Rebuilding Britain: Housing at the Labour Party Conference 2018

1. The Tory Housing Crisis

‘A new world of energy innovations: E.ON’ – is the advertisement that pops up on screen when I go to download the agenda for this year’s Labour Party Conference, obscuring the information behind. I guess it’s appropriate in a way, since its to E.ON – one of the world’s largest electric utility service suppliers with total assets of €55.95 billion – that Labour councils like Lambeth are binding residents of estate redevelopments such as Myatts Field North on obligatory 25-year contracts, and whose district heating system was judged to be ‘not fit for purpose’ by Fuel Poverty Action. But what a wonderfully apposite token of the sort of public-private finance initiatives that are at the heart of Labour’s plans for ‘Rebuilding Britain: for the many not the few’ – as this year’s marketing line puts it.

When I’d clicked the corporate advertisement away and could see the timetable of events, it took me a while to find the policy session on Housing. Well, it was partly about housing, combined with Local Government and Transport in a seminar, and was held concurrently with two other policy sessions between 8.15 and 9.30 on Tuesday morning. I bet they were turning the crowds away from that one.

I also found, on Tuesday’s fringe timetable, a meeting being held at 5.15pm today titled ‘How Can Housing Associations Reconnect With Their Social Purpose?’ It was hosted by London & Quadrant Housing Association, which was responsible for the first redevelopment site of the Aylesbury estate, Albany Place, where 2-bedroom properties went on sale for £550,000; for the demolition, redevelopment and privatisation of the Haggerston West and Kingsland estates, which resulted in the loss of 148 homes for social rent; and which is currently engaged in the demolition, redevelopment and privatisation of the 178 homes on the Excalibur estate, and their replacement with 371 new properties, of which 143 will be for private sale, 35 for shared ownership, 15 for shared equity, and 178 for affordable rent.

Speakers at this meeting included John Healey MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, whose recent Green Paper on Housing has made it clear that a Labour government would hand over responsibility for so-called ‘affordable’ housing provision to housing associations such as L&Q; James Murray, the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Residential Development at the Greater London Authority, where he is presumably helping to draft housing policy that has been specifically designed to expand and fund the demolition and privatisation of council estates; Andy Brown, the Chief Operating Officer at London & Quardrant; and Councillor Peter John, the newly elected Chair of London Councils and long-standing Leader of Southwark Council, which is at the forefront of Labour’s estate demolition programme, the man who signed off the demolition of the Heygate and the Aylesbury estates, and who is intent on demolishing a swathe of estates along the Old Kent Road Opportunity Area. For those of you still in doubt, this is what the Labour Party means by ‘social purpose’.

The previous afternoon, at 5.45pm, there was a similar fringe meeting, hosted by that indefatigable Marxist Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, titled ‘Combating Poverty: What Have Housing Associations Got To Do With It?’ I think the next day’s meeting was the clearest answer to that. Not that I believe any of this evidence would be raised, with the meeting’s speakers, beside John Healey, including Paul Hackett, Chief Executive of Optivo Housing Association.

Before all these events, between 10.20am and 12.15pm on Monday, there was a combined Debate on the topics of the Economy, Business and Trade Policy Commission Annual Report, the Housing, Local Government and Transport Policy Commission Annual Report, Contemporary Composites (whatever that is), and – between the second flask of decaf coffee and the ethically-sourced tofu on ciabatta sandwiches – any emergency motions. And just before this, at 10.10am, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Housing, John Healey, spoke for 10 minutes. I won’t go over all his saccharine and sentimental speech – you can listen to it above; but it didn’t depart from Labour’s previously published policy commitments to privatisation and home-ownership. However, it did include a few gems.

Apparently, according to our John, ‘for over 30 years in politics, housing’s been the top domestic priority for Jeremy Corbyn.’ Because of which, when that glorious day comes and Her Majesty invites the Labour Party to form a government, it will ‘get councils building council housing again, and build a million new truly affordable council and housing association homes.’ Last year we had the new coinage of ‘genuinely’ affordable housing, and this year it’s ‘truly’ affordable. Next year, presumably, Labour’s Secretary of State for Housing will be speaking about ‘madly’ affordable, which might be closer to the truth. But that’s an interesting slip between the agency of councils and housing associations, and between building council and (truly, genuinely, madly) affordable housing: as it’s exactly what Labour councils like Southwark and Lambeth have been doing for some time by demolishing council estates and handing over the development of Shared Ownership and Rent to Buy properties to housing associations. And in case we thought ‘council housing’ means homes for council rent, Healey proudly announced that a Labour government ‘will give first-time buyers on ordinary incomes the opportunities only the rich get under the Tories’. Labour: the party of home ownership ‘for the many, not the few’. I’m sure the tenants evicted from their demolished council homes by Labour-run councils will find that a comfort when they try to raise a 25 per cent deposit on the £600,000 properties built in their place.

Our John also name-checked Sadiq Khan’s ‘London Living Rent’, which he retitled ‘Labour’s Living Rent’. Unfortunately, it’s still set at a third of average local incomes, which in Lambeth is more than one-and-a-half times social rent, and presumably is also still a Rent to Buy product open to households earning up to £60,000 per year who will be required to save for a deposit. I wonder how many of ‘the many’ can afford that? And he had the balls to quote Anuerin Bevan on ‘mixed communities’, which has for some time now been Labour councils’ preferred excuse for the social cleansing of working-class estate communities. And, of course, he made the obligatory reference to the Grenfell Tower fire, out of which he didn’t hesitate to squeeze the last drop of political capital, as if the conditions under which the lives of Grenfell residents were put at risk by the Conservative council and TMO aren’t being replicated on hundreds of Labour-run council estates across London under current Labour housing policy on estate regeneration. No wonder our John, like every Labour politician and councillor, calls it ‘the Tory housing crisis’.

And that’s it. There is no mention of housing in the written welcomes to the conference by the Labour Leader, Oh Jeremy Corbyn, the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, or the Party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby. There’s no mention – whatsoever – of the estate regeneration programme that, under predominantly Labour-run councils, is demolishing tens of thousands of homes for social rent across London and replacing them with homes for the rich, properties for Buy to Let landlords and investment opportunities for global capital. Nor, in Healey’s lachrymose reference to the residents of Grenfell Tower, is there any mention of the scores of estate communities and tens of thousands of residents across London that are being bullied, lied to and ignored by the Labour councils implementing this programme.

But then, why would they? Labour is a party of liars, committed to a programme of mass privatisation, which it conceals behind a rhetoric of socialism that has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by a generation that hasn’t got a clue what that word means.

It would appear from the timetable to this conference that the empty gestures Oh Jeremy Corbyn & Co made towards resident empowerment at last year’s conference are now a thing of the past. Their only outcome has been Sadiq Khan’s GLA manipulative and deeply flawed policy on resident ballots, which even when it is offered to residents – as it hasn’t been on the dozens of demolition schemes hurriedly signed off by Khan – has been designed to manufacture consent, not to give residents power over their own futures. From now on, comrades, it’s full steam ahead with the estate demolition programme, and anyone who opposes it is an anti-Semite!

It turns out that the best way for the Labour Party to deal with the issue that has been such a thorn in its side these past four years is to hand it over to a team of marketing consultants – then ignore it. Enter, stage right (and hand in hand following their recent mergers), London & Quadrant with East Thames (now managing 90,000 dwellings), followed by Circle with Affinity Sutton (125,000 dwellings), Notting Hill with Genesis (64,000 homes), Peabody with Family Mosaic (55,000 dwellings), and Amicus Horizon with Viridian (44,000 dwellings) . . .

‘Ah, the private sector! Now why didn’t we think of that in the first place?’

2. Crisis? What Housing Crisis?

I had to run off to give a presentation in Lewisham on the social, financial and environmental costs of the Labour Party’s policy of estate demolition and redevelopment being implemented by London’s Labour-run councils on Wednesday night, so I didn’t have time to listen to more than half of Oh Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech at the Labour Part Conference 2018; but in that half he didn’t mention housing once. I’ve listened to the rest of his speech this morning, and gone through the transcript, and the Leader of the Labour Party for the past three years, who waffled on about everything from anti-semitism and Palestine to immigration and the Tories, mentioned housing a mere five times in his hour-long address:

1) In a strained reference to a woman named Sarah Jones who was killed in the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – which his script-writers should have checked took place in Manchester, not Liverpool, the site of the conference – he said:

‘In the next Labour government, our very own Sarah Jones, as Housing Minister, will be carrying forward the struggle to protect and extend democratic rights. Hopefully without becoming martyrs in the process.’

Unfortunately those democratic rights don’t extend to the right of residents to choose whether their homes will be demolished and replaced by unaffordable homes for the rich, Buy to Let landlords and investment opportunities for global capital.

2) With a nod to the older end of the electorate that consistently votes Conservative, he referred (in the notably past tense) to the fact that:

‘It was your generation that built the council housing, won our rights at work and made our country a better place for all.’

But omitted the fact that of the 237 London housing estates ASH identified last year that have recently undergone, are undergoing, or are threatened with regeneration that will result in the mass loss of homes for social rent, 195 of them are being implemented by Labour councils.

3) To appease businesses alarmed at John McDonnell’s proposal for Inclusive Ownership Funds for workers, he said:

‘Labour will also deliver what you need to succeed and to expand and modernise our economy. More investment in our transport, housing and digital infrastructure.’

But didn’t clarify how the allocation of that investment will be any different from the housing policies of London’s Labour Mayor, Sadie Khan, which is directly funding the demolition of council estates and their replacement with properties for Rent to Buy, shared ownership and market sale.

4) In the context of his verbal criticism of the government’s austerity measures to which the Labour councils implementing them have put up no opposition whatsoever, he offered this extraordinarily weak proposal – if one can call it that – whose inadequacy to address the crisis in UK housing affordability his weak attempt at a joke doesn’t conceal:

‘Austerity is putting other strains on the NHS too, one in five homes in England are now unfit for human habitation and 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation. So as John Healey has pledged, we will put a levy on those with second homes. Think of it as a solidarity fund for those with two homes to help those without any home at all.’

But didn’t say anything about policy that would bring the huge number of empty residential properties in London and the UK back into use as homes, or about combatting the practice of Labour councils leaving council homes empty for years preparatory to selling them on the market.

5) Finally, as if aware of the absence of even the empty promises on housing he made at last year’s conference, Oh Jeremy Corbyn threw this year’s conference a well-chewed bone:

‘Labour will embark on the biggest home building programme in half a century.’

And that really was it. Housing crisis? What housing crisis?

3. Rebuilding Britain

‘Evidence of the failure of privatisation and outsourcing is piling up day after day. What has long been a scam is now a crisis.’

‘Privatisation and outsourcing are now a national disaster zone. And Labour is ready to call time on this racket.’

‘To rebuild our public services and our communities, we are going to have to rebuild and transform our economy for the 21st century.’

Kidbrooke Village

‘We need to explore new forms of ownership and public enterprise, and learn from creative local initiatives such as those taken by Labour councils’

Camden_bench

‘We don’t want to live in a society where our fellow citizens sleep rough.’

‘Labour is ready to put fairness and humanity back at the heart of our public services.’

carpenters-estate

‘We are not only determined to rebuild our economy, communities and public services, but also to democratise them, and change the way our economic system is run in the interests of the majority.’

Aylesbury wall

‘Labour will work to bring communities together. It is only through the unity of all our people that we can deliver social justice for anyone.’

‘We will rebuild the public realm and create a genuinely mixed economy for the 21st Century.’

Old Tidemill Garden

‘Let every constituency, every community know Labour is ready. Confident in our ideas, clear in our plans, committed to rebuild Britain.’

– Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party Conference 2018

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. This speech by the Leader of the Labour Party is the clearest declaration yet of his party’s unswerving commitment to the estate regeneration programme, and to the continuing social cleansing of London’s working-class communities it affects. This is what ‘Rebuilding Britain’ means for residents of council housing in London’s Labour-run boroughs: demolition, eviction and privatisation – as the tagline puts it – ‘for the many, not the few’.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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