Rebecca Omonira
Show Hide image

Why Hackney’s new mayor must resist new Tory legislation that will further divide the borough

The Housing and Planning Act, regressive legislation that would hit London's poorest hardest, should be opposed in the area where inequality is at its starkest.

This summer, East End Sisters Uncut secured a series of vital concessions from Hackney Council after reclaiming an empty council flat on Marian Court estate in East London. We took the flat and transformed it into a community centre to raise awareness of the housing problems faced by domestic violence survivors, especially in Hackney, where 60 per cent of women are turned away from refuges.

Housing is a basic necessity for survivors of domestic violence. Across the borough, survivors are too often placed in unsafe hostels with men, risking further abuse, or housed in temporary accommodation where they have little security.

When we took over the flat in July, we made four demands of Hackney Council: fill all empty council flats with people who need them, stop using hostels for survivors of domestic violence, don’t lose any more council homes through estate regeneration, and refuse to implement the Housing and Planning Act (no rent rises, keep lifetime tenancies, no evictions).

In response to several weeks of direct action and after two rounds of negotiations, Hackney Council has made a number of important concessions.

The new mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville, who attended the negotiations, promised to stop using private hostels and B&Bs to house survivors of domestic violence, and to consider using women-only hostels.

Glanville – who has represented Hoxton Ward as a Labour councillor for ten years – also plans to increase specialist domestic violence training for staff in council-run hostels and for all council staff, do up all empty units on the Marian Court estate and fill them with people by Christmas, and fill all empty units in Hackney within 12 months.

Local children created a petition to support one extra demand: redo the estate’s playground and open it up for use. As a result, the council said it would open the playground within the next few weeks.

A radical history of resistance

While we’re pleased with the progress made, there is still work to be done – particularly around our fourth demand: refuse to implement the Housing and Planning Act. Glanville says he is against the Act and indeed campaigned against it in the run-up to the Bill passing, so why not commit to our fourth demand?

After all, Labour councils have a history of saying no to Tory policy.

In 1972, Clay Cross Council refused to implement an Act that would increase council rents by 25 per cent. The council imposed a rent strike and refused to cooperate. No money was collected on increased rent, and Labour repealed the act in 1974.

There’s also the rate-capping rebellion of 1985, when Lambeth and Liverpool’s councils refused to set the rate when Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to limit the spending of local councils. Eventually, the government paid both councils extra funds to set their own budgets.

In 1921, Labour-run Poplar council refused to implement a London-wide rent increase. The council argued that, as Poplar’s residents were much poorer than residents in other boroughs, they should pay less.

As a result, Poplar councillors were imprisoned in Brixton and Holloway but were released six weeks later when a court bowed to public pressure. The government passed the Local Authorities Act of 1921, rushing it through Parliament, which largely equalised tax burdens between wealthier and poorer boroughs.

What is the Housing and Planning Act?

The Housing and Planning Act came into force on 12 May. The Act was proposed by the Tory government to kick-start a “national crusade to get one million homes built by 2020” and transform “generation rent into generation buy”.

It is our belief that this legislation will hit the poorest hardest and further facilitate the social cleansing of London boroughs. This is because the Act forces councils to focus their attention on providing new starter homes for first-time buyers, instead of building council flats to rent, hastening the decline of social housing.

Under the Act, councils will also be forced to sell off “higher value” council homes as soon as they become vacant, further reducing the stock of social housing. What “higher value” actually means remains unclear, and is a grey area that leaves the door open for interpretation, and means decisions can be made subject to the agenda of the individual councils implementing the legislation.

The Act also makes the previously optional Pay to Stay law compulsory, meaning that market-value rents will be introduced for council households earning above £40,000 in London and £31,000 outside of the capital. This was previously optional legislation, and only allowed to be implemented on households with an income of £60,000 or more.

The London Government Association has predicted that councils will have to spend millions on staff and new IT systems in order to implement this Pay to Stay policy, and the administrative complexities involved will make it impossible to put into action on time.

The LGA’s senior vice chair has said that in many areas, the costs involved with implementing the policy will outweigh the additional rent collected, leaving the councils out of pocket and little – if any – extra income for the Treasury.

This will result in reduced regulation of social housing, and no more “lifetime tenancies” – meaning even less protection from eviction for social and private tenants, and an end to any sense of security for new tenants.

The government says that for every council property sold, at least one new “affordable” dwelling will be built. But as the London Government Association’s recent research has shown, of the 12,246 council homes sold between 2015 and 2016, only 2,055 were replaced by councils. That’s a 27 per cent drop on the previous year.

This is an attack on council houses and on the communities that live in them. It is also an attack on safe housing for women fleeing violence at home.

What about Hackney?

In Hackney, the predicted repercussions are severe. The council estimates that 700 council homes will have to be sold off in the next five years – properties that are currently used as temporary accommodation or to house people on lower incomes.

Households with a collective income of more than £40,000 will suffer rent increases of around 25 per cent, and fewer homes that are actually affordable will be built because of the pressure to build starter homes valued at £450,000, which will be “unaffordable to most borough residents”.

Glanville criticised the Act before and after it was passed. He has argued that it will damage the “social fabric of London’s inner boroughs”. Now that it has passed, he has promised to “push” the government to ensure that the “finer details of the Act’s policies are worked out in ways which address the needs of Hackney”.

Sisters Uncut demand that Hackney Council does more. Raising concerns with the government is not enough. Glanville must honour Labour councils’ radical history. Like Poplar, Liverpool and Lambeth councils past, Hackney must resist and refuse to implement this dangerous piece of legislation.

Vicky Baker is a Hackney resident and East End Sisters Uncut member.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496