Tuesday 24 February 2015

Temporary People: is Barnet Broken, or 'terrific'? The failure of Barnet Tory housing policy - evidence to Labour's Housing Commission

Finding solutions? Giving evidence, anyway - Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry at the Housing Commission

Last night saw the latest session of Barnet Labour's Housing Commission, chaired by Nicky Gavron, to which bloggers Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry were invited to give evidence. Clearly at the last minute someone was panicking at the thought of giving us an opportunity to say exactly what we thought, in an open forum, and emails arrived urging us to focus not so much on the problems, as on finding solutions. 

Hmm. Mrs Angry was of the opinion that her evidence was just that: based on five years of observation of Barnet's performance in regard to housing policy, and that it was her duty to contribute on that basis, and persuade the Labour leadership to try a bit harder to get into power, so as to implement a change in policy, rather than witter on about hypothetical solutions.

We dutifully went along, to a freezing cold community centre in Grahame Park,a council estate soon to be regenerated and gerrymandered out of existence, courtesy of Tory housing policy.

Here is the full text of Mrs Angry's contribution: an illustrated version - cut short due to time restraint, and probably just as well.

It's now five years since I started writing about local issues in my blog,  ‘Broken Barnet’, and although in all the time since I have covered many other aspects of the political landscape in our borough, it was a housing matter which drove me to start writing it, related to the way in which Barnet was using the private sector to address its inability to provide social housing for those in need.

At the time, Barnet had the longest housing waiting list in the country. Instead of seeing this as an urgent reason to consider investment in new social or council housing, the then administration, headed by Mr Easycouncil himself, Mike Freer, preferred to use the private sector to exercise its duties to house homeless residents, and appeared to care little about the standard of accommodation in which these families would be placed.

Here we are, five years later, and Mr Mike Freer is – for a few weeks longer, anyway - MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and oh look: there he is, on the Sunday politics show, only a week ago, telling us that the housing list is now only – only – 3,000 or so, or just under, even, and that his Tory colleagues in Barnet are building an astonishing number of new homes, we’ve built 6,000 new homes in the last five years, he says.

There is no housing crisis in our borough, in other words, says Freer, who, as we should remember, was the leader of the council when the new agreement with Barratts to develop West Hendon was made, in 2008, the details of which agreement, in terms of the viability report, for example, are not in the public domain.

Mr Freer is not the only Tory politician to be blessed with a sense of boundless optimism about the provision of housing in this borough, of course.

Only last week, I had a disagreement on twitter with one of the new Tory councillors, Gabriel Rozenberg - yes, the son of Joshua, and Melanie Phillips - who was complaining that a letter he had sent to a local paper had not been published, objecting to an article which had quoted a local pressure group  claiming, ‘that we are heading towards a housing crisis’.

What nonsense, he said: Barnet Council is going to build 20,000 new homes over the next two decades. We’re ready for the challenge.

Some loudmouths, he continued, only want to do Barnet down. The thousands of people moving to Barnet, year after year, prove just how wrong they are.

Oh dear. This was too much for loudmouth Mrs Angry, who engaged Cllr Rozenberg in a debate via twitter about his interesting views:

Me: Seriously? Are you being naive, or totally cynical? Those new homes will not be for ordinary families, but for the most affluent.

He replied: err totes serious. You think Barnet’s ‘broken’. I think Barnet’s terrific. If it’s so awful why is it set to be #1 in London?

Me: That can only be because you have not experienced what it is like for the huge number of people living in real need in this borough.

There is no excuse for this, other than fear of facing reality. Step outside of Hampstead Garden Suburb, & visit West Hendon ...

or Strawberry Vale, or Dollis Valley - or Sweets Way, if anyone is left there after tomorrow's evictions. This is real life, not HGS

Cllr Rozenberg: Mrs A, please accept, there is light and shade here. Many ppl are moving to Barnet cos it’s a great place to live.

Me: Oh Gabriel, please: the poorest residents are being mercilessly turfed out to make way for the 'well off' - is that fair?

Reply: Once again: if it’s such a hellhole of a borough, why is it so popular? You keep changing the subject.

Me: Popular with whom? It is hell for those living in poverty: anywhere is, just as most places are fine if you are wealthy

And answer this: how is it morally justifiable to give private developers public land, and evict the people living there?

No reply.

West Hendon residents facing eviction: pics courtesy of the Mirror

My mistake was to introduce the concept of morality into the argument: always a difficult subject of discussion with Barnet Tories. 

To be fair to Cllr Rozenberg, he is, in my view, naive, rather than lacking in compassion, unlike some of his colleagues, and at least makes the effort to take part in some sort of discussion – unlike most of his colleagues.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius does not like to leave the safety of his comfort zone, the leafy avenues of Totteridge, but recently was obliged by the BBC One Show to make an unprecedented appearance in one of the less favoured areas of his borough, in West Hendon, in the estate which he has previously described as ‘grotty’, a community now being bulldozed out of existence to make way for the luxury private development by Barratts.

We now know that Barratts have been given the land for free, and are waiting for Barnet Council to ‘decant’ residents living there already, or compulsorily purchase their homes, at a price calculated by Capita valuers below the point at which they can take advantage of the supposed shared equity schemes which is their only way of achieving the new homes promised to them originally as part of what was once a genuine regeneration scheme.

Cornelius, in his interview, stood rather gingerly in the unfamiliar surroundings, dressed in his silk cravat, displaying his typically cheerful, if sometimes inappropriate, saturnine smile, talking his usual nonsense: denying the reality of the terrible circumstances facing the residents of West Hendon, and, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, claiming that:

“the owner occupiers are all getting shared equity and a new place”

“the secure tenants will all be housed on the estate as well”

“the temporary people will be accommodated locally”

The Tory leader seems to have forgotten that any perceived ‘grottiness’ is directly the result of his own failure as landlord to maintain the estate, nor does he seem to register the offence he might cause by describing people’s homes in this way.

This tells you a lot about the extent of disassociation he and his colleagues feel from the real impact of their policies: the disregard for people’s lives, other people’s lives, not ‘people like us’ – ‘temporary people’, who can be ‘decanted’: dehumanised.

Easy to have an easycouncil housing policy that deals with the destruction of a community, with the loss of homes, when you remove the human aspect of their stories, isn’t it? These people, temporary people.

And necessary to dehumanise the situation, when you are committed to an agenda of not just gerrymandering, replanting entire communities with more affluent residents, more likely to vote for you, under the pretext of ‘mixed communities’ – or when you are committed to an agenda of social engineering, an activity with which our Tory councillors are now dabbling, in their dilettante fashion.

Yet again, in the story of the Sweets Way evictions, we are seeing Barnet Tory housing policy in action, and at its most shameful: children, mothers, sick residents turned out of their homes, literally on to the street, with no real care for what becomes of them, just as long as they are removed so as to free up yet another estate for a private development.

I should say that by chance I met two of the residents who have now been evicted from their homes in Sweets Way. One was an elderly man with complex health problems, and who had had a heart attack as a result of the stress caused by the loss of his home. He was told to go and live in Hanwell. 

The other was the mother of two boys who was given only the option of a flat in Grahame Park, another temporary location on another so called regeneration estate: she showed me the pictures of the filthy, squalid flat she was expected to move into with her children, with dirt, damp, and broken windows.

Yet only this week we see again the Tory leader claiming:

Residents who were temporary tenants are being found new places to live in the area. This process has gone quite smoothly despite the misinformation and scarcity of empty flats ... 

Those who sell their homes will get a brand new flat to live in ...   

The solid achievement of building homes needs to be recognised and celebrated. The new mixed areas are so much better than the old isolated council estates.

Sweets Way evictions: the impact on families, and the reality that Tory leader Richard Cornelius prefers to ignore ...

Housing is a key policy for our neo Thatcherite, materialist councillors: moving on from the provision of affordable homes, or social housing, for those who need them to a principle of removing what they see as dependence on the state, on council services, an absence of ‘aspiration’ – a culture of failure. 

This is how housing policy in Tory Barnet has come to be a moral crusade, if morality can be used in this context: a value judgement, a measurement of material worth.

This is clearly reflected in almost every policy decision promoted by the current member for housing, ie Tom Davey: an individual who revels in controversy, and refuses to apologise for remarks such as wishing to see only the well off living in this borough, and hoping to see the penthouse flats of West Hendon filled with Russian oligarchs.

We are travelling back in time beyond the golden era so beloved of our local Tories, of Thatcherite values, to something approaching the judgemental politics of the poor laws introduced in the nineteenth century.
If you are not wealthy, if you are poor, you are almost certainly the undeserving poor, and must be punished, and corrected. The creation of new social housing will only encourage dependence and obstruct the development of self help.

Access then, will be restricted: priority of housing allocation given to those who can demonstrate ‘a positive contribution to the community’, and as we have seen in West Hendon, and now in Sweets Way, residents kept on long term non secure tenancies, some of them for a decade or more, so as to deprive them of the full protection of what should be their rights in law to a decent standard of secure housing.

Those lucky few who are awarded a council home now may only have it on a five year contract: the consequences on families of such flagrant disregard for the need for a home, and not just temporary housing, is simply of no interest to the Tory administration in Barnet.

Well: you can’t expect Tories to deliver a housing policy based on the principles of social justice, but we do expect the Labour party to do just that, and that is why we are here, giving evidence to this Commission.

What can Labour do?

It is easy to ask the question, and speculate, and formulate nice ideas about what we want, but the most important thing is to see commitment, and passion, and a real desire to make change, not just easy words, ill defined, and a message lost somewhere between a good intention and a real campaign of reform.

As Harold Wilson famously once remarked, The Labour party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing.  

I absolutely believe this to be true, and I fear that in this borough, the Labour opposition, or at least its leadership, has sometimes struggled to communicate a strong commitment to that principle, and has failed to engage with voters because of it.

More recently, however, I believe there is a real recognition from most Labour councillors for the need for change, and the move to try to address some of the urgent issues through this Housing Commission is commendable and I hope that as many people as possible will support it, and engage with it. It is easy to criticise, but the only way to improve all the terrible housing issues which are springing up around us is to stand up and do something about it.

Housing is an issue that is already, as we have seen, made subject to moral evaluation: now is the time to reclaim it from the patronage of the Tory approach, and give back control of the decisions which dictate the direction of policy to the people who are actually affected by it, to empower communities and enable them to protect their rights to housing, to remain as communities. A re-invention of localism, a rewiring of the concept, so that it actually works, rather than sits in a box under the stairs, unused, Eric.

At the last session of the Housing Commission that I attended, the new Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council made a very interesting contribution with an explanation as to how he had, on taking office, looked in detail at some of the developments agreed by the previous Tory administration, and shaken those agreements until a load of loose change fell out of the back pockets: to the tune of £26 million, or thereabouts. He is reinvesting that money in housing.

Here in Barnet, we should be able to do the same. The Capita contracts, as Mr Reasonable will tell you, are a licence to print money – not for us, the taxpayers, but for the contractors. 

If we were to see a Labour administration take over, we might hope to see an immediate re-evaluation of the contracts, and a no nonsense demand for revision of the terms of the agreement, which would see more savings returned to the public purse, and rather less thrown in the lap of Capita. 

Then, perhaps, we could re-invest that money in housing projects that safeguard the needs of local residents, especially those in the greatest need. New build council housing, a real commitment to affordable housing to buy or rent: a change of culture, and the replacement of the cynical facilitation of private development by a new programme of housing provision aimed at preserving and supporting communities, not destroying them.

But that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, sadly. 

We missed the opportunity to take control of the council, despite the London wide trend of Labour wins. If there are any by elections - and Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal now that there is likely to be one, or maybe two, very soon, albeit in a very safe Tory ward - perhaps there will be another chance, but are we sure that there is the determination yet to challenge the contracts, and force change?

I’m not sure there is. We hear rumours that the Labour group is again going to support the Tory council tax freeze: if true, in my view such a move is utterly indefensible: no, reprehensible - and indicative of the need for fundamental change in the direction and leadership of the group in opposition on Barnet Council. Residents and voters need to see an opposition to the Tory administration, not one that endorses its agenda. 

But there is a more important battle to fight now: at the General Election. Ultimately, all housing provision can only take place within the definition and restrictions of central government funding, legislation and policy making: and the only way to make radical change that prioritises the housing needs of London’s residents is to elect a Labour government – and then a Labour Mayor. We have three outstandingly good Labour candidates here in Barnet: Sarah Sackman, Andrew Dismore, and Amy Trevethan.

When we go to vote in a few weeks’ time, we need to remember who was responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in: who instigated the so called regeneration projects that are driving people out of this borough, the easycouncil standards that have reduced everything to a question of profit before people, greed before need, or stood by and refused to act, when residents needed help?

If you don’t like what is happening now, in this borough, and you want something different, something better - then please: make sure your voice is heard in May.

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