SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 214 Dec/Jan 2017/18

London social cleansing

Working-class people are being driven out of Britain’s inner cities as property developers move in. Huge profits are being made from luxury accommodation while workers and young people are condemned to endure deteriorating conditions and sky-high rents. LINDA TAAFFE reviews a book focusing on London’s housing crisis.

Big Capital: who is London for?

Published by Penguin, 2017, £8.99

By Anna Minton

Big Capital by Anna Minton, a reader in architecture and author of the acclaimed Ground Control – see: Whose Streets, Socialism Today No.164, December 2012 – is a devastating condemnation of the current housing system, especially in London. One reviewer described her work succinctly: "It reads like a sort of murder mystery". Indeed, it is a whodunnit and, more specifically, a how-they-dunnit!

As campaigners we often come across people in severe housing distress who have never known anything different. Rents are always too high, wages too low, and private landlords always have the upper hand. What can you do? That’s the way of the world. Of course, those old enough will remember that there was another time, when local councils built homes for everybody and at reasonable rents; private tenants had security of tenure under law and were able to appeal to rent tribunals. Minton writes: "In 1978, the last year before Thatcher, the government built 100,000 council homes and the private sector 15,000".

She charts how those things were changed. Two million council homes were sold off under ‘right-to-buy’. Over time, 40% of those homes became for-rent at three or four times the going rate. This is borne out in a street near me. Two families live a few doors away from each other in identical houses. The council tenant pays £130 a week, the private tenant £400. In the private rented sector some young people in London can spend up to half their income on rent. To show how rents have sky-rocketed, Minton explains that, had food prices tracked housing increases over the last 40 years, a chicken in central London would cost £100!

She charts how the five biggest housebuilding companies increased their profits by a staggering 480% between 2010 and 2015, while "genuinely affordable housing is rarely considered financially viable". In other words, it is not profitable to house the low-paid. According to a London assembly report, the estate regeneration programme, heroically opposed by many housing campaigners, has almost doubled the number of homes and increased the number of private homes tenfold, but simultaneously entailed a net loss of 8,000 social rent homes, as well as forcing thousands of low-paid workers out of the city.

A money-laundering casino

Big Capital is packed with useful information for all housing campaigners. Minton explains how planning laws have gradually been so subverted and skewed in favour of property developers that they are almost useless. In addition, how housebuilders cosy up to local councillors (Tory and Labour), enticing them with lavish junkets and networking while calculating how to break into their boroughs and run off with the goodies. All done in the best possible taste, of course, for it allows compliant councillors, like in Waltham Forest, to trumpet how their hard-won efforts are bringing 1,200 homes to their electors. However, they fail to mention that they are not for the 8,000 households registered in housing need. No, these homes are not for you. You will have to grind out your life patiently for a decade or more until you become one of the lucky few the borough manages to re-house each year.

The thievery is so blatant it is hard to contain your anger. However, while Anna Minton provides a damning exposé on housebuilders and property companies, she does not show the same clarity about solutions. She fails to explain why Thatcher and the Tories sold off council homes in the first place. At the time, capitalism was showing signs of crisis, and selling off the family silver was a way of making the working class pay. Since then, project privatisation has insinuated itself into every aspect of the public sector. And, of course, the sell-off of council homes went alongside the Tories’ deregulation of the City.

Together, as Minton comments, that made London a "prime destination for corrupt individuals looking to invest or launder the proceeds of their illicit wealth, enjoy a luxury lifestyle and cleanse their reputations". It was the greed of the capitalists that made London – our home – into a laundry and a casino. That created a housing crisis for workers but a bonanza for rich investors in "the super-prime market" for the alpha postcodes like Chelsea and Kensington.

Although Anna Minton vividly describes the stories of workers living in housing poverty and enthusiastically takes the side of, and rejoices in, the tenants’ campaigns across London, unfortunately, she falls short on pointing a real way forward. In her introduction she bewails what is happening: "From the removal of people on low incomes from their homes to the use of property purely as profit and no longer as a social good". Despite every bit of evidence she has produced condemning the whole rotten system, she starts from a point of maintaining it.

She seems to believe it is mainly a matter of political will to rein in the rogues, dampen down their excesses. As if Russian oligarchs, who have thieved their lolly off Russian workers, can be tamed; that cartels from Singapore and China can be enticed to withdraw gracefully; and allow the ‘good’ capitalists to do the business. Minton quotes favourably an ex-government advisor who divides companies into two camps: those "for profit and for purpose" and those "evil capitalists out for themselves". She highlights that it is the government’s responsibility to stamp out excesses. Moreover, she leaves no role for the organised working class, their parties or trade unions – and, of course, nowhere is there any mention of socialist solutions.

A new social contract?

Minton also makes a few references to rewriting the ‘social contract’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, and others from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, used this phrase to make powerful arguments for good government at the time of the heady rise of capitalism. Try persuading capitalists today to allow a good government to tone down their profits, when the terror that grips them is when exactly the next global crisis will wipe them out. Property companies, housebuilders, big landlords and estate agents just want to make lots of bucks as fast as possible now – and the devil take the hindmost.

It is the core of capitalism to exploit for profit. It is the nature of the beast. It is true that some reforms could be implemented which clip the claws of greedy capitalists, but even those could only be won with a serious struggle backed up with mass pressure. The curtailing of the landlord certification experiment started by Newham council highlights these limits.

We demand and support all those measures that would improve housing conditions for workers. But it is still disappointing that Minton cannot see that it is the whole profit system that has to be turned upside down – and not just tinkered with – and that profit has to be taken out of housing. That housing as a commodity traded on the open market must be stopped, and housing for all changed into a social service.

There are many examples across Europe, particularly Scandinavia, of progressive models which we support. However, they were often brought about by the huge pressure of workers on social democratic governments over decades. Indeed, there are examples of individual British capitalists in the past who saw the value of creating better conditions for their workers: the Quakers with Bourneville model village, and more recently Port Sunlight near Birkenhead. But they remain islands in an ocean of greed. The early 19th century socialist Robert Owen’s model village in Lanarkshire gave a glimpse into how housing and towns could develop in a socialist society.

Class action

This leads us to examine what Anna Minton says about who will make such changes. Again she seems to miss the fundamental driving force of the organised working class and labour movement. She lays out her views at the start: "this is the new politics of space. Replacing the politics of class…" This exposes a crucial weakness. Housing is about class. The horror at Grenfell tower in June showed in sharp relief that it is the poor who suffer. Capitalism kills. While surviving families still live in hotel rooms, Kensington has hundreds of empty homes, many of them long-term. What more proof is needed that housing is a class issue?

Rather than look towards the working class, whose actions and pressures have over generations won every single gain enjoyed by all people – like better wages, pensions, mass council housing and the NHS – Minton highlights "civil society groups" – like voluntary workers, anti-fracking and airport expansion activists. In particular, she praises the work of Podemos in Spain in the anti-evictions campaign. Indeed we would agree. That campaign showed the potential of a mass force that actually included organised workers like the locksmiths’ union which refused to comply with bailiffs. She mentions groups in Britain that have put up a fight, like Focus E15 who occupied a flat on the Carpenters Estate, the tenants of Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth who won a legal reprieve, New Era in Hoxton and many others.

Incredibly, she manages to miss out any reference to the Butterfields’ year-long campaign that went on throughout 2016, where 60 low-paid, mostly migrant families faced with eviction, refused to move. Against a background of so many defeats, this was a story of success. It was supported by Waltham Forest Trades Council and spearheaded by Socialist Party members. The tenants and their supporters took bold action. They gate-crashed auction houses, demonstrated outside the landlord’s posh mansion, got local estate agents to refuse to handle empty flats. In the end, 49 flats were bought up by Dolphin, which had previously taken over New Era, and all those families remained in their homes.

It is hard to understand how someone with half an eye on housing issues could have missed these events which were covered by several TV and radio stations, and got much local and national press coverage. Or was it because it was led by campaigners of "the politics of class" written off by Minton at the start of her book?

Trying to tame the market

These examples show how the power of a local organised force can find a mass response, and Minton correctly sees the need for people to be involved on the ground. She calls it "democratic renewal", and ascribes to it general community input. It is a worthy sentiment but a bit too vague for the huge task confronting the working class. Transferring those localised actions into something that can be carried out on a national scale will require a mass force, organised and prepared to fight global corporate interests, and with a government that will not only introduce new laws to drive the private sector out of housing, but can sanction and legitimise actions that could start right now.

Unfortunately, Minton has decided that we are in a new era: "The politics of space is replacing the politics of class. The old hierarchy of upper, middle and working class, which ranked groups in society as workers or bosses, no longer holds up in the face of a property-based economy where income from rent far exceeds economic growth and wages". Her complaint is that the huge riches created by the property economy are not being shared. Can a leopard change its spots?

Her answer to what she terms "spatial injustice" is called "Right to a City" concentrating on the capital. This is a vague idea first raised by a sociologist in France 1968. It has some basis in that it is true that low-paid workers are fighting to stay in London where they have jobs, and big bosses demanding high rents are driving them out. And bosses do not share out their wealth. Minton’s aim is to bring down "extreme emphasis on market conditions" so the city can be for everyone. It has apparently been included in the United Nations’ urban agenda – which really indicates how acceptable the idea is to capitalists. It has also been enshrined in law at national level in Brazil – famous for its favelas! Yet it is the market itself that is the problem, not just the degree of emphasis on the market.

Revolutionary thinking

In her final chapter, Minton examines two ways how the right to a city could be implemented. She dismisses "incremental change" because successive London mayors have not got to grips with reining in ruthless developers even using their limited powers. She favours "a paradigm shift", saying the crisis is "systemic" with "insurmountable barriers… permeating every layer of government". She wants to "rewrite the social contract with regard to property and planning". In fact, it is beginning to sound like a call to revolution! Unfortunately, it is not.

Anna Minton has compiled a marvellous exposé of the way capitalism uses housing to line the pockets of the filthy rich. Her facts and figures are devastating. She relates the stories of people involved in housing problems and struggles. She sincerely wants change for the better and highlights many interesting examples of good housing solutions by architects and others. However, for all these innovative ideas and skills which could be harnessed for the good of society, we need a root and branch change. Nationalise the banks, then we can control loans to councils to build. Nationalise the huge building companies, giving building workers decent pay and conditions. Implement democratic renewal by involving workers through their trade unions in the management and control of nationalised industries, with a real input into local developments

In 1844 Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, using housing inspectors’ reports on Manchester and other statistics available at the time. He also wrote a book called The Housing Question (1872). Engels used these works to show how capitalism exploits workers, not only in factories but in their homes too, and how, as long as capitalism exists, the working class will be exploited and the housing crisis will not be solved.

Since the publication of Big Capital a general election has raised the stakes on all levels. The appetite of workers for real change has been whetted. If the present government falls, we could have a Corbyn-led government sooner than expected. However, there are problems. If Jeremy Corbyn were to follow Anna Minton’s half-way solutions, he would get the worst of both worlds. The capitalists would fight tooth and nail to undermine even a minimal clipping of their powers to make money; and workers’ need for homes could not be satisfied through half-measures and they could soon become disillusioned. At the recent Labour conference Corbyn called for ballots for tenants before regeneration – which right-wing Labour councillors in Haringey immediately dismissed! Although writing a century and a half ago, Engels’s solution, applied to modern conditions, still remains the only viable way to provide decent and safe homes for all at truly affordable rents.

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