Sunday, 23 November 2014

This is our land: tales from Cricklewood, and the launch of Barnet Labour's Housing Commission

Camden leader Sarah Hayward addresses Barnet Labour's new Housing Commission

Earlier this year, you may recall, the new Mayor of Barnet, Tory councillor Hugh Rayner, faced a number of allegations of wrongdoing in relation to his role as a local landlord - as well as reported failure to declare pecuniary interests regarding to these business activities.

Rayner  admitted to some mistakes in the way his contracts with tenants had been worded, and in presenting a document to one individual with a witness signature that had been 'pre-signed' by a fellow Tory councillor, but denied the other charges, and was anyway cleared of all allegations - at a hearing held before a politically weighted panel.

The case touched a raw nerve with our Conservative members, however, a significant number of whom are also landlords, and who then proceeded, in a highly controversial - and many would say disreputable move, to direct the now departed, and legally unqualified Monitoring Officer to award them dispensations so as to allow them to take part in meetings from which their interests would ordinarily prevent them from engaging, and voting on decisions.

Bad enough, you might think, all this, in terms of damage to the reputation of the Barnet Tory group. They couldn't possibly make themselves look any worse, could they?

Well, of course they could. Never underestimate the ability of our dunderheaded Tory councillors to fail to learn from their mistakes, and move forward. Regressive tactics, and compounding of past failure: that is their area of expertise. 

Tory housing policy in Barnet is easy enough to summarise: it rises from a position of utmost submission to the advances of any would be developer, to the point of utter contempt for the very concept of social housing: and somewhere in between lies a culture of incomprehension, or perhaps more properly, an expression of studied indifference, to the need for affordable housing.

Unfortunately for some of the residents of Broken Barnet, the ones who may be in need of affordable or social housing, the housing spokesperson for Barnet Tories is Tom Davey, a young councillor whose swivel eyed, right wing views have clearly not evolved since his student days, which would be regrettable in any elected representative, but deeply concerning in someone given responsibility for such a key policy area, in a time of economic hardship, and the increasing housing crisis in the greater London area.

Davey is of the opinion, as you can see in the clip below, that the undeserving poor, and those who, as he put it, depend upon on council services, are not welcome in our borough. If you can't afford to live here, he thinks, then get lost. We don't want you. 

We want only the well off, here in Barnet: or the super rich, the 'Russian Oligarchs' whom he fondly imagines will be queueing up to live in the new penthouse apartments of the Barratt West Hendon development.

In Davey's view, and the view of his leader and what passes for the executive body of the Tory administration, we should not waste any sympathy for the feckless poor, who have no aspiration, and have no right to our concern. 

Barnet Tories, councillors and MPs: they prefer to reserve their sense of compassion for the plight of the billionaire property owners,  the arms dealers, porn merchants and exiled dictators of Bishops Avenue, and the minority of privileged home owners now quaking in fear behind the secondary glazing of their mansions in  Totteridge Lane, dreading the introduction of a Labour Mansion tax designed to support the retrieval of our NHS, snatched out of the hands of the privateering vultures now circling above our heads.

Housing policy is one of the indicators that tell us so much about the real nature of our Tory friends. They see it as an opportunity for social engineering: imposing their values and moral judgement on those less fortunate than themselves, creating punishment, where they fail to find aspiration.  

Want a council house, or flat? 

Priority is now given to those who have demonstrated a 'positive contribution' to their community. (Yes, by definition, should any Tory members fall on hard times, they would automatically be kicked to the bottom of the list). 

Are you a victim of domestic violence? Need to be rehoused away from your abusive partner? 

Make yourself homeless first, then. Or keep your head down, and stop complaining.

Lucky enough to be offered a tenancy? 

Don't think of it as your home. It's only for a maximum of five years. So what if this stops you from putting down roots in your community, and securing a future for your children. What made you think you have a right to security? You are of no value, and have no rights, in Broken Barnet, unless you can pay your way.

The chance of securing a council house, or flat, or even being able to do what our Tory mentors would like us to do, to aspire to buy any sort of property in Barnet: this is becoming more and more of an impossibility. 

In twenty years in our borough only three - yes, three - council houses have been built. You may recall the great fun that was had, when Boris came to open them, earlier this year, and met Mrs Angry: hasn't been back to Barnet since, for some reason.

The right to buy scheme, pioneered by Finchley's own Margaret Thatcher, has seen a crisis in the shortage of housing stock, in the face of what was, before the system of counting was abandoned, the longest application queue in the country.

Rather than build new homes, the Tories in Barnet have put homeless families into the private sector, and allowed developers free reign to exploit what are coyly referred to as 'regeneration' schemes for our larger estates, but which turn into private developments, with usually no social housing, and affordable housing only affordable to residents with high incomes, or buy to let speculators, and absentee overseas investors.
According to the cockeyed vision of Barnet Tory philosophy, the free market must and will dictate the natural order of things, and if you do not have the means to buy or rent a home here - hard luck. Get out. 

And if you don't get out, they will help you on your way, whether you like it or not. 

Because now they have moved on from a tentative dabbling in the art of social engineering to an outright, up front and utterly ruthless campaign of social cleansing. The poor are being shipped out, pushed out from this borough, resettled beyond the boundaries of Broken Barnet, beyond the pale. 

If your home is in the way of their scheming, in the way of profit: tough - move out, move off, one choice of alternative accommodation, and no regard for whether or not it will destroy your family life, affect your children's education, send you miles from dependent relatives, and uproot you from the community in which you belong.

Residents protesting outside the wall that separates them from the luxury Barratts' development

What has happened in West Hendon, and is happening elsewhere, the demolition of social housing, the eviction of tenants, and the destruction of a community, in order to make way for a massive development of luxury properties: this is the real face of Barnet Conservatism: the naked, shameless reality of their sociopathic policies.

Whether a deliberate strategy, or not, the effect of such large scale plantation of affluent, middle class residential developments in the heart of working class, traditional Labour voting areas is gerrymandering: part of a pattern of excluding the disadvantaged from the benefits of prioritised council and private sector expenditure, and destabilising - or so they hope - the chances of loss of control of the borough by the Tory administration.

Further evidence of such an agenda was confirmed by their own commissioned report into the scandalous spending of millions of taxpayers' money on Tory wards via the Highways budget, especially in the year before the local elections.

Since this report was published, incidentally, and the £4 million pre electoral Tory ward spending spree all over, it has now transpired, according to Childs Hill Libdem councillor Jack Cohen, that there is apparently no money left at all for Highways expenditure in his ward. Or any other, presumably. Even Tory ones.

Another example has been highlighted by Labour's Assembly Member Andrew Dismore this week, with an allegation, reported to the Electoral Commission, regarding a polling station in Hale Ward - the most marginal ward at the last election, which was allocated a huge amount of money, and is represented by two Tories - the Mayor, Hugh Rayner, and Tom Davey.

And now, in logical progression, in their regressive way, from the foundation of their punitive housing regime, our Tory councillors have surpassed all expectation. Earlier this month they casually announced a truly stunning plan: to put council rents up from 30% of market value to a new, staggeringly high level of 80%.

Yes. At a time of unprecedented austerity, and the worst possible circumstances for those living on low incomes, or dependent on support from benefits, our Tory members think it is appropriate to push such residents further into poverty, and increase reliance on housing benefit, by upping council rent. 

This is, we are told, in order to build more affordable housing. Really? Not, you will note, social housing: and even if this purported claim is true, we know what the Tories regard as 'affordable' housing is anything but, in real terms.

As the eagle eyed Nearly Legal blogger has pointed out, this ludicrous proposal is possibly unlawful, totally unworkable, and clearly defies all common sense: but, of course - this is Broken Barnet, after all.

As he puts it:

It would seem then, on some pretty basic maths, that setting flexible tenancy rent at 80% of market rent would make those tenancies unaffordable for many, possibly all, of the only people allowed to bid for them under the allocation scheme. This is, to put it mildly, an interesting approach to social housing and housing need. To put it another way, it is bloody stupid.
Bloody stupid, or totally cynical? Catch 22: in order to apply for council housing in Barnet you must be on an income level that could not afford the rent of said council housing, therefore you will not apply, and there will be no demand. 

And as Andrew Dismore describes it:

The inevitable outcome will be yet more benefit claimants, yet more tenants in arrears, and yet more evictions due to this ill thought out, economically illiterate and heartless ideological scheme thought up by the far right faction who run Barnet Council."

What is puzzling is the enthusiasm felt by Barnet Tories for increasing the burden on something they claim to abhor: the benefit system, supported by taxpayers. 

Of course our landlord Mayor is happy to derive income from housing benefit, as we know and it would seem the rest of his colleagues see no problem with this, in principle, or in practice, even when that burden is wilfully increased by their own efforts. And for those who will carry the cost of the new level, and find themselves in arrears, and a cycle of debt? Meh.

The changes in the housing market are beyond our control, and if property value and rental levels in London have risen to an all time high, there is nothing anyone can do.
But we are not helpless in the face of a tidal surge, a force of nature: we are capable of deflecting and preventing a disaster of our own creation.

So what can we do?

Barnet Tories, in defence of their own policies, and in the face of any criticism, have only one real tactic: to point the finger at the opposition, and say, ooh look over there - Labour agree with us really, and they don't have any alternative proposals, anyway ...

To an extent, Labour has allowed itself to become vulnerable to such accusations, by naively trying to engage in consensus politics, rather than outright warfare, and by failing to grab political opportunities when they occur, and fight the Tory agenda. 

Since the new intake of Labour members, however, those tactics have been consigned to the bin, and a rather more creative form of opposition is being forged. 

Hence this week, on Thursday night, we saw a widely welcomed launch of Barnet Labour's Housing Commission - a bold attempt to engage with residents and debate an issue which has become of such urgent priority, as the Tories propel themselves further and further into the far reaches of their deranged housing policy, and some residents are beginning to take more and more desperate, direct action to try to fight in defence of their communities.

The inaugural meeting of the new commission took place in the Crown Moran hotel, in Cricklewood, an extraordinary building, a swish four star hotel on one side, awkwardly placed on a road still punctuated with kebab shops and old fashioned barbers, the new construction latched onto the carefully restored Crown public house, where our meeting was held, a late Victorian, red sandstone structure, still with many art nouveau details, etched glass windows, twisting brass handles, and ornate ceilings..

The Crown is a major landmark in Cricklewood and, although perhaps not many would understand the significance, represents a part of the history of the local community, one which is always overlooked, as are most of the communities in the less advantaged areas of Barnet, in this case that of the Irish who settled in the western side of the borough, in Cricklewood and West Hendon: part of the working class identity that our Tory councillors are trying to eradicate, in other words.

As well as Barnet Labour's housing spokesman, Ross Houston, and leader Alison Moore, former deputy London Mayor Nicky Gavron and the Labour leader of Camden Council, Sarah Hayward, were present. Mrs Angry understands that Tory housing lead member, Tom Davey, was otherwise engaged. Shame. The boy might have learned something.

The Commissioners introduced themselves: Tony Clements, a housing consultant and editor of the Red Brick blog; Glyn Thomas, who is involved in the co-operative housing sector; Bob Young, who has a wealth of experience in housing and homelessness, Rabbi Danny Rich; the Reverend Colin Smith, and Janet Solomons, a local resident, former trustee of several charities and a carer with an interest in disability issues. The discussion began.

Nicky Gavron reminded us that Barnet has the highest rents in London, and the average property value was now nearly half a million pounds. 

West Hendon councillor Devra Kay listens to Nicky Gavron

Sarah Hayward talked about Camden, and what they had managed to achieve: making Camden a living wage council, championing the principle of 25 hours a week of free childcare - and building more council houses than any other authority in the UK.  Which was all a radical and refreshing thought, for many Barnet residents present: that Labour could form an administration, and fight for some semblance of social justice, and a housing policy that addressed the needs of ordinary people.

Safe, secure housing, she said,  was a human right. It was essential to all other positive outcomes, such as health and education. And, she added: however big the problems in housing, there are solutions. 

In Camden those solutions included not only an ambitious building programme, but other measures can be used, such as regulation of agents, rent control, the support for schemes such as 'Pocket Homes'.

Taking questions was an invitation to the sort of challenge you might expect from Barnet residents with an interest in housing.

Left Unity's Philip Clayton suggested something which was a common theme, repeated by Taba, from Barnet Housing Action: the need to abolish the right to buy scheme.

The magnificent Jasmin Parsons stood and spoke with her usual passion, and blistering honesty. She is one of the West Hendon residents and activists who have fought - with tenacity and immense courage - against the council's policy of betraying the interests of tenants and leaseholders on this estate, due to be demolished in order to accommodate the private development by Barrett Homes.

Jasmin reminded us of those who are as she put it, dropping out of the housing equation: single people, young adults. And she said she objected, deeply, to the selling off of public land by councillors, in private: this is our land, she pointed out, public land - they are there to manage it, not sell it off to privateers.

Referring to the way tenants in West Hendon have been treated by the council, she said they felt bullied and harrassed by the authority's tactics. Long term council tenants had been kept for years in temporary accommodation: they should have been given secure tenancies. West Hendon, she stated, had been used as a holding place, a reservation, as she later put it, purely for motives of profit: now the issue had entered the political spectrum, because, she claimed, some councillors were using the development of West Hendon as a form of social cleansing.

To understand the background to this you need to know that Jasmin's account is no exaggeration of the facts: the tenants have been kept on this estate -deliberately moved there, in many cases - in long term temporary arrangements, all of them facing uncertain futures over a period of several years, not knowing where, once their homes were demolished, their families would be living, their children go to school: unlikely they would be accommodated in the area: increasingly likely they would only be offered somewhere out of the borough, miles from their families and community. And if they turned down their one offer, wherever it was, and however unsuitable, or how far: that was their only chance of rehousing gone. 

In the meanwhile some live on in rat infested, decaying properties, subjected to a barrage of noise, dirt and nuisance from the luxury housing project that will drive them from their homes.

The only token provision for any secure tenants is a tiny building, on the former car park, that will, for its handful of privileged residents, afford a view of the squalid backyards of the Edgware Road shops, rather than the serene beauty of the Welsh Harp, reserved for Tom Davey's Russian oligarchs.

Leaseholders on the estate have similarly been betrayed by Barnet: having done the very thing their Tory councillors so warmly approve, aspired to join the property owning classes, and bought their homes, they now find themselves within a short time of demolition of the estate, landed with enormous bills for pointless work which the council should have seen to years ago - promises made to amend these demands appears, now the immediate fuss has died down, to have been forgotten.

Last week Barnet Council had arranged a number of court hearings to begin the process of serving eviction notices on some tenants: one of them, who has been installed there on a non secure basis since 2008, claimed that in 2009, the then 'easycouncil' guru, Tory leader, now Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, had 'promised' their tenancies would become secure. 

As Jasmin Parsons explained, 12 tenants were due to go to court on Monday: 4 turned up. On Tuesday, 10 were due, 3 made it. And she alleged that this was in part due to advice given by the council not to attend. If this is true, then such a recommendation has had devastating consequences, as those who did not attend lost their homes, whereas those who chose to go, and fight their case saw them adjourned, with various interim provisions made by the judge. More cases are listed for this week.

Philip Clayton wanted to know what Labour policy on all this was: were they supporting residents? Some are, said one of the Labour councillors, loudly - and certainly the West Hendon councillors care passionately about their residents, and have tried hard to lobby for the best outcomes, if any are possible, from this appalling mess created by the Tory indifference, and private greed.

The evening ended with a summing up from the different themed discussions that had taken place around the room, on a number of housing issues: affordable housing, regeneration, rent, and so on. Lots of sensible suggestions, and creative suggestions: the Commission continues, with a call for evidence, public hearings, open mike sessions - a real attempt at consultation, rather than the duplicitous process preferred by our scheming Tory council.

But now the larger challenge lies before Labour: to use the new Housing Commission not as yet another talking shop, but a vehicle for real change, and not the empty promises served up by their Tory counterparts. 

The way in which the narrative of abstract concepts and theoretical debate of housing policy in this first meeting was constantly punctured by the reality of interjections from the West Hendon residents, living out the consequences of Tory policy here and now, should serve as a warning, and an opportunity, for those in any doubt of why and how urgently we must address these issues.

Some of us drifted downstairs then, for a drink in the bar of the old Crown, immortalised in the early sixties in a song by the republican Irish writer Dominic Behan, 'Mc Alpine's Fusiliers':

 “Oh, the craic was good in Cricklewood and they wouldn’t leave the Crown, 
  With glasses flying and Biddy’s crying ‘cause Paddy was going to town 
  Oh mother dear, I’m over here and I’m never coming back 
  What keeps me here is the reek o’beer, the ladies and the craic…" 

At one point during the meeting, a couple of us had been talking to Jasmin about the Barratts' development, just down the road, and the shameful fact that York Park, meant as a memorial to the many victims of the wartime bomb which fell in 1941, and devasted that part of West Hendon, had not been excluded from the scheme.

It was in the post war building boom, restoring a battered London, that the Irish community in this area was really made: 'Paddy' came over here to rebuild London, and settled here, as have subsequent waves of migrant workers from all around the world. 

But in the eyes of our speculative Tory council, history and heritage have no interest - and nor does the preservation of a sense of community. 

What the Luftwaffe failed to destroy, and the Irish rebuilt, and the diverse population of working families who live there now call home, is no more than a source of potential profit for our elected council, and their developer associates. 

The massive Brent Cross Cricklewood development coming now, will be the largest of its kind in London. And who do you think will be benefiting from this scheme, and who will be packing their bags, and moving on, and moving out?

McAlpine's fusiliers are replaced by Barratt's bombardiers, who won't be staying on in Barnet, where they are not welcome, but bussed in and out when needed, according to the rules of the new apartheid system, born out of an evil coupling of Coalition economic policy and a London Tory sponsored housing crisis. 

Social cleansing; gerrymandering - apartheid: they may not recognise the historical context, but here in Broken Barnet, our own Tory members are determined to re-live the mistakes of the past, all the same.