St Michael’s Gate, Peterborough: Housing Nadir?

[Support the St Michal’s Gate tenants, demo and lobby Peterborough town hall, 6pm 14th Dec.]

It’s become difficult to be shocked by our housing crisis.  (I see the government now refers to the ‘housing challenge’ and some others don’t like calling it a ‘crisis’, but it’s a bloody crisis if you’re at the sharp end of it, which millions are.)  Whether it’s the insanity of the London market, the greed of developers, the demolition of council estates by Labour councils or the omnishambles that is the Housing and Planning Act, we’ve become too accustomed to the inability of our political system to deliver a basic social and physical necessity.  But there’s a situation in Peterborough that’s a parable of this failure and maybe marks a new low point.

At St Michael’s Gate there are 74 households threatened with eviction by a private landlord whose signed a contract with Tory-controlled Peterborough City Council to house some of its growing number of homeless families.  Ergo, people are being made homeless to house the homeless!

Meeting of Peterborough Trades Council 24th November with St Michael's Gate residents and campaigners.

Meeting of Peterborough Trades Council 24th November with St Michael’s Gate residents and campaigners.

The background is slightly more complicated than this fundamental absurdity suggests, but the situation is symptomatic of the grotesque mess we’re in.  The latest in a succession of private landlords at St Michael’s Gate is a company called ‘Stef and Phillips’, essentially a property investment company linked to an estate agents, but marketing itself as ‘a leading provider of social housing solutions’.  You can read its self-justifying statement about St Michael’s Gate here.  Basically, Stef and Phillips will make more money by replacing current tenants with new ones.

It was put to me by a BBC journalist this week that, ‘they own it, they can do what they like with it’, but this myopic view depends on seeing housing as nothing other than a private speculative investment vehicle – precisely the ideological motivation for the Housing and Planning Act.  The fact that there are 16 children at risk of being made homeless for Christmas presumably doesn’t fit with this credo.  Faced with this, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that some current St Michael’s Gate residents are struggling not to blame the currently homeless families who could replace them for their plight, a graphic illustration of the pernicious divisiveness of the housing crisis.  According to a local Labour councillor, predictably, the local Tory MP, instead of reflecting on his government’s policies, has said the root of the problem is migration.

As I think I managed to explain to the BBC, the real issue here is the decades-long failure to invest in new social housing, particularly council housing.  This has created the scarcity upon which parasitic, profit-seeking landlords feed.  Before striking the St Michael’s Gate deal, Peterborough Council were spending £1 million to Travelodge to house homeless families, part of the £3 billion a year we’re currently spending on temporary accommodation.

The St Michael’s Gate families are fighting back though.  They’ll be lobbying the Council on Wednesday 14th December, meeting from 6pm at the rear entrance of Peterborough town hall (PE1 1FA).  All welcome.


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Trump means Trump

In the past I’ve used this blog to express (confess?) my strange love for America, so I feel compelled to say a few words about recent events.  I don’t want to add to the deluge of pontificating punditry, some of it a bit hysterical.  As with Brexit, I think people should try to avoid making too many sweeping assumptions and judgments about what Trump’s victory means.  But I was wrong.  I didn’t think he could win, based on a flawed assumption that there are too many female, non-white and generally good-natured people in the US (although it is, of course, important to remember that the vast majority of Americans DID NOT vote Trump).

I first encountered the new President-elect on my first trip to the US in 1986 when I visited his Ozymandian phallus, Trump Tower.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.  Even in a city of monuments to greed, it had an ostentatious vulgarity that staggered me.

Trump next invaded my consciousness in 2007 when I was doing some research about the struggle for decent, affordable housing in New York City.  I read about a Brooklyn apartment block he owned (one of many in the city) which had enjoyed some degree of rent control in return for government subsidies to the owner/developer.  That agreement was coming to an end, so Trump was looking to sell his ‘asset’ (a very common scenario in the US, which has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of homes for people with low-incomes).  But it was the language he used to explain his decision that has stayed with me since.  He said ‘Great to keep it, great to sell it’.  With the bombastic arrogance we’ve become accustomed to, Trump showed a wanton disregard for the people whose lives he was about to disrupt.  That attitude is typical of many other private landlords and property developers, but this man is now the President.

Here’s the thing I find missing from the current coverage.  Trump’s election marks the ultimate triumph of the profit-driven corporate landlord – and nothing could more clearly nail the grotesque lie that he is an ‘outsider’ or friend to working class people.  Time will tell what a Trump presidency means in practice, but one thing is certain.  The situation, already dire, for Americans in housing need will get worse.

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Housing: The Current Future

This article was originally commissioned by ‘The Guardian’ back in August.  They then backed off it, apparently under legal advice.  I’m not sure what they were worried about, but I’m going to publish and be damned (or sued) because I think the recent and current actions of one housing association illustrate the future, particularly if the Housing and Planning Act comes into force.  In the run-up to the national ‘Axe the Housing Act’ summit on 22nd October, it would be great if people could share.  I’ve also been in touch with one of the tenants Riverside is trying to evict and the struggle continues, so it would be good to draw some attention to it.

UK housing faces a very uncertain future as the Housing Act spreads deep anxiety throughout the sector.  The legislation is due to return to parliament and campaigners are demanding the government thinks again.  But some of the threats are already becoming apparent, including those to housing workers.

The increasing pressures on staff are already biting.  Our union is receiving more complaints of cost-cutting and heavy-handed management, particularly as housing associations (HAs) react to the double whammy of 1% rent cuts and the looming financial dangers of the Act.

But big HAs can’t just portray themselves as victims.  They have significant discretion about whether or not to implement the government’s policies, but some seem to be using them as a pretext for job cuts and attacking workers’ pay and conditions.

Unite has expressed its ‘dismay’ at proposed redundancies at Riverside HA, an organisation which last year made a £45 million surplus and paid its chief executive £183,781.  Despite this, Riverside plans to cut 64 jobs in Cumbria as the first wave of what could be 300 – 400 job losses across its national operation of 52,000 homes in 150 local authorities.  Among those threatened with losing their jobs are skilled trades people, precisely the occupations we need to protect if, as Jeremy Corbyn argues, we’re going to build and maintain the homes we need.

Cuts affecting housing workers and tenants go hand-in-hand.  Earlier this year, Riverside slashed 22 jobs in Carlisle when it closed its Careline operation which served 4,000 vulnerable and elderly people.  A spokesperson for the Carlisle Tenants and Residents Federation says:

‘We’ve monitored Riverside closely since it took over the city’s 6,000 council homes 14 years ago.  We’ve found them unaccountable, bossy and dictatorial.’

At the other end of the country, the organisation has issued ‘no fault’ eviction notices to 7 households in a 33-home block in Maidstone, Kent.  The existing tenants complain about Riverside’s poor repairs service and failure to respond to complaints, which they link to the organisation’s aim of emptying the block where they live of ‘social’ tenants, including families with children.

Andrew is one of the people Riverside is trying to remove.  He received an eviction order with no warning, but he’s fighting it.

‘They’re callous and incompetent, but it’s obvious what they’re up to.  They even have a subsidiary of Savills advising them!  The rent for my 3 bedroom flat is £650 a month.  The full market rent would be between £950 and £1,000.  I can’t afford that, but Riverside wants to cash in.’

One of the major concerns within the Act is the extension of the Right to Buy to HAs.  That puts more jobs at risk, will lengthen waiting lists, increase homelessness and ramp up the pressures on front-line housing workers.  But instead of joining the broad alliance of opposition to the Act, or at least waiting to see how the deeply flawed legislation fares when parliamentarians get another look at it, Riverside chose to be part of a pilot project for selling off its homes!  Turkeys and Christmas spring to mind.  But this is too serious for flippancy, when the Chartered Institute of Housing is predicting the loss of 350,000 social rented homes by 2020.

Riverside’s activities are symptomatic of a broken housing policy with the wrong priorities.  Steve Power from the Unite union in the North-West says:

“This is happening everywhere.  I was at a conference recently where a HA CEO said ‘Social housing is finished.  From now on staff will be expected to work on a completely commercial basis.”

Some HAs have become increasingly detached from their founding principles, replacing local face-to-face relationships with remote call centres and impersonal layers of management.  Under the Housing Act they’ll be given even more freedom to pursue commercial activities with less supervision.  The culture-gap between big HAs and the people who work for them and live in their homes will widen.

But dehumanised housing services don’t work.  Housing workers won’t let our sector become like Sports Direct and tenants won’t accept being used as pawns in a corporate property game.  Together we can Axe the Act and put people back at the centre of housing policy.



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Labour Party Conference, follow-up

As a quick follow-up to my previous post, the Labour Party conference has passed the following resolution, committing to fighting and repealing the Housing and Planning Act. This is not victory, but a significant step towards it and testament to the broad alliance now united within Axe the Housing Act.  The national summit on 22nd October is now even more important.

Composite 9 – Housing
On 9 August 2016 Shelter published research highlighting the plight of millions of working families who are struggling to afford sky-high housing costs. Shelter’s chief executive said these families are ‘stretched to breaking point and barely scraping by from one pay cheque to the next.’ The research also reveals that a fifth of working parents face the prospect of being immediately unable to pay their next rent or mortgage payment if they lose their job.
This Conference agrees that the Housing and Planning Act is an exercise in social cleansing, gerrymandering and a threat to all except landlords and developers making money from the housing crisis. Conference recognises that the Tories’ Housing and Planning Act will, if implemented, disastrously increase the problems facing those in need of decent and affordable housing.
Conference supports calls from councils across the country for the government to pause and review the Act’s provisions.
Conference opposes measures in the housing act that will:
• Introduce a ‘tenant tax’ to increase the rent for many social housing tenants to unaffordable levels.
• Force councils to sell off void council dwellings and ask registered providers to operate the Right-to-Buy, thus massively reducing stocks of vitally needed social rented housing.
• Scrap the permanent, secure, social housing tenancies which provide stability to our most vulnerable communities.
• Replace the planning requirement for social rented units with that for unaffordable starter homes.
Labour will lead a campaign against the housing act and welcomes the Labour leadership’s commitment to repeal the housing act and deliver ‘genuinely affordable housing’.
Labour is committed to campaign for and in government Labour will deliver:
• A massive increase in the supply of council housing, including social rented housing.
• A housing strategy that uses public money and land to increase the supply of council housing with security of tenure at genuinely affordable rents;

• A massive council house building programme which will both rebalance the economy by creating jobs and also empower local authorities with the necessary resources.
Mover: Gravesham CLP
Seconder: South East Cornwall CLP



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Leaving of Liverpool (thoughts on the Labour Party conference etc.)

I’m not long back from Liverpool where the ‘Axe the Housing Act’ (AtHA) campaign tried to make an impact at Labour Party conference and the parallel ‘World Transformed’ event organised, I think, by Momentum.  Obviously the main focus of attention was the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn and there’s no doubt this is highly significant and particularly welcome for all those fighting for better housing in general and against the Act in particular.  One AtHA activist was leafleting outside the conference centre on Monday when Mr Corbyn appeared (unannounced, unaccompanied, unphotographed) and gave her a big hug, not something he could do with some of the people inside the conference!  In this moment he confirms what many of us already know – that as well as being a decent, approachable human being, he is genuinely and passionately committed to defeating the Act as part of a future Labour government reversing the neoliberal tide.  If only it were that simple!

The reaction of the Labour right to their latest crushing defeat was entirely predictable, but it would be wrong to under-estimate their determination to carry on regardless.  There are already clear signs that the corrosive party machinery is attempting to grind Corbyn and co. into submission and reassert the primacy of MPs and their union allies over rank and file members.  It’s in this sense that the role of Momentum and those outside the Labour Party who want a change of direction is critical.

Clearly, if Labour is to win the next election under Corbyn (as I believe it can) it has to build an alliance beyond the party and appeal to disaffected working class voters.  The enormous surge of support for Corbyn and the ideas he represents are evidence that it can, but I came away from Liverpool with some concerns.

I acknowledge that I make ‘special pleading’ for housing.  It’s what I do.  But I also think any objective assessment recognises that it’s an issue of big and growing social and political significance.  Not for Momentum apparently.  Across four days of meetings – about 100 in total – the organisers of The World Transformed (TWT) couldn’t find any time for a meeting about the Housing and Planning Act and only one of all the many sessions was even tangentially about housing.  This would be bad and annoying enough, but the AtHA campaign contacted the organisers well in advance of last weekend and it was agreed, in writing, that we would have a dedicated slot on the programme.  Without explanation, we were dropped.  When challenged, TWT apologised and said they would make alternative arrangements for us to be included, but this promise was honoured in the breach and we had to constantly hassle them to be anything other than consigned to the pavement outside the venue.

People in politics can get very precious about the order of things; their place at the table, on the speaker list or in the programme.  I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of lots of moaning about this kind of thing over the years and mostly find it tiresomely egotistic.  I hope I’m not doing the same now, but I am astonished that a group (TWT/Momentum) purporting to be ‘reaching out’ to new and/or ignored social movements and causes can be so myopic.

If this experience was just about the campaign I’m particularly involved with then it might not be so important, but I think it illustrates bigger problems that could seriously hamper the chances of a more progressive Labour Party capable of wining elections and power.  Decent, secure, affordable housing, or the lack of it, is a massive issue for working class communities up and down the country and for that matter, of increasing concern to people who might not traditionally support Labour.  Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell ‘get it’, but some of the people around them seem not to.

Understanding this and placing it on the ‘cock up’ or ‘conspiracy’ spectrum is difficult.  TWT/Momentum are by no means the only organisation on the left or elsewhere who have a housing blind spot.  Indeed, it’s partly because the issue is so frequently marginalised that we have the housing misery we do. But given the situation Corbyn is in, it’s vital that those who support him connect with the forces who can defend him against those that want to unwind the events of the last 12 months.  Housing, like the NHS and education, is a unifying issue both within and beyond the Labour Party.

There are, perhaps, some deeper issues of political culture demonstrated by what happened at TWT.  Before saying this, I have to also acknowledge that while I was brooding in Liverpool on Saturday, I turned 52.  I am not of the same generation as many of those who are most active in TWT/Momentum and who have propelled Corbyn to improbable victory.  My political education was founded in a different tradition and it wasn’t always a good one.  But nor was it always wrong.  I attended a session called ‘What is Momentum For?’.  It was based on the kind of allegedly inclusive, collaborative, participative model of organising a meeting that has become second nature in local government ‘consultation’ exercises.  It’s an approach that has its uses, but can also be alienating, patronising and based on a fundamental dishonesty.

I’m not a great one for political theory, but the more I think about Jo Freeman’s ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ (1970), the more pertinent it feels.  The style adopted by TWT/Momentum presents an image of free-form egalitarianism, but it’s a charade.  I spoke to some other people at TWT who had shared some of my experiences and frustrations and one of them described a process whereby ‘power elites are being recreated’.  Another, more caustically, referred to Momentum being run by ‘a bunch of public school boys from London’.

I don’t know if the latter accusation is true, but part of what worries me about the constellation around Corbyn is a failure to communicate openly and clearly identify and align with the issues affecting working class people and communities.  Not recognising the importance of housing is clear evidence of this and could have disastrous consequences.

twt(They couldn’t stop us dropping our banner though!  Perhaps a clearer message than some others?)

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Radical Housing in Tower Hamlets

I’ve just been to this and it’s well worth a visit.  I’m always wary of excessively celebrating ‘the fight for a better yesterday’, but this exhibition has some important lessons for today.  It chronicles the radical tenant-led organisations, rent strikes and squatter movements that fought for – and won – better housing conditions in the East End as they did elsewhere.  Too much has already been lost, but it would be a further betrayal of their struggle if we allow this Tory government to turn the housing clock back even more with its Housing and Planning Act.  I was particularly struck by the campaign of mass non-payment and huge demonstrations against the rent rises proposed by the GLC in the late 1960s/early 70s, a clear parallel with ‘Pay to Stay’ AKA the Tenant Tax.

Tower Hamlets Radicial Housing History

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Bernie’s Last Stand?

Last Thursday, in a car-park in south-east Washington DC, Bernie Sanders spoke at what was probably his last rally in a campaign that has shaken the US political status quo.  That at least ten million people have voted for him to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate is only part of the story, although that result was unthinkable at the start.  The figure represents only about 3% of the US population, but the Sanders campaign has a significance beyond numbers.  Like the crude populist Trump, Sanders connected with the deep political resentment that has simmered in the country for decades, but began to boil after the 2008 crash.  This could be the year America finally begins to break from its political duopoly and rediscovers some if its deep-rooted, often hidden, socialist soul.

Sanders’ speech was like an A – Z of US injustice and inequality.  He covered everything from Native American poverty and Black Lives Matter to drugs, mental health, student debt and the growing demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage.  ‘H’ was for universal health care and housing,  about which he said ‘we need to build millions of affordable homes and invest in public housing’.  Housing is increasingly the locus of political and class discontent on both sides of the Atlantic.

The similarities with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn  are obvious.  Both men have an authenticity built on decades of campaign struggle.  Like Corbyn, long before his dramatic ascendancy, Sanders was known as a loyal champion for social justice, including among tenants and housing campaigners for whom both men have provided a voice in the mainstream political wilderness.  But Sanders, like Corbyn, now faces the challenge of moving beyond his movement moment.

For Sanders, this will inevitably entail confronting the role of the Democratic Party which has used every trick in the book to ensure that only the establishment’s candidate, Hilary Clinton, would win the nomination.  The questions now are whether the assorted socialists, progressives and environmentalists who supported Sanders will vote for Clinton and what, if any, new political formulation could emerge if business as usual politics takes America back round the same old circle. One of the notable things about Thursday’s rally was the eclectic mix of people who were there.  Like Corbyn, Sanders has been credited with reaching a new layer of younger people, but the demographics of support for real change in US politics is much wider.

Sanders came to the rally from a meeting with Barak Obama at which, presumably, he was asked to help unite the party around Clinton’s candidacy.  In the face of the Trump threat, that’s understandable, but represents a similar reductive impulse to the one that habitually pulls the UK labour movement back towards the Labour Party.  So far, there’s no indication that Sanders is going to lead a movement away from the straight-jacket of bi-partisan politics.  The imperative of defeating Trump will prolong the Democrats’ support, but without genuine moves towards policies that re-balance gross socio-economic inequality, that support is increasingly conditional.  The toothpaste is out of the tube and as an activist from Atlanta said to me today ‘there’s never going to be an ideal time to try something new’.

At the end of his speech, Sanders invoked the spirit of struggle that has brought every step of social progress in US history, from the emancipation of slaves and the 8-hour day to civil rights and gay marriage.  As he said, all of those achievements appeared impossible ten years before they happened.




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