A London borough is transferring most of its social housing to a private developer. What is it thinking?

The Broadwater Farm estate. Image: Iridescenti/Wikimedia Commons.

The Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), the North London borough’s revolutionary regeneration joint venture/hair-brained public asset giveaway (delete according to ideological persuasion), is thought to be one of the largest transfers of public land into a public/private partnership ever. It involves property estimated to be worth a total of £2bn once the redevelopment has been completed.

And it’s the opposite of the recently mooted, then dodged, Tory pledge to build more council housing. For how can councils build anything if they’ve given all their land and property away?

While public-private partnerships are by no means new, this carefree transfer of private land is part of a broader, scarier, yard sale of public property (the stuff that we all collectively own) to private companies (the things that no one is 100 per cent sure who really owns).

Here’s how the HDV works. Haringey Council will enter into a 50:50 joint partnership with Australian developer Lendlease. The former brings to the table some highly attractive parcels of what it considers to be 'low value' developable land (that is, housing estates and community buildings); Lendlease puts in the capital and construction expertise.

Profits from the sale and rent of the new housing will be shared by the joint-venture company’s partners, providing an income for the council. Bingo! Lots of shiny new apartments on the site of some shabby blocks that are letting the borough’s new image down, some nice new well-heeled, low-maintenance homeowners making the area look good, housing targets ticked off, and some much-needed moolah for the council to spend on everyday civic essentials such as libraries, community care, local infrastructure, and bin collections.

But if it’s such a good deal, why is the Labour council facing such opposition? Why is it opposed by, amongst others, 20 Labour members of Haringey Council (and allegedly a couple of the cabinet); the 19 Labour-party branch leaders across Hornsey & Wood Green; local Labour MPs; local campaign groups 2bn Pound Gamble, Stop the HDV, and Haringey Defend Council Housing; and poet/writer/national treasure Michael Rosen?

And why should those of us who don’t live in Haringey be absolutely terrified? Here are eight reasons.

1. The income is uncertain

The time period between tenants moving out and new apartments being completed and able to provide a new rental stream could leave the council with a hiatus in its income. Throw in long-term uncertainty over interest rates, prime ministers, Brexit and so on, and it becomes impossible to calculate the costs and profits of any redevelopment project. When it's on such a large scale, the risk is even greater.

Such fluctuations help give developers leverage to renege on agreed percentages of affordable housing, arguing that they would make the scheme not ‘viable’ – a weasel word, previously seen in the redevelopments of south London's Heygate Estate, Battersea Power Station, and so on. Allow developers to dodge the 35 per cent ‘affordable’ housing quota (even though, you’ll recall, it’s often not actually affordable) renders any national legislation on such quotas meaningless.

 2. What if the developer pulls out?

The joint venture agreement is currently for 20 years – but what if Lendlease decides to pull out during that time? Or goes bust? Or is taken over? These are important questions, to which the answers aren’t currently clear.

3. The existing residents aren’t necessarily the ones who’ll benefit

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Haringey’s headline promise is that “council tenants have a guaranteed right of return on equivalent terms”, once the new homes are built.

But according to Haringey Defend Council Housing – a campaign group, which has put in the hours to wade through redacted documents, 100-page reports and cabinet meeting minutes so that you don’t have to – the HDV’s actual business plans “will prioritise a single move for residents rather than right of return” and “do not allow for rehousing of housing association tenants”.

 You may recall that at the aforementioned Heygate Estate (now rebranded Elephant Park) similar promises were made; only three council families returned. Meanwhile, according to campaign groups 35percent.org and heygatewashome.org, home owners forced to sell found themselves quite a few bob short of what they needed to buy back into the area. But that was a different borough and a different – oh wait, I beg your pardon, that was Lendlease again.

In other words, there is a growing disconnect between improving things for a borough and improving them for its inhabitants. The space someone's home once occupied might have become a fragrant oasis, but they’ve been forced out to a sink estate in Essex. 

4. Communities will disappear

If residents are shipped out of an area while demolition and rebuilding take place, they won't be able to put their lives on hold for five, ten, or more years in the hope of moving back. A new community will, over time, grow in its place, engineered by teams of well-meaning placemakers naming tower blocks after former Spurs strikers. But the people who currently rely on regular contact from a local support network – the elderly; those with physical/psychological/medical needs; parents; the self-employed, and locally employed – will be cut adrift.


5. This is one of the country’s most deprived boroughs

The HDV will need to generate enough money to a) build new homes and b) make a profit for Lendlease shareholders. So some of the new homes will need to be sold or rented for as much money as the HDV can get away with.

“It's just wrong to have a housing policy that's reliant on building loads of housing at levels that people already living here can't afford,” says Paul Burnham of Haringey Defend Council Housing. “That is going to drive out of the area people who live here at the moment. It's US-style social policy. It doesn't work. We don't want it. And we're not going to have it.”

6. Even the local MPs are against it

In a Labour-on-Labour epistolary punch up, local Labour MPs David Lammy (Tottehnam) and Catherine West (Hornsey & Wood Green) wrote to council leader Claire Kober on 3 July insisting that there should be “no overall reduction in the number of homes in the borough that are wholly owned and managed by the council”. Sadly councils are under no obligation to take any notice. 

7. No one asked the people whose homes are about to be demolished

Yes, the old “no public consultation” chestnut.

At one of the first HDV public meetings on the Northumberland Park Estate earlier this year, some residents recalled being surveyed on whether they wanted improvements to their housing – but not whether they wanted their existing estate, including the primary school, bulldozed and replaced with private housing while they went and lived somewhere else.

Okay, consultation costs money, and money's in short supply for local authorities, but it’s still a legal requirement – a point the campaign group Stop Haringey Development Vehicle (SHDV) is helpfully pointing out by taking the council/HDV to judicial review. (The hearing is set for 25-26 October.)

An alternative, for which HDCH is currently campaigning, is for residents to be given a vote on demolition of their estates. That would mean regeneration were done as a genuine denizen-developer partnership, not via global companies with no local accountability. If successful (it's a long shot), this too could set a national precedent.

8. This is not how we should be funding essential services

Councils are skint – so the trend for selling off assets, or exchanging planning permissions for handouts from private developers in the form of Community Infrastructure Levies or Section 106 monies, would seem to make sense.

This is in the same way that swapping your shared house for a roast dinner might make sense if you were hungry, until you’ve eaten the dinner, are still hungry, have nothing to live in and nothing else to swap, and have three ex-housemates protesting that they can't move to Arse-End on Sea because it's 250 miles from where they work.

Rather than continuing to excuse councils, shouldn't we be addressing how else they might find money or provide services?

* * * * *

All of the above has already been seen, to some degree, on other regeneration projects. What is particularly terrifying about the HDV is its scale. A Labour borough is saying it has no option but to hand the majority of its land over to private developers, and ignoring the voice of its citizens. It is an ideological admission of defeat, a wholesale abandonment of the public to the private, a declaration that physical place matters more than actual people.

And when we no longer own our own cities – what then? 

The judicial review of the HDV will be held Wednesday and Thursday (25-26 October) at the Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, London WC2. Members of the Stop the HDV Campaign and other Haringey residents will be protesting outside from 9am both days.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.