Ever since the 2008 Obama campaign it’s been a sine qua non of English speaking politicians that parties and individuals must have excellent social media skills. Go canvassing, run a street stall, kiss a baby but make sure you get the story on Twitter and the picture on Facebook. I hear plenty of rationalisations for this behaviour with my favourite being that it scares the Tories witless – we seem to have a low opinion of our opponents’ nerve and intelligence and a high opinion of just how newsworthy our stories are.
Which is not to say that I don’t think that social media has its role, but just as Facebook seems to have peaked already and lost some of its appeal, I suspect that Tweeting is going to calm down – after all admirer of Danny Blanchflower, the footballer as well as the economist, as I am I get fed up with his thoughts on sport, the weather and everything else tweeted 10 and 20 times a day.
Tweets seem to me to be superb campaigning and rallying cries designed for elections, announcements and dramatic events – not for everyday stuff like haircuts or canvassing. 99.9% of the tweets I have ever been responsible for announce that I have published another blog entry and that seems to me to be an ideal use.
But the Blog is, I think, of a different order. I am told, repeatedly that my blogs are too long, that people just won’t read them, that they are sometimes boring, but that isn’t the point. They are the modern version of the old essay, as written by essayists. Mine are for my benefit not primarily the readers. If you, dear reader, find one or two of them interesting then that’s great but primarily they provide a vehicle for my thoughts.
But whilst writing this, it occured to me that for a party politician this opens up a hatful of opportunities, and for parties a complex new problem.
For a century democratic politics has struggled with the problem of communicating with the electorate. This struggle has largely been “avoided” by the use of party labels. It has been impossible to speak to all the electorate, so we use short-hand. I am Labour, therefore, nice and caring. You are a Tory and, therefore, nasty but better at making decisions.
It is this facet that has led me to justify the party whip and party discipline. Indeed the most frequent use of the argument is in justifying party politics in local democracy. In local elections it is surprising to the professional politicians just how many voters think that there should not be any party politics at all.
And then along comes the blog. No longer is it possible for the party to control what the candidate says to the electorate; or really the whip to control the elected politiican and enforce the party line; or the Electoral Commissioner to monitor expenditure on elections.
Now I can publish my own maybe maverick views and get a level of support for them based purely and simply on my own persuasiveness and the extent of my readership; but so can all my councillor colleagues. What kind of challenge does this pose for party politics. That is, of course, difficult to say right now, but it is almost certainly going to be very profound.
In the States it appears as though the major parties virtually cease to exist for the four years between the national conventions with social media used by the leading candidates to grab funding and then encourage volunteer canvassers. The Tea Party appeared for a time to be the only active force between elections: a strange parallel with UKIP perhaps. Given the still falling membership of British political parties are we going to go the same way?
One or two Tory friends have asked me for my thoughts on Mrs Thatcher particularly in the context of me being Leader of the Opposition in Wandsworth, the proclaimed Jewel in the Crown, when she became PM and for most of her time in office. So you can blame this piece – which obviously concentrates on a Wandsworth perspective and not the national one being covered in a million other places – on them.
First here is a short story about the 1982 Borough Election. Although 1986 was statistically the closest Wandsworth Borough Election (Labour won more votes, by a couple of hundred or so, but the Tories squeaked in by 31 seats to 30) for me 1982 was the real turning point. A month before Election Day a Labour victory was a certainty. Mrs Thatcher was as unpopular across the country as was “Chopper” Chris Chope, the Tory Leader of Wandsworth. And then in classic manner her two most famous enemies – the trade unions and Argentinian General Galtieri – jumped in to rescue Wandsworth’s Tories.
Wandsworth Tories had been struggling with the unions over improving refuse collection, which was riven by cronyism and archaic working practises. But there was no real will on the unions’ part to negotiate and so the Tories decided in late March 1982 to gamble on the then innovative policy of putting it out to tender. It might now seem to be a “no brainer” but at the time it was a bold step to take.
My heart sank a few days later when two local union bosses came to see me to announce, with obvious delighted self-satisfaction, that they were calling a strike in time for the election. They were a little taken aback by my negative reaction but not sufficiently to change their minds.
Then on 2nd April Argentina invaded the Falklands; on 2nd May the Argentinian light cruiser Belgrano was sunk by the British Navy and on the 4th HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile. On the 6th May Wandsworth went to the polls and although the Tories lost a couple of seats they were back in by 33 seats to 27 with 1 Lib/Dem. In five weeks Mrs. Thatcher’s political career was forged, and you could say mine destroyed, as any hope of Labour winning in Wandsworth had gone with the wind.
This story captures two features of Mrs Thatcher’s career. First, it has to be acknowledged, her boldness and second the luck she had with her enemies, whether Scargill and Foot or Galtieri – these two features were not lacking in Wandsworth either.
Wandsworth’s Tories were bold to take on the unions, who in their turn were crass in their failure to recognise the limits both of their power and of their support. The unions still flush with their “success” in the 1970s did not understand that the public were prepared not to have their bins collected for a week or so if the Council was able to tough things out and to win the conflict.
The Tories were also bold to take on the GLC and the ILEA, though whether for good or ill is of course another matter. Although it is a very different animal, there was no opposition to Tony Blair’s decision to restore some form of city-wide Assembly, now the Mayor and the GLA. No, lack of courage is not a criticism that I would ever have made against Wandsworth’s Tories in the 1980s.
The Labour Party (me?) also made our mistakes, most particularly about council house sales (RTB). Labour councillor Nigel Morgan and I argued that straight opposition to sales was never going to work. We foresaw the consequential modern disaster of the lack of social housing and, therefore, argued that capital receipts should be used to build replacements. But this was a sophisticated position, which got lost in the ferocious and noisy national battle over the issue. Ironically our position is now accepted even by the current Cameron Government – Nigel, if you ever read this, get in touch. We were right and everyone else wrong!
The impact of RTB in Wandsworth has been dramatic. I would argue that it is a major feature in pushing Wandsworth up the wealth leagues of London Boroughs to the considerable benefit of some of the population and at a far greater cost to many of the others. Wandsworth is now one of the most harshly divided of all Boroughs with levels of deprivation in a few areas alongside some of the richest parts of the country.
Populist but heartless, bold and assertive but bullying and overbearing, are descriptions that are almost inter-changeable for Thatcher and Chope and the Wandsworth Tories in the 1980s.
Much of the national coverage focusses on the apparently inevitable long-term impacts of Mrs T. How she put the Gr8 back into Britain – you know the argument. It is the Tory line in Wandsworth too. I guess they would say that it is commanding the narrative. Hence Wandsworth was, in their mythology, sinking in the mire of the winter of discontent until they arrived to rescue it and make it the “Brighter Borough”. Wandsworth even has, in its way, its own Ted Heath: he was Dennis Mallam, Tory Leader through the 1970s and then dropped as soon as decently possible just prior to the Thatcher victory of ’79. Poor old Dennis! He was really wet. He wanted to build more council houses than Labour had done!
Well you don’t have to be very much on the left to have a very different narrative. One that concentrates on community and abhors the individualised “Loadsamoney” culture that is so publicly associated with Thatcherism. And again this division between communal values and rampant individualism is mirrored in Wandsworth, perhaps especially in Battersea where everyone knows how different life is depending upon which side of the tracks you happen to be – the mainline from Waterloo to the south west. Is it a complete coincidence that one of the worst scenes of violence in the riots of August, 2011, the Clapham Junction riots, happened on the very border between great wealth and great poverty?
There are other interesting parallels between Wandsworth and the country, which reflect the impact of both Thatcher and the Wandsworth Tories. Mrs T brought in “Big Bang”, hence liberating the City to become the bloated, dangerously over-powerful driver of the British economy. And, funnily enough, one of the biggest residential concentrations of bankers in the country is right here in Wandsworth, attracted by the once cheap housing that used to be the homes of industrial workers and the low rates/Community Charge/Council Tax. For the wastelands of the industrial north read the very large but completely obliterated industrial area of Wandsworth’s riverside – all now given over to expensive and rather barren flats, many of which are owned or rented not by Londoners and are left empty for long periods of the week and of the year.
So my Tory friends, what in summary is my reaction to the news of her death? To the fact of death – nothing much – but to her heritage. In 1979 GB was the most egalitarian it has ever been and now 33 years later we are at levels of inequality not seen since 1913. In 1979 we had a trade union movement that was clearly out of control but now we have one so palpably weak it is becoming a danger the other way, with the Tory right arguing for yet more “business friendly” rules and leading moves not to a high wage, high skill economy but to a dog-eat-dog, low pay and low skills economy.
In 1979 you Tories feared that we were the sick man of Europe (which we never were, of course) and had lost the respect, which you think other countries should show us. In 2013 we are the tax haven of choice for everyone from Russian pluto/kleptocrats to foot-loose business money. And yet, the mood and moment of the 2012 Olympics, so different and so unThatcherite, has gone far to show that their is another way – success through harmony.
For sure it is a complex heritage and clearly you, Tory friends, do not understand why not everyone does not see it your way. But until you do you will not even see the terrible damage she did to many regions of the country and to many people in all the regions.
I left out the Lib/Dems from my last blog re marginal constituencies – perhaps it’s because I come from Lib/Dem free Wandsworth but a reader pointed out that it has a potential impact on them too, so here is my analysis of top Lib/Dem marginals.
Of the top five marginal Lib/Dem:Labour seats three have majorities less than the number of households affected by the Bedroom Tax!
Norwich South; 310; 1973
Bradford East: 365: 1023:
Brent Central: 1345: 1057: majority greater
Burnley: 1818: 957: majority greater
Manchester, Withington: 1894: 2678
What I did not say yesterday was that in 17 of the 20 tightest Tory:Labour marginals the number of households affected, and I mean households and not voters, is greater than the Tory majority in 2010.
The data is by constituency:
Constituency: Majority: Households affected
1. North Warwickshire: 54: 766
2. Cambourne and Redruth: 66: 454
3. Thurrock: 92: 1140
4. Hendon: 106: 680
5. Oxford and West Abingdon: 176: 572
6. Cardiff North: 194: 1067
7. Sherwood: 214: 804
8. Stockton South: 332: 1431
9. Lancaster and Fleetwood: 333: 555:
10. Broxtowe: 389: 581
11. Truro and Redruth: 435: 500
12. Newton Abbot: 523: 326: majority greater
13. Amber Valley: 536: 559
14. Wolverhampton South West: 691: 1396
15. Waveney: 769: 788
16. Carlisle: 853: 1181
17. Morecombe and Lunesdale: 866: 700: majority greater
18. Weaver Vale: 991: 1397
19. Harrogate and Knaresborough: 1039: 684: majority greater
20. Lincoln: 1058: 1155
One has to ask: Did they know what they were doing when they introduced this abomination and of course the resounding answer is NO.
Most of us are now well aware that the poorest in our community face a deluge of damaging benefit cuts on Monday, 1st April, including the vile Bedroom Tax. I will write another blog, another day about the vicious nature of this tax and just what it displays of Tory attitudes to council or social sector tenancies, but today I wanted to focus on the particular impact in Wandsworth.
The Guardian has just produced a very helpful map of where the impact is greatest and in its commentary says that the impact is counter-intuitive. I think that means that the journalist expected the hardest hit areas to be the great northern industrial cities. But in fact the worst hit single area of all is Wandsworth and the whole south east region including many of the most affluent parts are almost as hard hit. So whilst the “tax” for having one bedroom “too many” in Wandsworth is £912 per household per year, just down the road in Esther it is £851 and in Kensington it is £839.
This is because the tax is a function of the rent levels and with much lower rents in, say, Hull the impact on individual tenant households is rather less; actually it is £489 in Hull. But there are more than 2,000 households affected in each of the three Hull constituencies and only about 900 in each of the three Wandsworth ones.
Bizarrely this means that Wandsworth Tories have been aggressively promoting this vicious “tax”, which results in hitting their constituents harder than anywhere else in the country. It also means that they are supporting a policy, which is taking approximately £3.5 million out of the Borough’s economy. Knowing the area, as I do, this will cut living standards in Roehampton and Latchmere (the council flats on north-side of Clapham Junction station), where ironically the Council is now looking to invest £100 million precisely because of the under-privileged nature of the area.
Irony of ironies this is happening in the very same week as millionaires are getting £100,000 p.a. tax cuts and given that there are said to be 6,000 of them in the country, with Wandsworth’s share at least 35, what we see here is a Cameron/Osborne swap of money from the poor to the rich. And what do we know about the relative spending habits of rich and poor? Well for one the rich are more likely to spend some of their money in St. Tropez and Bermuda and much less likely to be spending it in the rundown shopping areas of Falcon Road and Danebury Avenue (the two main shopping streets in Latchmere and Roehampton).
I hate to think what Robin Hood would have made of it all but I can’t see how any Tory can be seriously surprised if we have many more civil disturbances – or at very least massive refusals to pay rent.
I want to tell a story about affordable housing Battersea style.
Sister’s Avenue is a road full of rather grand Victorian houses, including one Victorian block of Mansions, running from Lavender Hill through to Clapham Common. At some time during WWII a bomb clearly took out 20 or so houses on each side of the road at the Common end – plenty of evidence in Battersea at just how bad the Luftwaffe was at hitting Clapham Junction station.
In the 50s and 60s Battersea Borough Council built some pleasant and ordinary council houses, all gone right to buy, and a small 2 storey block of 6 flats. When Wandsworth Council (as it had now become) went Tory in 1978 they started an aggressive sales policy – by aggressive I mean that rather than just sell when a tenant expressed interest the Council ran sales fairs, gave prizes for landmark sales – the thousandth, etc. – and generally did their level best to stimulate sales.
79 Sister’s Avenue was the first of the block of flats to be sold in 1983 for £13,500. By January, 1989, all six flats had been sold at an average price of £17,950. Good luck you will say to then residents. Wandsworth had created 6 new affordable units for sale and resale – bully for Right-to-Buy and Tory policies.
By 2007 Robinwood Ltd, a property developer was sniffing around. The developer clearly saw an opportunity to increase the asset value. 2007 was a busy year and by the end of it all six flats were owned by Robinwood having bought them from the owners at an average price of £315,000 (NB for accuracy it should be noted that I do not know the price of one of the flats and so this is an average for 5 but there is no reason to think that the sixth would be substantially different).
Robinwood, or their agents, put in a planning application to build six large town houses. These six have just been completed and are on the market with Savills, the top people’s estate agency and the prices vary from £1.725 million to £1.925 million – checked out with Savills today, 13/3/13.
In 30 years we have gone from having 6 council owned flats, which by any standard would have been affordable at a rent of £20 per week (WBC average rent in 1983 was £20.12), to genuinely affordable private flats and now to luxury housing at nearly £2 million a shot.
The strange irony of this is that this tale works for both Tory and Labour Partys. For people of my persuasion it highlights the terrible divisions between the rich and the rest (the people living there were not the really poor) and what Tories have allowed to happen to the stock of affordable housing. It highlights the brutal callousness of Wandsworth Tories and displays why they are so contemptible in the eyes of many on the left.
For Tories it has helped to improve the Wandsworth environment ensuring that the rest of the housing in Sisters, and Battersea in general, continues on an upward curve; it has improved the housing stock; it has made Wandsworth a better place to live in. It highlights the head in the sand, conservative (small c) nature of Labour members.
Matching up these completely disparate views of life is the stuff of political controversy.
Remember Wandsworth Council’s attempt to evict the mother of an accused rioter on the basis of a “so-called” breach of tenancy conditions? This was in the context of the Council’s secure tenancy terms, introduced in 2009. They included a number of things that tenants, “lodgers, friends, relatives, visitors and any other person living in the property are not allowed to do whilst in the London Borough of Wandsworth”, including causing a nuisance to others, causing damage to property etc.
I maintained at the time that surely it cannot be “reasonable” to include in a tenancy agreement matters that are quite outside the specific requirements of the tenancy and that, therefore, the whole basis of the Council’s tenancy agreements were flawed. I understand that in legal terms this might be referred to as “personal obligations” and not relevant to tenancy agreements. Just imagine a contract to buy a car or a washing machine, which included clauses covering personal behaviour!
I know this will sound fanciful to some but this kind of clause covering personal behaviour and not just the main object of a legal contract was the kind of mechanism used by the aristocracy in Tsarist Russia to keep the peasantry under control and in Hitler’s Germany to keep unionists in check and if allowed to pass unchallenged could, in theory, be used by Tory Wandsworth as a reason for evicting Labour voting tenants – or in Lambeth of evicting Tory voting tenants. I jest, but only a little. Clearly contract law should not be used to impose standards of behaviour on anyone – after all one person’s right to protest is another’s riotous assembly.
Well, I have just heard about a County Court judgment in Wandsworth County Court, where the district judge took exactly my position.
The tenant was a Wandsworth secure tenant for some 30 years. There had been no known problems with his tenancy until 2010/11 when he went to another estate, and, for a period of about 8 months, “painted” unpleasant graffiti on someone else’s front door. He had a “perceived” grudge against the other resident.
The tenant was arrested, pleaded guilty and received a prison sentence. About 3 months after he was released. Wandsworth brought possession proceedings on the grounds specified in the tenancy contract, i.e. of causing a nuisance to anyone living in the borough of Wandsworth and/or the local area, of doing anything which interferes with the peace, comfort or convenience of other people living in the borough of Wandsworth, of causing damage to property belonging to other people or council property in the borough of Wandsworth, etc.
The District Judge held that insofar as it applied to the entire borough, the clause was not an “obligation of the tenant”; that insofar as it related to anything which was “local” to his flat then Wandsworth had failed to prove, as a matter of fact, that his ASB (anti-social behaviour order) was in the area or in any event, it too was not an obligation of the tenancy and hence it wasn’t reasonable to make an order for possession. Stripped of the legal phrasing that means that, in the judge’s opinion, the tenant had done nothing to impact his tenancy. The judge did not attempt to justify the tenant’s behaviour or excuse it but he did say that right or wrong it had nothing to do with his rights to contimue his tenancy.
The possession claim was dismissed. In my view, Wandsworth has little choice but to appeal. If it does not, then it essentially accepts that its tenancy agreement is fatally flawed and any management actions taken on the basis of the agreement is doomed to fail. If it loses the appeal then the Council, and many others will have to re-think.
Indeed if the courts throw out Wandsworth’s position then David Cameron and others will have to re-think their unconsidered recommendations to Councils to evict and/or introduce legislation to change the law. However, this would be so controversial that I imagine the Law Lords would have problems with it – once again the Tory tendency to act on the hoof is getting them into trouble.
My thanks to my fellow Councillor Simon Hogg and website nearlylegal for much of the content of this blog.
Two ex-Council flats in my Battersea patch have been bought by the same person and converted into one comfortably sized house, occupied by one person. Two other terrace houses in the posh part of the ward, usually up for sale at about £1 million a time, are currently being converted into one mansion.
A close personal friend owns a flat in Prince of Wales Drive and bought the neighbouring flat with the result that he and his wife now have a very large, comfortable flat facing Battersea Park. Think how many spare bedrooms there are in these three properties. (By the way, my partner and I live in a comfortably sized house, which has three spare rooms we use as personal studies and a bedroom – I do not deny that I am in the same boat).
There is no bedroom tax on any of us, nor a mansion tax. Indeed since, in 1980, the Thatcher Government abolished domestic rates, a tax that reflected the size and value of private residencies, there has been ZERO disincentive to “under-occupy” in the private sector. Indeed given the inflation in house prices the incentive is to under-occupy as much as one can afford.
Meanwhile this Conservative-led Government has ruled that Councils must increase Council rents on Council tenants where they are “under-occupied”. Forget the interesting concept of charging on the basis of the customer’s situation, as opposed to the more normal charge on the value of the good being purveyed, this involves all kinds of problems interpreting “under-occupation”. It also demands statesnooping and bureaucracy in every socially rented house – indeed every bedroom.
That is, of course, because the Tories (and I am afraid increasingly the public at large) have a completely different attitude towards the rights of Council tenants as opposed to others. But just what does this mean on the ground?
Well here is a real example sent to me by a Battersea resident:
“i have lived here for 18 years i have 2 children that have now left home [a three bed flat] that’s why i am getting hit with the bedroom tax i have a 5 year old grandson who stays with me when his mum works and he stays with me when she is felling depressed as the grandsons dad was murderd in 2011 i suffer with chronic migraines and get blackouts with them when i am to ill to look after my grandson my mum and my son comes and stays here to help i have been on home swapper for over 1 year but have no luck as no one wants to move here i don’t mind moving to a smaller place but have not had any luck yet the council rang me back in nov 2012 and asked if i wanted to move to tooting i told them that i had asked for battersea or near i would like the council to let me have a 2 bed room because of my grandson staying here and just in case he comes to live with me full time which i think could happen in the near futher i do think that it is wrong that people who are willing to downsize have to pay the bedroom tax when the council have not got any smaller places allso my dad is in a wheelchair so i have to have somewhere that one can fit in i have told the council this as i would still like my dad to visit me thank you for taking the time to try and help”
The Tory position demands enquiring into a family’s personal circumstances and yet not allowing Councils to use their discretion depending upon those very circumstances – I thought they were opposed to the nanny state. In this case, and I suspect in many others, the Tory position potentially undermines both the family and the community – I thought they were supposed to believe in both. The Tory position is that the extra rent per bedroom will be levied regardless of whether the tenant is on the transfer list and whether the Councl has the ability to provide a smaller flat.
The broader Tory view is that they (the state) have the right to dictate how the council tenant uses our common resources. They (tenants) do not have rights of residency, they are allowed occupation on sufferance as long as their circumstances do not change. Talk about the dreaded Tory fear of encouraging women (sorry! the feckless poor) to have babies so as to keep their Council flats or to lie about whether their kids and grandparents are resident or not. At the very least it will discourage tenants from going on the transfer list as they will immediately open themselves up to the bedroom tax! What a perverse result.
At the same time the more affluent are incentivised to grab a larger and larger share of our national resource without taxation – indeed until recently they were given Council Tax relief on under-occupied second homes. The Tory position displays class prejudice of an extreme kind – and they like to claim that it is the left that pursues class politics – the politics of envy – what nerve! What thoughtless arrogance!
Oh, and by the way, just the other day, one mile down the road at Battersea Power Station studio flats were put up for sale for £338,000 and penthouses for £6 million – and they won’t even be built for years. Within days 60% were snapped up by British and foreign owners – I wonder just how many by those on the waiting lists of Wandsworth!
- I went to the Doddington Estate Garden Xmas fete on Saturday 1st December and the Policeman’s Ball on the Saturday evening. Here I am photographed joining in the carol singing at the Fete, whilst much to my astonishment I won a painting of Battersea Power Station at the Policeman’s Ball and so December had started festively!
- There was a Council Meeting on Wednesday 5th, where the main subjects of discussion were the benefit cuts, the housing crisis and the Chancellor’s autumn statement and its impact on Wandsworth’s budget. I don’t think that we learnt anything much other than that the Conservative councillors, and the Conservative Party, have no Plan B. Apart from blaming Labour for the economic crisis (strange that given the crisis is affecting the whole of Europe), and cutting welfare benefits, they seem to have nothing to say.
- At the Planning Applications Committee on 13th December we approved yet another planning application for Battersea Power Station. I have been on the Committee a long time and seen many, many planning applications for the Power Station approved. None of them have ever amounted to much but this time there appears to be a real chance that work on the site will start late next year. I hesitate to say that because I have said it before but just maybe this time it will happen.
- A local application that went through was for the demolition and re-construction of the Castle pub in Battersea High Street. The public gallery was full and the application was clearly not popular but in reality the committee had very little choice. There is little that the Committee can do to stop demolition of a building, unless it is listed for protection, and its replacement by another pub plus flats is totally consistent with the Council’s planning policies.
- On the 10th I went on opening run of the new rail service from Clapham Junction through south and east London to Highbury and Islington. This line completes London’s orbital rail line. I went on it from CJ to Wapping and back to Wandsworth Road station. The best description of it, I have found is at http://www.therailengineer.com/2012/11/02/london-orbital-rail-network-complete/. Here is a picture of the new rolling stock pulling into Wandsworth Road station. The line offers new ways of getting to the O2 stadium, Canary Wharf and Stratford. It is a good line opening up lots of new destinations from CJ but was it me or was it rather slow. I felt that in crossing so many other lines it had to be very carefully timetabled and perhaps came off second best at some junction points.
- On New Year’s Eve, I went to a Jazz Club in Streatham. Here is a picture of the band, Soul Street, who gave us an entertaining evening. I hope that you had a good time!
Highlights of 2012
- My colleague, Simon Hogg, has produced his own blog of a few of our achievements in 2012. You can see his account at http://simonhoggblogs.com/2012/12/31/9-things-your-local-labour-party-did-for-you-this-year/
- I haven’t really kept a diary of my own highlights but am now making a resolution to do so in 2013, but my own personal highlight is fighting the Council’s policy to evict the families of those involved in the riots of August, 2011. As I have often said, it is not that I have much sympathy for the rioters but making them homeless, and more particularly their innocent mothers and younger siblings, seems like pointless revenge. The international interest was staggering and I was interviewed by press and TV from Russia, France, Spain and Canada. In the end the Council backed down!
My Programme for January
- I am back into the Council swing on Monday, 7th January, with a meeting of the Transport Liaison Group, where councillors exchange views with Transport for London and the rail companies about the state of public transport in London. That might sound like just a talking shop but in the last few years I think that we have been just a little responsible for getting the lifts installed at CJ and seats at most of our bus-stops – just two examples of many items discussed over the years.
- There is a Big Local meetingon Wednesday 9th, and a Planning Applications Committee on the 14th. I intend to go to the Cancer Support AGM on the 16th in the Mission on the north side of York Road.
- I have the Strategic Planning and Transportation Committee on the 21st and the Housing Committee on the 23rd and a Battersea Park School Governors meeting on the 28th. And on the 30th I am attending a teach-in on the new Housing Benefit rules. Anyone, who has followed my comments very carefully will know that I think that these cuts are going to be an absolute disaster for many people on our housing estates. By the end of the month, I hope to be proved wrong but expect to be proved right!
Did you know?
Why the Katherine Low Settlement (or KLS) in Battersea High Street and pictured here has that name and who Katherine Low was? I attended my first Battersea political meetings there many years back and never knew, or if I did I have forgotten, why that name.
Well it turns out (thanks to Wikipedia) that KLS was named after Katherine Mackay Low, who was born in Georgia, USA, on July 9th 1855. Her parents were British, and when her mother died in 1863, her father, a prosperous merchant and banker, brought his family back to England and settled in Leamington. When he died, the family came to London, and Katherine devoted herself to the care of the less fortunate. When she died, on January 2nd, 1923, her many friends decided to create a memorial to her which would also further the kind of service to which she had devoted herself.
The small committee formed to achieve this purpose discovered that the area around Orville Road, Battersea was described as “irreclaimable”. They visited Battersea and found, right on Orville Road, a large empty house. Then called “The Cedars”, the house was owned by Christ’s College, Cambridge. The College agreed to lease the house at a nominal rent if money could be found to repair and redecorate it. Katherine Low’s friends raised the funds and on May 17th, 1924, HRH the Duchess of York (later Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) came to Battersea and declared open the Katherine Low Settlement.
Wandsworth Tories introduced an aggressive Right-to-buy (RTB) policy a year before Mrs Thatcher came to power and made it a national Tory plank. It was, of course, a barn stormer and won many votes for the Tory party – and lost many more for a Labour Party perplexed about exactly how to tackle a policy, which was so perfectly attuned to an 80s Loadsamoney philosophy and such an anathema to any collectivist dream.
Lost in the political firestorm were some quiet voices on the Labour side, me included, who said as loudly as we could that outright opposition to the RTB policy was pointless but that reasoned criticism was valid and should have been pursued relentlessly. I recall two particular threads to our criticism. One was that receipts from sales should be used to replace housing stock.
Now in the current crisis about the lack of affordable housing everyone, even the Cameron Government, is talking, however disingenuously, about council house sales being accompanied by a policy of like for like replacement. The fact that the Blair/Brown Governments did no more to replace like for like than the Major/Cameron Governments does not make it any easier!
But the second criticism we had was that RTB would in the end result in the loss of affordable housing and would not be a long-term gain to the goal of creating a “property owning democracy”. Perhaps it is a little difficult to recall just how much Mrs Thatcher made of the creation of a share-owning, property-owning democracy but it was a central plank of the Tory philosophy of the 1980s. Now, however, with the first analyses of the 2011 Census figures we discover that for the first time since the war the proportion of the population living in private sector rented accommodation is on the rise and the number of owner occupiers is actually declining. Just what has happened to the property owning democracy?
Well using Wandsworth as an example reveals some interesting trends. Since 1978, the Council has sold 16,000 leasehold properties out of a stock of approximately 40,000 (there have also been thousands of freehold sales, including sales of whole estates). Having done some research on these 16,000 it appears that 5,650, or 35%, are now in the hands of private landlords, who have developed private sector rented empires on many Wandsworth estates.
The Council admits that one landlord owns 93 leases, from where he runs a private rented empire, whose asset value, very conservatively estimated, is worth more than £10 million. These 93 flats are let out almost exclusively to students of Roehampton University.
Moreover the Council admits to the fact that a further 17 landlords own more than 10 properties and another 83 own more than 5. But having done my own research on the figures and talking to the Council about their methodology, I am fairly confident that they have under-estimated the situation. The Council’s own figures are done on a simple spreadsheet exercise against a file of leaseholder names. They have not been asked to look more closely at the data and they have not done so – but I have.
It is clear that there are networks of ownership between members of the same family and apparently independent companies, often sharing the same addresses. Hence there are several small rental empires on, for example, Battersea’s famous Doddington Estate. In these properties, the Council makes an estimate for housing benefit calculations of rents are about 250% higher than the Council equivalent for the neighbouring properties. So for example, a two-bed Council owned flat is let at £123 per week and the privately owned neighbouring flat has a base of £320 per week for benefit calculation – the actual rent might be much higher.
As of early December, 2012, 31 of these properties were leased back by the Council for housing homeless families, all of whom were in receipt of Housing Benefit or Local Housing Allowance. No doubt some of these families will be hit by the so-called Benefits Reform that some Tory councillors defend on the rather ironic grounds that it will force private landlords to lower their rents. What a trick! Essentially guilty of creating a rental market with highly inflated rents they now accuse those very same landlords, they created, of exploiting the benefits system.
What I find extraordinary about this situation is that the Council officers, and the Tories, find none of this surprising. As one officer said to me, “If you return the properties into the market place then you will see the market acting as it always does with tendencies towards monopolies and exploitation”. He was accepting the reality of the situation. The Tory response is, of course, to defend the market despite, or because of, its faults, and actively to work to destroy the collectivist response to a major human need, which was the original purpose of council housing.
They have the temerity to criticise council housing and many of the subsidies that they claim it was based on and yet do not bat an eyelid at those very same once public resources being used for personal profit and gain.
This is perhaps not surprising amongst Tory councillors, who in Wandsworth are distinguished by the rise of its very own rentier class. It is not necessarily easy to interpret from the members’ register of interests but it looks possible that up to 10 Tory councillors, 20% of the whole, rent out properties for an income. But what I do find fascinating is that some Labour members seem to accept the market-place’s role, the place of market rents as a standard and the inevitable supremacy of market forces. Curious, when council housing has for a hundred years been a collectivist and, despite the occasional disaster, a highly successful response to the major problem of housing the totality and not just the affluent in our population. Doubly curious given that the two oldest council estates in the country, the Totterdown estate, and the direct works built Latchmere estates, are both Wandsworth estates!