Wednesday, May 2, 2018

For the many, not the few – Lewisham Labour on housing (Besson St + Achilles St)

Not sure why red leaflets keep popping through the letter box chez Crossfields. It's not as though Labour aren't going to win the local election anyway, and voting Labour in local elections is not going to get rid of this awful Tory government!

According to one of the flyers, local ward councillors Brenda Dacres, Joe Dromey and Paul Maslin are standing up "for the many not the few". But living in Deptford, one wonders who "the many" are, since Deptford isn't mentioned once in their flyer.

In the other flyer, New Cross Labour are announcing a 'radical' manifesto. Deptford's mentioned twice, but only in the small print. Apparently Paul Maslin grew up here (though he doesn't live here anymore) and is "a partner in an art gallery". That'll be the one that used to be on Deptford High Street which he sold up to move to trendy Shoreditch; the lovely cafe and gallery that he flogged to "Jennings The Bookmaker" who sold it on to Coral, which precipitated an escalation of betting shops arriving on the high street that the rest of us then had to fight off. Thanks, Paul.

Deptford is also mentioned in the boast that New Cross Labour "secured the return of the Deptford anchor to our high street". What high street is that then? New Cross High Street? In any case, as local artists and residents who did most of the work to bring back the anchor have logged in full, it took four years and a petition of 4,000 people before Lewisham Labour agreed to return it. New Cross ward councillors played only a small part.

With the mantra "For the many, not the few"(a phrase first coined by New Labour in the 90s) we presume they mean the self-serving 'one per cent' who hold all the power and wealth. But the left has always championed the minority, surely. So what about when "the few" are tenants and leaseholders who don't want to be forced out of their homes so that Lewisham can house "the many" in their expensive 'place-making' vanity projects?

In its Green Paper on Housing, Labour promise to reverse all the damaging Tory housing policies of the past few years, but this may not be radical enough, as estate regeneration (demolishing perfectly sound homes) is still on the agenda. Having helped create the housing crisis by sitting on land without developing it and keeping prices artificially high by failing to build, the building industry must be wetting itself at the prospect of the profits it'll make out of all the new house building Labour proposes – just as it did in the 1960s, when it jerry built masses of social housing that later had to be demolished.

What are Lewisham Labour promising on housing then? Just picking out a few:

Introduce ballots on any estate regeneration scheme that includes replacing existing homes and back this up with a Residents' Charter that guarantees all residents the right to remain on their estate, and which guarantees an increase in genuinely affordable housing.

Blimey, that's three bullet points in one, surely? First of all, what do they mean by "replacing existing homes"? Surely they mean "demolishing people's homes", don't they? Afraid to say the word? Afraid to admit the environmental impact and massive carbon footprint that word evokes? Say demolition, that's what you mean! The rest of this garbled statement indicates that ballots will be worded so unintelligibly that residents threatened with demolition will hardly know what they're voting for.

Not sell strategic council land to private property developers
• Our target will be to achieve 50% genuinely affordable homes
• Publish all viability assessments so developers have to account to the public when they refuse to meet our target

This sounds good, but does it include Housing Associations (which are private until a change of government un-privatises them again)? And haven't they already sold off ALL the strategic land in Deptford to private developers (with council estates the only land left to redevelop)? Will the financial details of council-led partnerships with private developers be open to scrutiny? And are 'genuinely affordable homes' genuinely affordable?

Much of this is led by conditions of GLA grant funding it seems. But whatever now seems 'right' makes what has gone on previously look terribly 'wrong'. The new Mayor will still have to preside over the results of decisions made by the previous administration (when he was Cabinet Member for Housing and these rules did not apply). Or are they actually proud of schemes like Heathside & Lethbridge where 328 social tenants were forced out and took priority on the waiting list, pushing those already on it further down it, so that Family Mosaic could build 616 private homes?

Build a new generation of council-owned homes for private rents providing long-term tenancies of up to 10 years with rent controls

This must refer to the mass of publicly owned land down in New Cross Gate at Besson Street. A great place to build new social homes, you'd think. But no, this is where Lewisham Labour has decided to enter the Private Rental Sector through a joint venture (50/50) with Grainger plc, "the UK's largest listed residential landlord”.

The deal is to build 232 units, of which 65% will be let at market rent levels, and 35% as Living Rents. None of the tenants will be drawn from the Councils housing waiting list. Tenancies will be a minimum of 3 years and maximum of 10.

The Council call their "35%" of this development affordable, as thats what the GLA call it. In fact Living Rent is one of three types of what the GLA call genuinely affordable homes. They describe the London Living Rent as "homes for middle-income households"not earning above £60k p/a and the rent depends on where you live. Lewisham Council, on the other hand, claims that Living Rent is linked to the London Living Wage. It assumes that two earners occupy each flat, each paying 35% of their net income on rent. 

In other words, it can only be described as affordable if you share a flat, which many people do of course. But if you're a single mum or dad, you won't be able to afford a two bed flat for you and your children on your Living Wage take home pay of £326p/w when the Lewisham benchmarked London Living Rent is £225.46. Nor will you be able to afford to sleep with the children in the same room when a one-bed flat is £202.85. This development's not for them. 

How did this get past Cllr Dromey who claims he refuses to support any scheme that does not include "genuinely" affordable housing? Especially when 65% of homes will be at market rent levels and all the cash is going to a private company? A tidy profit on public land for Grainger plc –who met the Council at a speed-dating developer event at the Shard in February 2017. How can Dromey ignore the angry locals who are disappointed that a site which originally contained council housing (demolished in 2007) is not providing any homes for social rent when the area has so many low-income people in need? 

Of course middle class or middle-income people need affordable homes too, but it's really annoying when your councillor votes to demolish people's homes and keeps banging on about building new social housing to get people off the waiting list. 

In the deal with Grainger PLC, the Council wont be selling the land, but rather investing in it, and topping up its revenue with the rental income stream to fund services. Although they claim they dont plan to try this elsewhere, the proposed partnership allows for a similar venture to happen on other sites without having to choose another business partner, so its probably a pilot project that may see more unaffordable housing on public land elsewhere in the borough. So much for that waiting list!

The idea of not selling off public land sounds good, but actually this kind of scheme is a bit alarming. Global corporate landlords and private equity have been waiting for opportunities like this – for state owned land to fall into private hands, ripe for the plucking. Such entities are already benefiting from tax exemptions facilitated by the Tory government's introduction of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) where the biggest profits are currently being made in student accommodation, and purpose-built student housing REITs are now listed on the stock exchange. 

Perhaps Lewisham are partnering a REIT in their plans for Achilles Street in New Cross, where they want to demolish recently built student accommodation, 87 council homes and 15+ businesses in order to build 90 extra 'social' homes and a massive tower of new student accommodation. The options presented to residents were to 'do nothing', or 'retain existing homes and add 22 new ones on underused spaces', or 'comprehensively redevelop the area' (aka comprehensively demolish the area). Unfortunately for those whose homes and livelihoods are threatened and who haven't been able to make any plans for two years, the Council have made clear what their favoured option is (the latter) whilst also saying no decisions have been made and that all options are still being considered. This is your lovely Labour Council!

Another initiative the Tories came up with to feather their nests is Build To Rent, a current example of which is the two towers going up on Deptford Creekside by Essential Living. All homes to rent, financed by global fund managers M3. But private equity firms are all too lightly regulated and far less accountable to tenants, the parent company being off-shore and answerable to no one. With the growing privatisation of public housing and the recent shift towards renting because no one can afford to buy, such companies are poised for a take over of London's privatised 'affordable rent' stock. Regeneration of our housing estates where councils partner with massive private interests on public land could lead to the mass transfer of social and public housing to the private sector. Just like the NHS.

Academics have shown that the shortage of housing and corresponding boom in UK house prices and rents has been carefully prepared and legislated for over a number of years, and Labour have been complicit in it. As far back as 1998, New Labour's Urban Task Force led by architect Richard Rogers  embraced American ideas of gentrifying the inner cities by building on brownfield land in Towards an Urban Rennaissance. But it was Lord Adonis in 2015 who put the nail in the coffin, with City Villages: More Homes, Better Communities, which advocated building hundreds of new "city villages" on existing council estates because the boom in land and house prices would enable local authorities to leverage their land ownership in partnership with private and voluntary sector developers (who are now privatised). The Tories promptly redesignated council estates as 'brownfield'.

Lord Adonis’s 2015 report includes a paper by the outgoing Mayor of Lewisham Steve Bullock and the former Leader of the Council Barry Quirk. They allude to the “personal attachment and belonging – to a locality, to a place” and then go on to say “most of us will move home at some point as our personal circumstances change and develop”. Yes, but we are hopefully in charge of such choices. They conclude that “developing more urban villages within London over the next 10 years will not only give people more places in which to live, it will give them more homes in which they can build belonging.” Tell that to the people you want to forcibly removed from their homes who already belong!

When Cllr Dromey talks about the huge number of people desperate for affordable housing, he falls into the same trap as everyone else – that the only answer is to build more housing. But, as Architects for Social Housing (ASH) argue, the housing shortage in London is a crisis of affordability, not supply, and building more homes does not push house and rental prices down. Estate regeneration is not a solution – on the contrary, it is helping to produce the crisis: "The motivation for demolishing and redeveloping estates is not the housing of London's rising population at higher densities in more and better homes, but to provide investment opportunities for global capital and the enormous profits to be made from building high-value properties on some of the most valuable land in the world." 

ASH are particularly critical of Labour councils who present themselves as opposed to Tory attacks on social housing while they continue to demolish estates and claim refurbishment is financially 'unviable'. It is not just Tory policies such as Right To Buy, Housing Benefit capping, Help to Buy, Rent to Buy and the failure to regulate private developer's viability assessments that contribute to the lack of affordable homes, but also GLA grants to private Housing Associations to build affordable housing for private sale, local authority funding for estate regeneration schemes and the transfer of public land into private ownership. They're all privatisation schemes subsidised by the public purse. Will Labour want to stop it?

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