Now the shouting’s stopped and the insults have settled, here’s the damage in London from the Local Elections 2018:
- Barking & Dagenham: Labour hold
- Barnet: Conservative gain
- Bexley: Conservative hold
- Brent: Labour hold
- Bromley: Conservative hold
- Camden: Labour hold
- Croydon: Labour hold
- Ealing: Labour hold
- Enfield: Labour hold
- Greenwich: Labour hold
- Hackney: Labour hold
- Hammersmith & Fulham: Labour hold
- Haringey: Labour hold
- Harrow: Labour hold
- Havering: No overall control
- Hillingdon: Conservative hold
- Hounslow: Labour hold
- Islington: Labour hold
- Kensington & Chelsea: Conservative hold
- Kingston-upon-Thames: Liberal Democrat gain
- Lambeth: Labour hold
- Lewisham: Labour hold
- Newham: Labour hold
- Merton: Labour hold
- Redbridge: Labour hold
- Richmond-upon-Thames: Liberal Democrat gain
- Southwark: Labour hold
- Sutton: Liberal Democrat hold
- Tower Hamlets: Labour gain
- Waltham Forest: Labour hold
- Wandsworth: Conservative hold
- Westminster: Conservative hold
All of which means Labour now runs 21 London boroughs, an increase of 1; the Conservatives run 7 London boroughs, a decrease of 2; the Liberal Democrats run 3 London boroughs, an increase of 2; and there is no overall control in 1 London borough, down 1 from 2014. At the end of the day, there’s been very little change except for the worse. So where does that leave us? To answer that question, I’ve looked at four London boroughs, Lewisham, Sutton, Kensington & Chelsea and Lambeth, to see how their estate regeneration programmes have been affected by the local elections.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
In the lead-up to these elections, the blogs and social media pages of the Radical Housing Network, Defend Council Housing, Brick Lane Debates and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity contained nothing about who they would vote for, who they advise us to vote for, who we should vote against tactically or why. The Radical Assembly appears to have died a quiet death, no doubt debating what pronouns to use on their voting card. But in the grim aftermath of the elections, Momentum, Novara Media and Owen Jones have all been crowing over what they’re calling Labour’s ‘best result since 1971’, which shows just how little a clue they have about what’s actually going on in London outside their Guardian bubbles. But all the other housing groups that were so loudly pro-Corbyn at the General Election in 2017 suddenly have nothing to say about the local elections in 2018.
I can only presume this is because, even in those interminable meetings they hold to decide when and where to hold their next protest, distant whispers of what Labour councils have been up to these past four years must have interrupted the chants of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ long enough for them to decide (after a democratic vote) that while it’s obligatory to pledge your trust and support for Oh Jeremy Corbyn at the general election, it might not look too good at next month’s London Radical Bookfair if you’ve just given your backing to Peter John, Lib Peck, Phil Glanville, John Biggs, Steve Bullock, and all the other Labour council leaders demolishing our estates, closing down our libraries, evicting our businesses, selling off our land and socially cleansing our communities.
So what I want to ask Labour activists is, how does that work? You vote Oh Jeremy Corby at election time, but at the local elections you’re an anarchist? Governments collect taxes, set budgets, write legislation and start wars, but it’s councils that implement housing policy. Do Labour activists imagine that, on that long-awaited day when Oh Jeremy Corbyn is elected Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s government, Labour councils will magically transform into the party of Attlee and Bevan and build Jerusalem in England’s grey and mortgaged land?
I’m asking because, after three years of listening to Labour activists telling me that Oh Jeremy Corbyn, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is secretly opposed to the housing practices of Labour councils and just waiting for the moment when he can write policy reflecting this (rather than blueprints for demolition like the Labour Party manifesto and the recent Green Paper on housing), I still don’t understand how a Labour government under Oh Jeremy Corbyn is meant to fulfil the promises he’s made about renationalising our industries, transforming the UK into a social democracy, building half a million council homes, and leading us all into the promised land.
Or am I wrong, and the deafening silence coming from Labour housing activists about this election is a sign that the contradictions in what they’ve been telling residents and communities for the past four years have become too glaringly apparent even for them? But either way it’s too late. Whether its through their stupidity, their political naivety, their self-deception or their duplicity, they’ve rendered four years of campaigning by residents and other campaign groups against estate demolition almost entirely void, and now we have four more years of councils – Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat – who have just received a mandate from the people to continue and expand their assault on our homes and communities. For London at least, it’s going to be very much business as usual.
In Lewisham, for example, where constituents were bombarded with Labour slogans about building homes ‘for the many, not the few’ and ‘tackling the Tory housing crisis’, the local authority is now composed entirely of Labour councillors. These include Tom Copley, Labour’s Housing Spokesperson in the London Assembly, who received 2,291 votes to hold his seat in the Sydenham ward. Lewisham Labour council’s current housing developments include:
- Barratt Homes’ award-winning Renaissance development, designed by Assael Architecture, with 788 new properties, of which a whole 146 are for affordable rent;
- The Lewisham Gateway development, where the 193 new properties on the first phase, following a viability assessment by Douglas Birt Consulting, will include no affordable housing at all;
- The 169 properties on the second phase, which will no doubt follow suit;
- The demolition of 565 homes on the Heathside and Lethbridge estates and their replacement with 1,192 new properties developed by Family Mosaic housing association, 447 of which will be for as yet undefined rent levels, with the rest being for shared ownership or private sale;
- The demolition of the 178 homes on the Excalibur estate, which are being replaced with 143 new properties for private sale, 35 for shared ownership, 15 for shared equity, and 178 for affordable rent;
- The demolition of the 16 council homes in Reginald House, which with neighbouring Old Tidemill Garden will be replaced by 209 new properties, with 35 per cent designated ‘affordable’ across this and the 120 new properties on the Amersham Vale site being developed by the property developer Family Mosaic;
- The demolition of the 87 council homes on the Achilles Street estate, where the proposed new development, designed by Karakusevic Carson Architects, will contain between 300 and 350 new properties, of which 55 are promised to be ‘social homes’, with the remainder being for London Living Rent, shared ownership and private sale.
There’s no clearer demonstration of why the neo-liberal Labour Party keeps the wagging head of Oh Jeremy Corbyn on its shoulders. I doubt the electorate of Lewisham voted for Labour so unanimously because of the housing acumen of Councillor Tom Copley or the civic duty of their off-shore property developer and Mayor Steve Bullock. With no opposition to such practices in the all-Labour council from any other political party or independent councillor, and having just received a mandate from the people to continue and expand their assault on our homes and communities, Lewisham council’s ongoing programme of estate demolition, privatisation and redevelopment, which has built and expanded on the model provided by the ‘regeneration’ of the Kender, Pepys and Crossfields estates, should now proceed without let or hindrance over the next four years.
2. The Liberal Democrat Alternative
Or is there hope that the newly-elected Liberal Democrat-run councils in the London boroughs of Richmond and Kingston will put a stop to the demolition of, respectively, the 192-home Ham Close estate and the 800-home Cambridge Road estates initiated by their Conservative predecessors? Liberal Democrat support for the demolition of the latter while in opposition makes this pretty unlikely, and so too does its record in power.
The Liberal Democrat-run council of Sutton, formerly the single London borough under the party’s administration, currently has seven council estates – Chaucer estate, Collingwood estate, Benhill estate, Elm Grove estate, Sutton Court estate, Rosebery Gardens sheltered housing and Beech Tree Place sheltered housing – that have undergone viability assessments in order to establish the options for their ‘regeneration’: refurbishment, stock transfer to a housing association, partial or full demolition and redevelopment. As with a hundred other arbitrarily designated ‘sink estates’, the money to carry out these assessments came from the £170 million of public funds supplied as part of the Conservative government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy. According to Sutton council’s website, no decision has yet been made; but as is standard practice for councils engaging in the deceptions endemic to estate demolition schemes, this most likely means the decision has been made, but that it won’t be announced to the residents until the private development partners, financiers, architects, urban designers and consultants have drawn up and costed the redevelopment schemes, at which point the ‘consultation’ with residents on options already discarded will begin.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2017 makes no mention of estate regeneration in its housing policies, and neither does the Sutton Local Plan 2016-2031, which is dated February 2018. However, in its policy on ‘Affordable Housing’ on page 47 it says:
‘The council will seek a minimum of 35% of all dwellings to be affordable on a site when negotiating on individual residential and mixed-use schemes. The council will seek to maximise affordable housing from all sources, of which 75% should be for social/affordable rent and 25% intermediate.’
So, even if the council gets what its ‘seeks’ – which they rarely do when entering into deals with private development partners – 26 per cent of affordable housing provision on new developments ‘should’ be for London Affordable Rent (around 150 per cent of social rent) and 9 per cent for either London Living Rent (a rent-to-buy product) and shared ownership properties, with the remaining 65 per cent of properties for market rent and sale. But it also adds:
‘Where it can be demonstrated that it would be more beneficial to the council’s affordable housing objectives, the council may accept the provision of affordable housing off-site, or a payment in lieu.’
Which means what affordable housing they can squeeze out of the developers and housing associations can be built somewhere away from the sites on which the existing estates stand, which are all in lucrative town centre locations, or simply accept payment in lieu. As if that isn’t bad enough, the Local Plan also adds:
‘The Government is considering measures that would allow developers to include ‘Starter Homes’ in developments as an alternative to affordable housing.’
For which Conservative legislation, passed under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, and which the Liberal Democrat council has no hesitation in adopting, it offers the palliative that:
‘Where “Starter Homes” are substituted for affordable housing in development proposals in this borough, the council will expect them to replace affordable home ownership products (primarily shared-ownership), and will seek to ensure that proposals continue to include affordable homes for rent (social/affordable rent or intermediate rent).’
So, to recap, the 26 per cent of new homes for affordable rent at up to 80 per cent of market rate can be built off-site – which means not ‘poor doors’ for affordable housing tenants, as has become the norm with new developments, but that ‘poor ghettos’ have been designed into Sutton’s Local Plan; and the remaining 9 per cent provision of affordable homes for rent-to-buy and shared ownership can be replaced by Starter Homes, nominally selling to first-time buyers for £450,000, which requires a deposit of £97,000 and a salary of £77,000 per annum. I say nominally, because under Section 2 of the legislation on Starter Homes in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, paragraphs 7 and 8 explicitly state that the Secretary of State may by regulations amend both the definition of both ‘first-time buyer’ and the price cap, with different price limits for different areas within and outside of London. This means that the 9 per cent intermediate housing that is the maximum amount of affordable housing provision there has to be on new developments in Sutton, including estate regenerations, can in practice be whatever the developer wants to build.
Finally, since the government has set aside nearly £2.3 billion pounds of public money to build 200,000 of these Starter Homes by 2020, and these Starter Homes are sold at a 20 per cent discount on market rates to whoever is rich enough to afford them, both their construction and their purchase will be subsidised by the state. The secondary legislation promised by government that will introduce a taper on the re-sale value of Starter Homes has yet to materialise; so as things stand owners of these properties will be able to sell them at full market rate in five years’ time, thereby pocketing not only the 20 per cent state subsidy but their appreciation on London’s housing market.
As an indicator of what will happen to the 7 estates the Liberal Democrat administration has targeted for regeneration under the terms of this Local Plan, this year Sutton council are set to complete the regeneration of Durand Close estate, which they undertook with Affinity Sutton before it merged with Circle Housing in 2016 to form Clarion Housing Group and become the UK’s largest housing association. Following this privatisation of the council estate, they demolished its 300 council homes and are replacing them with 762 new properties, of which 278 are earmarked for market sale and 484 for a mix of shared ownership and affordable rent. Just like the Coalition Government they formed with the Conservatives in 2010, the Liberal Democrats offer no alternative at all, either to the policy of the Conservative government or to its implementation by Labour councils.
3. The Price of Grenfell
Which brings me to the Tories, about whom I don’t usually bother writing for reasons I hope will be obvious; but the result in Kensington and Chelsea took even me by surprise. Who says the English are a bunch of heartless bastards who would watch their neighbours burn to death in their beds at night, go to the opera the following weekend, and then vote for the people responsible the following year in order to keep the prices of their own properties from being deflated by all those ugly grey concrete sink estates bringing down the neighbourhood?
At 5am on 4 May it was no change in Britain’s wealthiest and most criminal borough. I’ve analysed the Kensington and Chelsea results, because as a barometer of the climate of public opinion it’s the defining result of the 2018 local elections, and because, like the efficient council they are, they had a breakdown of every vote in every ward by the following morning. Out of an electorate of 95,378 people, 37,835 voted, 39.7 per cent of the total. Across the 18 wards, a total of 100,429 votes were cast, and 52,211 of these were for Conservative candidates, 51.98 per cent of the total. That was down from the 57.8 per cent of votes the Conservatives had in the 2014 elections; but out of the 50 councillors elected, 36 are Conservative, 13 are Labour and 1 is Liberal Democrat. That’s an increase of a single Labour councillor since the 2014 elections at the expense of a single Conservative councillor. Significantly, 18,578 more votes were cast than in 2014, but the Conservative vote actually increased by 4,220, which means more people came out this time to make sure they got back into office against the threat that Labour would take the borough. By my reckoning, the 71 people (at least) that died in the Grenfell Tower fire have cost Kensington and Chelsea Conservatives 5.82 per cent of the vote, or 0.08 per cent for every identified corpse, the loss of whose life has equated to the loss of 0.014 per cent of a Conservative council seat.
As ASH wrote back in July last year when we published our report on the Grenfell Tower fire, how we react to this man-made disaster could turn out to be worse than the chain of decisions and shirked responsibilities that caused it, and this vote by the people of Kensington and Chelsea is a stain on what’s left of our national character.
4. Political Syllogism
In the lead up to the local elections this year, something expected but still incongruous happened in Lambeth. This February the conservative councillor Tim Briggs, the former leader of the opposition who runs an eviction company which boasts that evicting residents is ‘easy as A-B-C’, not only denounced the Labour council’s treatment of residents as ‘inhuman’, but went on to reveal that the position of the Conservative opposition on estate demolition, outlined in its alternative budget, is that:
‘All estate demolitions (‘regeneration’) will be halted wherever possible until a proper consultation of residents has taken place. All residents, including freehold owners, leasehold owners and private tenants, will be balloted on the plans.’
Not to be outdone by this example of Tory largesse, Doug Buist, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Thulow Park ward, wrote on Twitter that ‘it is the policy of Lambeth Lib Dems to stop Lambeth Labour’s programme of estate demolition without ballots,’ and pointed would-be voters to the manifesto Lambeth Liberal Democrats released in April, in which they stated that:
‘We will end Labour’s war on council housing. We will not allow estate regeneration to move forward unless approved by a majority of residents on estates.’
In truth, however, both parties had been beaten to the confessional by the Vauxhall Constituency of the Labour Party, which back in January had passed a motion declaring:
‘We call on the Labour Group to put forward proposals for balloting residents; and to include a pledge to engage in full, meaningful and transparent consultation on service cuts and closures and on major planning and regeneration schemes in Lambeth Labour’s 2018 Manifesto.’
Undeterred, however, in their manifesto for the 2018 Local Elections – which is illustrated with photographs of Labour Cabinet members who in June 2016 called for the Labour Leader to resign grinning beside Oh Jeremy Corbyn, John Healey and Sadiq Khan – Lambeth Labour wrote:
‘We will complete our programme of estate regeneration to rebuild six of our estates to give existing residents better homes and to create more social housing to tackle the housing crisis. We’ve worked hard with tenants and leaseholders to make rebuilding our estates fair to our existing residents, and offering the hope of a new home to Lambeth’s homeless families and those in housing need. On each estate, the council has carried out full and independent consultations which have demonstrated resident support for more and better homes. Our commitment to a fair process and guaranteeing the rights of residents to remain on their estates is recognised as best practice in London. We’ve worked closely with the Mayor of London on his Estate Regeneration Principles and will fully implement his recommendations when published this summer.’
So who’s lying? Why, if the Conservatives really think Labour’s estate demolition programme is ‘inhuman’, were they implementing it against residents’ wishes in every one of the 9 London boroughs they previously had under their administration, not to mention through their own government policy, from the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to the Estate Regeneration National Strategy? Why, if the Liberal Democrats are so opposed to the demolition of estates without resident support, have they drawn up preliminary plans to demolish 7 estates in Sutton, the only borough they ran in London, and supported the demolition of 2 estates in the boroughs whose administration they have gained? Why, if Labour are committed to tackling the housing crisis, are they demolishing the only homes in London to have escaped the escalation in house prices and replacing them with properties for offshore investment, buy-to-let landlords and home ownership for the already rich?
Answering these questions means first understanding how politics is conducted in this country, which also means posing the question of how we can change that conduct and the results it produces, election after election, council after council, government after government. After three years with ASH, this is how I understand party politics currently works in local authorities and how we can change it:
1st Premise. If they’re in opposition, as Labour are in Kensington and Chelsea, the Conservatives are in Lambeth or the Liberal Democrats are in Southwark, they’re opposed to the demolition of our council estates, the selling of our public land to off-shore investors, the eviction of our market traders and local businesses, the closing down of libraries and social services, and the general treating of your constituents like crap.
2nd Premise. Conversely, the same parties in power, whether it’s Labour in Lambeth, the Conservatives in Kensington and Chelsea or the Liberal Democrats in Sutton, are in favour of all the above, which they carry out mercilessly and with complete disregard for either their constituents or the other political parties.
Conclusion. Which means, by my reasoning, that the only way to hold local authorities accountable to the constituents who voted them into power is to make sure no party is in overall majority control. That way no party can threaten to withdraw the whip in order to bully councillors into voting for something they don’t support, and councillors are able to vote to best represent the interests of their ward constituents, to whom they will therefore be directly answerable at the next election. This, it seems to me, is the only way to make councils what they were meant to be, which is the representation of the will of the people, instead of what they are, which is the instrument of party politics.
It’s according to this reasoning that in the lead-up to these elections ASH recommended voting to break up any monopoly that any party has over either a council or constituency, and in doing so reinstate the principle of democracy (from the Latin kratos, meaning ‘rule’; and demos, meaning ‘people’ but also, significantly, ‘village’) to its true meaning. It’s the almost total absence of this principle in our voting practices that has got us into the position we are in now, where our political choices are constrained almost to the point of meaningless by the monopoly the Conservative and Labour parties hold over the political life of this state. Until this changes – until we change it by our voting practices – to describe our political system as ‘democratic’ is demonstrably (every election, including this one, demonstrates it to us) not true.
But it’s not all bad news. In Lambeth two housing campaigners from Cressingham Gardens estate, which is threatened with demolition by the Labour-run council, stood as Green Party candidates in the Tulse Hill war; and Rachel Heywood, the former Labour councillor and cabinet member, stood as an independent candidate in the Coldharbour ward in protest against the council’s programme of demolishing estates, evicting market traders and closing libraries. Unfortunately, Brixton’s electorate failed to vote any of them onto the council, with Labour taking all three seats in both wards, a result for which Labour activists in the borough must take partial responsibility. But the Green Party managed to take all three seats in St. Leonards ward, where Councillor Scott Ainslie has been joined by Nicole Griffiths and Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the Green Party; while Becca Thackray took a seat in the Herne Hill ward, and the housing campaigner and resident of Central Hill estate, Pete Elliot, took a seat off Labour in the Gipsy Hill ward.
We’re looking forward to seeing whether this group of five Green Party councillors, led by their party’s co-leader and with the greater press coverage he commands, will be able to shine a light on and oppose the Labour-run council’s practices. We hope they will start with Lambeth council’s plans to demolish the Central Hill estate, which is the only scheme in the council’s demolition programme – as the Green Party’s GLA Member Siân Berry recently exposed – that has not received funding from London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, during the hiatus he imposed on such deals while he consulted residents on introducing balloting as a condition of demolishing their homes in his policy document and blueprint for estate demolition Better Homes for Local People.
It would be politically naive to describe Parliament as ‘democratic’ when for 900 years it has given political legitimacy to the ruling class of this country; and to call councils whose members are controlled by the ruling party whip ‘representative’ is self-evidently a misnomer. But the chance for the community to elect a representative to its local authority was the basis of communism’s plan to decentralise government and dismantle the state as an instrument of capitalism. For various reasons that quickly went out the window; but to return our corrupt, unrepresentative, unaccountable local authorities to transparent, representative, accountable councils, it is essential that we stop voting for the party line-toeing councillors from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and start electing councillors who will represent and stand up for their communities against the monopoly the Labour-Tory collaboration exerts over our politics. A vote for either is a vote for the demolition of hundreds of council estates, their replacement with properties for offshore investors, buy-to-let landlords and home ownership for the rich, the selling off of our public assets to the highest bidder, the privatisation of our public land and green spaces, the shutting down of our libraries, homeless shelters and other public services, the eviction of our local businesses and markets, and the social cleansing of our communities from the inner cities. Be realists: demand the impossible – then go out and make it happen.
Architects for Social Housing
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