A Labour council attacking its own people? This is regeneration gone bad.By Aditya Chakrabortty
|Blairite Haringey council leader Claire Kober.|
Funded largely by donations from neighbours, the pensioner will take on one of the world’s largest property developers and a London borough. Aspects of his claim for a judicial review sound local and technical – but the fight itself is national and totemic. His case is being watched by the construction industry, by councils across the country and by Jeremy Corbyn’s team. Anyone who cares about the future of social Housing, or what happens to London, or to local democracy, should root for Peters – not least for his bravery in placing himself squarely before a juggernaut.
That juggernaut is the Haringey Development Vehicle, a scheme by the zombie Blairites running the north London borough to shove family homes, school buildings and libraries into a giant private fund worth £2bn. Its partner is the multinational Lendlease, which will now exercise joint control over a large part of Haringey’s housing and regeneration strategy.
This is the plan Peters and many others want stopped. The 25-year deal is unprecedented in size and scale. It is breathtaking in its risks. And for many its consequences will be dreadful, including for their relatives and friends.
The team of Council Leader Claire Kober has promised that every displaced tenant who wants to move back to a redeveloped estate will be able to. Yet the agreement with Lendlease is peppered with enough get-out clauses to keep Houdini happy. Housing association tenants and leaseholders won’t get that deal – and neither will those who live on Broadwater Farm and other estates to be regenerated later in the scheme.
All this rolls on with minimal consultation of residents – as observed by the council’s own consultants. The council’s own scrutiny committee twice this year called for an immediate halt. Both times it was ignored by Kober. Only a week before Kober’s cabinet voted on the scheme, in July, her team dumped 1,476 pages of documents in the public domain. Councillors and the public alike had just five working days to digest the legalese, bureaucrat-speak and appendices that would determine the future of more than a quarter of a million people.
I went to that July vote, which came days after the Grenfell inferno had sent Britain a warning about what happens when poor people go disregarded. We sat inside the civic centre, while outside an army of protesters roared up through the windows. In a night of damaging admissions, one of Kober’s lieutenants admitted that the new HDV estates could fit “poor doors” , presumably to stop any working-class tenants blotting the sightlines of those in the new luxury flats. The chamber exploded with outrage.
It passed, despite opposition from the area’s two MPs and its two constituency Labour parties, and despite Corbyn making clear at last month’s party conference that the plans of this Labour council would be impossible under any Labour government he heads.
Merely to set up this scheme, Kober’s administration expects to spend more than £2m – a sum that would build a tidy number of starter homes. It admits to having already spent £90,000 on lawyers for this week’s hearing – before any of its QCs have even uttered a word in court. Although Lendlease has joined the case, it wouldn’t tell me how much it was spending. Nor would it answer any of the other questions I put to it – unsporting behaviour for a firm about to get its hands on all that public property. Peters’s float for legal fees, by the way, is £5,000.
Yet since the HDV was made policy this summer two key bits of information have emerged that raise questions about both its aim and its workings. As far as I know, neither has been picked up by any other major media.
First, some context. Crucially, the business plan for the HDV makes not one mention of building new social housing. In a borough where more than 9,000 households are waiting for a council flat and more than 3,000 are in temporary accommodation, Kober has promised only to ensure that 40% of new homes are “affordable”.
On Northumberland Park, one of the first estates earmarked for regeneration under the HDV, more than 1,000 social-rent homes face demolition. Their replacement is just over 5,000 homes – the vast majority for sale or rent privately. According to the freedom of information (FoI) response, only 31% of new homes are designated as affordable. And crucially, the plans make no explicit provision at all for social-rent housing. Lendlease, to remind you, bulldozed nearly 1,200 social-rent homes on south London’s Heygate estate and built just 82 in their stead.
That takes us to the second big warning: the secrecy that now shrouds much of council housing policy. A few weeks ago it emerged that three council representatives had been meeting Lendlease as part of what was called the “shadow board”. These meetings began taking place months before the cabinet actually approved the scheme. Many councillors I have spoken to were told nothing of the board’s existence – they found out through an FoI request.
I asked the council why and it said that it had been disclosed in cabinet papers in February. True: in that 650-page bundle, there is indeed one solitary mention of a shadow board. Press officers also said that the shadow board had no “formal status”. Earlier this month, a senior officer who sits on the shadow board told councillors they hadn’t been told of its existence as it was “pretty boring stuff”.
Boring. As if the corporate takeover of a London council’s housing strategy was a mere banal detail. Boring. Yet the group was deciding how the new HDV should run, its marketing and even going out for getting-to-know-you-dinners costing £450 a time – just as Haringey is looking to scrap subsidies for meals on wheels. But I guess that’s pretty boring as well.
Equipped with a £50,000 budget, the shadow board also issued position papers. One sets out a helpful grid for the reaction the HDV should elicit from “varied audience types”. So politicians should think “this company will help me achieve my political objectives”. Community members should “engage constructively in discussions. Share messages on social media.” As for hacks, they must “write positive pieces promoting the good work that is being achieved to counteract negative activity”.
Guys, guys: if only you’d said.
This is what happens when a Labour leadership attacks the very base that keeps it in power. When an ideologue claims she is being a pragmatist, while those lodging pragmatic objections are dismissed as ideologues. Peters and his side don’t come armed with millions. They rely on a fiver given here, a benefit gig there and a lot of social media. As one said: “We’re like the Vietcong, going up against the all-powerful Americans.” Well, we know how that one turned out. My money is on Peters’s side winning – eventually.
• Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist