The Labour Party Conference 2017: Housing Policy and Estate Regeneration

On Wednesday afternoon the Labour Party Leader gave his closing speech to the party faithful in Brighton. And to our surprise, the man who for two years has resolutely refused even to refer to the estate regeneration programme being implemented by Labour councils across the country, but most especially in London, Jeremy Corbyn finally mentioned the ‘R’ word. Labourites who have opposed the programme but equally resolutely refused to condemn their party for implementing it have reacted with typical understatement. ‘I knew he’d come good!’ declared one supporter on the ASH Facebook page. ‘Can you now acknowledge we were right about Corbyn?’ demanded another. ‘A yes/no vote on demolitions is now Labour Party policy!’ said a third. And the rapture wasn’t confined to social media. ‘Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on Labour councils over housing’, ran the headline to Aditya Chakrabortty’s article in the Guardian’s online housing section (obviously the editor wouldn’t dare put it the paper, but we thank Aditya for including a link to our article on Mapping London’s Estate Regeneration Programme). ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s bold pledges will halt social cleansing of estates’, declared the excited Dawn Foster the next day. So what did Corbyn actually say about estate regeneration and housing, and what will his words mean in practice? In the absence of anything resembling analysis in our national press, here is what ASH heard in the Labour Party Leader’s speech.

The disdain for the powerless and the poor has made our society more brutal and less caring. Now that degraded regime has a tragic monument: the chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower, a horrifying fire in which dozens perished. An entirely avoidable human disaster, one which is an indictment not just of decades of failed housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world, it is also a damning indictment of a whole outlook which values council tax refunds for the wealthy above decent provision for all and which has contempt for working class communities.

Indeed it has. And high in the list of that brutality is the estate regeneration programme that threatens, is currently being implemented against, or which has already privatised, demolished or socially cleansed 237 London housing estates, 195 of them in boroughs run by Labour councils, which vie with each other for the title of ‘least caring’, and among which the councils of Hackney, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and Haringey could give the Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council a lesson in disdain, privatisation, failed housing policies and the inequality they produce. But it’s good to hear Corbyn discard the Tories’ contemptuous terminology of ‘hardworking families’ and ‘ordinary people’ and finally – if belatedly – refer to the ‘working class’.

Before the fire, a tenants’ group of Grenfell residents had warned – and I quote the words that should haunt all politicians: ‘The Grenfell Action Group firmly believes that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord’. Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions. It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace.

If Corbyn, like his fellow liberal Jon Snow, had not spent the past two years ignoring the estate regeneration programme that is at the heart of London’s transformation into a Dubai-on-Thames for the world’s dirty money, he would know that every resident campaign in every estate undergoing demolition and redevelopment could produce a similar testimony of inept and incompetent local authorities, bad political decisions and a failed and broken system of democratic accountability. That they would overwhelmingly be speaking about London’s Labour councils, rather than the Conservative government, poses the question of how the Labour Party will undertake the task of replacing the leadership, housing policies and neo-liberal ideals of its own councils, none of whose cabinet members would look out of place in Kensington and Chelsea council. Unfortunately, it’s a question neither Corbyn nor his followers have seen fit to answer since he became Party Leader two years ago. And judging by this speech, which fails even to identify Labour councils as the primary implementors of this system, it doesn’t apear that Corbyn will be enlightening us anytime soon.

The poet Ben Okri recently wrote in his poem Grenfell Tower:

Those who were living now are dead
Those who were breathing are from the living earth fled
If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.
See the tower, and let a world-changing dream flower.

Leaving aside this terrible mangling of T. S. Eliot’s beautiful lines from The Waste Land, we’ve already commented at length on Labour politicians using the dead of Grenfell Tower to score political points against the Conservative Party, as has been done by RBKC Labour councillor Robert Atkinson, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP David Lammy, Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan and, in this conference, by Labour MP Diane Abbott, who in her own speech didn’t shrink from praising the Metropolitan Police Force two months after the murder of Rashan Charles by a constable in her own borough. If he wants to see how the poor live, rather than cynically using the dead for political point-scoring, Corbyn should visit some of the 195 estates being privatised, demolished and socially cleansed by the Labour councils he continues to refuse to identify as every bit as complicit as the Tories in the regeneration programme that killed the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Dreams don’t flower, and they don’t change the world; facing up to the material realities of working class life and coming up with a political programme of change does.

We have a duty as a country to learn the lessons from this calamity and ensure that a changed world flowers. I hope the Public Inquiry will assist. But a decent home is a right for everyone whatever their income or background. And houses should be homes for the many not speculative investments for a few. Look at the Conservative housing record and you understand why Grenfell residents are sceptical about their Conservative council and this Conservative government.

As ASH has repeatedly argued, the housing crisis is not a crisis of quality but of affordability. While we welcome Corbyn’s description of a home as a ‘right’ – something Southwark Labour council has denied residents in the Aylesbury estate they have condemned to demolition – the criteria of a ‘decent home’ is regularly used – by Lambeth Labour council, for example – as a standard beneath which housing estates deprived of maintenance for decades are judged to be worthy of demolition. If Corbyn isn’t aware of how open his terminology is to abuse he should be, for it is to its precise definition, and not to his fluffy statements about ‘the many not the few’, that Labour councils will have recourse when defending their actions. It is not only residents in London’s 11 Conservative-run boroughs that are sceptical about what will be built on the land their demolished homes once stood on. If you want to know what will happen to the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, look at the Heygate estate, look at the Ferrier estate, look at Woodberry Down, all of them former council housing in Labour-run boroughs. The housing record is a cross-party list of shame, and to blame the regeneration of council estates as speculative investments for the few on the Conservative Party alone deliberately misrepresents the implementation of, and political responsibility for, this programme.

Since 2010, homelessness has doubled. 120,000 children don’t have a home to call their own. Home ownership has fallen. Thousands are living in homes unfit for human habitation. This is why, alongside our Shadow Housing Minister John Healey, we’re launching a review of social housing policy – its building, planning, regulation and management. We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action and bring it back to next year’s conference.

As we wrote in our analysis of John Healey’s contribution to the Labour Party Manifesto published before the last election, Labour’s housing policies are directed at building properties for home ownership for the middle classes built on the land cleared of demolished council estates, with the increasingly unaffordable category of ‘affordable housing’ replacing the lost homes for council rent. If Corbyn is now admitting that his party’s housing policies are not only inadequate to stop the increase of homelessness and slum housing but are contributing directly towards that increase, then we welcome that admission. But waiting until next year’s conference for a radical programme of action is a farcically inadequate response to the figures on homelessness he quotes. What we need and demand is the immediate cessation of ALL estate regeneration schemes being implemented by Labour councils that result in the loss of homes for council rent. It is not only with what Labour promises to do that Corbyn should concern himself, but also with stopping what Labour is currently doing, and has been for some time, to the homes of working-class residents.

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. Corbyn’s promises are too late for them. 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. Corbynites patting themselves on the back because their Messiah finally deigned to mention what his party are doing after two years of silence should wipe the smiles off their faces. Labour is and will continue to be the party of privatisation, demolition and social cleansing – to coin a phrase – ‘for the few, not the many’.

But some things are already clear. Tenants are not being listened to. We will insist that every home is fit for human habitation, a proposal this Tory government voted down.

It’s true that during the reading of the 2016 Housing and Planning Bill the Labour Party proposed an amendment that would require landlords to make their properties fit for human habitation; and it is also true that the Conservative MPs, 128 of whom at the time were landlords, voted against this motion, arguing that it would force our poor impoverished landlords to raise their rents even further than they already have. However, since the government had a majority of around 100 on English Votes for English Laws, and the vote was therefore no more than a formality, it’s doubtful that this proposal by Labour, who counted 50 landlords among their own MPs, was anything more than a gesture – rather like Corbyn’s conference speech this week. What the Labour Party didn’t oppose in the reading of the Bill were the changes to planning laws that were made explicitly to accommodate and extend the estate demolition programme in which it was and is complicit.

As for tenants not being listened to, it’s a bit rich, to say the least, for Corbyn to be speaking about the Conservative-run borough of Kensington and Chelsea and it’s criminal neglect of the safety and concerns of the residents of Grenfell Tower, when across London the similarly expressed concerns and ballots of residents whose estates are threatened with demolition are being similarly ignored by equally arrogant and unaccountable Labour councils. If Corbyn had the least intention of listening to estate residents – which include both tenants and leaseholders – he would listen to those in Haringey, where Corbyn was once a councillor, and where 21 estates are threatened with demolition; to those in Hackney, which has recently extended its demolition programme to 19 estates; in Lambeth, where 6 estates are targeted for demolition; in Tower Hamlets, where 9,000 former council flats have been handed over to Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association; in Newham, which shares the distinction with Kensington and Chelsea of being the borough that has forcibly evicted the joint highest number of families from London. These voices, and many others, have been raised in appeal and anger, and have uniformly been ignored. If Corbyn wants to start listening, he should start now.

And we will control rents. When the younger generation’s housing costs are three times more than those of their grandparents, that is not sustainable. Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections.

Indeed they do. Which begs the questions why the cities under an elected Labour Mayor have not introduced such controls and protections for tenants. Instead, in Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and the Labour leaders of Manchester and Salford city councils bitch and argue over how to tackle homelessness without upsetting the developers; while in Greater London Sadiq Khan invents ever new definitions of ‘affordable housing’ (there are 13 so far) that no-one but the middle classes could hope to afford. Targeted by the London Mayor at 35 per cent of new developments, and with GLA funding to the tune of £2.17 billion between 2016 and 2021 available for both registered providers of social housing and private property developers on developments with 40 per cent, so-called ‘affordable housing’ now includes:

  • Shared Ownership properties eligible for Help to Buy to households with an income up to £90,000. In London this equates to a 5-year interest-free government equity loan for up to 40 per cent of the price of a property worth up to £600,000, and requires a mortgage from a commercial lender of at least 25 per cent and a deposit of 5 per cent. Until purchased outright the shared-ownership property remains the property of the housing association or developer, the mortgagor has no more than an assured tenancy, and interest on the loan must be paid after 5 years.
  • London Living Rent, a Rent to Buy product set at a third of the borough’s median household income. This equates to £680 per month in the borough of Haringey, £770 in Hackney, £895 in Lambeth, £950 in Southwark, and £1,170 in Tower Hamlets. London Living Rent properties are available to households with an income up to £60,000 who will be required to purchase the property within 10 years or it will be sold on a shared ownership scheme.
  • Affordable Rent, which can be set at up to 80 per cent of market value – not including service charges – by the Homes and Community Agency, a quasi-autonomous, non-departmental organisation that acts as the government’s social housing regulator.

No funding has been made available to build homes for social rent to house the hundreds of thousands of council tenants that will be evicted by Labour’s estate demolition programme; and not a single such home was built in London in the 12 months up to August of this year. And that’s just the affordable housing component, of which just 4,934 properties were completed in the same period. The vast majority of properties on new developments are for private sale, and start at around £660,000 for a 2-bedroom property in Inner London. If this is what a Labour politician in one of the most powerful public offices in the land considers sustainable, what can we expect in rent controls from the same party if and when Corbyn comes to power?

In fact we don’t have to wait that long. In an article published today, John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, has already rejected what he calls ‘old fashioned rent caps’, and has interpreted Corbyn’s speech as ‘Labour’s commitment to back councils to regenerate estates and build much needed homes.’ That didn’t take long, did it? And just in case we get carried away by the headlines in the Guardian he adds: ‘These are not rules to tie the hands of councils who are regenerating now under the pressure of Conservative constraints and funding cuts.’ So . . . not ‘declaring war on Labour councils’, and not ‘halting social cleansing of estates’. More like business as usual.

We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers, and have the power to compulsorily purchase. As Ed Miliband said, ‘Use it or lose it’. Families need homes.

Indeed they do, once again. Why, then, has Corbyn maintained a religious silence over the use of compulsory purchase powers by Labour councils to buy and then demolish the homes of tens of thousands of working-class – and, for their sins, Labour-voting – families in council estates across the country, even when, as in the case of the Aylesbury estate, no less an advocate of neo-liberalism than the current Secretary of State – an ex-banker turned Tory politician – ruled that doing so violated their human rights and discriminated against them on the basis of their ethnicity? Sajid Javid quickly changed his mind, of course; but it poses a question over Corbyn’s sincerity when a Conservative Minister stands up for council estate residents and a Labour Leader does not.

After Grenfell we must think again about what are called regeneration schemes. Regeneration is a much abused word. Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out. We are very clear: we will stop the cuts to social security. 

Indeed it is abused. And by nobody more than the Labour councils responsible for turning this word into an excuse not only for the demolition of homes, but also for the eviction of market-traders and local businesses, the closure of libraries and nurseries, the social cleansing of communities, the colonisation of high streets by corporate retail outlets, the banking of land by building companies, and the transformation of UK housing from homes for people into properties for capital investment and speculation. London’s housing boom and the homelessness it has produced is inseparable from the estate regeneration programme that clears the land for new developments that are little more than what even the former London Mayor, the facile and corrupt Boris Johnson, called ‘deposit boxes in the sky’. Without the commitment to stop this programme, stopping cuts to social security is like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.

But we need to go further, as conference decided yesterday. So when councils come forward with proposals for regeneration, we will put down two markers based on one simple principle: Regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators.

Indeed you do, Jeremy. And although, as a principle, this is welcome, in practice it won’t go nearly far enough. Regeneration under Labour councils is always for the benefit of the private developers and property speculators, never for the local people. The reason for this is not, as John Healey and every other Labour politician speaking about estate regeneration says, because of the borrowing constraints and funding cuts imposed by this Conservative government, but because they choose it to be. Not a single Labour council has been able to explain where the rent and service charges paid by residents for the maintenance of their homes and estates has gone, and why, therefore, as Labour councils consistently argue, they no longer have the money to maintain the estates under what should be their stewardship and care. And although the Conservative government’s constraints on Labour councils’ former ability to borrow against their assets undoubtedly limits their ability to build council housing, it does not make it impossible. On the contrary, ASH has demonstrated on five estates that even with these constraints on borrowing, and even with the twenty years of rent and service charges blown on the salaries of Labour council officers earning a quarter of a million quid a year, it is still possible to refurbish and maintain council estates as well as increase their housing capacity by up to 45 percent. That our proposals to do so have been rejected by Labour councils in Lambeth, Hackney and Hammersmith and Fulham is proof that the maintenance and refurbishment of existing homes and an increased housing capacity on the land they are built on is not what Labour councils are looking for in estate regeneration.

Far from having to wait for the election of a Labour government, there is nothing stopping the Labour Party changing its policy on estate regeneration right now. That it doesn’t do so is not because of the Tories, as it constantly says, but because it does not want to; and if it does not do so now, the Labour Party will not change its policy in the future. 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 – John’s fellow off-shore investor in the redevelopments for which he writes the compulsory purchase orders – 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. Behind the pygama party meetings of Momentum activists and the cuddly socialist rhetoric of this Party conference, the spirit of Tony Blair is alive and well in Labour, and runs through the party from top to bottom. Corbyn is not the crumpled father figure he’s been adopted as by the party faithful looking for their own version of Uncle Joe, but a canny career politician with 35 years on the back-benches of Parliament behind him. But perhaps his current role, after all, is to be a smiling, fuzzy-bearded puppet, brought out to entertain the children and keep their dreams of the ‘Parliamentary Road to Socialism’ alive, while the adults get on with the wide-awake business of capitalism.

First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before. No social cleansing, no jacking up of rents, no exorbitant ground rents. 

We’ve heard this before, many times, and it’s called the ‘Right to Return’, which is nothing more than the right to pay the exorbitant rents and properties prices on the new development if you can afford them. It’s in the London Mayor’s Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Demolition, and it’s in the guarantees that – as they have with those made by Lambeth Labour council – become promises that become the principles of every Labour council’s booklet on regeneration handed out to gullible residents. But the reality is the Ferrier estate, where 1,732 homes for council rent have been lost; the Heygate estate, where 952 have been lost; the Woodberry Down estate, where at least 467 – and probably far more – are being lost. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Corbyn’s speech to make us think that his own promise will be any more honoured than those made to the thousands of residents socially cleansed from these and a hundred other estates by Labour councils.

Short of a massive investment in public spending on council housing that we would welcome – but which would require a Labour government breaking the monopoly of the top house-building companies (Taylor Wimpey, Barratt, Persimmon and Berkeley) over UK construction, and reversing the unchecked privatisation of public land and housing by local and city authorities – the only way to avoid ‘social cleansing’, ‘jacking up rents’ and ‘exorbitant ground rents’ is for Labour councils not to demolish estates in the first place, or stock transfer them into the hands of predatory housing associations, or decant and refurbish them for private ownership. None of this is even mentioned, let alone acknowledged, by Corbyn in his speech. And he is smart not to, as his party of corporate entrepreneurs, lobbyists for the building industry, off-shore investors and businessmen-on-the-make would never vote for such measures in a million years; and to pass it through Parliament, let alone implement it at council level, Corbyn would have to reconstitute 95 per cent of the membership of the Labour Party. Momentum may affect to believe that they are transforming Labour into the party of Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan, but those of us who fight them on the ground, who read their reports, who see the effects of what they are doing – and who listen carefully to their speeches – know better.

And secondly, councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place. Real regeneration, yes, but for the many not the few.

Contrary to what the understandably excited campaigner from Haringey wrote when he called for a ballot of residents on the 21 estates threatened with demolition by the Haringey Development Vehicle, a yes/no vote is very far from being Labour Party policy. It’s a loosely worded promise, made in a conference speech, to introduce ballots for estate residents into a motion to be presented at next year’s conference for consideration by the National Policy Forum. Who those residents are, and whether – as has already been argued – it should include those residents, or at least buyers, eager to purchase a property on the new development, will have to wait for the text of the motion. But until it’s passed by the National Executive Committee, and then enforced on councils by a Labour government should it manage to be elected in five years’ time, Labour Party policy is to demolish council estates and replace them with properties for capital investment and home ownership by people on £90,000/year and more.

Alan Strickland, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration in Haringey’s Labour council has already responded to Corbyn’s speech by saying that ‘we do not expect to start using yes/no ballots’ – the complexity of regeneration apparently being too difficult for residents to decide on, while being perfectly clear to a Labour councillor getting pissed on champagne with Lendlease and Terrapin Communications in Cannes. This isn’t surprising, as it’s the same argument used by that other property developers’ poodle, Sadiq Khan, in his Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, where he wrote that ballots ‘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 moment in time’. Perhaps the Labour Party should cancel the next General Election because the question of who should govern the country over the following years is too complex to be reduced to an answer of Tory/Labour – even though that’s precisely what it tells us the vote is every five years.

In any case, ballots, though welcome, are not the panacea for estate demolition they are being presented as by Corbyn. In 2001, with a 76 per cent turnout, 73 per cent of residents on the Aylesbury estate voted against demolition and for the maintenance and refurbishment of the estate. They were simply ignored by Southwark Labour council, whose Leader, Peter John, in response to Corbyn’s speech remarked: ‘We will carefully consider introducing ballots for any future estate regeneration projects, but we currently have none planned.’ On Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill estates votes of 80 per cent and above against demolition and for refurbishment have been similarly ignored by Lambeth Labour council. And even if a Labour government – should Corbyn ever actually come to power – actually enforce the results of ballots on reluctant Labour councils, who would present the terms of that ballot to residents except those same councils, dutifully served by the various private consultancy and architectural firms they currently employ with public funds to dupe residents? Ask the residents of the Excalibur estate in Lewisham, or of Robin Hood Gardens estate in Tower Hamlets, how they feel now about having finally voted, after years of pressure from the council, for the demolition of their homes. The balloting of residents is every bit as managed and manipulated as a General Election by the parties with the resources to do so, against which the warnings of campaigners are as effective as a protest in Trafalgar Square. Indeed, we’re a little surprised at the response of a social cleanser like Strickland to Corbyn’s empty promise, given how easy it has been for him and his fellow estate-demolishing Cabinet Members for Housing across London to manipulate residents to vote for Labour councils to make them homeless.

But if ballots are so open to manipulation, what would make them work in the best interests of residents? How about Labour councils that maintain and refurbish the estates under their jurisdiction, as they are paid to do by residents’ rents and service charges, instead of demolishing them? How about estate regenerations that increase housing capacity on their land through resident-voted infill and roof extensions that leave the existing homes and communities intact, as ASH has shown is possible with our designs for Knight’s Walk, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Central Hill and Northwold estates? Corbyn’s speech makes no reference to either these duties or these alternatives. Even in the realm of vague promises for future changes to housing policy, his speech makes it absolutely clear that for the Labour Party, regeneration always means demolition and redevelopment.

As a lesson in how to stop Labour supporters questioning their Leader about the party’s record of estate demolition – which we imagine it was designed to do – Corbyn’s speech has worked a treat. In effect, it’s been little more than an invite to add our voices to the chorus of ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ But unless Labourites stop chanting Corbyn’s name and start demanding genuine policy rather than the populist soundbites on housing he delivered in this speech, a Labour Party in government will be no different from the Labour councils already in power. Seeing the look on Sadiq Khan’s face when his new best mate said regeneration means social cleansing was worth the price of admission alone. But if you’ll excuse us, we won’t be joining in the singing.

But you will say: ‘Isn’t it a good thing that Corbyn has finally acknowledged that estate regeneration is not always everything it’s cracked up to be? Can’t we hold councils to account with his words, even if we don’t believe he believes them? In the face of the housing disaster overwhelming us, isn’t this a victory of sorts? Can’t we take some hope from his words?’

No. And the fact so many of us have is a measure of how little we demand of our leaders, how unaccountable are our democratically elected representatives, how politically naive we’ve become under our two-party system, and how incapable we are even of imagining an alternative.

Architects for Social Housing

 

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