The battle under way in the capital should trouble us all. Proponents call it innovation, but I say it’s an assault on the poor
Aditya Chakrabortty Thursday 19 January 2017
A battle broke out on Tuesday in one of the scruffier parts of north London. It didn’t look much: a few dozen placard wavers outside Haringey civic centre, and a restive public heckling councillors as they debated big plans for their future. But this is a battle that concerns all of us. At its heart is a programme that is among the most audacious I’ve ever seen. Haringey wants to privatise huge swaths of public property: family homes, school buildings, its biggest library. All of it will be stuck in a private fund worth £2bn.
It comes with huge risks. It will demolish precious social housing, turf out families and rip apart communities. It will hand democratic control to a massive private entity. The 20-year plan is ‘unprecedented’, agreed backbench councillors. They voted to slam on the brakes. But if they’re ignored and the plan goes through, it will form a blueprint for an altered capital. London will lurch closer towards becoming a playground for speculators, a dormitory for professionals, and off-limits both to the working class and to public dissent.
This may be the first you’ve heard of it – the Haringey development vehicle has scored barely a mention outside the local and trade press. Odd, given how large it is, and how vital to council leader Claire Kober, who is also chair of the London Councils group.
Having grown up nearby, in Edmonton, I know the problems that fester in parts of Haringey
- Kober claims that a joint venture with a mega-developer is the sure route to 5,000 new houses and a sparkling town centre. To which the obvious question is: homes for whom? I’ve been through the paperwork, had dozens of conversations with councillors and locals, and put a series of questions to the council. And it’s clear they won’t be for the 8,000 Haringey families on the waiting list for a council house. If anything, this plan will add to the number who are homeless. Not by accident but by design: the plans are explicit about making accommodation in this London borough even more expensive.
Why would a Labour council even think of doing this to its own voters? Because the hyper-ambitious leadership is still gripped by zombie Blairism and its mania for ‘innovation’. And because Kober and her allies appear to believe the best way to relieve an area of poverty is to kick out the poor people who live there. Or, as they call it, creating ‘mixed and balanced communities’.
Having grown up next door, in Edmonton, I know the problems that fester in parts of Haringey: the death of light industry leading to a jobs drought, and some of the worst deprivation in Britain. There’s a reason Tottenham was ground zero for the 2011 riots. Add to that the impossible municipal maths of delivering year upon year of Westminster-mandated spending cuts while trying not to drown in a historic housing crisis. So many needs, so little money.
Faced with these intractables, Kober and her circle have decided the way to fix Tottenham is to turn it into somewhere else. So they hire Nick Walkley, who at Barnet handed nearly everything his council did to the giant outsourcing company Capita. They throw public money at starchitects to get them to set up a branch in the borough. They blow the annual running cost of a daycare centre on a redesign of the council logo. ‘Haringey London’, it now reads, with an undisguised spatial neediness. This is the kind of regeneration mindset that can’t see a greasy spoon without wishing it were a Starbucks.
And Kober gets cosy with the property industry. Developers spend tens of thousands bringing her and the team over to property fairs in Cannes. And there, among the yachts, the council announces the shortlist of private-sector partners for this development vehicle.
A gorgeous art deco town hall is flogged to Hong Kong investors to turn into a boutique hotel and luxury apartments – with just four affordable homes. Locals are furious, and Labour councillors rebel. The chief whip, Adam Jogee, ticks off colleagues for their ‘entirely unacceptable behaviour’. Jogee, by the way, works for a lobbying firm that represents two of the three corporates on that development vehicle shortlist. That same lobbyist dined Kober and her heads of finance and housing no fewer than 13 times.
Community land trusts battle gentrification by linking house prices to local wages rather than the market rate. But can this growing movement for ‘permanently affordable’ homes really ease Britain’s housing crisis?
I’m not accusing these politicians of corruption. But they seem to have such a corroded sense of ethics that they can no longer discern inappropriate behaviour.
Then they start on this new development vehicle. The council’s business case for it is too important a job for any local official: a property consultancy is hired in. As one might expect of policy written by the real-estate industry, the document contains hardly a word on social housing. Indeed, the council tells me it has no targets for building social housing through this new venture, just ‘affordable’ units. And as everyone knows, ‘affordable’ means its opposite.
As for the joint venture, only a few councils have ever tried them. That business case doesn’t mention the failures, such as in Croydon, south London. It doesn’t mention how the venture in Tunbridge Wells collapsed, leaving locals to pick up the tab.
Other things not mentioned: democratic accountability and the rights of council tenants. Whole estates will be razed to the ground, and the council confirmed to me that the people who live there are not guaranteed the right to return on the same tenancy contracts.
Not that the tenants know any of this. The first council estate to go into the vehicle will be Northumberland Park: close to the Lea Valley waterways and blessed with good transport links into central London. Such attributes make it far too good for mere council tenants, of course. But last week, when I asked residents if they knew their homes were set to be demolished, some stared at me in wonder.
Haringey’s own consultants admit: ‘There is very little sound knowledge of the proposed regeneration in Northumberland Park.’
I keep thinking about one couple: Sirajul and Moriam Islam. He drives a school bus, she’s an assistant in a nearby special-needs school. They bought their flat from the council 30 years ago and have spent years doing it up. Now they’ll be turfed out with a sum that will not buy them another flat in the area. They talk about seeing out their final years in a strange new town, among people they don’t know. ‘Like living in a prison,’ sighs Moriam. Then Sirajul tells me about his boy who’s training to be a doctor, and his girl who’s about to start as a teacher. ‘I always told them: ‘We might be working-class, but you can do anything.’ The mixed and balanced and ‘aspirational’ community Kober and co are seeking is right under their noses, if only they’d see it.
This has been the story of central London’s transformation over the past decade: clearing of the commons, dismissal of the little people, deference towards developers and the replacement of reality with property-marketing fiction. If Haringey implements these proposals then outer London is next. Which is why I believe this battle is one that the rest of us can’t sit out. Enough of forced gentrification. Enough of privatising public assets. Enough of that rancid New Labour contempt for its own voters. This has to stop.