“We are held back by emboldened landlords & greedy developers who are socially cleansing our city.”Apsana Begum MP.
In my constituency, Poplar and Limehouse, we have one of the highest average rents in London, while at the same time having some of the highest levels of poverty in the entire country.
It’s a toxic combination which means those on low incomes face an increased risk of homelessness – too often failed by a housing system that is broken.
At the same time, we are held back by emboldened landlords and greedy developers who are socially cleansing our city.
The coronavirus crisis, of course, has made the situation even worse.
Now, the limited patchy pandemic support measures are being withdrawn, sparking warnings of a new “homelessness crisis”[i] to be unleashed just before winter.
Therefore, it is utterly incomprehensible that at this juncture in time, the Government has saw fit to further empower developers this week at the expense of local people by removing the need for planning permission in certain cases.
Actually, concerns at the ongoing watering down of the already limited requirements for developers to build affordable housing, known as “section 106” requirements, are long standing.
The latest changes to permitted development rights-[ii]– the first step of the new Tory “Developers’ Charter”[iii] – have been subject to widespread criticism because what they call “red tape” is what housing experts recognise as important protections against unsafe and low quality housing.
There has been report after report, evidence after evidence showing that they will lead to the construction of low-quality buildings.
In January 2020, the Local Government Association found that thousands of affordable homes had been lost through permitted development rights.[iv]
Because it is obvious: the consequence of removing the requirement for planning permission results in the removal of the requirement for affordable housing at the worst possible time.
It was no surprise these planning reforms were announced just weeks after the controversy surrounding the Westferry Printworks Development in my constituency – which many viewed to be further evidence that this Government is more interested in serving billionaires rather than the interests of local people.[v]
Tax-haven-using[vi] Northern and Shell’s ongoing clash with Tower Hamlets Council has shown that the system isn’t fit for purpose and that we need more transparency and accountability regarding planning processes – not the deregulation the Tories are pursuing.
Why is it that authorities have to beg the private sector for crumbs, anyway?
And that for every affordable home – which, invariably is not actually affordable – we have to have at least two or more luxury flats that no one locally could even begin to fantasise about affording?
On top of this, three years after Grenfell there are STILL hundreds of high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings with unsafe cladding, including many in Tower Hamlets.[vii]
We have been crying for developers to be held to account and ensure their buildings safe whilst not off-load costs unfairly on to residents and leaseholders? It is impossible to understand how recent history has led to the decision that further deregulation of the housing sector is needed along with less scrutiny of developers.
Deregulation is also likely result in an increase in over-crowding. We now know, however, that the probability of being infected by COVID-19 is likely to be higher in close contact settings; and that social distancing and self-isolation rules will be much more difficult to uphold in overcrowded households.
This Summer, Public Health England[viii] [ix] highlighted the increased risks of BAME communities catching and dying from the virus – including the alarming statistic that Bangladeshi people face around twice the risk of death.[x]
It is no coincidence in my opinion that months later statistics published by the Government indicated that households with the highest rates of overcrowding were from a Bangladeshi background (24%).[xi]
Nevertheless, the current crisis has inspired a new wave of tenant action – often effectively using Zoom, online forms and social media to garner wide support for their demands.
But whether it is fundraising, eviction resistance, collective rent negotiation or rent strikes and occupations – these are not new ideas or tactics.
In East London, we know nothing is going to be given to us on a plate as we have had to fight hard and struggle for everything.
Back in the 1970s (onwards) housing was a key issue faced by the Bangladeshi community – racial discrimination in housing allocations, homelessness and lack of support from statutory authorities were common, forcing people to seek alternatives.
The community faced constant threats to their homes from city developers.
Families endured appalling conditions in cramped, unsanitary buildings which often lacked basic amenities.
Bangladeshi people increasingly began to squat in council houses and organise.
By the late 1980s, there were at least five Bangladeshi community-based housing co-operatives in Tower Hamlets.
It is in this tradition, and many others like it, that we need to mobilise a movement, from the bottom up, that can defend what we have won and demand even more.
It is clear: we need ambitious targets for social housing, council house building, requisitioning empty homes by Compulsory Purchase Orders and rent controls to protect private renters all the time.
And – yes – the voices of local people should be at the heart of any planning system which should deliver for our wonderful diverse population that has been let down by the Tories and their billionaire mates for far too long.
- Apsana Begum MP is the Labour MP for Poplar & Limehouse. She is one of our monthly columnnists from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs alongside Richard Burgon, John McDonnell, Kate Osborne and Jon Trickett.