Whatever you think of what she’s doing, Haringey’s Labour leader Claire Kober has been consistent and clear. When she gave Vanessa Feltz an “absolute commitment” on Wednesday that tenants whose homes are demolished as part of the huge redevelopment programme the council wants to embark on will be offered a new home in the same area on the same tenure terms at the same rent, it was not the first time she had done so and it will not be the last. Her acknowledgement that there are risks in going into business with commercial developer Lendlease to knock down and rebuild large parts of Tottenham and Wood Green had been made before too. And there was nothing new either about another point she made, one which, in terms of the predicament London local government is in, is the most significant. I quote:
Ultimately, we have a choice here. We have a housing crisis. In my borough that expresses itself as 3000 homeless families. The choice there is, do I say the council ideologically opposes working with the private sector and so we’re going to go it alone? That means the scale of what we can do is tiny, it’s miniscule. Or do we say, look, ultimately our role as local politicians, as a local council is to solve problems?
Kober’s words starkly illuminate the paralysing context in which London’s 32 borough councils operate. Hammered by austerity and constrained by their lack of powers, they have nonetheless been obliged by national government “localism” to cope with consequences of national policies they did not make. As London’s population booms and the proportion of it struggling to make ends meet stays damagingly high, to boroughs fall the frontline tasks of housing the homeless, helping the poorest and managing change as best they can. In many ways, their politicians and staff are those best equipped for such tasks, which is why devolving powers and budgets to local levels is a solid principle. But the resources at their disposal fall far short of what’s required.
Those that want to make a difference to the lives of those they represent would be failing in their duties if they simply refused to look for help elsewhere. Responding to a columnist’s denunciation of her approach – a piece one left-wing London MP with a deep knowledge of housing issues and some misgivings about Haringey’s plans nonetheless described to me as “a disgrace” – Kober identified the land a borough owns as “the one asset it has left” that can enable it to “take control of its own destiny”. Transferring some of that land into a company formed with a commercial developer will unite it with the finance, a workforce and a level of expertise the council simply does not have. That new company – a “housing development vehicle” to give it its fancy name – will be 50% owned by Lendlease and 50% by Haringey, giving the latter what Kober calls a “blocking veto” over its activities and a share of future profits.
This is a borough-level version of the same model already adopted by Transport for London as it seeks to generate urgently-needed funds for transport projects from its substantial land holdings across the capital, and is quite different from the straight sell-offs of parts of the Metropolitan Police Service estate – most famously Scotland Yard – that took place under the mayoralty of Boris Johnson. That is why Kober objects to what she’s doing being termed “privatisation” by her critics on the Protest Left, who are predictably chanting “social cleansing” – an objectionable slogan that misrepresents the realities of poverty and the effects of housing costs in London and glibly appropriates the savageries inflicted on the Muslims of Bosnia for emotive rhetorical effect.
The scale of Haringey’s initiative and the novelty of the arrangement they have in mind do, however, make it a suitable case for close and continuing scrutiny. At this early stage it appears to have met some important tests set by Sadiq Khan’s draft good practice guide for estate redevelopment, notably by the nature of its consultation of residents of the Love Lane estate to the west of Tottenham High Road, opposite the Spurs stadium. Among its findings, drawn from the 44% of Love Lane households that responded to the consultation, was that 70% of residents favoured the estate’s demolition and the replacement of the homes there. But there’s a long, long way to go.
Major redevelopments, especially those involving the levelling of people’s homes, always create anxieties, not least about the motives of their instigators. Of course they do. Too often in the past, private interests have been given too much control over “regeneration” schemes and too much local authority thinking has blamed unfashionable forms of housing and lack of “mix” for social and economic problems whose true causes lie elsewhere. Haringey needs to be wise to such pitfalls. At the same time, those who oppose what Kober and her colleagues are doing should be mindful of the alternative option available to a local authority serving one of the poorest areas in the capital – the option of not doing much at all.