Saving Our Estates (Again)

Posted in Janine's blog on Fri, 20/10/2006 - 10:42,

Having saved ourselves from the wrecking ball last year, our estate - and all other estates in Hackney - now face another fight to defend the places we live. Hackney Labour has a plan for Council estates: to sell pieces of their land to Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) to build new 'affordable' homes on.

Their charming word “infill” means that open spaces on estates will be built on, closing in our environment and reducing our quality of life. So far they have named 28 estates, but if yours in not on the list, don't think you're safe - you're just next in line. On six estates (including ours), homes will be demolished.

Objection number one: selling public land

Transfer to an RSL is a move away from public accountability, a form of privatisation. The experiences of residents on estates transferred in the past eg. the Pembury, are not good.

In fact, one reason that local authorities began mass house-building in the first half of the twentieth century is because the charities of the day - like Peabody, now called an RSL - were not meeting the housing needs of working-class people. They still do not meet those needs today. And unlike the Council, you can not vote them out if you don't like what they are doing.

Publicly-owned land is an asset that should not be given over into private hands.

Moreover, this particular policy will see estates divided between two separate landlords - Hackney Council and the RSL. Having two separate landlords is divisive to the community. There could be two different sets of rent levels, two different repairs services, and doubtless endless squabbles between the two as to who is responsible for maintenance of the common facilities eg. playgrounds.

TRAs are recognised by the Council - but who will they represent? Just the tenants and residents of the Council-owned parts of the estate? Or everyone?

Objection number two: crammed in like sardines

When Hackney Labour promised 2,000 new homes in its manifesto, it did not say that they would all be crammed in to existing housing estates. There may be a few 'underused' areas on a few estates, but residents, given the opportunity and resources, would welcome the chance to develop these into gardens or play areas.

I simply do not believe that there is sufficient 'underused' land on these 28 estates to fit in 550 homes, so the Council must be defining areas as 'underused' which residents do in fact use. To the Council and the developers, 'underused' probably means 'not making money'. But to residents, we use our open spaces whenever we walk across them, let the kids out to play, get a breather from pollution, kick a ball about, sit under a tree, enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of plants and wildlife, or just look out of the window and see the sky rather than another building.

What I would really like to know is: How many of our Councillors live on one of these 28 estates? Or on one of the six that is listed for 'partial demolition'?

Hackney is already a densely-populated area. It is one of only six London boroughs with more than 10,000 people per square kilometre. There is far more 'spare' land in the favoured living areas of the rich than in working-class Hackney.

And can we be confident that local infrastructure eg. schools, leisure facilities and transport, will be improved to cope with the new popluation?

Objection number three: 'affordable' to whom?

The new homes will not be Council homes. They will not even all be social housing for rent - some will be private homes for sale.

The Labour Group's document says that these new homes will be 'affordable', but goes on to define this as being affordable to households on an income of between £20,000 and £30,000. So - unaffordable to pensioners, or to unemployed people, or to any of Hackney's thousands of low-paid workers. Teaching Assistants get £15,000; cleaners get even less.

Is there an alternative?

The recent Labour Party conference, for the third year running, voted for the 'Fourth Option' - that Councils should receive public funding to build and run their own housing without having to privatise it. Labour in government should do what its party conference tells it to. While it continues to ignore decisions like this, it continues to lose members and support.

The most recent statistics showed that there are 250 empty homes in Hackney Central alone - and there are 18 other wards in Hackney! The Council should rent out its own homes more quickly, and should take ownership of homes left empty by private landlords, make them fit to live in and rent them out. Its new plan will need Compulsory Pruchase to buy out those leaseholders whose home it wants to demolish - instead, it should use these powers to buy out landlords who leave homes empty.

Our response

Fortunately, the Labour councillors' plan has somehow already become public knowledge. A swift response from tenants' and residents' activists (well, from our estate's TRA, actually) in the local newspaper has forced some statements from Labour Cabinet member Mr. Carswell that we will fight to hold him to. He says, "We are not talking about the green spaces on estates or the children's playgrounds. We ar talking about the derelict pram sheds and the corners of estates that need work as a living environment at the moment. ... We are not looking to build tower blocks." However, Jamie Carswell's idea of what constitutes a green space or a corner of an estate may well be different from residents'. And in any case, the big issues of privatisation, demolition and divided communities are still there.

And, of course, Hackney Labour claim residents will be consulted. But we are not worthy of being consulted about the policy itself, only about the detail of its implementation on our estate. Consultation will not even start until after the Cabinet and full Council have agreed the policy. Many of us have bad experiences of what Hackney Council means by ‘consultation’ - loads of meetings where you tell them your views, only to be ignored.

Our estate's TRA has already responded by reaffirming the five principles that formed the backbone of our last successful fight against redevelopment: no transfer to a new landlord; keep our green space and facilities; no rent rises; no loss of Council housing; minimum disruption to residents. It would be good to see other TRAs doing the same.

But we can not leave every estate's TRA to respond individually. We need a Hackney-wide campaign to defend ourselves and our estate. The Tenants' and Residents' Convention should lead this fight, but if it is not up to the job, we'll need a rank-and-file link-up of TRAs, trade unions, supportive Labour Party branches, socialists and other activists.

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