conservative Government, Labour Councils, and all the other housing associations, estate agents, building companies, property developers and real estate investors feeding at the London housing table might start to think again about whether estate demolition and redevelopment really is the easiest route to a quick profit and high returns.
We need to remember at every step that there is no housing crisis except the one being driven by the boom in the London property market, and we need to make it both financially and politically unviable for the businessmen and politicians running this city to realise their plans to build investment opportunities for offshore capital on the land our homes stand on. The police have immunity to beat up as many protesters as they like, and councils are happy to pick off tenants one by one; but we need to test their ability to evict an entire community in which the public, despite the denigration of working class lives in our national media, can still recognise themselves and their own struggle for housing, security and dignity. To this end we need to build a community of resistance to the attack on social housing we are facing. Only then can we think about how to set in motion a wider political movement to start reclaiming the public realm that is being sold from under our feet. This isn’t about a choice between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, as liberals too terrified to face the truth like to think: this is a fight between monopoly capitalism and its subjects. Resistance begins at home.
Architects for Social Housing