“Regeneration in Hackney will not mean the net loss of a single council home”

Woodberry Down: one of Hackney's more controversial regeneration schemes. Image: Getty.

Hackney’s deputy mayor on tackling the capital’s housing crisis.

It’s no secret that London faces the biggest housing crisis in its history. Across our city, the most vulnerable are at increasing risk of homelessness, a cycle of temporary accommodation or scrambling to pay extortionate rents in the private rental sector.

If the capital is to continue its claim to be the world’s greatest city, this cannot continue. Everyone must have the chance to access the opportunities London brings – regardless of their income, education or background.

So when the campaign group Sisters Uncut occupied a council flat in my borough of Hackney recently in protest at the difficulty domestic violence survivors face in accessing social housing, they highlighted the scale of some of the issues local authorities in our city face in trying to manage a housing system at breaking point.

We take our duty to victims of domestic abuse seriously. That’s why, despite continued central government cuts, we increased spending on these services last year. We fund the third most refuge spaces of any borough in London, and ensure that survivors who approach us are placed at the front of the queue for emergency housing – alongside those with serious medical problems.

Our first priority is to make sure those at risk are safe – and often that means finding accommodation elsewhere in London and far away from an abusive partner. This nuance is often not reflected in cold statistics; and it simply isn’t true that the council, or the charities we work with, would turn away women in desperate situations who ask for help.

But it is true that things aren’t easy. The government’s decimation of local government funding means that Hackney now has £110m per year less to work with than it did in 2010. At the same time, increased demand for our services means we’re spending £42m more to provide them.

Meanwhile, 11,500 people are on our housing waiting list, with demand far outstripping supply. More than 2,600 families are living in temporary accommodation in Hackney, a figure that has doubled in five years. The Housing & Planning Act will do nothing for these families – which is why I marched, campaigned, and spoke out in Parliament against it. Without national intervention, these figures will only get worse across London. There is only one solution – to build more homes that people can afford to rent and buy.

Councils can’t solve this crisis alone, and we don’t get any money from the government to build social housing. But Hackney is leading the country’s biggest regeneration programme, which will see thousands of council homes that are uneconomical to repair demolished and rebuilt. We’ll end up with more, higher quality council homes than we started with, alongside hundreds more for shared ownership.

And yes – in the absence of any help from ministers – we’re building homes to sell to generate the money we need to invest in that social housing. I want to be very clear: Hackney believes in council housing and we will continue to build it and fight to keep the homes we have.

Regeneration is often labelled as “social cleansing” – including by Sisters Uncut. It’s true that too often in London, those on lower incomes are forced out by private development. But it is a complete fabrication to suggest regeneration in Hackney will mean the net loss of a single council home – we’re actually adding more. And the majority of homes awaiting demolition are used, or will be used, to temporarily house those on the waiting list – including domestic violence survivors.

Government plans to force us to sell up to 700 council homes to fund the extension of Right to Buy, and introduce a “tenant tax” of extra rent for households with incomes of more than £40,000 a year, will put this progress at risk. We estimate we’ll have to spend another £18m a year to find accommodation for the surge of families these policies will keep in temporary accommodation, when they should be in a permanent home they can afford.

We’re doing our bit to build homes – but we’d like to do much more to meet this ever-growing demand. This government’s ridiculous and arbitrary restrictions on the ability of local authorities to build new homes has exacerbated London’s housing crisis and shackled any serious effort to resolve the problem. The new housing minister must do away with this red tape and put two simple steps at the top of their in-tray.

Firstly, remove the cap on borrowing which means councils must find money from ever-dwindling budgets to finance development – an impossible task for most boroughs. This was a key recommendation of the Institute of Public Policy Research’s landmark London Housing Commission, and is backed by an unlikely cross-party coalition of boroughs, business leaders and even Boris’ old housing chief and now No10 advisor, Richard Blakeway.

Secondly, get rid of the restrictions on Right to Buy receipts, which make it intentionally hard for us to reinvest that money in new social housing.

I agree with Sisters Uncut’s inspiring campaign that more needs to be done to avert the crisis in social housing, and I look forward to meeting them. But a national problem also needs national solutions.

Cllr Philip Glanville is deputy mayor of Hackney.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.