The choice before Labour members in Haringey

by Dave Hill

From tonight, branches of the Labour Party in Haringey begin choosing their candidates for next year’s borough elections in an atmosphere made inclement by anger, division and mistrust. Across the city, members enthused by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn have secured control of branch and constituency organisations, but this tide of change has yet to produce a wave of deselections of sitting councillors deemed “Blairite” or insufficiently loyal to the leader. Haringey could be different.

There is a range of reasons for that, but the mobilising single issue is the council leadership’s policy of redeveloping public property and land through a joint venture with developer Lendlease. The arguments about it distil big, difficult questions about the future of the poorer parts of Haringey and that of London overall. What principles should inform answers to those questions? What should the prime objectives be?

Opposition to the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) has been nothing if not organised and conspicuous, but it is far from clear how representative of local opinion it is. Activists insist that theirs is an authentic grassroots movement and not at all an exercise in nostalgic middle-class self-indulgence, as their opponents mutter. Even so, Momentum-backed slates of candidates for recent officer elections have been striking for the preponderance of desirable N8 postcodes and retired public sector professionals they contain.

Meanwhile, when you walk among the blocks of Tottenham’s Northumberland Park estate, which would be felled in the first phase of the HDV along with the Wood Green civic centre and council offices, it is hard to find window stickers opposing the council’s plans. Go to the West Hendon estate in Barnet or the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith and Fulham – which I have been writing about for years – and it is plain that substantial numbers of residents are unhappy about regeneration plans affecting them.

By contrast, all the fragments of intelligence I’ve picked up about Northumberland Park suggest there might be a lot of support there for what the council has in mind. If so, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise – a detailed consultation of people living on the Love Lane estate on the other side of Tottenham High Road, which is also to be redeveloped (though not as part of the HDV programme), produced 70% support among respondents for the demolition and replacement of their own homes within a rebuilt neighbourhood.

I cannot claim to have any more scientific insight into what local people want and how they feel than anyone else, but on the face of it, there is more opposition to the council’s development strategies among private homeowners in the residential streets round the back of Wood Green library than there is among the social housing tenants whose lives it would affect. Whose wishes should Labour in Haringey most seek to reflect?

One of the more depressing features of these troubling political times has been the domination of debate about housing and regeneration policies by ideological purists and shallow populists. In London, an entire culture has evolved around the deliberately emotive and highly misleading concept of “social cleansing”. This excites campaigners and is profitable for a busy band of academics – another conference, another book deal, another column, another grant – but its proponents seem strikingly uninterested in those whose interests they presume to represent. A kind of stateist conservationism, ready to defend even the most atrocious examples of post-war municipal housing rather than even countenance the idea that a shot of private capital might do more to improve the lives of poor and working-class people than any number of demos and denunciations, is a pretty poor response to the equally barren evangelism of the free market right. It is just a different form of conservatism.

There is no question that the HDV is ambitious and council leader Claire Kober acknowledges that it brings risk. Its more thoughtful councillor critics have raised reasonable doubts about it. But on the other hand, Shelter has given it a measured welcome and Sadiq Khan – whose housing and planning deputies were very far from gung ho for estate demolition when they were senior borough politicians – has recognised the need for London’s councils to explore new ways of bringing land and finance together to increase house building in London and better match the types supplied to meet a widening spread of demands. Tottenham MP David Lammy, whilst publicly urging caution over the HDV, advocated the wider use of joint ventures in the exhaustive and impressive housing policy document he published during his bid to become Labour’s London mayor candidate for 2016.

Whether you think the HDV is a privatisation or whether you don’t, it does not involve a straight sell-off of public land, as other regeneration schemes in London have. This difference would of itself hold down development costs, making a higher number and percentage of genuinely affordable homes – for social rent, lower end “affordable” rent and shared ownership – more feasible rather than less so. Such alternative strategies as have been advanced promise nothing like as much, whether to the thousands on the council’s waiting lists or stuck in temporary accommodation, or to the teachers, health service and public transport staff, financial and creative industry workers and more in Haringey on low-to-middling incomes who will never qualify for social housing and are obliged to look elsewhere if they want to leave their parents’ homes or move out of private renting into home ownership.

Labourites hoping for a return to the mass traditional council house building of the Harold Wilson era under a theoretical Corbyn government might reflect that Labour’s “victory for hope” in this year’s general election left them further behind the Conservatives in terms of parliamentary seats – which is the margin that counts – than Gordon Brown’s Labour finished in 2010. And if you want to build lots of new council houses, you need lots of space to put them in. What would a Corbynite Haringey knock down in order to create it?

Like it or not, the scope of local government in London to transform lives has become increasingly limited to nurturing and shaping economic development, not least in order to keep the most basic and essential public services in decent shape. Councils’ chief assets in such endeavours are their planning powers and their land. Making those work to best advantage is the job. It means encouraging more housing and more business activity and generating more revenue streams as a result. The aim of progressive boroughs is to ensure that the local people most in need of improvement in their lives enjoy a solid portion of the benefits, in terms of jobs, better housing, enhanced amenities, a more pleasant built environment and – not to be underestimated – some release from the undeserved social stigma that too often attaches to the places where they live.

Large regeneration programmes in London, whether or not involving public land and housing estates, can and do produce bad outcomes. But not all of them do – we only hear about the failures – and every scenario is different. Large parts of Haringey are in need of an economic fillip and many Haringey people are in need of help. The choice before Labour members in the coming weeks is not between “Blairite” and “Corbynite” but between potential councillors who want to find ways of rising to those difficult challenges, and those who prefer the status quo.

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