The Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has made endless headlines with his promises of building large numbers of council homes. In his 2021 election manifesto, he boasted about the: ‘record-breaking progress made on increasing the numbers of genuinely affordable homes being built across London.’ Anyone with real-life experience of London’s housing problems will know that his promises are a deception. The reality is that large-scale demolitions of council estates accompany the building of new council housing. The Mayor and London’s local authorities are following a right-wing agenda of restricting the availability of council housing. At the same time, they are trying to appear to respond to working-class pressure to do something about the homelessness crisis by generating misleading headline figures for the numbers of new-build social properties. Demolition ballots on council estates facilitate this whole process. These ballots are being conducted in a grossly undemocratic and rigged manner, exposing the sham nature of ‘democracy’ in a capitalist country like the UK.
The housing situation for many in London is desperate. As of September 2021, 59,160 households were in temporary accommodation in London (Households in Temporary Accommodation, England, House of Commons Library, 13 February 2022). Families in temporary housing are typically living in inadequate, overcrowded properties. They have often been housed out of the borough they were previously living in, away from schools, employment and family support networks. Living in temporary accommodation can affect the education and development of children and cause family stress and relationship breakdown.
Sadiq Khan will want to boast about the 14,000 new socially rented properties that were planned or completed in London in 2016-2020, thanks partly to grant funding channelled through the Greater London Authority. (Social rented properties are properties at council rent which, in London, is generally less than 50% of inflated market rents.) He may be less willing to highlight the 7800 demolitions of socially rented properties, planned or completed in the same period. (Figures calculated from The Planning London Datahub, Greater London Authority.)
What is the point of building new social housing while demolishing existing housing? To be clear, the new social housing is generally part of super-dense developments of high rise blocks. It is not as if they are knocking down unpopular blocks of flats and giving everyone nice houses with gardens.
The reality is that the whole thing is a confidence trick. The Mayor wants to announce impressive figures for new social housing starts, but he is working with Local Authorities that do not want significant expansions of social housing in their boroughs. It is the Local Authorities that devise the schemes the Mayor approves, and they favour gentrification.
Ultimately, the housing decisions of the councils are approved by the elected councillors. Both Labour and Conservative parties are very much parties of the middle class now. Middle class people have always dominated positions of responsibility in the Conservative Party, of course, but the same is true, now of the Labour Party The proximity of large housing estates tends to put off the more affluent house buyers both parties wish to represent. It can depress property values due to snobbery. This preference for gentrification and demolition is as strong in the Labour Party as the Conservative party as an interesting recent academic study shows: (see Chou, W. and Dancygier, R., ‘Why Parties Displace Their Voters: Gentrification, Coalitional Change, and the Demise of Public Housing’, American Political Science Review, 2021, 115(2), 429-449).
Sadiq Khan is no different from Labour councillors. His statements, away from election campaigns, reveal he has no real desire to expand council housing. In the Mayor’s Question Time of 8 February 2021, the Mayor revealed himself to be an enthusiast for the Right to Buy for council housing. He expressed indifference to the loss of council housing stock which it has caused when challenged by Sian Berry of the Green Party. He undoubtedly views losses due to demolition through the same right-wing lens.
Sadiq Khan would justify his policies by pointing to the ballots that have to take place before an estate demolition on any scheme he funds. The postal votes on demolitions themselves are a total charade. They are carried out by Civica Election Services which also carries out trade union ballots. (It was formerly known as Electoral Reform Services, which used to be run by the Electoral Reform Society.) It must be remembered that the ballots are generally called by Local Authorities that favour the demolition of estates in opposition to residents groups that often oppose demolition. A London housing activist made a Freedom of Information enquiry regarding a ballot on demolishing Tottenham’s Love Lane Estate. The emails this enquiry revealed demonstrated completely undemocratic practices by Civica. For example, Civica gives lists of all those who have not yet voted during the postal ballot to the Local Authority but denies these lists to any group opposing demolition. Civica officers then go to these addresses with a mobile ballot box for the residents to vote, with Council officers often accompanying them. (The Civica/Local Authority officers tasked with this job are workers too, and no blame should be attached to them as opposed to the top politicians who oversee the demolition policy.)
All this, of course, in addition to the much greater funding that Local Authority campaigns for demolition have, compared to their opponents’ campaigns.
The bias towards the demolition of council estates means more working-class families suffering homelessness and deprivation. It exposes the right-wing nature of the Labour Party, its basic Thatcherite, neo-liberal essence and its callous attitude towards those who are poor and on low incomes. The rigging of housing estate ballots is just a microcosm of the general rigging of the electoral process in capitalism. The media companies and the social media monopolies use their power to manipulate public opinion against progressive candidates (even weak as water ones such as Corbyn). If that doesn’t work, then the full force of the capitalist state is available via the courts and the civil service to undermine any left government. Finally, the power of the military can be deployed as it was in France in 1958, Greece in 1967 and Cyprus in 1974. Socialism guarantees the right of all to housing and ends homelessness. The right to housing was a guaranteed constitutional right in the Soviet Union. However, we cannot reach such a happy state of affairs by any ‘parliamentary road to socialism.’ Only the revolutionary road is available to the working class.