Earlier this year, shadow housing secretary John Healey produced proposals for addressing the nation’s housing problems that were described by the excellent Jules Birch at Inside Housing as “the most comprehensive plan for affordable housing put forward in England for 40 years”.
Healey’s green paper pledged that a Labour government would deliver 100,000 “genuinely affordable” homes a year, a definition that encompassed social rented homes, “living rent” homes and low cost home ownership with the ideal of “mixed communities” in mind. Local authorities would get more freedom to borrow, a refund of the takings from Right to Buy and assistance with forming local housing companies.
It is an agenda that draws widely on the work of housing policy researchers and chimes with aspirations shared in recent years by an array of London politicians, including, in some respects, Boris Johnson. Many in the capital’s housing sector would love to see such measures implemented as national government policy, including Conservatives who run London boroughs.
But, as Birch observed, there are problems. The largest of these is that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn would have to win a general election, an outcome that looks very far from certain. Others include the financial feasibility of such a programme, along with several other practicalities. To these, I would add something that is already apparent in London housing politics and having a detrimental effect – the mentality of Corbynism itself.
This was eloquently illustrated by Corbyn himself in his preface to Healey’s plans, with its scratched record recital of Protest Left mantras about “luxury flats” that “stand empty” (not many do, actually) while social housing waiting lists grow, seemingly unaware of the rather more complex and necessary relationship between private finance and “affordable” supply, and its robotic reminiscences for post-war Labour council home building, whose results included damaging failures as well as life-changing successes.
Corbyn also made the quite astounding allegation that housing policy failures could not be more fully captured than by the Grenfell Tower fire, with its “image of people burning in their homes in the richest borough in the UK for the simple reason that they were poor”.
It is hard to imagine a more facile, unfair or prejudiced remark about that terrible event. Yet the man who aspires to being the nation’s next Prime Minister appears to have believed it both morally and factually justified, even before the painstaking inquiry into the fire’s causes had begun. As such, it serves as an endorsement of the repellent mob attitude about who and what were to blame for Grenfell that took shape even before the flames were out.
A more general expression of such attitudes, with their glib certainties and Grand Narrative explanations, is already having a significant effect on housing policy in London government. The creation by Corbyn supporters – including some who aren’t even in the Labour party – of Haringey’s “Corbyn Council” has not only led to the likely rejection of a huge investment of capital and skills in the borough on grounds of ideology, it has also spread anxiety to other parts of the capital, with boroughs, housing associations and others in the “affordable” housing sector keeping quiet about regeneration schemes or putting them on hold.
The housing policies espoused by Lewisham’s new Labour Mayor Damien Egan were significantly altered before he even became his party’s candidate, thanks to pressure from the local Momentum membership. As a result, the progress of a long-gestating regeneration scheme in south Bermondsey, which was on course to provide 35% affordable homes and new public amenities, has been obstructed and left the borough’s mayor in a predicament of his own making.
It is barely breathed publicly, but Sadiq Khan’s change of stance on the balloting of estate residents before regeneration schemes involving demolition can go ahead has caused widespread dismay among boroughs, housing associations and others in that part of the housing sector. There are good arguments for ballots, but also plenty of drawbacks if your first priority is to provide more and better affordable housing in London as soon as possible. Just organising them can cost a lot of time and money. That and the doubt surrounding their outcomes can work as disincentives to involvement with such schemes. Some of these have been misconceived and run into serious trouble. But others have greatly improved the housing and the lives of those most directly affected – a truth Corbynites prefer to ignore.
The Mayor’s shift in policy on ballots is itself widely seen as a capitulation to Corbynite pressure, made explicit by Labour’s national policy, in the context of his hopes of re-selection for a second term by a London Labour membership in which Corbynites are numerous. It is true to say that the impact of Momentum across London as a whole has been patchy, but the effects of their more successful attempts to change the approaches of Labour politicians to housing is more profound than widely recognised so far.
Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are good and some of his values are sound. But he is, in his bones, a nostalgist rather than a progressive, a statist conservationist rather than a seeker of creative solutions to enormously complex problems that are quite different from those Londoners faced in the post-war decades before Margaret Thatcher came along. His influence and that of his supporters is already proving more of a hindrance in the capital than a help. Senior Labour politicians in London know this. Not many feel safe enough to say it.