What would a Haringey Council led by the Corbyn Left do?

by Dave Hill

The campaign to replace leaders of the Labour group currently running Haringey with councillors more aligned with Jeremy Corbyn has been quite widely documented, not least by this website. Protesters have found a potent focus in the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a partnership the council intends to form with property giant Lendlease for redeveloping large quantities of council-owned land, involving lots of demolition, including of housing estates – always an emotive issue (see Northumberland Park, pictured).

Critics hope that next May’s borough elections will produce a majority Labour group of a different complexion, which will displace the present leadership and block the HDV. If that happened, what would a new, more Corbynite, Labour council do instead?

The question helps distil some fundamental issues arising from London’s rapid growth and London government’s ability to meet problems this has caused. Council leader Claire Kober, who also chairs London Councils, has made her case for the HDV many times this year.

She says that parts of Haringey, notably Tottenham and Wood Green, which have high levels of poverty, can only be revitalised with more jobs, better amenities and thousands of new homes for people spanning the income range if the council brings its own land together with a private sector partner that has the necessary finance, workforce and expertise. The alternative, she says, is to do not much at all, which just won’t do.

The other side offers several objections. On Wednesday and Thursday there will be a judicial review of Haringey’s decision to set up the HDV, brought by local Green Party activist Gordon Peters. He is unhappy with the HDV model, its governance arrangements, the process followed by the council and more.

Broader criticisms are that the plan is financially risky, that poor and other vulnerable people will not only suffer from having their present homes knocked down but also won’t be certain of having them replaced to their satisfaction, if at all. The council’s recent confirmation of right-to-return guarantees are unlikely to convince hardened sceptics.

The involvement of Lendlease has prompted dire comparisons with that company’s part in the redevelopment of Elephant and Castle, which ran into problems during the financial crisis and now enjoys totemic status on the conservationist and revivalist Left.

The opposition of some, including recent re-joiners of the Labour Party in Haringey, is also ideological – they are anti any collaboration between public bodies and commercial businesses, refusing to accept that the HDV is anything other than a privatisation, even though the council would own half of it.

There’s an important debate to be had about the HDV, especially in the context of Haringey’s acute levels of housing need – the borough has 9,317 households of various sizes on its housing register and 3,140 in temporary accommodation. Like so many other parts of London, Haringey has a huge shortage of homes for social rent and other “affordable” types, exacerbating overcrowding and expensive private renting, and obliging local would-be first-time buyers to look further afield.

Sadiq Khan has indicated his support for pursuing the idea which is, after all, based on deals much the same as Transport for London is making at his bidding to increase housing supply. That said, there are London Labour politicians, including some who’ve faced similar criticism to that now being directed at Kober, who worry that Haringey might have gone too far, too fast, if only politically.

But whatever its pros and cons – Shelter’s Kate Webb has explored these with welcome clarity – the HDV creates at least the possibility of vastly increasing housing supply by building new homes at higher densities – at least 5,000, with 40% of them being some kind of affordable.

It also offers theoretical relief from other pressures on the council. Kober, in her London Councils role, has recently led a chorus of approval for the government’s recent move towards allowing boroughs more control over the spending of business rates raised locally. Councils are becoming ever more financially dependent on revenue from that source and from council tax. Simply put, the greater its housing and economic growth, the more cash a borough has to run its social care and other services, and to look after its workforce too.

Haringey Labour Party members will begin selecting their candidates for next May from next week. As this site has reported, there have been concerns that the Left intends to block some sitting councillors not to their taste even before branch members have their say. This worry has not been lessened by the meeting at which prospective candidates must be approved being reportedly moved back until after the Left is likely to have increased its strength on the committee that will – or will not – bestow its endorsement. Even if such fears prove groundless, ensuing de-selections are anticipated in some quarters, perhaps resulting in a decisive Leftward shift in the Labour group next spring and the HDV biting the dust.

Good thing or not, what would happen if that occurred? How would a different variety of Labour Haringey address its present and future problems on its own? The nearest thing to an answer I’ve been able to glean is that it would sit tight and wait for a future Corbyn government to provide money to build more traditional council homes.

No one would say no to that. But how many such homes would be built and on what land? What would such a Labour council do to help people on modestly middle incomes, who will never qualify for social rented dwellings? What if a Corbyn government never comes?

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