Britain’s Broken Democracy: Tories Become UKIP, Media Ignores Labour Gains, Labour Continues Estate Demolitions

An image of a voter and a polling station sign.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

What a generally dispiriting occasion Thursday’s council elections were. On housing, which is the most pressing issue in the lives of over half the population, there was almost no acknowledgement, from either of the main parties, that we are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis of affordability and of security of tenure. Labour councils, even those that are actively engaged in demolishing council estates and replacing them with new developments with private developers, from which local people will largely be excluded, were largely undamaged at the polls, while the Tory heartlands generally held firm. 

Pundits observed that UKIP were almost wiped out, with establishment commentators suggesting that this was some sort of triumph of common sense in merrie olde England, whereas the truth is that the post-Brexit Conservative Party under Theresa May has actually become UKIP, and, as a result, the truth is considerably more alarming than lazy pundits suggest. As for Labour, the mainstream media furiously tried to portray their modest gains, and their considerable overall majority of councils and councillors, as some sort of sign of failure, which it very obviously isn’t. Some independent analysts suggested, plausibly, that Remain voters sent a powerful message to the Tories, and to Labour under the hazy, instinctively Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, that the EU was significant battleground in the elections, but in general the elections played out as a showdown between the two big dogs of English politics, Labour and the Tories, in which overall, there was little change, because, overall, little change is actually possible. In our wretched, complacent first-past-the-post system, very little is actually to play for, and while the damage this inflicts on a broad platform of viewpoints is always apparent in a general election, local elections somehow get far less scrutiny, even though their outcomes are often even more damaging for democracy.

In Lewisham, where I live, for example, 60% of those who voted cast their votes for the Labour Party, but Labour walked off with 100% of the council seats. 

How is that supposed to be fair? Read the rest of this entry »

A Defence of Social Housing in a Resolutely Hostile Political Environment

The destruction of Robin Hood Gardens Estate, in Poplar, east London, photographed on December 12, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

Tomorrow, Londoners will go to the polls to vote in council elections in the capital’s 32 boroughs,and across the UK there will also be elections in 34 metropolitan boroughs, 67 district and borough councils and 17 unitary authorities.

Voting ought to be a simple matter. The Tories, under Theresa May, are spectacularly useless and, wherever possible, cruel. Engaged in an effort to implement Brexit that seems to be destroying them, they are also gasping from one scandal to another — the latest being the Windrush fiasco, initiated by Theresa May, who is, to be blunt, a racist, and this whole racist disaster demonstrates quite how unpleasant they are.

And yet, if you care about fairness and social justice — in the specific context of housing, the biggest issue facing Londoners today, as well as many, many other people around the country — then voting for the Labour Party is not, in general, to be recommended, leaving a giant hole where participation in the democratic process ought to be. Read the rest of this entry »

No Social Cleansing in Lewisham: Please Join the New Campaign!

No Social Cleansing in Lewisham! The logo for the new campaign, designed by Lilah Francis of the Achilles Street Stop and Listen Campaign.Please visit and like the No Social Cleansing in Lewisham Facebook page!

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Back in October, after being hit by a number of pieces of bad news regarding the state of social housing in Lewisham, I rather impetuously came up with a name for a campaign and a rallying cry — No Social Cleansing in Lewisham — and emailed Deptford’s legendary live venue, the Birds Nest, to ask if they would host a night of music, consciousness-raising and and solidarity, to which they said yes.

I had been encouraged to think that a gig in defence of social housing — essentially, not-for-profit rented housing, typically available for no more than a third of what unregulated private rents cost — was possible because, contrary to popular notions that politics has no place in music, which is assiduously promoted by the corporate media, my own band, The Four Fathers, refused the imperative to be bland and non-confrontational, and I had been meeting appropriate performers over the previous year — the acclaimed spoken word artist Potent Whisper, whose work is relentlessly political, the Commie Faggots, who play theatrical singalong political songs, and Asher Baker, a singer-songwriter and rapper from Southwark.

Potent Whisper and I had got to know each other online, and had then both played at a benefit for housing campaigners in Haringey in September, which was a particularly inspirational evening. I’d seen the Commie Faggots play at an open mic event in New Cross, and had then put on an event with them for the Telegraph Hill Festival, and Asher and I had met when we were both on the bill for an evening at the New Cross Inn. I then added people I met recently — the fabulous all-women Ukadelix, and local spoken word artist Agman Gora — and, with the last-minute addition of the Strawberry Thieves Socialist Choir, had a powerful evening of protest music lined up for a great night of conscious partying. Read the rest of this entry »

No Social Cleansing in Lewisham! Fundraiser for Tidemill and Achilles Street Campaigns with Potent Whisper, The Four Fathers, Commie Faggots at the Birds Nest, Nov. 12

The poster for 'No Social Cleansing in Lewisham' at the Birds Nest in Deptford on November 12, 2017.

Check out the Facebook event page here — for ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham!’ at the Birds Nest, in Deptford, London SE8, on Sunday November 12 from 6-11pm, with Potent Whisper, the Four Fathers, the Commie Faggots, Asher Baker, The Wiz-RD and Ukadelix.

Followers of London’s housing crisis — and, particularly, the destruction of social housing estates and their replacement with new, private developments — will know, from the experiences of residents and leaseholders on the Heygate Estate in Walworth, in the London Borough of Southwark, that councils and developers talk sweetly about the right to return for tenants, and about adequately compensating leaseholders, but that in the end both groups are socially cleansed out of their homes, and often out of their boroughs, and even out of London completely, as they are excluded from the new properties built to profit the developers, and to appeal to investors (and largely, it seems, to foreign investors).

The biggest culprit to date has been Southwark Council, which is currently engaged in another huge act of social cleansing on the Aylesbury Estate, also in Walworth, but there have been other notorious examples — the West Hendon Estate, for example, Woodberry Down in Hackney and Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets — and other councils are queuing up to engage in their own social cleansing. Lambeth Council plans to demolish two well-regarded estates, Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill, and Haringey Council is currently trying to enter into a 50/50 partnership with the rapacious international property developer Lendlease (the butchers of the Heygate Estate) in a £2bn deal that will see the council handing over control of all its social housing, with plans for the destruction of several estates.

Until recently, Lewisham has not figured prominently in this story, having largely bypassed social cleansing issues by working with developers on brownfield sites. But at the end of September, Lewisham councillors approved the destruction of Old Tidemill Garden and a block of social housing on Reginald Road, in Deptford, and the council is also intending to demolish blocks of flats and shops on and around Achilles Street in New Cross. See the Tidemill Facebook page, the Achilles Street Facebook page, and also see my article, Social Cleansing and the Destruction of Council Estates Exposed at Screening of ‘Dispossession’ by Endangered New Cross Residents. Read the rest of this entry »

Social Cleansing and the Destruction of Council Estates Exposed at Screening of ‘Dispossession’ by Endangered New Cross Residents

The Achilles fanzine, put together by resident Lilah Francis, from the area threatened with demolition by Lewisham Council, and some campaign badges (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

On Saturday, I went to the New Cross Learning Centre — a community-run former library in New Cross — for a screening of ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle’, a new documentary about Britain’s housing crisis directed by Paul Sng, who is from New Cross (and is the director of ‘Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain’). The screening was organised by the residents of the Achilles Street area, whose homes are threatened by Lewisham Council, which wants to knock them all down, and build shiny new replacements. The area affected runs between New Cross Road and Fordham Park (from south to north), and between Clifton Rise and Pagnell Street (from west to east), and there are 87 homes (with 33 leaseholders), and around 20 businesses (along New Cross Road and down Clifton Rise).

Lewisham Council claims, in its most recent consultation document, from February this year, that “[a]ll current council tenants who wish to stay in the new development will be able to do so with the same rent levels and tenancy conditions that they have today,” and that “[a]ny resident leaseholder who wishes to will be able to remain in home ownership on the new development.”

This sounds reassuring, but the recent history of regeneration projects — both in London and elsewhere in the country — is that councils and developers lie to tenants and leaseholders, to get them to agree to regeneration under terms that are not then honoured. Instead, tenants are evicted and their homes demolished, and they never get to return, and leaseholders are offered derisory amounts for the homes that, ironically, they bought under Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy, which is insufficient for them to buy a replacement property in the area, leading to their exodus in addition to that of the former tenants. Read the rest of this entry »

Join the ‘March for Homes’ in London This Saturday, January 31

The house made out of estate agents' boards erected outside Lewisham Council's offices in Catford, south east London, by the campaigning group People Before Profit, highlighting housing need in the borough (Photo: Andy Worthington).This Saturday I’ll be joining the “March for Homes” in London, as campaigning groups and individuals call for controls on the private rental market and protection for social housing — and, ideally, a massive, not-for-profit, social homebuilding programme. One group who will be attending is People Before Profit, who, at the weekend, raised this excellent little house outside Lewisham Council’s offices. Campaigners have been sleeping in it at night ever since, and in the daytime collecting signatures on a petition to Lewisham’s Mayor, Steve Bullock, and educating passers-by about the deplorable housing situation in Lewisham — replicated across London’s 32 boroughs, of course — and calling for local housing needs to be addressed, and not the profits of developers, who are all over Lewisham like a plague. Spokesman John Hamilton said, “We want all new housing to be affordable,” and also highlighted the 600 families currently living in temporary accommodation in the borough. “We need drastic action,” he added.

On Saturday, campaigners from across London — myself included — will be marching to City Hall — that odd little lop-sided egg near Tower Bridge, part of the horribly corporate More London development — to tell London’s addled Mayor, Boris Johnson, that drastic action is indeed needed on housing. That’s at 2pm, and is preceded by two marches beginning at 12 noon — one from south London and one from the east.

The south London meeting point (see the map here and the Facebook page) is St. Maryʼs Churchyard, just south of the Elephant & Castle, London SE1 6SQ (nearest tube/rail Elephant & Castle), the protected green space next to two new developments — to the north, ‘One the Elephant,’ a 37-storey tower — with no social housing component — that is being built by Lend Lease (the Australian developers who snapped up the Heygate Estate from the Labour Council for a mere £50m) and to the south, a 44-storey tower — 360 London — that Mace and Essential Living are building, which “will provide 462 units, of which 188 will be affordable” (but only once the word “affordable” has been twisted out of all shape to mean 80% of market rents; in other words, unaffordable for most ordinary working people). According to the London SE1 website, “It will contain one of the largest number of homes for long-term private rental in the country when complete.” In addition, “The Peabody Housing Trust has been appointed to manage the affordable housing element with 159 shared ownership and 29 rental units.” Read the rest of this entry »

Petition: Tell Boris Johnson Not to Approve the Monstrously Inappropriate Development Plans for Convoys Wharf in Deptford

Please sign the petition on Change.org, asking London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, not to approve a £1bn plan to turn Henry VIII’s former Royal Dockyard at Convoys Wharf in Deptford into a luxury, high-rise housing development that would be more at home in Dubai.

All over London, housing developments that are unaffordable for the majority of Londoners continue to rise up, and equally unaffordable new projects continue to be approved. Councils are either cash-strapped and desperate, or they are seduced by developers’ promises that their developments will be of benefit to the community at large, even though the entry level for luxury developments is a household income of £72,000, way above the £53,000 that even a couple on the average UK income (£26,500) can afford. When you consider that the median income in the UK is £14,000 (the one that 50 percent of people earn more than, and 50 percent earn less than), it’s easy to see how the entire situation is out of control and is doing nothing for local people, or the majority of hard-working Londoners.

Down the road from where I live in south east London is Deptford, a vibrant but not affluent part of the London Borough of Lewisham, with a huge maritime history. Where Deptford meets the River Thames is the largest potential development site in the borough, Convoys Wharf, a 16.6 hectare (40-acre) site, which most recently was News International’s paper importing plant for printing Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. Murdoch’s operation closed in 2000, and, since 2002, developers have been trying to gain approval for a massive luxury housing development on the site, featuring 3,500 homes — 3,000 of which will be sold “off-plan” to foreign investors — and including three towers rising to 40 storeys in height. Moreover, just 15 percent of the homes will be what is laughingly described these days as “affordable” (at 80 percent of market rents, these rents are actually unaffordable for most people), and just 4 percent will be for social rent (i.e. genuinely affordable) — that’s just 140 properties out of the total of 3,500. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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