Over the past few years a new London wide policy has emerged of building new, mainly private housing on the sites of demolished council estates. Extravagant promises are usually made about providing replacement numbers of new high quality social housing on these sites but these generally turn out to be lies. Working class people in London are being squeezed by a reduced availability of social housing and higher rents for most new social housing. The policy is really about putting money into the hands of private sector developers. The basic laws of capitalism mean that the system cannot meet the needs of most working class people for affordable housing, even in the rich imperialist nations. Despite false propaganda to the contrary the Soviet Union showed how the needs of the working class for housing could be met in a socialist society.
Every day new information emerges that a Local Authority is considering yet another council estate for demolition. The main reason for this are the very high targets set for housebuilding in the Mayor of London’s Local Plan. The Mayor of London has the power to set targets for each Local Authority for new homes which they are then obliged to follow. The target for 2015-2025 is for 423,887 new homes. The first question to ask about this is why so many? Everyone agrees that a significant number of new homes must be built in London but surely there are other, better ways of dealing with the housing crisis. One obvious solution would be a planned, economic approach which encouraged industrial development in each region of the UK rather than encouraging so much excessive growth in London and the South-East. This would reduce the flow of workers into an already over-heated region.
The second question is where Local Authorities are expected to build the housing. As London is pretty much built upon already the only real option is to knock down existing buildings and build the new housing on the demolition sites. Partly this can be achieved by knocking down factories and other commercial units and building new housing. However, the targets can only really be achieved by also knocking down a great deal of existing housing and building new housing on the sites at much higher density. Given that buying private properties for this purpose is very expensive, developers and Local Authorities prefer to give council estates to private developers for the projects in return for dubious pledges of ‘affordable’ housing provision on the new sites.
This is all being done by private developers who expect to make a profit. Their expectation is that they will build huge numbers of private homes on the new sites in order to realise profit rates of 20%, much higher than the general rate of return on capital in the UK of 12 or 13% (see ‘Revealed: how developers exploit flawed planning system to minimise affordable housing’, The Guardian 20 June 2015.) Clearly access to a corrupt political system is enabling property developers to make super-profits by gifting them public land.
Fronting the whole enterprise are the venal careerists who populate council chambers all over London. Local Authorities tend to dishonestly claim that their plans involve ‘no loss of affordable housing’. There is then a concerted effort by local councillors to smear housing activists who call this into doubt as ‘liars’. Figures released by the Greater London Authority (GLA) itself show who the real liars are.
Figures obtained from the GLA by Assembly Member Darren Johnson in February 2016 showed that estate regeneration schemes in London were set to lead to the net loss of 7,326 social rented homes (See https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/assembly/darren-johnson-past-staff/loss-of-social-housing-through-estate-regeneration).
This underestimates the true scale of the problem. Many of the redevelopments being considered are not part of these figures. In Haringey for example regeneration in Northumberland Park and the Broadwater Farm could potentially lead to the loss of over 2,000 socially rented homes but these are at an earlier planning stage and do not appear in Darren Johnson’s figures.
Some of the more notorious examples of capitalist ‘regeneration’ in London illustrate this point very well. The planning application submitted to Southwark Council on 23 April 2015 for housing to be built on the site of the demolished Aylesbury estate shows that the new development will lead to a net loss of 778 properties let on a social rent basis. And this is on the best scenario!
Worse still is the Heygate Estate. In 2012 there were 934 council tenanted properties on the estate (The Heygate Masterplan Elephant and Castle Outline Planning Application March 2012 prepared by Savills for Lend Lease). By 2014 the developers were saying that these would be replaced by 180 affordable rented properties (at 50% market rent in this case) and only 74 social rented properties (usually at about 30-40% market rent) (Elephant Park, Elephant and Castle Site-Wide Affordable Housing Strategy – Updated (MP2), June 2014 prepared for Lend Lease by Lend Lease and DP9).
In Tottenham, Haringey Council is planning to demolish large parts of the Northumberland Park estate. The Northumberland Park Masterplan indicates that over 900 council tenanted properties are likely to be demolished. Of the 3,000 or so new properties likely to be built, only 25% are likely to be so-called affordable housing, the rest private housing for the market (see Haringey Council Cabinet Minutes 13 September 2016 page 221). But in Tottenham Haringey Council states that only 40% of all affordable housing will be affordable rented housing, the rest will be home ownership vehicles like shared ownership (Tottenham Area Action Plan, January 2016, policy AAP3).
If these policies are adhered to, only 10% of the new housing in Northumberland Park will be affordable rented housing, perhaps as little as 300 units!
Social housing is the only rational way of providing housing. Under capitalism housing goes to the highest bidder and people have to compete against each other for scarce housing in areas where decently paid jobs are available leading to an ever increasing spiral of higher rents and mortgage payments. In a socialist system housing can be allocated according to need (e.g., people who are homeless or need specialised housing for the disabled) and the waiting list. Housing waiting lists may have a bad reputation, but surely it is much better to put your name down on the list when you are 18 and get a house in your early 20’s, than having to live at home for an indefinite period with no hope of ever getting housed as so many young people have to do now. When rationing is done by need and waiting list, it is not necessary to ration by price too and rents could be a fraction of what they are now.
It is often argued that such socialist housing policies were a disaster in the USSR. Those of us old enough to recall the 1980’s remember all the stories about Soviet families cramped in tiny flats with Third World facilities. Like everything we were told about the Soviet Union at the time, this was anti-communist propaganda. Figures published in USA/USSR Facts and Figures by the US Bureau of the Census in 1991 show that such accounts were not true. For instance between 1980 and 1989 floor space per person in Soviet public and cooperative housing units increased by 18%. By 1989 80% had central heating. The Soviet Union did not have the advantages of the affluent imperialist west that can plunder the oppressed nations to improve living standards for the upper layer of the working class, and this meant that efforts needed to be made to catch up with the housing the more affluent sections of the population in the west enjoyed. Housing conditions were improving rapidly, however, and this at rents that were much lower than in the capitalist west and with a state guarantee of housing security that we lack in the capitalist countries.
The right to housing for all was enshrined in the Soviet constitution, meaning that the government took the responsibility for ensuring everyone was housed. This is very different from the UK where only those with children under 19 or those with very serious disabilities have the right to be housed by the state. Even those in such ‘priority need’ can end up in one room in a bed and breakfast or an annex with their children. If homeless families do get housed it is very often outside London away from their families, their children’s schools and their jobs. Capitalism is a savage system, even in the rich, imperialist nations. The threat of poverty and homelessness looms large for all working class people, giving the capitalists the leverage they need to force us to accept exploitation at work for fear of being sacked and made destitute. We need to go out there and make the case for socialism and communism. We need to drag the British working class away from the morass of reformism and nationalism and put them on the revolutionary road, following the great example of the Soviet Union and the other socialist nations.