Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to let tenants decide if redevelopment projects go ahead could put him on a collision course with Labour councils.
“People who live on an estate that’s redeveloped must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before,” he promised at Labour conference. He called for estate residents to have votes on proposed regeneration projects
But no sooner had Corbyn stepped off the stage than Labour council chiefs defied his promises. Alan Strickland, the lead councillor for housing in Haringey, said, “We do not expect to start using Yes/No ballots.”
The north London council is pushing through a £2 billion regeneration project of seven estates through the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV). This is a joint company with private developer Lendlease.
And London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan is giving ammunition to the council bosses looking to defy Corbyn.
Strickland referenced a draft Good Practice Regeneration Guide published by Khan last year. Votes by tenants “can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways over many years into a simple Yes/No decision at a single point in time,” it said.
Strickland’s outburst is a public expression of a battle raging in the party behind closed doors. Nick Rogers, a Labour Party member in Haringey, told Socialist Worker, “This is about an ideological battle between left and right in the party.
“This is the last gasp of the Blairites in the party who still hold quite important positions of power in the councils but also within the national party itself.
“Either they roll over and capitulate or they fight.”
Faced with many Labour council bosses opposing his housing plans, how can Corbyn turn his vision into a reality?
Since becoming Labour leader Corbyn has made climbdowns over housing. At last year’s Labour conference Corbyn said a Labour government would build 500,000 council homes.
Straight away then-shadow housing Theresa Pierce said the 500,000 homes would be social housing. Social housing includes housing associations, which behave much like private profit-making firms.
The pressure is on for Corbyn to make further concessions. Labour’s shadow housing minister John Healey was a housing adviser to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown—and housing bosses have his ear.
A “Labour source” told Inside Housing magazine earlier this month that the Labour leadership didn’t want to “tie councils’ hands” over redevelopments. The source added that any changes to housing policy would come when Labour was in government and not before.
Some campaigners are looking to select left wing candidates for future council elections. Nick said, “We’ve still got constituency elections in Haringey, but both Constituency Labour Parties and MPs in the area oppose the HDV.”
But the divisions in the party over housing go beyond left and right.
Haringey is the most extreme example, but many Labour councils are quietly pushing ahead with similar redevelopment plans.
Funding for council housing has been slashed by successive governments, so many councils see redevelopment as one of the only way to generate funds. Some Labour councils and councillors who back Corbyn accept this logic behind redevelopment projects.
In Milton Keynes seven estates are up for redevelopment—demolition could begin as early as next year. The Labour-run council has begun a “consultation” with residents, similar to the sham one in Haringey.
John Orr is a parish councillor and residents association chair on one of the estates facing demolition. “All we need is the council houses brought up to standard, there’s no desire for regeneration from residents,” he said.
“They said we’re going to have to find a private partner, do the redevelopment, then take the profit from the extra homes built to fund the regeneration. They get £5 million a year in rents off these estates—and could refurbish our homes easily.
He added, “We’ve been fighting hard. They keep manipulating the data and lying, they refuse to rule out demolition. I’m living in a house that might be gone in five years.”
Diarmaid Ward, lead councillor for housing in Islington, north London, sympathised with the “difficult position” Haringey and other councils find themselves in.
“The Tories don’t make it easy for councils to build council housing,” he told Socialist Worker. “When we sell a home through the Right to Buy scheme we only get a third of the money back.
“The only way we’re allowed to spend that is if we build another unit. Effectively the Tory government want us to build a house for the price of a third of a house.”
Similar arguments are common among many Labour councillors.
Eileen Short from the Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaign argued that councillors need to be “forced to take a side”. “You have to take responsibility for changing the political landscape,” she told Socialist Worker.
“That’s what tenants and campaigners are up for but councillors have forgotten that’s part of their job.
“They are political players, they are a political force.”
In Haringey the HDV has become a political dividing line within the local Labour Party.
That’s because the housing campaign has pulled ordinary people into campaigning against the HDV. That level of politicisation needs to happen on a national level.
The Labour leadership has won the battle over housing policy announcements, but turning pledges into a reality will take a lot of work.
“It’s a question of where real power lies in society,” said Eileen. “Is it on the streets or in parliament?”
If Labour councils accept the lie that there is no alternative to passing on Tory cuts, then they have already lost the fight.
But there are alternatives to giving in to the Tories. Party leaders could order councils to use their reserves and borrowing powers.
The money could be returned if Labour wins the next election. Crucially, tenants need to mobilise to force Labour councils into action.
Activists and residents campaigning against regeneration and social cleansing can’t just wait for the possibility of a Labour government in 2020.
The Labour leadership will be pushed to backtrack over its pledges. It must feel pressure from below.
The answer is to look outside the Labour Party and appeal to the millions of people in Britain whose homes are on the line.
Paul Burnham from Haringey DCH told Socialist Worker, “One of the reasons we always get shafted is because housing associations and property developers are better at lobbying.
“We have to bring the movement in to back up what Corbyn is saying.”
He added, “Tenants and activists should go to Labour’s National Policy Forum, protest outside and demand speaking rights.”
Corbyn’s speech has lifted people’s sights and see that housing policy could be different. Now we need to build a movement that can force councils to toe the line—and bolster the leadership against making concessions.
Eileen said, “The councils are trying to manage as best they can and avoid conflict. But there is no middle ground anymore.
“What they need to do is say, stand up and fight.”
Tory worship of the market now has a tragic monument - Grenfell Tower
The murder of working class people in the Grenfell Tower fire in west London has forced housing onto the political agenda.
Jan Sweeney is a Labour Party member and housing campaigner in North Kensington where the blaze took place.
“At last people are starting to take notice of the housing crisis,” she said.
“It’s tragic that it took something like Grenfell to do that—it’s shameful really.”
Despite fine-sounding words, the Tories have shown that they have no desire to prevent another Grenfell from happening.
In his Labour Party conference speech Jeremy Corbyn used the tragedy to attack the Tories’ record.
“Now that degraded regime has a tragic monument—the chilling wreckage of Grenfell Tower,” he said.
He attacked the “decades of housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world”.
Simply pointing out Tory failings isn’t enough—Labour councils should be at the forefront of a national campaign for fire safety improvements.
Instead, many Labour councils are dragging their heels over crucial work.
Fiona Green, who is part of Hamerton Action Group in Manchester, told Socialist Worker about the Labour council’s poor reaction to Grenfell.
It still has not tested all of the cladding on her estate for being flammable.
“We’ve been left in uncertainty and fear,” she said.
“The council’s response was to say, ‘Contact your housing provider.’ But the provider is an ALMO which is 75 percent owned by the council.
“They’ve formed a taskforce but you can’t actually contact it.”
Eileen Short from Defend Council Housing said, “The Labour Party in North Kensington should get in touch with other Labour councils to force the Tories into taking action.
“They have £1 billion for the DUP but not for funding fire safety work.
“If Labour councils put out a call we could have 100,000 people marching on Downing Street to deliver a petition demanding safe homes.”