This is Alan Walter.
Alan died suddenly in 2009 aged 51. He dedicated his life to the struggle for council housing, as part of his belief that everyone has a right to a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home. As Austin Mitchell says, Alan was a ‘master of the arts’ of campaigning. One of his specialities was working behind enemy lines. He slipped into the corridors of power where he met and cajoled politicians of all persuasions in an attempt to forge the broadest possible alliance for housing policy in the interests of working class people and communities.
I thought of Alan yesterday while I digested Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech. Defend Council Housing (DCH) and other housing campaigns have had good moments in the past. We’ve had conference resolutions passed, high-profile media coverage and won battles to save council housing from privatisation, all from a grass-roots, shoe-string organisation. But overall, the neoliberal, private developer and profit-driven bandwagon has continued to roll. Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn signaled that might be about to change. It’s a huge vindication for Alan and the many other people who’ve maintained the fight for a real alternative to the property casino. But it’s not yet a victory.
Mr Corbyn has been a staunch supporter of DCH and housing rights campaigns for many years, so in a way his speech was no surprise. But since becoming Labour leader he’s been understandably pre-occupied with internal party politics. Although we never doubted his sincerity, this has become a growing concern and frustration for those of us on the outside. While the government’s housing policy has been falling apart, some Labour councils have been trying to drive through privatisation agendas that would make some Tories blush.
Yesterday’s speech contained some vital arguments if we are to escape the housing crisis and avoid repeating it. Quite rightly, Mr Corbyn used Grenfell Tower as the symbol of what has to be a turning point. He called Grenfell:
“…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…Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace…a decent home is a right for everyone.”
Corbyn went on to make the following commitments:
- Housing must not be a tool for speculative investment.
- Labour will listen to tenants and control rents.
- Labour will seek powers to compulsorily purchase and tax unused land held by developers.
- Labour will “think again” about regeneration so that it’s “for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators”.
- Residents in regeneration areas will have a binding ballot before redevelopment goes ahead and a real right of return.
Conference speeches aren’t the place for detailed policy. They inevitably leave some things unsaid. So while Corbyn’s speech is very welcome, as Alan Walter (who was a miserable git at times) would have been the first to say, it’s also a potential honey-trap.
The biggest dangers are complacency, inertia and policy obfuscation. Residents of the 50+ estates currently threatened with the loss of their homes through ball and chain redevelopment can’t afford to wait for a Labour government. The next election could come too late for the people of Haringey where the council and a private developer are attempting a massive land-grab and asset-stripping of public property. If the Ministry of Justice goes ahead with the sale of public land at Holloway Prison it will never be used to build the homes we need. If Notting Hill Housing Group completes its merger with Genesis it will be another sign that housing associations have been lost to the world of corporate property developers. The review of social housing being undertaken by Labour invites the likes of John Healey and Sadiq Khan to continue their craven capitulation to the undermining of genuine council housing through “affordable” and “social” housing schemes that are nothing of the kind.
Armed with Corbyn’s speech, local campaigners should be demanding an immediate moratorium on all redevelopment and regeneration projects that do not offer tenants a ballot and a like-for-like right to return. The Haringey fire sale should be binned. Islington Council must step up the campaign to use public land in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency (at Holloway Prison) for public housing. Housing Associations must be brought under democratic control now, by the kind of action residents are taking to stop the gravy-train merger of Notting Hill and Genesis.
To turn yesterday’s speech into action we need a united national campaign to demand decent homes for all. The summit on 25th November (details here) will be an important step. Just waiting for Jezza could be a disaster.