Haringey’s housing plans have outraged some, but how viable are the alternatives?

by Dave Hill

The decision of Labour-run Haringey Council to join forces with property developer Lendlease, flatten and rebuild entire council estates and replace them with new homes of various price levels at higher densities has made even some grown-up London Labour politicians nervous and sent the Protest Left into blissful paroxysms of outrage. Yet in the current context of public spending meanness, a booming London population and shortages of inexpensive developable land, Haringey’s move, while certainly extremely bold, is also a creative and bluntly rational response to the circumstances in which it and many of its residents find themselves. Let’s step away from predictable, crowd-pleasing denunciations and figure out what the policy might mean.

Described by its councillor proponents as “a partnership on homes and jobs” that will make “a major contribution to tackling the housing crisis, Haringey’s persistent unemployment challenges and the need for major investment in new community facilities”, the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) promises 6,400 new homes in Wood Green, Tottenham and Muswell Hill, “at least” 40% of them “affordable”, including replacement new dwellings for council tenants whose existing homes are demolished, to be let to them on equivalent terms. Jobs, new school buildings, shops and green spaces are on the menu too, all to be delivered over a 20-year period.

Haringey’s critics, including a significant minority of Labour councillors, argue that vulnerable people are being placed at the mercy of market forces, that democratic accountability is being sacrificed and that, whatever the council says to the contrary, Lendlease will ultimately call the shots, inevitably placing profit before people to damaging effect. And all the usual concerns about estate regeneration undoubtedly apply: disruption, anxiety, doubts about rehousing promises being kept, the disruption of important, informal social networks, evictions from homes that might have been lived in and loved for many years.

But Haringey’s leadership is adamant. It hails the HDV as a transformative force which will drive “long-term improvements in the prosperity and wellbeing of the borough and its residents at a scale and pace that the council could never achieve alone”. And, says the council, residents will gain in other ways too. It estimates that £275m will pour into its bank account from property sales and rents alone, plus a share of increased commercial rents, £37.7m of infrastructure investment and about £13m extra in council tax and business rates as new residents move in and new enterprises form. Such income and investment are not to be sneezed at with no end in sight to the squeeze on local authority funding, with all the strains it places on the delivery of precious services.

It’s worth establishing what the HDV is not. It is not, for example, the model used in Southwark, when that Labour borough partnered with Lendlease to redevelop the Heygate estate. In that case, in line with widespread practice, Southwark sold the land to the developer outright and granted it a planning consent that included commitments to provide various kinds of affordable homes, some for social rent and others of intermediate types, both on the Heygate site and elsewhere in the Elephant and Castle area. (Much is made of the small number of traditional social rented homes on the Heygate footprint itself, although Southwark’s leader argues that there’s more to the story than than).

Neither, self-evidently, is the HDV an attempt by Haringey to go it alone by forming its own housing company, one freer to borrow to build than the council itself is, and set about supplying more homes that way. Council leader Claire Kober has confirmed the generally accepted view that this approach simply wouldn’t enable development on a large scale and would be far more financially risky than teaming up with a private developer, with more money, more capacity and greater expertise.

The Haringey arrangement is much more like the type Transport for London (TfL) is making with property firms for constructing homes, shops and workspaces on its land, much of it around stations. There too joint ventures are the mechanism for bringing public land together with private sector strengths in an attempt to meet housing demand, promote economic growth and fund services the London public needs more of, in TfL’s case enhanced and improved transport systems.

Haringey’s half-share of the HDV should give it ongoing controls over the use to which land is put, as well as meaning that it and residents can benefit from a continuing portion of the proceeds. Shelter has pointed out that the council will approve financial plans for individual sites before they are passed into the HDV, describing this as a crucial check on its activities.

But big questions remain about who the massive project will really help and if it will further the cause of creating the Good City. The dysfunctional structure of housing finance in London means that large private investors will need to be enthused if the cash to pay for “affordable” housing, in all its forms and degrees, and additional public amenities is to be raised. That looks destined to mean a lot of flats going up – perhaps quite a long way up – that will be far beyond the price range of most would-be first time buyers, although it seems, contrary to populist belief, that the great majority would be available for private rent. Also, like it or not, “high value” properties are one of the principal means by which affordable ones get built too.

What sorts of “affordable” will be supplied? Kober has rightly emphasised that the housing affordability crisis in London encompasses people on pretty healthy middle incomes, ranging from school teachers, to young adults in the creative and financial sectors, to health service professionals, as well as the least well-off. Haringey proposes that the HDV delivers mixed tenure sites, with variable blends of social housing for rent and low cost home ownership options of different kinds aimed at first time buyers who will never qualify for social housing, can’t afford local market housing and would like to escape from private renting.

A cast iron right to return should always be a prerequisite of demolition-and-rebuild for council tenants and Haringey insist that theirs will be contractually guaranteed. But campaigners demanding that the wishes of such residents must be paramount should recognise that not all may want to exercise that right. Families with damp walls, noisy neighbours and teenagers sleeping on sofas because there aren’t enough bedrooms to go round might already be thirsting for the chance to move somewhere new, larger and a good distance from where they currently are.

Monday night’s cabinet meeting, at which the HDV plans were approved as a protest took place outside, was instructive in several ways. Many representations against the HDV and concerns about it were made and strongly expressed. Former parliamentary candidate Councillor Emine Ibrahim and Councillor John Bevan, who represents the Northumberland Park ward where the first estate demolition will take place, were among the more engaging contributors to a debate that went on for around three hours. Kober and colleagues rose politely to an array of challenges, many of them originating from a rigorous members’ scrutiny panel report. Now and again, they invited the more hostile to suggest other ways of getting more housing and social infrastructure built. Everyone agrees that the poorer parts of Haringey could do with more investment. If going into business with Lendlease is a bad idea for getting it, what would be a better one?

As so often, such answers as were offered were big on ideology and long on optimism but rather small and short on viability. Several boiled down having faith in St Jeremy Corbyn ascending to Number 10, there to cast the virtuous seed of good old fashioned council housing with kindly sweeps of his redeeming hands. Perhaps believers shouldn’t get their hopes up. Precarious though the government’s position is, the next general election may be some time coming and the Conservatives are unlikely to make themselves as beatable as they were last month, when Labour fell to its third defeat in a row.

The faithful should also take a second look at the housing policies Labour offered at the election, in which the term “social rent” was sparingly and somewhat ambiguously used. And on the long-contentious matter of right-to-buy, Corbyn’s party pledged only to “suspend” this enduring legacy of Margaret Thatcher, not to do away it completely. The HDV, by contrast, as a company part-owned by the private sector, is the only form of social housing delivery arrangement whose output looks safely exempt from right to buy for the foreseeable future. And even if Corbyn’s prospectus still appeals, it doesn’t say where London boroughs would actually put large quantities of new council housing paid for by a Labour government without first knocking some existing dwellings down to make room.

None of this means that Haringey’s development vehicle could not come rather nastily unstuck. But Shelter’s measured assessment observed: “In the absence of realistic alternatives, Haringey’s appears a pragmatic way forward. For Haringey, a place with desperate numbers of homeless families and too many people living in poor quality homes, there can be no ‘do nothing’ option”.

 

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