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.

On housing, lamentably, Labour boroughs across the capital — and across the country — are engaged in the mass destruction of their constituents’ homes, via the demolition of council estates, and their replacement with new developments, built by private developers, from which almost all the existing tenants, and even leaseholders (those who bought their homes under the ‘Right to Buy’ policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher) are priced out.

The roll call of Labour councils involved in this destruction is shameful. It began in Southwark, where the Labour-led council, under Peter John, sold, for no profit, the more than 1,000 homes of the Heygate Estate to the rapacious, Australian-based international property developer Lendlease, which has demolished the estate, and is providing just 82 new homes at social rent on its replacement, the underwhelming Elephant Park. Undeterred by massive criticism of its appalling behaviour at the Heygate, the council has followed up with similar destruction on the even larger Aylesbury Estate.

Elsewhere, Lambeth Council is intent on destroying several estates, including two, Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens, that are architecturally acclaimed, and for which no rationale beyond profiteering and social cleansing exists to justify their demolition, and Tower Hamlets has done the same with the architecturally-acclaimed Robin Hood Gardens, now half-destroyed, while Hackney Council, meanwhile, is engaged in the complete destruction of the huge Woodberry Down estate, a gem of post-war social housing when it was built, and in Lewisham, where I live, the Labour council is also intent on destroying perfectly sound homes in deals with private developers.

The list goes on and on, with the only real distraction from Labour’s enthusiasm for social cleansing being the terrible disaster at Grenfell Tower last June, when, under a Tory council, over 70 people died in an inferno that was entirely preventable, and which showed, fundamentally, how those in social housing are regarded as second-class citizens by those who rule us.

Of course, most efforts to understand why this epidemic of social cleansing is happening end up with the blame resting squarely on the Tory government of the last eight years — although don’t be fooled; many of these estate demolitions were being discussed by Labour councils before the crash of 2008 and the Tories’ supremely opportunistic embrace of austerity. However, the Tories have massively cut the amount of money available for housing since coming to power in 2010, and this, in turn, so the general narrative goes, has forced councils into deals with private developers.

From the beginning, however, councils failed to stand up to central government, and to stand with their own tenants and leaseholders, and it is impossible not to conclude that, along the way, some councils — and councillors — became overly enamoured of the money swilling around at the international property fairs and conferences they were wooed at by private developers, while other councils and councillors, though representatives of the Labour Party, were happy to engage in social cleansing, squeezing out poorer members of their communities through estate demolitions, while welcoming in those with more money.

Again, it is a fact that, in a state of permanent austerity, the unemployed and the low paid end up costing money rather than providing it to councils in need (via council tax, for example), but, again, no council has ever stood up to central government to point this out, and to suggest that, for example, perhaps all the Labour boroughs in London — currently 21 of 32 — could unite in opposition to the unparalleled destructiveness of the Tories’ policies.

The Tories also cut funding to housing associations, which have taken over much council housing, and the role of councils as social housing providers, since Margaret Thatcher’s time, but housing associations, too, have largely gone the way of councils, enthusiastically embracing a new role as private developers, and, with councils, becoming two sides of the same social cleansing coin.

The current dark farce, when it comes to social housing, is the plethora of different rental systems that have been established over the last eight years. Social rents — those that council tenants and housing association tenants in place before 2010 pay — are around one-third of market rents, which, unfettered and actively promoted by central government and the banks for the last 20 years, are genuinely out of control in the capital.

In Lewisham, where I live, for example (with thanks to Crosswhatfields for the information), the market rent for a two-bedroom flat is £323.08, while social rent is £95.54. Under Boris Johnson, during his eight lamentable years as Mayor of London, one of his great innovations was the criminally inaccurate term “affordable”, for rents set at 80% of market rents; in Lewisham, in other words, £258.46 — and it is this unaffordable “affordable” category of housing that the Tories insisted must apply to all new social tenancies after they took power in 2010.

Since Sadiq Khan became Mayor — swept in, lest we forget, because the housing crisis was the number one concern for Londoners — he has introduced compromises into a market that desperately needs fundamental change. The first compromise, introduced last year, is ’London Affordable Rent’, which is supposed to consist of ”rents for genuinely affordable homes aimed at low-income households.” In Lewisham, ‘London Affordable Rent’ for a two-bedroom flat is £152.73 a week. This year, Khan has introduce another compromise, ‘London Living Rent’, introduced as “a type of affordable housing for middle-income Londoners”, for which a two-bedroom flat in Lewisham costs £225.46 a week.

We all need better than this. The housing bubble, which is now 20 years old, and has — absurdly, shamefully — become the main driver of the economy, needs puncturing, but as no one in a position of power will do that voluntarily, and as it would create a huge negative equity problem if implemented bluntly, the best way to achieve it is for there to be a massive, not-for-profit social homebuilding programme, and while we may hope that this would happen under Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister — and Labour’s housing proposals (Housing for the Many) are worth looking at — at present the Labour councils who are destroying social housing in London and across the country have nothing in common with these aspirations.

So tomorrow, who are we supposed to vote for? Not the Tories, obviously, but nor, in most cases, Labour either. Have a look at this list of councils involved in estate demolitions (34 projects approved by Sadiq Khan despite his claim that there should be no more estate demotions without ballots), and see what you think, and also check out the 17 proposed demolitions that haven’t yet been approved, which I’ll be writing more about soon.

Unless you can establish that a Labour council appears to be behaving quite well on housing — in Islington, for example — or unless they have transformed themselves, as Labour has in Haringey, where a grass-roots movement kicked out the social cleansers, or unless it’s in Kensington and Chelsea, where Labour can reasonably be given a chance to take over from the Tories who presided over the Grenfell disaster, then I can’t endorse supporting them, and would suggest that a vote for the Greens is a much better bet — or, in some cases, a vote for the Lib Dems.

So that’s it — please vote wisely tomorrow, and let’s find a way to return social housing, and genuinely affordable social rents, to where they need to be — at the heart of political life in London and, more widely, in England as a whole. Or, as I described it in a Facebook post earlier today, “We need a massive social homebuilding programme … aimed at providing permanent homes at social rents for anyone who wants them, to restore some necessary sense of justice and fairness to society, to free up economic activity so it’s not all sinking into the deep and unproductive pockets of the rentiers, and so our children can finally have the prospect of a brighter future free of rent servitude.”

Please note: The photo at the top of this article is from my ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London.’

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

17 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, on the eve of the council elections in London, explaining why, for anyone concerned about the continued existence of social housing, it is, of course, impossible to vote for the Tories, but it is also almost impossible to vote for Labour, because Labour councils, though squeezed by central government, have, instead of fighting back, enthusiastically embraced the destruction of council estates, and the provision of new developments by private developers, which lead to widespread social cleansing of their own tenants and leaseholders. Their destructiveness is, in general, so enthusiastic that it is genuinely impossible to imagine any Tory council behaving worse. Southwark, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Lewisham – the list of Labour councils destroying social housing is immense. I believe voting for the Green Party (or, in some cases, the Lib Dems) is generally preferable, although there are exceptions – I believe Labour in Islington is trying to maintain its social housing, while Haringey’s Labour members ousted their pro-social cleansing councillors in an extraordinary grass-roots resistance, and the new candidates are worth voting for, and in Kensington and Chelsea, it is, I believe, worth giving Labour a chance to take over from the disastrous Tory regime that led to the Grenfell inferno last June.
    Above all, though, as I say in my article, “let’s find a way to return social housing, and genuinely affordable social rents, to where they need to be — at the heart of political life in London and, more widely, in England as a whole.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Burnham wrote:

    Hi Andy, what I think this analysis misses out is that there has been a revolt against fake-austerity in Britain, and it has taken place partly through community campaigns and to a limited extent through trade union resistance, but also to a large extent through the Labour Party and the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. That is how the results of this election will be seen, and quite rightly so. If Corbyn does well, it’s worse for the Tories and for the developers and social cleansers in all parties, and that is despite the bad actions and attitudes of many Labour MPs and Labour local authorities. Many people will vote Green, but many more will vote Labour. I think we need to improve the Labour Party’s policies on housing, not by grandstanding denunciations (however justified we may feel them to be) but by engaging with the essence of the Corbyn movement in all its messy contradictions. On that basis I will be voting Labour today.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I’d vote Labour too in Haringey, Paul, but it’s really not a good idea in many other boroughs. The rock-solid social cleansing majorities in boroughs like Southwark, Lambeth and Lewisham need fundamentally challenging.
    That said, you are absolutely correct to say that, fundamentally, what needs to happen is “to improve the Labour Party’s policies on housing.”

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Heather Gilmore wrote:

    Lewisham, your democracy is dying… but does anybody care?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Heather. That’s a good article about the dangers of a one-party state like Lewisham – and most councils, tbh.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Burnham wrote:

    In Haringey, the extra-Labour housing campaign always paid some attention to Labour, even in the difficult years when there were 2 separate housing campaigns (inter-Labour and extra-Labour) and communication was limited to the occasional scribbled note on a tiny piece of paper that came quizzing across No mans land. Eventually, with a lot of patience we got to a position where there is a bit more like one campaign. Then there were the reselections. Then the National Executive Committee of the Labour party intervened to force out our council leadership. Then it all seemed to go to hell again in a hand cart. But I still think a united front approach is the best way forward, and we will try to make it work again, after the voting is over. Cheers for now and keep up the good work.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul. Here in Lewisham we’re unfortunately caught, like Groundhog Day, struggling to get the chosen one, Joe Dromey, to understand that there’s a problem with the council’s position. If they won’t talk openly and admit that there are problems, what can we do?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Burnham wrote:

    find some intermediaries/

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I will try and take your advice, Paul!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Burnham wrote:

    you could just denounce them, if you reckon that would bring about the good society sooner LOL

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne E. Cooper wrote:

    Paul, I appreciate what what you are saying about Corbyn, what ever happens the right in the LP will use it as a stick to beat Corbyn with however were I to vote Labour in Lambeth it would be a vote to demolish my home and destroy our community. Nor just by association our ward councillors actively support regen and one of them declared at a cabinet meeting that save Cressingham campaigns had created a “climate of fear.” That I guess is a denouncing. But it is also facts. Here in Lambeth there are groups of activists, interconnected campaigning for housing, libraries, democracy, schools et al and if we get a representative (s) elected it will make a difference. It won’t bring on an immediate or fundamental change, and none of us have a blueprint but it does imo bring change a step closer. We need our representatives in power, activists, trade unionists, people that walk the same streets, face the same issues. Here the left (outside LP) are supporting the independent Rachel Heywood, and greens and others are standing on a anti regen platform. We are making it very clear a vote for Lambeth Labour is not a vote for Corbyn, the likes of the cabinet and our ward councillors have moved against Corbyn’s position on regen. And while I have no proof I believe would happily see him swing.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Anne, shared not only by your fellow residents, who don’t want the destruction of their estate, but who Lambeth Council don’t want to listen to, but also by many other people in many other boroughs whose homes are threatened by Labour councils – and, crucially, for no good structural reason. If the properties in question were structurally unsound, it would be a different matter, but they’re not. These are demolitions of choice – a completely unacceptable decision for any council to take.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    John Hamilton wrote:

    Anne, Sounds very similar to why we set up Lewisham People Before Profit in 2008. You could set up a Lambeth People Before Profit if you want to use the name in elections. Let’s talk after the elections. https://m.youtube.com/user/LewishamPpleB4Profit/videos

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Phil Buyum Jackson wrote:

    Very good article

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Phil!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Petey Rosebar wrote:

    Labour in Hounslow are refurbishing, not demolishing, and are building council housing.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that, Petey. Yes, they are certainly not implicated in the ongoing destruction via any of the ongoing estate demolitions – the 11 ongoing projects approved by Boris Johnson, the 34 approved by Sadiq Khan, or the 17 not yet approved: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/04/23/the-34-estates-approved-for-destruction-by-sadiq-khan-despite-promising-no-more-demolitions-without-residents-ballots/

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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