UK: Corbyn tries to conceal Labour’s record of social cleansing

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn presented Labour-run Haringey Council’s plan to hive off £2 billion in council assets into a partnership agreement with property developer Lendlease, as a special case.

Addressing an audience of Labour councillors and council leaders in Nottingham, he said Haringey’s plan to demolish huge swathes of public housing to make way for 6,500 expensive private homes was “highly controversial with local people worried about their futures.” Haringey should, he stressed, be viewed as “a unique situation.”

What a rotten lie. In London especially, Labour is the main party associated with such despicable acts of social cleansing.

Britain’s capital is a playground for the financial elite, who have bought up property as a safe haven for their ill-gotten gains. Its housing market, rigged by successive governments, means only the rich, the very well-paid or those with generous parents can afford to buy.

This has pushed up house prices and rents and, together with the lack of public or social housing and the cap on Housing Benefit, forced out lower paid workers and their families to London’s fringes and beyond. The stress and isolation from family and friends has had a devastating impact on mental health.

Haringey’s plan is only one of many such plans all over London that are forcing thousands of working class families out of the area and sparking mass protests. Refuting the rosy picture painted by Corbyn, the Financial Times, reflecting the concerns of the property developers and financial institutions, warned of how, “Public anger over lucrative property contracts is calling into question future housing projects across London.”

It cited an “industry figure” stating that local authorities “in Camden, Vauxhall, Lambeth and Westminster are all facing growing opposition to their housing plans,” with pressure “building against development in ‘every’ Labour-controlled borough in the capital. ‘Haringey is the most extreme example, but there is a trend, whether it’s Camden or Hounslow,’ he said.”

Corbyn’s evasions make clear that the decision by Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to ask Haringey Council to put their plans “on hold” is little short of a pledge to the City that a Labour government under his leadership had no intention of curtailing any council’s “regeneration” plans that have generated a bonanza for the banks and property developers.

Indeed, the NEC motion initially called only for the plans to be suspended, before Corbyn intervened personally to suggest “mediation.” His aim was to prevent a split in the local party that might end with the Blairite-right being driven out and which would risk galvanising broader opposition nationally.

London’s Labour-controlled boroughs are a battleground because council estates and social housing exist side by side with some of the most expensive property in the country. According to a London Assembly report in 2015, 50 previous council regeneration schemes resulted in a loss—estimated at more than a quarter—in the number of homes for social rent, despite an increase in the overall number of homes. The Independent estimated in 2015 that more than 50,000 families had been silently shipped out of London due to welfare cuts and soaring rents.

London councils own on average 25 to 30 percent of the land in their boroughs. Southwark Council owns 43 percent of the land in its borough. Councils work hand in glove with the building industry and property developers to demolish council estates and build higher density housing. Under the mantra of “estate regeneration,” 195 council-owned estates in Labour-run councils are being sold off to private developers against the wishes of residents, with luxury high-rises taking their place.

This massive land grab has been legitimised with propaganda vilifying council estates as crime ridden, poorly designed, run down and full of immigrants and benefit scroungers, fit only for demolition. In truth, crime rates on council estates are lower than in neighbouring areas, while their run-down state is the result of the councils’ failure to carry out repairs and maintenance that could easily be reversed.

None of the so-called development plans for London’s housing have any legitimacy. They are written by think tanks, research organisations, consultancies and university departments funded by interested parties. To cite one example, the Institute for Public Policy and Research’s (IPPR) report “City Villages,” which recommends that the main source of land for redevelopment is council estates, was funded and co-authored by Peabody housing association—one of the largest owners and managers of social housing in London.

Numerous studies have shown that refurbishment and the infill of existing estates could increase the number of homes by up to 50 percent and would be much cheaper than demolition. But the property developers and construction companies prefer new builds because building homes on high value land is akin to winning the lottery.

Labour councils have facilitated this, usually justifying it on the basis of the Conservative government’s financial squeeze, to cover up their own close relations with the property developers. By 2020, local councils will be entirely dependent on the council tax, business rate and local charges, compared with 2010, when 80 percent of council funding came from central government.

The regeneration plans are sewn up in back room deals between councillors and property developers long before they are publicly announced, and consultations begin. Such consultations as are held are fraudulent: tenants and owners are lied to, given misleading information, and kept in the dark, amid false claims, never publicly demonstrated, that demolition is the only financially viable option. Any opposition is then ignored.

Just months after his election in September 2015, Corbyn and his closest political ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, sent a letter to all Labour councils demanding they abide by the law and impose the Tories’ austerity cuts. They have followed his instruction to the letter.

Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who based his election campaign on a pledge to build 50 percent of affordable housing on all new developments, has reduced this to 35 percent. His much-vaunted London Living Rent, set at a third the average household salary in the locality, is in reality another incentive to get middle class home buyers on the property ladder at the expense of working class council tenants.

He has promised to ensure 90,000 new “affordable” homes in the next five years, priced at up to 80 percent of the astronomic market rate, mostly being for shared ownership! This will do nothing to help the 250,000 London households currently on housing waiting lists, or a similar number with 320,000 children living in overcrowded accommodation, or the 50,000 households with 78,000 children currently homeless and living in temporary accommodation.

Khan’s pledge to build 50,000 homes a year on demolished council estates was based on a report, “Completing London’s Streets,” written by the London Housing Commission. The London Housing Commission was set up by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which is routinely referred to as a “left-wing think tank.” The IPPR is chaired by the chairman of Peabody and sponsored by real estate firm Savills.

Labour, no less than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has abandoned any commitment to what was once taken as axiomatic—that society would seek to improve social and living conditions by the public provision of high-quality housing.

The right to a decent home cannot be secured by returning a Corbyn-led Labour Party to governmental office. It can only be secured by the working class mobilising in an independent political offensive against the policies of austerity and war espoused by all the main political parties.