Housing Crisis - time for a real fightback

housing campain2

‘When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.’ (Thomas Jefferson, 1776)

On 12 May, the Housing & Planning Bill became law. This followed seven months of parliamentary scrutiny, with the bill ping-ponging between the Houses of Parliament, as the Lords proposed amendments only to have them rejected by the government. On 11 May the Lords withdrew the last of their 13 amendments and the next day the Bill received Royal Assent, virtually unchanged since its introduction in October 2015. The Act is calculated to dramatically worsen the housing crisis which is blighting working class lives. Cat Alison reports.

Under the new Act:

  • Right to Buy will be extended to housing associations, accelerating the loss of social rented housing to private ownership. 40% of council homes sold under Right to Buy are already rented out by private landlords at market rents.
  • Local authorities will be forced to sell off ‘higher value’ properties to compensate the Treasury for the huge subsidy offered on Right to Buy. The precise threshold is yet to be determined, but it is thought likely to affect nearly 113,000 council homes in England.
  • Households in council properties with an income of over £40,000 in London and £31,000 outside London (based on the incomes of the two highest earners living there) will be forced to pay market rents, although a small taper will now be applied and those on housing benefit will be excluded from the calculation.
  • Secure tenancies will end; new council tenancies will be for between two and five years.
  • Councils will be obliged to ensure that all new housing developments contain 20% Starter Homes, for sale at 80% of market price; this replaces the requirement to build an agreed percentage of affordable, including social, housing for rent. The resale of these state-subsidised Starter Homes after five years at full market price will now face some regulation, yet to be determined.
  • Planning permission in principle will be granted to any housing development on sites designated as ‘brownfield land’, including existing council estates (see ‘Mapping London’s housing crisis’, FRFI 250).
  • Local authorities will no longer be required to assess the needs of Gypsy and Traveller communities, worsening the existing chronic shortage of legal sites.

These provisions signal a further, deeply damaging attack on social housing of any kind. While this was a battle the Conservative government was determined to win, and could win easily, it exposes the limitations of the official opposition to the Bill, the Kill the Housing Bill – now the Axe the Housing Act – campaign. This alliance of groups, including Momentum, Radical Housing Network, Unite the Union and Defend Council Housing, ultimately subordinated any demand for real resistance to the electoral requirements of the Labour Party.

Airbrushing Labour’s role

Kill the Bill poured all its energies into lobbying politicians; it held a couple of routine marches addressed predominantly by the usual Labour and trade union leader suspects, and a protest outside Parliament. But all its ‘opposition’ was based on safeguarding support from Labour MPs, who became, in practice, the mouthpieces of the movement. Any criticism of Labour councils across London actively involved in the destruction of social housing therefore went unsaid. Lambeth Momentum activist Joan Twelves defended the decision not to demand of Labour councillors that they oppose the Act but rather ‘work with Labour councils to maximise resistance’. She wrote:

‘Since there are no councils which will refuse to implement the Bill, as to do so would be to act illegally, this is a totally unrealistic demand and seems to me to be being proposed solely as propaganda ... rather than to assist in the building of a mass campaign (which must include Labour councillors, the Labour leadership, LP members and Labour affiliated trade unions if it is to have any hope of happening) of continued opposition to the measures contained in the Act.’

This political capitulation has been disastrous, although hardly unexpected. In the words of leading housing activist Simon Elmer, of Architects for Social Housing:

‘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 grassroots campaigners they claim to be, the Kill the Housing Bill campaign has spent the last five months turning its backs on the numerous estate campaigns that have been fighting the demolition of their homes by Labour councils.’

For example, Southwark Labour council – in partnership with upmarket estate agent Savills – has sold off 7,639 council homes in the last ten years, including the huge Heygate estate at Elephant & Castle. Last month it started demolishing leasehold homes on the Aylesbury estate, despite the Compulsory Purchase Orders on the properties still facing a legal challenge. It is ranked amongst the three worst providers of social housing in London:* only 3% of the total homes ‘delivered’ in Southwark in 2014/15 were affordable; the number of social rented homes decreased by 5%, with more knocked down or sold off than built. And yet council leader Peter John – who describes council estates as ‘symbols of inner city neglect, with crime, unemployment and antisocial behaviour the only things that flourish there’ – was invited to address a local Kill the Housing Bill public meeting in May. Lambeth Labour council is currently attempting to demolish council housing at Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill, with contemptuous disregard for the views of residents, who continue to resist.

It is not just that Kill the Housing Bill’s strategy has achieved nothing. Rather, as Simon Elmer points out, it has served to actually demobilise any emerging grassroots opposition. ‘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 most damaging of all, in doing so it has alienated the greatest source of resistance to the 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 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.’

A new kind of movement

The battle for decent, secure and affordable housing remains the key question facing the working class in London today. Real resistance to the onslaught by both Conservative government and Labour councils will come from those with most to lose, who have no truck with the Labour Party and its duplicitous allies, who fight to win. The Focus E15 campaign (see article above), which sparked a wave of occupations and tenant-led resistance across London – from Sweets Way in Barnet to Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust in Lambeth, South London, is still the most inspiring example of what is possible. Crucially, it represented an alliance of working class young women fighting for decent housing, supported by the Revolutionary Communist Group and other progressive forces. It is these kinds of grassroots campaigns, led by residents of estates under threat, which hold the key to a new movement.

The Open Gardens Estates project on 18 and 19 June, initiated by Architects for Social Housing is aimed at reaching out to precisely these communities, supporting their efforts to organise against the threat of ‘regeneration’ and challenge the pernicious narrative of ‘sink estates’ and ‘brownfield land’. It sets out to help to build a community of resistance to the planned death of social housing. The Revolutionary Communist Group is actively supporting the initiative. (See box on right for details). We also urge council tenants to organise against the collection of data by councils to determine who is liable to pay market rents, and call on council employees not to collect data. We will also be protesting outside the Municipal Journal Awards in central London on 16 June, where both Southwark and Newham councils are in the running for prestigious awards (see advert). Start organising, start fighting – and challenge anyone who tells you the council coming with its bulldozers to demolish an estate near you is anything other than an enemy of the working class.

Join us for a week of events and protests

Tuesday 14 June, 1pm

Protest against the London Real Estate Forum

Berkeley Square, London

London Labour Councils attending include: Lambeth, Southwark, Croydon, and Newham. Conservative councils include Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea.
Speakers include: Peter John, leader of Southwark, Lib Peck, leader of Lambeth and Tony Newman, leader of Croydon.

Thursday 16 June, 6.30pm

Protest at the Municipal Journal Local Authority Awards

Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, London W1K 1BE

Southwark council is in the running for a ‘best local council award’; Newham council is a finalist in the ‘best trading standards and environmental health’ category.

Expose this charade!

Weekend 18 and 19 June, various times

Open Gardens Estates

Events to campaign against the housing crisis

Initiative by Architects for Social Housing involving housing estates across London, including those like Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens, south London and Silchester Estate, west London currently fighting council ‘regeneration’ plans. A chance to explore London’s council estates, with guided tours. Help banish the myth of sink estates and concrete jungles, and meet the communities fighting the demolition of their homes by councils and developers.

To get involved go to www.opengardensestates.com

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 251 June/July 2016

 

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