As I watched Ken Livingstone’s eyes water at the sight of Boris Johnson giving his victory speech, my feelings of sympathy were halted by the thought of some new signs that have gone up near me. One says, “A stunning new development at the heart of the regeneration of Dalston” and the other says, “Dalston Square – marketing suite open”.
These signs represent Livingstone’s – and New Labour’s – idea of reform and progress. This is what they offer us as a reason to vote for them. And then they wonder why Labour voters stay away in droves – or worse – turn rightwards hoping they’ll get a better deal.
But first, some history – and it’s a history that’s being repeated all over the country. Dalston is an inner-city area in Hackney, east London, which was mostly built in the Victorian period – a mix of factories, stations, shops, flats, houses, markets, schools, cinemas, churches and hospitals.
For as long as the Labour Party has existed the area has voted Labour and, though the fascist Oswald Mosley tried to use it as his relaunch pad in the 1940s and 1950s, he was seen off by anti-fascists.
In that period it had a large number of Jews living and working there and since the 1960s it’s had a mix of people from all over the world.
In that time the Labour council has treated Dalston with a mixture of neglect and rapaciousness. On the one hand it has let rows and rows of buildings it owned become derelict and on the other it has bulldozed through whole streets and handed over millions of public money to builders and developers to throw up new projects.
A few decades ago it demolished hundreds of houses and flats in order to put up unsuitable high rise blocks, which it then demolished in order to build a new estate, which it handed over to a housing association and private ownership.
The cost to locals – untold millions and loss of publicly owned housing.
The beneficiaries – the bankers and developers. The socialist alternative was to have “refurbed” the houses and kept the whole lot in public ownership.
At the heart of Dalston, there used to be a railway line. In the 1970s they told us it was “uneconomic”, so they ripped it up. In fact the last stretch of the railway, where it entered the City of London, had been eyed up by developers and, sure enough, it soon disappeared under a development of office blocks.
All round the old station the shops, flats, factories and even an old theatre – all owned by the council – fell derelict. When the last tenants tried to get leases on any of these, the council refused, talking up the idea that the area was going to be “regenerated”. Remember that word!
Bit by bit a consortium made up of the council, central government, London’s transport authority and the mysterious “London Development Agency”, buoyed up by the magical rise in property prices and big business circling their wagons round Dalston, hatched a plan.
We would “get the tube” and marvellous new shops and flats would go up, where before there was ugly dereliction.
In fact, it isn’t the tube, it’s an overground line running along the same route whose tracks were ripped up just a few years previously but which now has to swerve away from the City because of the City development built there. And, what d’you know, it’s been handed over to private ownership.
The cheap, green alternative would have been to run publicly owned trolley-buses down the old route.
And how is this non-tube line (and a new bus station) to be paid for? The consortium’s plan was to shovel 20 million quid of public money into the hands of the developers so that they could bulldoze flats, shops and historic buildings to give us new high rise blocks.
They would be filled with privately owned buy-to-let flats including no affordable housing along with multinational retail chains.
Meanwhile, the derelict streets all around are disappearing into the hands of yet more developers who have been encouraged to buy up the houses in rows while local leaseholders have been refused the right to buy and been evicted.
The local market stall-holders selling cheap food with a specific slant towards the diverse peoples of the area are being priced out by the council, eager to flog off yet more land to developers.
What’s happened is that the Labour Party has lubricated the wheels of big property developers and retail magnates in order to “regenerate” an area.
But it hasn’t been “regenerated” for the people living and working there. They’ve been shoved out. The only thing that’s been regenerated are the profits of the property companies and it’s the Labour council tipping our money into their pockets that has enabled them to do it.
Regeneration? Degeneration, more like.