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THE first weeks of 2018 have brought some significant victories for housing campaigners. Concerted opposition to estate demolitions, privatisation and profiteering have won important battles, if not the war.
There’s also some hope for improving the situation for super-exploited private renters (in the shape of a parliamentary Bill sponsored by Karen Buck MP).
Meanwhile, the scale and urgency of the housing crisis is shaping the argument on the future of the Labour Party and a possible Labour government.
Scores of council and housing association estates around Britain are currently threatened by demolition. The pattern of these projects is very clear. There’s a land-grab by private developers based on misinformation which are bad value for public money. These always lead to a loss of genuinely affordable rented homes, with expensive knock-on effects. Some former residents are displaced, never to return. Others face higher rents or service charges and fewer rights.
When Jeremy Corbyn linked so-called regeneration to social cleansing, he struck a chord. Residents on estates in Lambeth, Southend, Bath, Rochdale and many other places have been fighting to save their homes and communities.
An unholy trinity of developers, corporate housing associations and local councils connive to present demolition as the only alternative to disrepair, poor services and long waiting lists.
Phoney regeneration has often been promoted by Labour councils, fuelling bitter resentment against the party. The same was true of New Labour’s stock-transfer programme which led to the loss of 1.2 million council homes between 1998 and 2008.
Local councillors hide behind the “no alternative” defence. But they don’t really try to find one. Different options for redevelopment put forward by residents are rejected out of hand. Money that could be spent on direct housing investment, like the proceeds from “planning gain,” goes to other things.
Public land is still squandered. Yes, councils are severely hamstrung by government spending restrictions, but they don’t campaign together to change things.
This impotence flows from political timidity and the mindset that continues to see the private sector as the solution to the crisis, instead of the cause. For decades, our housing policies have been dictated by private developers. But recent events suggest the tide is turning.
For over a year, anti-demolition campaigners in London have been demanding a ballot of residents before people’s homes are flattened.
In December 2017, the Greater London Authority voted unanimously to support this basic democratic principle. On February 2, London Mayor Sadiq Khan finally did the same. As with everything he does on housing, there’s wriggle room and equivocation, but this is still an important step in the right direction.
Earlier the same week, protesters gathered outside Southwark town hall to oppose the profit-driven spree for the Elephant and Castle area.
The neighbourhood has already been scarred by the wanton destruction of thousands of council homes. Now a company of off-shore venture capitalists wants to redevelop a shopping centre, while providing an insulting minimum of non-market homes.
But the council, which has previously kowtowed to developers, has stalled the latest planning application under pressure from inside and outside the Labour Party,
It’s no coincidence this came on the same day as the political demise of Claire Kober in Haringey. Her attempt to promote a £2 billion fire sale of public assets to the same developer who made a fortune at Elephant and Castle is the epitome of Labour’s past mistakes.
But a determined local campaign has forced a change, with important implications beyond north London. Other local councils have been watching Haringey with a mind to their own “special purpose vehicles,” seen by some as a way to meet housing need, while avoiding conflict with the government.
Haringey is a microcosm of the battle for the future of housing policy and the Labour Party. Trying to ride the tiger of market capitalism in the name of social progress doesn’t work — witness the experience of public-private partnerships from Railtrack to Carillion.
Similarly, using privately run but heavily subsidised housing associations as an alternative to direct government investment has failed to deliver the homes we need.
A national problem can’t be solved locally or by tinkering. The scale of the housing crisis requires a large-scale, long-term government strategy that links public investment with sustainable infrastructure and jobs.
We’ve done it before. Like the NHS, this country should be proud of its response to the post-war housing shortage when a million homes were built in five years.
But national planning must include local community involvement and embrace a wide vision of non-market housing alternatives. Mistakes were made after 1945 that we should learn from. We need a democratic, collective, socialist approach to building homes.
A new generation of council housing for the 21st century can help us escape the tyranny and endemic volatility of the market. Labour needs to take the initiative.
Imagine the response if it was able to offer an alternative housing future to the millions suffering the constant insecurity and substandard conditions of the private market.
In the meantime, it must convince people it’s serious about regulating private landlords to control rents, scrap short-term tenancies and enforce repairs standards.
The party also needs a harder line on housing associations. Either they return to their social purpose or the public money stops.
Finally, there’s no need to make an enemy of private home-ownership, but a future Labour government should curb the state incentives it receives, including Right to Buy.
Both the Labour Party and Shelter are currently conducting reviews of housing policy. Attention on the issue is welcome, but we don’t need more reports. Recent events show people want action, not words.
The Grenfell Tower atrocity and the crisis-ridden government should inspire the labour movement to redouble its efforts to win decent, secure, truly affordable, energy-efficient and safe homes for all.
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