The British National Party (BNP) has exploited the issue of housing to get a foothold in Barking. It says that Barking & Dagenham council prioritises immigrants for council housing, and that this stops other people getting a decent place to live.
In reality, working class people in Barking face the same housing problems as people across Britain. Council houses aren’t being built, and this leaves tenants at the mercy of private landlords.
Since 1980, 17,523 council homes have been sold off in the borough. The council housing stock in Barking is half what it was 30 years ago.
In a small park at the end of a row of shops, Julianne Naeem is playing with her son. She is white and her husband is from Pakistan. “We’re overcrowded,” she said. “There are three boys, me and my husband in a two bed flat.
“It’s a private landlord. The council says we’re eligible for a three bed house. But we’ve been waiting ages.”
The BNP, which demands an all-white Britain, has no answers for this family. Julianne’s friend, Dawn Njie, lives in a council flat on the estate and has similar problems.
“It’s a three bed but I’ve got a 16 year old girl, a teenage boy, two toddlers and another on the way,” she said. “My daughter has to live with my mum.”
It’s a sunny day and the playground is full of children playing and adults chatting. Black, white and Muslim children swing on the climbing frames, while a group of black teenage boys play football with an Albanian team.
This is the Barking the BNP hates.
Dawn says she’s had enough of both Labour and the Conservatives and will vote for the Greens. She finds the BNP “very worrying and very racist”.
Mary came from Colombia and lives at the top of one of the tower blocks on the estate. Her family is too big for the small two bed flat.
She and her partner used to own a house, but had to sell it as they struggled to keep up with the mortgage.
“The problem is that the money the council gets for the rents we pay goes to the government and isn’t used to build more council houses”, she explains.
Like all local councils, Barking & Dagenham was not allowed to use money from the sales of council housing or from rents of those they still owned to build new housing.
Mary has asked to move but has been told it’s a long wait.
She showed me a broken window on the landing, which was held together with gaffer tape. “They claim they have redecorated the estate, but look at this,” she said, pointing to where the stairs have come away from the wall.
Sam is a youth worker on the Gascoigne estate. “Overcrowding is a real issue,” she told me. “There’s little council housing being built, so people are usually offered private rented accommodation.”
But that often means giving up a council flat and becoming a private tenant where landlords can throw tenants out of their homes more easily.
Meanwhile buying remains beyond the reach of most working class people. One recent estimate showed you would need a household income of £60,000 and a deposit of £20,000 to buy a family-size house in the area.
Milton McKenzie, one of the Labour councillors for the Gascoigne ward, said, “Labour should have built new council housing years ago. We need much more of it.
“The Labour council in Barking & Dagenham has started building new council homes, but it’s come late.”
Many people hoped that they could get a house on a local site known as Lintons, now renamed King William Street Quarter. But just 31 new council homes are being built there.
They are the first new council houses in the borough for 25 years—but they will barely make a dent on the housing waiting list.
Marcia lives in a street in Barking, with a mix of council tenants and owner-occupiers like her.
She said that many council tenants “are white and have been here a long time”.
Marcia added that everyone is very accepting of each other and get on well together. “But I’m worried about the BNP,” she said. “You have to vote to stop them, you mustn’t waste your vote.”
Labour politicians have pandered to the lie that migrants have been prioritised for council housing.
Last year prime minister Gordon Brown said the council should give greater priority to “local people”.
But this reinforces the idea that migrants are responsible for the lack of housing.
It isn’t true. Migrants to Britain are overwhelmingly housed in private rented accommodation.
New migrants to Britain in the last five years make up less than two percent of those in council or housing association homes.
The real problem is the lack of decent council homes—which some Labour politicians have acknowledged.
Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking who is being challenged by BNP leader Nick Griffin at the general election, has admitted, “Of course we need to build more houses.” However, she then adds, “But there won’t be a return to the 1960s and 70s when we saw mass building of council houses.”
Why can’t we build hundreds of thousands of council homes? There are thousands of builders looking for work, after all.
In fact thousands of homes are going to be built in Barking. But they won’t be council homes.
Barking Riverside, part of the Thames Gateway development, will see the creation of 11,000 homes for 26,000 people at cost of £3.1 billion.
But very few of these new homes will go to the people living on the Gascoigne estate who are desperate to be rehoused. Most will be for sale.
41 percent of these private homes will be classed as “affordable”.
But this simply means that the houses will be a little bit cheaper than the market rate.
For the majority of working class people, they will still be impossible to afford.
Some of these offer a combination of part buy, part rent, which still involves getting a mortgage.
The rest will be “social housing”—meaning housing association properties that usually give less secure tenancy rights than council housing.
The new development is a joint public-private partnership with Bellway Homes, one of the six big private home building companies.
The collapse of the housing market means public contracts like Riverside are helping keep firms like Bellway afloat. Bellway reported losses of £48.6 million in the final six months of 2008.
The building workers exist, the space exists, the money is there and there is no shortage of bricks.
The decision not to build thousands of council homes in Barking is a political one and it’s a wasted opportunity.
We need to continue to campaign for a programme of mass council house building. Such a campaign would unite working class people in Barking—and undermine the lies of the BNP.