Housing correspondent BARRATT HOLMES on a game-changer for council homes announced at the Labour Party conference
Tony Newman and the leadership of Croydon’s Labour-run council could be on a collision course with their party over their controversial Brick by Brick housing development company.
With Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn declaring in his conference speech yesterday, “Houses should be homes for the many, not speculative investments for the few,” there could be some awkward questioning of how Croydon’s Labour council is managing to spend £250million on a house-building programme which will deliver at least 560 “speculative investments”.
There is not a single council house being built among the 1,000 homes from council-owned developer Brick by Brick.
Croydon has never had any large housing estates, as there are in neighbouring Lambeth and Southwark, and in Hackney, where “regeneration” schemes have seen thousands of council tenants subjected to “social cleansing”, moved out of their long-term homes to make way for new, high-priced properties. Such policies were roundly criticised during the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week, where a new housing policy review was announced.
By making the party’s policy on the topic a cornerstone of his conference speech Corbyn is, according to Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty, “effectively going to war with some of the most powerful Labour councils”.After nearly 40 years of little or no social housing being built by local authorities, following the introduction of the Thatcherite “Right-to-Buy” policies in the 1980s, Corbyn’s speech yesterday, and an earlier address by his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, made it clear that under a Labour government, this would change.
We should no longer be ashamed to build council houses, McDonnell had told a Momentum fringe meeting.
That McDonnell is known to be close to Andrew Fisher, who did much work on Labour’s General Election manifesto and is a Croydon resident, could be a worry for Croydon Labour’s Blairite leadership and their council house-lite building plans.
In Corbyn’s speech, too many regeneration projects resulted in “forced gentrification and social cleansing”. Corbyn pledged that, if elected, Labour would make it harder for big developers to get planning approval.
“Regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators,” Corbyn said, in a thinly disguised swipe at the likes of Labour-run boroughs such as Lambeth, Southwark and Hackney.
“First, people who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before… And second, councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place.” Had that been the case, Central Hill in Lambeth and the Aylesbury in Southwark may have never fallen prey to their council’s developer-friendly schemes.
In his column, Chakrabortty wrote: “For decades, Labour councils, especially in London, have invited in big developers to ‘regenerate’ public housing estates. What follows fits a wearily familiar pattern. Families are booted out of their homes, the bulldozers tear down publicly owned property, and on the ruins are erected hundreds of expensive flats and a risible number of ‘affordable’ homes. The developer makes their mark-up, the council gets some loose change, and the Evening Standard has something to fill its property pages.
“Everyone’s a winner – apart from those now deemed too poor to live in their former homes.”
This practice has left large swathes of the capital a no-go zone, unaffordable to rent or to buy for public service workers – police, firefighters, nurses, teachers, council workers – often making staff recruitment more expensive for local authorities and staff retention a growing problem.At Labour’s conference in 2016, Croydon Council’s deputy leader, and cabinet member for housing, Alison Butler, was given a name check in the leader’s speech because of the innovative manner in which the local authority was approaching the housing crisis, through Brick by Brick.
By establishing it as a private company, any new social housing developed would not be subject to possible right-to-buy legislation applied to housing associations then being threatened by the Tory government.
But in the past 12 months, more detail has emerged about Brick by Brick’s business “plan”. It will actually deliver very little social housing, if any at all.
From an original target of making 50 per cent of its new homes for sale on the open market, with the other 50 per cent being “affordable” – which in today’s London housing market is anything but affordable for ordinary working families – the council is now stating that only 430 of its 1,000 homes will be “affordable” (that is, for sale or rent at 80 per cent of the local market rate).
And there have been other issues, too, more familiar from when dealing with private developers. Existing council tenants living close to where Brick by Brick is planning to build have complained fiercely about the lack of proper consultation, failures to comply with legal consultation requirements, and the loss of green space and utilities to make way for the new homes, the majority of which are destined for the private market.The national Labour party’s new policy does not directly address schemes such as Croydon’s. But there are sure to be areas which will show Newman, Butler and their Blairite mates to be out-of-step with their party’s alternative to neo-liberalism.
In some respects, though, Croydon might actually be ahead of the curve of Corbynism and its housing policies to deal with what is regarded as a “dysfunctional” property market.
By establishing a landlord licensing scheme in 2014, Croydon Council is in pole position to administer any rent controls that a Labour government might introduce. “Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections,” Corbyn said in his speech.
And there’s more, which might equally cause concern of avaricious property speculators who have been sitting on property, landbanking, watching the value tick ever upwards as the demand for housing out-strips supply. “We also need to tax undeveloped land held by developers and have the power to compulsorily purchase,” Corbyn said. “As Ed Miliband said: ‘use it or lose it’.
“Families need homes. No social cleansing. No jacking up rents. No exorbitant ground rents.”
It was a powerful speech, making some powerful points on housing. The question now is: were Croydon’s Newman and Butler paying attention?
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