In Britain, social housing tenants are becoming ever more marginalised.
Despite being a part of the fabric of the community, working-class people are being priced out of formerly affordable areas which are being redeveloped and sold off to the highest bidders, who are often not in housing need.
The victims of gentrification feel powerless. I say this because it is something I have experienced: in 2019 I was told that my council estate would be demolished because of plans to redevelop the area into luxury housing.
I have lived in a council estate in Belgravia all my life, in a small community called Walden House. Walden House is home to a diverse community, with elderly residents, young families and rebellious teenagers of all ages and cultural backgrounds. Think of the diversity of London and Walden House perfectly demonstrates that. However, we were informed in March 2019 that the Grosvenor group, owned by the Duke of Westminster, planned to redevelop Belgravia. This meant the demolition of Walden House and the Cundy Street flats.
With the support of Labour’s community organising unit, my neighbours and I ran a campaign against the Duke of Westminster: the richest landlord in the country, the richest billionaire under 30, and a man who owns 0.22 per cent of Britain’s land – which is more than the Queen. It shows that when Labour supports social housing residents, we have a chance to fight back – and can win.
It is worth mentioning here that I live in the Cities of London and Westminster and the phrase ‘a tale of two cities’ is usually used to describe this constituency because of the inequality which exists. Cundy Street and Walden House are a perfect example of this. Cundy Street flats are situated just opposite Walden House but divided by a wall. Residents living in Cundy Street flats are private renters. Cundy Street flats was once home to Camilla Parker Bowles and houses affluent individuals.
At present there is a growing culture of contempt towards social housing residents, illustrated perfectly by Grenfell Tower – a block of flats covered in flammable cladding to improve its appearance. Grenfell residents raised concerns about fire safety but these were not listened to. The cladding played a huge role in spreading the fire which killed at least 72 people in 2017.
Disregard and neglect for people living in social housing stems first and foremost the government. Under the Conservatives, the number of new social rented homes has fallen by more than 80 per cent, meaning 30,000 fewer socially rented homes are being built each year than under Labour. House prices have also increased and it is much harder for young people or working-class families to buy a home without getting into debt. Labour was therefore right in promising to build 150,000 social homes every year in its 2019 manifesto.
Local councils are also failing residents by not maintaining social homes and keeping poor regulations in place. My council estate was built in the 1920s without disability access or lifts and Westminster council has not done any major works to the building since the 1990s.
Social housing has been an easy target for cuts in the age of austerity – and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities have suffered disproportionately. The government’s racial disparity audit in 2017 found that BAME communities are less likely to own homes and are more likely to live in overcrowded housing. BAME households were also allocated homes in some of Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The audit also showed that many of the homes BAME households were living in were some of the oldest and most hazardous under the housing health and safety rating system.
Years of negative media coverage towards immigrants has also fuelled a culture of contempt, leading to some communities being perceived as lesser.
In redevelopment plans or urban regeneration, luxury housing is being designed with physical segregation between the social tenants and wealthier residents. The Altitude Scheme in Hornsey, north London is such an example, where the entrance to the affordable homes is separated off down a bin alleyway. In Fitzrovia, private owners have their own courtyards and gated entrances while social tenants use a side entrance at the end of a public alley, and in Henley, less wealthy families have been blocked from accessing the communal play areas.
When we have a housing crisis, it does not make sense that councils are selling off homes to private bidders for millions and approving redevelopment plans that have only seen an increase in luxury apartments which are sold to overseas investors. Westminster City Council currently have over 4,000 people on their housing list. But my story suggests that we can fight back and win. The government cannot ignore us if we organise and mobilise to have our voices heard.
Photo credit: Wikimedia/Danrok