Only on saturday did I come across a monday article by Dave Hill, the Guardian‘s London correspondent/columnist whose work is often good and frequently the only attention given by the entire mainstream media to radical politics in the Capital. I never agree with him entirely and he tends to ‘balance’ his articles as though he were the (former) BBC in one person, but I avoid being aggressive with him when I disagree. He’s precious.
However this article Love to hate luxury property in London? This is why you’re wrong makes me fume and I would have commented in situ it had I not come so late to the piece that comments were already closed. So here is a comment.
The article starts with an account of a luxury tower development approved in Lambeth where 360 open-market flats are yielding 90 (20%) intermediate and “affordable” ones, challenging (almost taunting) critics: Housing activists and mayoral hopefuls of the left call for an end to “off-plan” sales and promise bans on “poor doors”. They join the popular cry against “rich foreign investors,” saying that their filthy lucre jacks up prices and that they won’t even live in their speculator eyries, being casually content to ”buy to leave”. The article continues by arguing that us critics (and Mayoral candidates for 2016) should be realistic and tailor our demands to what can be achieved within the constraints set by the appalling Cameron government since we are stuck with them for at least 5 years.
1. We don’t know that we are stuck with these Tories for 5 years and many of us would love to get rid of them sooner. They were elected by, I think, 26% of the electorate and continue to pursue economic policies so damaging to most workers and most non-rentier capitalists that one can imagine all manner of combinations of bottom-up and top-down forces which could displace the Bullingdon Club. The contradictions of their regime are so acute in London that this city could be a source of change.
2. In the mean time it’s not clear that ‘making the best of it’ Lambeth-style serves Londoners well. We could do with some councils, and with a mayor and assembly, who would challenge the national government for their evil waging of class war on citizens and the damage they are doing. The emperor truly has no clothes and the success of the SNP, the Greens and now Jeremy Corbyn suggest that voters want politicians who will say so.
3. A few of Dave Hill’s jibes – quoted above – are sound. The campaign against “poor doors” is a time-wasting focus on a symptom not a cause of market polarisation and the objection to “off-plan” sales is irrational. Office developers have always sought ‘pre-lets’ to make their schemes less speculative and to reduce their borrowing costs and it’s OK for housing developers to do the same. Objections to the sales being to ‘foreigners’ are equally unintelligent, and often just the exploitation of xenophobia.
4. There are, however, major objections to the floods of money being placed in UK – and especially London / South Eastern – housing markets because the floods drive prices up across the board and differentially in some places. The flood is the combined flow of ‘foreign’ and domestic money, cash and (mainly) credit, corporate and household money and it’s the total that matters. There is no conceivable level of housing production within the region in the next 5 years which could satisfy this flood of demand so it will, instead, largely fuel price growth, as will London’s massive infrastructure investment. [ I have written about all this at length in my report last month for the Government Office for Science. ]
5. Mayors and boroughs can do things against the tide of national government. Johnson —elected while Labour was in control of national government— immediately switched his GLA housing budget and planning priorities away from social housing and those in greatest need and focused instead on total output and supporting middle-to-higher income housing. A left mayor could switch back. Islington council is taking a principled stand against the ‘viability’ claims undermining section 106 social housing provisions and is also trying to place a tax on dwellings kept vacant (which IS a problem whenever it happens, even though the extent of vacancy is debated). There are no tanks in Upper Street yet.
6. Dave Hill thinks we “…keyboard polemicists…” (as he calls us in a tweet) should be more appreciative of the 90 “affordable” units secured in the Lambeth tower and should think twice before taking action which could jeopardise such schemes. But he’s wrong for two reasons. Firstly what is lost in Lambeth-style development is often a lot of really affordable housing – and often wonderfully liveable places from an environmental and architectural point of view. There are often net losses of social and of “affordable” housing in these schemes, as he knows from Cresssingham Gardens and elsewhere. If the Labour Party’s Lord Adonis gets his way we would see much of London’s most affordable housing estates, and some of its best domestic architecture, swept away as the communities which occupy them are dispersed.
7. The second reason why Dave Hill is wrong is that these floods of money are what drives up prices and fuels our great British disaster of land and property speculation. In this context it doesn’t much matter whether the money is Chinese or Qatari or English, inherited or saved or borrowed, going into owner-occupation or into buy-to-let. Part of the money may generate some real investment in production but most of it is fuelling land price inflation which we emphatically do not need.
8. Finally I must protest at Dave’s abuse of the term “we” in trying to make the reader complicit in a package of assertions. We all do it sometimes but this is a bad example. Here it is: “We all know what we want: more and better homes for Londoners on low and middle incomes; a bigger, cheaper and better-run private rented sector; a settlement of the tensions between conservation and development, one relating to historic buildings and council-owned estates alike, that serves the best interest of the city as whole.” No we don’t. The “city as a whole” is a meaningless phrase where conflict between interests is so strong. And we don’t all want the private rented sector to be bigger. It’s a fundamentally exploitative sector, especially in its British form, and the expansion most Londoners need is in social renting – hopefully in lots of innovative forms. If that can’t be achieved under a Bullingdon regime then local authorities (and housing associations) should hunker down and concentrate on conserving the non-commodity stocks we have.