Sunday, 11 January 2015

The difference between a house, and a home: Labour's Housing Commission takes evidence

Unexpected dangers lie everywhere, in the wider world of politics now, don't they?

A cartoon: a line on a page, a caricature, a moment of spontaneous expression, frozen in time. A few words, ill chosen, on twitter. An opinion spoken in debate, recorded for ever. 

Best to avoid any of these blunders, if you are hoping to be a successful politician: or maybe just to stay alive. 

The virtual world, where you can live in the shadows, behind a mask of anonymity, or a world defended by spin merchants: much easier, isn't it?

No surprise, really, then, that our Prime Minister is so scared of live debate, with his political opponents: too much risk of exposure, and real challenge. 

Here in Broken Barnet, the Conservative leader and his colleagues similarly try to avoid the cold light of scrutiny, and any meaningful discussion with the electorate.

And out three local Tory MPs are awfully shy too, avoiding any open public meetings, for fear of being confronted with awkward questions from their constituents.

Here in Broken Barnet, however, our grassroots political life, and the activism which flourishes in this borough, has not yet become entirely bullied into a state of silent conformity, despite the fond wishes of the Tory administration, and if you want to take part in a real debate, on a range of issues, local, or national: take your pick. There is always something going on.

(Of course, Mrs Angry always refuses to take part in any political debate, unless there is a member of the Green Party present, preferably wearing a skirt made out of recycled tea towels, and planning to return another Tory administration, by splitting the vote - but you know, really, the Prime Minister might be a little more flexible).

That is the curious thing about Tory activists, isn't it, though, the lack of, well - activitism - that they engage in? Or rather: they don't engage, do they? They raise a lot of money, and they shove a lot of leaflets through letter boxes, but they certainly don't knock on Mrs Angry's door and try to discuss any of the political issues that concern us all. 

To be fair, they probably don't dare knock on Mrs Angry's door, and Tory canvassers no doubt have her address marked with a big red circle, with a sternly worded warning. 


(In fact, they've only tried calling here once, when Mrs Angry was ill in bed, and was obliged to croak instructions to her son to tell them to f*ck off out of it, which he failed to do, in his typically disobedient way).

There are so many political events and meetings, in Broken Barnet, each week, that it is impossible to attend them all. This is a really encouraging sign of the extent of engagment that residents have with their community, and the issues which concern us, or some of us: the point is to be informed, and to exchange ideas, and to organise resistence to the grossly illiberal agenda of the government here in Barnet, and nationally. 

If not now, when? And if not here, in Broken Barnet, the heartland of Conservatism, the cradle of Thatcherism, where else?

Thursday night saw the third meeting of a new initiative by Barnet Labour (yes, yes -I know, I know - no: really ...) - a Housing Commission, set up to address the crisis in affordable accommodation that faces the residents of this borough, paralysed by the grip of a Tory administration which, as the West Hendon story demonstrates so acutely, is set on excluding the most needy members of our community from the right to decent housing - and ultimately, on excluding them from residence in this borough - and if you think that is an exaggeration, then please read the previous post.

The commission took place in a mosque youth centre, a small local hall in West Hendon just on the other side of the Edgware Road from the doomed council estate about to be demolished to make way for a luxury Barratts development, 'Hendon Waterside'. 

Walking up to the hall, it was clear that all the surrounding shops were shut, shutters down, some seemed permanently closed. No sign of Carluccio's moving in yet, to be frank. This regeneration thing: not quite been thought through, has it?

Nicky Gavron is the Chair of the Commission, and introduced the other members of the panel to a packed audience, which included many residents from the estate, as well as people from across the borough, and a curious couple of rather tetchy looking men sitting right at the front of the seats. 

Someone whispered to Mrs Angry that one of these men was a UKIP activist: and later they were joined by another one, whom she remembered from last year's local elections, standing for UKIP in Barnet. In fact, it is pretty easy to spot the kippers in any political meeting, by their age, gender, and general air of sulkiness. Always men: presumably their womenfolk are busy at home, cleaning behind the fridge, or ironing their pyjamas ...

Commission members, apart from Labour's housing lead member Ross Houston, and the leader Alison Moore, were: Glyn Thomas, who has experience of Co-operative housing schemes, Rabbi Danny Rich, the Reverend Colin Smith, a Methodist minister and former CAB manager, Janet Solomons, a resident with an interest in disability issues and a former social care professional, and Tony Clements, former policy advisor to the last Labour housing minister.

The meeting began with a rather surreal presentation, for no reason anyone could see, from a woman whose company makes eco friendly pre fab houses. It was rather like being trapped in a room with a double glazing saleswoman. Everyone kept quiet, and hoped she would stop, eventually. An activist from Our West Hendon commented, half heartedly, after the hard sell,  that they were living in concrete blocks: if Labour came to power, she wondered, could they have the same sort of homes, in West Hendon? No reply.

The men from UKIP were not ready to move on. One of them, a man wearing a brown bomber jacket, and an expression of deep suspicion, felt obliged to pose a number of detailed, probing questions into the manufacturing specifications of the prefab panelling. 

Mrs Angry wondered if UKIP have some sort of policy against prefab panelling. Most of it is made in Germany, you know, like Mrs Ferridge, and then assembled on site. The panelling, not Mrs Ferridge. (Although one imagines most UKIP men would prefer a female companion that requires some sort of assembly - or perhaps inflation). And then Mrs Angry remembered that UKIP have no policies, because Mr Ferridge got rid of them all, for fear of people finding out what they are.

And so it continued throughout the evening, at every point of opportunity, up, up in the air went the hand of the bomber jacketed kipper, to ask an awkward question, like the class swot trying to catch the teacher out. Mrs Angry sat with an evil smile on her face, and waited. 

Meanwhile, it was time for GLA member, and once and future Labour MP for Hendon, Andrew Dismore, to address the Commission.

He listed the factors that have created the crisis in housing in Barnet: the secrecy around the agreements between the authority and developers; the nonsensical definition of 'affordable' housing; the impact of so many overseas investors buying new homes off-plan, in cash, excluding local residents from new developments. 

He talked about the 'ghettoisation' of so called regeneration schemes, the lie to the notion that such plans delivered mixed developments; about the impact on the wider community of large scale projects, such as in Colindale, where a massive increase in population is not supported by any consideration of the need for extra GPs, transport or parking, let alone the provision of recreational land for the families that will live there.

Turning to the case of West Hendon, he commented that the development which is now in hand 'could not be more different' to the plans originally put to the local residents. They had wanted to be re-balloted, when the radical changes were made, but were ignored.

And now, he reminded us, we see the Tory housing policy in Barnet moving even further along the path of injustice by adopting a proposal to increase council tenants' rent to a staggering 80% of the market level. This absurd and deeply unfair decision will have the result of barring anyone whose income threshold is low enough to meet the authority's social housing application criteria from being able to afford the rent: Catch 22. 

As Mrs Angry has observed, this move is clearly deliberately engineered to fit the Tory agenda of removing the poorest and most vulnerable residents from Barnet, and to make sure that none cannot settle permanently here.  It is a logical extension, in a way, of their decades long stigmatism of gypsies and travellers, defying the law on statutory provision of even one legal stopping place, and using police to evict at once any families who come to the borough, who might offer a legal challenge of their inhuman policy. The Tory war on the poor, at its most blatant, now targeting not just those passing through, but those already here.

Someone asked why the issues of inadequate infrastructure at the Colindale development at Beaufort Park had not been addressed before planning permission was given. A good question, to which Dismore replied that Labour had submitted their objections, but these were completely ignored by the Tories, who simply proceeded, and continue to proceed, with their blinkered policies of social engineering. 

Labour's Colindale councillor Gill Sargeant agreed, and said the Tories were building up problems for the future. She also revealed, to widespread indignation, that in this development, social tenants were barred from using the gym, even if they could afford it. 

There were no amenities for children, no play areas: when she raised concerns over this, she claimed, they were assured by the developers that there would be no children, in Beaufort Park. A local vicar ventured his expert opinion that children are very likely to be an unavoidable consequence of human relationships, even in the carefully controlled environment of Beaufort Park. A woman in the audience commented that the intention was probably to sterilise the poorer residents. Some laughed: some of us remain unamused, as it seems at times, here in Broken Barnet, that the next step along the path being followed now is not so far removed from such a proposal.

These terms we use: social engineering, social cleansing, ghettoisation - gerrymandering - they are no exaggeration: this is reality, now, in  this borough, in London - in this country, held hostage as we are now, by a government determined to reclaim the authority and power of those with money over those without, to deprive them of the right to equality, and the hope of a better life.

Two commission members asked Andrew Dismore what a Labour Mayor of London, or a Labour government, might do to improve housing provision. The answer is obvious, to us, of course: ensure that developments have a higher number of affordable housing content, and in regard to large scale plans already in progress, like in West Hendon - look at the joint agreements, so carefully hidden behind the wall of 'commercial sensitivity', and address the phasing of the plans, where there is room for adjustment. Or:

Expropriate the land! demanded an elderly man sitting in front of Mrs Angry.

Time to hear from Dan Knowles, who is representing the residents of West Hendon facing compulsory purchase orders of their homes, and negotiating on their behalves. He will also give evidence at the forthcoming public Inquiry set up by Pickles, in response to objections over this process. 

He gave a telling resume of the events leading to the situation we have now, in West Hendon, the genesis of a development in which, from the moment the Tories got their grubby little hands on it, was fated to cease being one for the benefit of the residents who lived on the estate, and to become a hugely lucrative proposal for private developers keen to seize the opportunities offered by this rare and beautiful site, by the Welsh Harp. An opportunity, once the obstacle of social housing is removed, of course.

Mr Knowles described the absence of proper consultation once the new plans were slipped under the cover of the old regeneration scheme: the secrecy, and refusal to release the viability scheme. He also explained that when the CPOs were issued, this took place in some cases within hours of the purchase offer being made. Deliberate timing, you would reasonably conclude. Maximise the pressure on the leaseholders, minimise their options.

Next speaker was Steve Cowan, the new Labour leader of Hammersmith and Fulham. And it was an inspiring speech : how refreshing it was to see a Labour leader, newly elected, determined to give residents a real alternative to the Tory agenda of cuts, lack of investment in policies with social benefit. 

He remarked what a disappointment it had been to see Barnet fail to win the election, and indeed it was: all the more so because, as we know, with better strategy and leadership, Labour would have won: should have won. 

He told us about Hammersmith & Fulham, under Tory rule, the same ideologically driven pattern of private development rather than genuine regeneration, from a Conservative party that maintains the residents of social housing are 'locked into a dependency culture'.

By challenging the agreements he inherited from the previous administration, Cowan was able to reclaim a total of around £26 million, which begs the question as to what the viability schemes and all the secret agreements that accompany the developments here in Barnet are hiding from us. Are we getting value for money? Or are these developers exploiting the public purse, with the approval of our Tory council?

He gave lots of good advice on how to scrutinise these deals, and hold developers to account, but ultimately, as he stated, the only way forward is - to vote Labour. 

The applause which followed this was markedly not supported by our UKIP friends at the front, of course, who sat there, stony faced. Up shot the arm of the man in the leather jacket, keen to ask a question, which turned into a somewhat ill tempered objection to council tax banding. The moment for denouement had arrived, thought Mrs Angry.

Are you by any chance, she asked, with studied innocence, a UKIP member? 

Yes: he was, he snapped. 

That was it. Uproar: the audience jeered, loudly, the room suddenly filled with a weight of palpable hostility. 

You're not among friends here, mate, yelled a man at the back. 

The UKIPpers sat rigidly in their seats, eyes ahead: unveiled, outnumbered, and surrounded. There was a moment, then, when Mrs Angry thought things just might turn ugly. It passed, luckily for the men from UKIP.

On with the meeting. Steve Cowan revealed that the £26 million clawed back from development schemes in Hammersmith and Fulham had been redirected to housing association and other similar projects. They were looking now at the possibility of building social housing: he pointed out that reserves earning such low rates of return would be better off following the investment route of overseas buyers, in housing stock, although with a more beneficial outcome in mind.

Steve also revealed that above his door, where he sees it everytime he leaves his office, is a piece of paper with a number on it: 22163. 

That is the number of people who voted for him, he said, and it reminds him that they are his boss.

Can't imagine Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius doing that, can you? 

He knows who is boss, in Capitaville - and it certainly isn't the residents and tax payers of this borough.

Two members of local campaign groups, were next to speak. First was Janette Evans, of Barnet Housing Action Group, who was visibly upset as she spoke of the human cost of what was happening in West Hendon: the impact on mothers, fathers, children: it broke her heart, she said, to see these families living as they do, in limbo, living in the middle of a building site, where the children cannot play outside in safety, due to the risk from lorries, and the pollution and dirt caused by the construction work. 

Another concern, which few have spoken about, is in terms of the effect on mental health of the residents going through this protracted ordeal. There is a suggestion, which she did not refer to directly, but has been raised elsewhere, that vulnerable tenants already struggling with health or addiction problems have deliberately been placed on the estate, on non secure tenancies, with total indifference to the consequences on their well being. 

There is a difference, said Janette, between a house and a home

Barnet, she added, was deliberately destroying the sense of community on the estate. 

In truth, thought Mrs Angry, Barnet might well want to destroy a sense of community, but their actions over the last few years have united the people of West Hendon, and created a new sense of kinship between neighbours and residents, with bonds that show a real strength, and increasing sense of power. 

One of the leading figures in this local resistence movement is the magnificent Jasmin Parsons, who spoke next.

West Hendon, she said, was a degenerated, not regenerated estate. 

She accused the council and developers of 'raping our land, shafting us residents, fleecing the taxpayer' ... She also laid into Metropolitan Housing, partners with Barratts in Hendon Waterside: meant to be a charity for social housing, she said, but complicit in 'booting the tenants off the estate'.

We should be building council houses, for people to rent. She blamed 'the Maggot', for trying to brainwash everyone into thinking they have to buy, buy, buy ... 

This is the curious thing, of course: that Margaret Thatcher's heirs in Tory Barnet fail to feel even the slightest twinge of remorse for betraying those former tenants who did what they say they want them to do: to aspire to 'better' themselves, and become property owners. 

But then remorse, and sympathy, and conscience, are not qualities to be found in abundance in the ranks of the Tory party, are they? And Thatcher's heirs no longer pretend to want to help the lower orders out of poverty: they are actively removing the very channels that might help them do that: access to good healthcare, education, housing, libraries: all being taken away, or assaulted to the point of failure and collapse. They don't want them to aspire, any more: they want them to disappear off the face of the earth.

Question time, but next not so much a question as a howl of anger, from a woman resident: she was sick and tired of the council's 'bullshit story', 'expert at telling us white lies ...'

There are allegations that residents were facing eviction were told it was not necessary to attend court, as the proceedings were a formality. Those who ignored this 'advice' have been granted stay of execution, and the hope of a better outcome. These allegations should be investigated, because clearly such advice would have had a detrimental impact on the future of those residents.

Another woman, a leaseholder, an elderly woman using a stick for support, talked about her wish to grow old in the place she knew, where her GP and hospital support was familiar, not to be forced out to a place where she knows nobody, as she becomes older and more needy. The rights of human beings, however, were supplanted by the cold view of the council that she should 'embrace the new culture' ... how can we soften them, she wondered?

In the open mike session which followed, Father John,  one of the two local vicars who have been so diligent in supporting their parishioners and the wider local community throughout the last few terrible years came to the front and addressed the commissioners in a short but forthright, and unequivocal, speech. 

Mrs Angry has nothing but respect for these two men, acting out their faith in practical demonstration, and not afraid to speak out, when it counts. 

He asked about the cost of the housing policy not just in commercial terms, or the environment, but in other ways: to do with the human spirit. Not something, of course, that is easily quantified by the valuation department of Crapita, guessed Mrs Angry.

Barnet Alliance member Julian Silverman observed that during the war, local people were driven out of their houses by Nazi bombs: now they are being driven out by developers. 

It wasn't hard to see another parallel, from wartime, however, thought Mrs Angry, in the blitz spirit and defiance of the people who are being targeted by this assault, a campaign by stealth, and deceit, rather than by fire and explosion.

Talking of the war reminded East Finchley resident George of the difficult years of his parents generation, in the nineteen thirties. It seemed to him that we were returning to those times. And he predicted that the West Hendon development, and the similar schemes on the western side of the borough, would act as a template for future plans, on the other side, as he put it, of the North Circular. They are, he stated, with deep feeling, destroying London's social capital. This is the social capital, here, he said, looking around him. 

A Unite member took his turn to speak, saying the Labour group needed to speak more clearly, both locally and nationally. Alison Moore looked on while Nicky Gavron reminded him that the Commission itself was only happening because of Labour.

Because there is an election, suggested some cynic in the audience. 

Some one suggested that as the Labour group is not in power, there is little they can do: you still need to speak out, said someone. It might have been Mrs Angry.

Labour: Thatcher's wet dream, muttered someone else. 

In fact, as one of the local campaigners wrote to Mrs Angry this week, "West Hendon has been blessed with good councillors and the support of a lot of decent human beings supporting them ..."

Agnes Slocombe, for example, is a long serving, dedicated and much respected councillor who has been a part of the community of West Hendon for decades. 

Mrs Angry had the privilege of visiting the estate several times last year in the company of former councillors Julie and Geoff Johnson, who seemed to know everyone by name, and worked so hard for the people they represented; old school Labour: Julie being West Hendon to the core, born and bred. The hard slog that these councillors put in, the piles of casework that they deal with: easy to overlook, and it is hard to imagine members of any other party would give a damn in the first place.

New councillors Adam Langleben and Devra Kay are bright, outspoken advocates who will be presenting their own submissions to the housing Inquiry in a couple of weeks time. It promises to be a memorable event, of immense significance not only here, in the badlands of Broken Barnet, but for all Londoners facing what the people of West Hendon are going through now: the loss of their homes, and the destruction of their community.

Another UKIP activist tried to jump in now with another jibe - he was nipped in the bud by Nicky Gavron, who firmly took back hold of proceedings, and in her closing words, urged all concerned parties to continue to engage with the Commission, to make statements, write in: to make practical suggestions, and help find positive solutions to the crisis we face. 

Oh: and why were the men from UKIP there, anyway?

In fact that man in the brown jacket, so keen to rubbish the Labour record - Mrs Angry was tipped the wink about him, after the meeting. It seems he is not just any old UKIP member: he is Jeremy Zeid, the newly approved parliamentary candidate for Hendon. 

And he has a rather interesting background. 

A former Tory from Harrow, and then Chair of UKIP in the borough,  who caused a great deal of criticism last summer, for a highly offensive tweet about what he described as an 'almost absence of white faces' in Ilford, suggesting the area had faced 'ethnic cleansing' ...  

He admitted only that his views were "badly worded".

It seems now that UKIP may want to exploit the tensions in West Hendon for their own purposes, and although the reception they received at this meeting was fierce in opposition, there is a danger that apathy by either Labour or Conservative parties will create an opportunity, among some disaffected residents, for UKIP's deeply divisive, dog whistle tactics. 

That is deeply concerning possibility: but it is not unprecedented. This part of the borough has traditionally attracted the attentions of political activists intent on causing trouble, most recently from the Neo-Nazis trying to march through Cricklewood last August, to the blackshirts who countered stiff opposition from locals in Hendon in 1935, a memory passed onto Mrs Angry from an elderly friend who could remember Mosley trying to recuit supporters there, and along the Edgware Road, at that time. 

Another elderly friend and neighbour could remember the battle of Cable Street, one year later, in which Mosley and his thugs tried to terrorise the Jewish population of Whitechapel. 

If only Mr Zeid, and all the other UKIP candidates, could try to read some history, and then sit and think through the logical consequences of their blinkered view of the world. 

But they never do think anything through, do they?

UKIP wants to distance itself from accusations of racism, and intolerance. Voters in multi cultural, happily diverse Hendon can and will make up their own minds in May, as to whether such accusations are fair.

In the meanwhile, all hopes rest on the Inquiry, set to begin on the 20th of January. 

One of the local residents present at Thursday's meeting was downbeat about the prospects of any good coming from it. 

After so many years of delay, and deceit, and betrayal: who could blame him. 

Still, he said: we're not going down without a fight. 

And that in essence is what is so bloody admirable about the people of this estate: they've heard it all, had it up to here, and they hold no faith in any prospect of justice, anytime soon.

But they won't do what the Tories want them to do, and give in, and give up. 

This is West Hendon, their West Hendon, where a house is more than just a home, and where a community still stands, defiant in the face of the bulldozers, the profiteers, and the men with cash stuffed in their back pockets, waiting to buy their birthright from under their noses. 

The Luftwaffe couldn't wipe them out, the blackshirts were chased back to Mayfair, and UKIP will be sent off too, if they try to muscle in on this territory. 

The balance of power is shifting back into their hands, even if they, and we, don't quite know it yet. 

Our Tory politicians may be too scared to come here, and face the people whose lives they have so easily written off, but these issues cannot be avoided for ever - and now those sins of omission are coming back to haunt them.

Watch what happens, in the next few weeks: it might just point us in a direction we never thought we'd reach - a way out of Broken Barnet, maybe.


Anonymous said...

actually, a reminder for Gavron, this commission was not "happening because of Labour", but because of the campaigning groups, which was probably the reason why they were excluded from the panel, and their demands were watered down by the wishy-washy Langladen or what ever his name is.
Though i agree with Mrs A. that there are some good new people in the labour group, we still witnessing a Council by Cartel where no real opposition exists.

Mrs Angry said...

I don't know the background to how the Commission was set up, or who was asked to take part, or if anyone was excluded: I think you are being unfair in regard to Cllr Langleben, who is a new member, but works very hard to try to act as an effective advocate for his constituents. Not everything a councillor does to try to reach a resolution to local issues is necessarily obvious to those looking on. I do agree,however, that Labour as a group needs new leadership and a more assertive campaign of opposition. As you will know, if you are a regular reader ... and if you are not a party member, then join and do your bit to help change things.

Hellraker said...

Video of the whole night.