How should Labour approach regeneration?

As a Councillor in Brent I’m not going to lay into the elected members on either side of the Haringey regeneration dispute,  despite the fact that there’s so much to say. I’ll leave that to their local party. Likewise, this is not a post about Brent, but local government more generally.

What I will say is this: whether or not Labour’s local regeneration policies will now be set nationally – something I don’t think should ever become the norm – we do need a settled view of what ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ regeneration looks like, how we test that locally, and what steps should be followed by councils as best practice for regenerating communities.

We need to renew our vision

We sure as hell could use some conciliatory local group leaderships who will listen to Council members and local parties to provide oversight, drive compromises, and make sure support can be brought onside. That said, it would be pointless doing that if local Councillors and Party members are not ready to apply themselves to the practical limitations in regen and housing. Local Labour Parties really need a two-way deal.

There are definitely Labour councils who (in my opinion) do regeneration badly. But because we have not provided positive ideas for alternatives, we now appear to be creating a limbo. Instead of auditing and improving policy at the level of the national Party and LGA group, we are letting political crises build locally and then taking remedial action. This needs to be the other way around.

Partly as a result of this, some large-scale regeneration developments do blatantly gentrify, pushing out low-income residents, and do so without sufficient compensation to them or to the host community. Disappointingly, Labour Councillors have often failed to show solidarity with these communities. This is shocking and politically suicidal locally given that my colleagues rely on working-class votes. For me, the first principle for Labour taking on developments should be to avoid a sense that they are willing to accept social cleansing. But an equal truth is that we as a party should never have allowed such instances to happen in the first place and should have set a clear shared Socialist vision in opposition to such schemes.

But that’s only one side, isn’t it? We also need to reject the idea that all regeneration projects are bad or unsupported, especially by working-class residents and social renters. That’s not true for most examples we come across, as community consultation responses in many areas will indicate. People want good quality housing and more of it. Consultations are often maligned as a hoop to jump, but in this case they are a good indicator – if not the best. We shouldn’t blanketly oppose regeneration when many examples are actually well supported locally.

Surprisingly, a significant number of left activists are nevertheless opposed to all regeneration, or close enough. Perhaps this is because we are more used to spending our lives trying to stop stuff rather than making it happen. In part, it’s also the common mistake of substituting loud or organised opinion for views which are representative, a phenomenon not restricted to Lib Dem leaflet writers. In reality, existing residents often favour regeneration plans, as long as they treat them well and meet their concerns.

This said Councillors representing existing residents is merely adequate, rather than good.

Labour should be about working people as a whole – in that spirit, it should be noted that it’s not just people who already live on site that local Councillors have a moral duty to consider. We need to think about people on housing lists, and that means building social, but also affordable places that can be used to free up social capacity. Our people, especially our younger voter base, want higher quality housing, and lots more of it.

The challenges

If a guiding position on regeneration is set nationally, Labour does need to bear in mind that we have a housing crisis, with local and national targets to meet for building, even though we aren’t in government.

Cities are already very low on virgin public sector-owned land and intensification is the only answer we have apart from turning people away. This is perhaps the key reason why blanket opposition to regen might work for activists but can’t work for people responsible to the whole public locally.

In meeting those needs, regen schemes will create great difficulty for some people who don’t want to move or experience the massive inconvenience of rebuilding schemes. I am not sure how local policy is supposed to deal with this, especially again if we are talking about meeting housing targets in dense areas. If our only answer is to tell people to put up with it, we have a gap there too.

Given all of these points, I have had a rethink about the proposed principle of local referenda on regeneration projects, particularly as we tend to get quite positive responses from wider feedback where I am, though certainly not without opposition. I was previously sceptical about these simply turning into middle-class NIMBY campaigns which would stop us housing people in need. On reflection, I think it would do the opposite and provide a mandate for most proposals.

If we built on this suggestion to reflect the full range of interests, had a voting pool based around people on the housing list, and gave full knowledge of affordable provision, if anything it could help us pressure developers to give us more.

Can we really say that giving a voice to people with housing, but not those without it, is the right thing to do?

The biggest risk of the referendum proposal is that people in buildings which have become totally substandard might just become too emotionally attached to them for things to move on. We’d need to be able to go around them for accommodation which is physically crumbling, impossible to maintain, or environmentally offensive.

As I said, I think by far most ballots would be won, in Labour areas anyway. But the most obvious problem is that it can only restrict building levels compared to projections. Labour should only press its referendum policy once we’ve changed the law to get councils building council houses again.

Big questions

  • In the hypothetical situation that Labour adopted a blanket opposition to regeneration schemes, how should it answer the needs of people in crumbling accommodation or without housing?
  • How should Councillors deal with local or mayoral housing targets, especially those set by Labour politicians with a public mandate for them, like Sadiq Khan?
  • Given that councils don’t have in-house architects, development teams, building firms etc., what role do socialists feel private developers should play in meeting the housing targets?
  • If the Labour left is against any land sales in principle, how should councils fund their housing targets with half their 2010 budgets?

If I am honest, the questions above can very easily lead to completely impractical conclusions if we are to renew housing stock and fight the housing crisis. If the answer to each was never to engage, our answer to demand for housing or housing improvement would absolutely suck.

It becomes clear that the most relevant question for socialists to address is whether to treat housing and regeneration as a practical problem as well as a political one. So:

  • Is it actually the fact that some of the trends above are things we can take into account and deal with if core objectives (such as keeping current residents at the same rent via 1:1 replacement) are achieved?
  • What are our core objectives anyway? How do we make sure that Labour councils follow ‘good’ or ‘sustainable’ regeneration, meaning minimal disruption to local communities, enough building to meet the crisis, high rates of social and affordable, high quality shared space and amenities, environmental sustainability?
  • How do we balance those? Is it even possible?
  • How do we make sure that regeneration processes are transparent and accountable?

Stepping back: understanding the debate itself:

  • If you think this area has worthy simple answers, you are wrong. Politically and practically. We cannot afford to hide from complexity.
  • Local government in 2017 involves all sorts of competing priorities for socialists, and a lot of external limits and standards. In this case, these include the housing crisis, decaying social stock, land scarcity, build targets usually set by our own politicians, finance shortfalls, social and affordability rates, lack of decent community space, viability issues, placemaking and community safety. It’s complex and it demands trade-offs.
  • There are very few party-based experts on regeneration and house building as wider public policy, though I’d advise people to read Red Brick. It’s better than Facebook.
  • It would be helpful for the left to have some principles expressing what type of regeneration and house building it is in favour of – what is good regen?
  • It would be helpful for Labour to clarify the role of the NEC and other parts of the Party against group decisions (especially if it intends to challenge policies from local manifestos).

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