There’s No Place, The American Housing Crisis and What It Means For The UK, by Glynn Robbins published by Red Roof, £10, 230 pages
I was very motivated to read and to review this book, writes Margot Lindsay, because of my personal involvement in campaigning to defend council housing.
For many years I lived in a large estate in south London. The estate was situated on a large and lucrative patch of land just minutes from central London. It was described as the “Estate from Hell” in order to promote the council’s and government plan to demolish it, and cleanse the area of working class tenants. The aim was to have nice middle class home owners rather than tenants who would benefit from pre-school playgroups, activity centres or clubs and human understanding.
The advantages of living on the Aylesbury Estate were many: access to central London by a variety of public transport routes. Burgess Park adjoins the estate, with a wildlife sanctuary, lots of green space and sports amenities including fishing. We got to know the local traders and their families. Despite 79% of the residents responding negatively to a survey about demolishing the estate, demolition proceeds anyway.
This book, by activist Glyn Robbins, is essential reading for everyone involved in campaigning to save council housing.
The introduction provides a clear explanation of what the book addresses. The author conducted a six week research visit interviewing residents in eight, widely different US cities. His account builds up a picture of how trans-Atlantic housing policy is converging around a pro-business consensus that intensifies housing need and social inequality.
Attacks on local democracy
Weakening the link between local housing and the local community and a shift towards remote control by central government has been a feature of UK policy since 1979. Increasing central government control is confirmed by the post-2015 Conservative government seeking to compel local authorities to sell off the most valuable council homes. The pattern in the US is similar. Imposing government policy has been crucial in achieving the slow-motion erosion of decent, secure, affordable housing, as experienced in New Orleans.
After 35 years of systematic denigration and disinvestment, Chicago-type processes are arriving in the UK. The London Borough of Newham has 18,000 families on its waiting list, but in 2008 it declared it “had enough social housing”. In 2012, Newham council began to empty the 700-home Carpenters Estate in Stratford, east London. Numerous other council estates in London and across Britain face a similar threat, particularly in the wake of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which among other things facilitates the use of public land for private house building. The constant variable, as in the US, is non-market housing occupying valuable land where developers want to build private apartments and to alter the social demographic.
Numerous links exist between US and UK property interests. The notorious Lendlease company which built housing in Manhattan, five years ago admitted fraud in government contracts. In Australia where it also operates extensively, it was named In 2016, the company in an investigation into noncompliance with building regulations in Melbourne, Victoria, for using highly flammable cladding on a public hospital construction project,
But despite this record, Lendlease was also appointed by Southwark council as the lead developer on the former Heygate council estate in south London where it promised 500 ‘affordable homes’ and has so far built 20! and then by Haringey Council in the appallig so-called Haringey Development Vehicle, in the highest value local government-private sector contract in history, strongly opposed by the local community including constituency Labour parties and trade unions.
One of the American goals is to “redefine” private renting, the rapid growth of which is one of the critical points of convergence in US and UK housing. In the aftermath of the 2007-08 crash, banks are far more reluctant to lend money for housing. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are a model for tax exempt, transnational institutional property speculation with a long history in the US and a growing presence in the UK. Among those flirting with REITS in Britain are some housing associations, so-called “social” landlords.
The Housing and Planning Act
This fusion of US and UK housing policies and ideology have been distilled through the Housing and Planning Act introduced by the Conservative government in autumn 2015 and passed into law on 12 May 2016. The sprawling legislation attracted significant criticism inside and outside parliament. Its implementation could catapult the UK towards the US housing model.
Among its many measures, the Act sought to generate income by Pay to Stay, making council and housing association tenants with an income above £31,000 a year pay a higher rent. The Act also compels the sale of “higher value” council homes as they become empty, instead of renting them to the next people on the waiting list.
Council housing has come to be regarded as “a home for life”. The legal protection of a secure tenancy, won by council tenants in 1980, has been one of the most valued qualities of living in council housing – but it’s changing. In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested to council tenants “maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won’t need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector”.
This Tory government has launched an assault on the qualities that have made council housing the most secure, affordable and popular form of rental housing in the UK, hoping to move it towards the conditional, marginal and transient condition of its US equivalent.
The legislation is seen by many as a final push to kill off council housing and shift UK housing closer to the US model. A series of deliberate steps have been taken towards the US model of public housing: tenant’s homes being treated as conditional, reinterpreted as “emergency” housing and underpinned by a system of reduced entitlement.
Campaigners forced some changes to the Bill before it came into law and housing is now rightfully higher on the political agenda than it was, but there is much more to fight for.
A vital accompaniment to the attempted destruction of US public and UK council housing has been a deliberate and prolonged campaign of denigration and stigmatisation. Public housing is reported as convenient shorthand for all urban poverty, rampant criminality and dependence.
In both countries, the winding-down of housing investment and provision by the state has been accompanied by a variety of devices for advancing the role of the private sector. Both US and UK governments have used the camouflage of so-called partnership and regeneration, in the guise of policy initiatives such as HOPE VI in the US and New Deal for Communities in the UK, to achieve the privatisation of public and council housing respectively.
The development of a hybrid housing policy model (or muddle) has created at least 13 different programmes for the five million Americans who receive assistance with their housing costs. In the UK, the cumulative impact of the Right to Buy (creating multiple ownership patterns and private renting on council estates), the increasing role of housing associations, intermediate housing tenures (e.g. shared ownership) and the rise of private renting with its attendant sub-letting and multiple occupancy are creating a similarly complex housing picture.
Media images of places where only the most desperate live have been reinforced by policies that have deliberately weakened the economic base of non-market housing and the people who live in it. Some attempts have been made to challenge the negative stereotypes that accompany this vicious cycle.
In Britain, the Defend Council Housing campaign has argued for 20 years that council housing pays for itself in both economic and social terms. In both countries, campaigners draw attention to the fact that public/council housing offers lower rents, more security of tenure and better conditions than are available to most in the private rented sector. Housing is a right not a privilege and defending and extending council housing is the best way to make this a reality.