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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Milton Keynes – A City Concept at Risk

I’ve written before about my fascination with Milton Keynes, so I was very happy to be invited to a meeting of MK residents to discuss the Housing and Planning Act (which limped through parliament on 12th May).  The new Act is a 360 degree danger, but one that will be felt in different ways in different places.  In Milton Keynes, as well as the usual threats, an entire city concept is at risk.

MK is the biggest planned settlement in the UK, but with a population now around a quarter of a million people, it’s three times the original projected size and the fastest growing local authority area in the country.  The Council is already anticipating a further 28,000 households by 2026, fueled by outward migration – voluntary or coerced – from London and other areas where people are priced out by the housing market or pushed out by the shortage of non-market housing.  Providing ‘over-spill’ was always part of the MK concept, but there will now be additional pressure to build more homes there from a government that’s set itself a target of building a million by 2020.  That’s a number plucked from thin air, but is the underlying narrative of justification for the Housing and Planning Act.

The key word in the MK concept is ‘planned’.  The city is the product of a belief that places work better if some deliberate thought goes into how they function.  For some, from free-marketeers to anarcho-libertarians, this is anathema.  In practice, most places are shaped by a combination of forces, but the Housing and Planning Act embodies the contradictions and power imbalance of our planning process.  A government that allegedly believes in ‘localism’ is dictating the future of local communities from Whitehall.  Within the multiple outrages of the Act are the increased ability of the Secretary of State to over-rule local planning decisions.

The MK group I met last night are particularly concerned about how the authoritarianism of the Act will impact on what were already threatening clouds hanging over the future of MK’s 11,000 council homes.  Seven estates are currently being lined up for ‘regeneration’, a term that now strikes additional alarm.  Against the background of Cameron’s moronic ‘sink estates’ statement, council housing like that in Milton Keynes represent the prime target of the Act’s requirement that councils maintain a ‘brownfield register’ of suitable sites capable of accommodating five or more homes and that 90% of those sites have planning permission for development by 2020.  Eric Pickles and the government’s housing henchmen Savills have already made it clear they consider some council estates ‘brownfield’ sites, so the malevolent intent of the Act is clear.  ‘Regeneration’ will continue to be the code name for displacement and privatisation it has long been, as described by the Joseph Rountree Foundation report released on the same day the Act became law, but with renewed velocity.

MK people hope that because their homes and communities were built on ‘virgin soil’, they won’t be deemed ‘brownfield’ and suitable for redevelopment, but this is where various threatening policy agendas collide.  Milton Keynes Council has already begun a familiar process of commissioning reports preordained to smash-up council estates in the spurious name of ‘mixed communities’.  Common threads of this cynical process are that council housing is beyond economic repair, socially dysfunctional and built at too low densities, all things that are now buttressed by government policy and rhetoric and are particularly relevant to Milton Keynes.  However, giving written evidence to the House of Commons, MK council said that it is committed to building council housing and is concerned not only by the danger of over-development, but by the harmful impact of the ‘Starter Homes’ that are a key feature of the Act and in MK, as elsewhere, will further reduce the amount of genuinely affordable housing.

The Act in general and Starter Homes in particular are a direct challenge to the ethos that underpins Milton Keynes because they place the future of the city in the hands of private property developers, not local people.  Milton Keynes is unique in many ways, but in this it is not.  Which is why it was so good that, at the end of our meeting, this group of MK residents committed to building the campaign to ‘Axe the Housing Act!’

MK meeting

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The Housing Paradox and the Democratic Deficit

I think this post is what’s known as a ‘think piece’  I’m not sure what that means, but it comes in the days after the Housing and Planning Bill ‘passed through’ parliament, like a stomach bug that has messy and unpleasant consequences.  The campaign against the Bill must not only continue, but move on to a new footing.  The skirmishing is over: the real battle is about to begin.  It’s sometimes said that all politics is local and ultimately the fate of the Tories’ ideological assault will be decided locally.  In the coming year, critical issues of practical implementation, but also of political representation, will play out as some of the most ill-considered and malignant aspects of the Bill are revealed, often to people who have hitherto been unaware of them.  But there are some wider issues about how we came to this.

The Bill was passed on the same day as a White Paper about the future of the BBC.  The Beeb’s ‘flagship’ radio news programme ‘World at One’ devoted the first half hour of its news coverage that day to its self.  Four different people were interviewed, two of them BBC employees, including the Director General who said that people turn to the BBC to ‘find out what’s going on’.  As if this level of self-interest weren’t enough, there was another 45 minute programme devoted to the State broadcaster, by the State broadcaster, scheduled later on Radio 4.  In all this, I heard not a single mention of ‘what’s going on’ with the Housing and Planning Bill, an issue which will affect people’s daily lives far more than the future of the BBC.

In the wake of the controversy over the bias of one of its political correspondents, none of this comes as a surprise to those inured to the selective consciousness of the BBC and the mainstream media in general.  But the blind eye turned to housing is still a paradox at a time when the issue is consistently identified as one of peoples’ main concerns and for which they look to their political representatives for action.  The same could be said of immigration, but that’s a subject covered by the media ad nauseam.  There could be a connection here!

However, the under-recognition of housing – and the Housing Bill in particular – is not restricted to the fourth estate.  From the start of the campaign against the Bill, there have been signs that some politicians, local and national (including some representing the Labour Party) considered the issue of marginal significance.  Even if they thought the Bill was bad, they didn’t think enough people would share their opinion or be willing to do anything about it.  This judgment, perhaps based on calculating the fabled ‘middle ground’, might in part explain why local councillors and MPs were so slow to sound the alarm about the Bill (which they knew about long before anyone else did).  Even now, when the legislative writing is on the wall, those who might be expected to lead a campaign against such far-reaching, damaging measures, appear content to wring their hands.  The same is true of the higher echelons of the trade union and wider labour movement.

When you feel strongly about something it’s sometimes hard to understand why others don’t feel the same.  Of course, there are a myriad policies that are equally vicious as the Housing Bill, not least the Trade Union Bill which was also passed this week, with more of a whimper than a roar.  But I think there’s something deeper at work than just there not being enough hours in the week to fight every cause.

There’s something peculiar about mainstream social attitudes to housing that quickly turns a global political question into a personal morality play.  I’ve had numerous conversations with people who  bemoan the housing crisis and then say ‘but I’m part of the problem’.  This misplaced guilt might centre on having bought a former council home, or cashing-in on rapid price rises or (as is increasingly common) becoming a landlord.  It’s sometimes implied that people who are adequately housed themselves can’t campaign for everyone else to be.  I remember enough Marxism to realise that materialism determines consciousness and can see that for MPs and trade union general secretaries housing isn’t a problem.  But this is a strange attitude to political activism, particularly in the context of the Housing and Planning Bill.  We don’t usually require that people campaigning against injustice are themselves victims of it.  Moreover, one of the most important arguments against current housing policy is that it will have inter-generational consequences that will increasingly creep up the socio-economic scale.

Seeing housing through the lens of individualism is precisely the Tories’ ideological objective, but I experienced a good antidote to it yesterday.  A demonstration was organised in Islington that combined opposition to the Housing Bill with demands that the soon-to-be closed Holloway Women’s Prison site is used for community benefit, with council housing not another private development.  It wasn’t huge, but some protests exceed the sum of their parts.  Making the links between neoliberal housing policy, use of public land, the criminal (in)justice system, sexism, mental health and the social cleansing of our cities, but at a local, not macro, level are the way we will defeat the Housing Bill.  When it comes to the transcending significance of housing, some people ‘don’t get it’.  Jeremy Corbyn does.

JC etc. at London Met 14.5.16.

 

 

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