The problem with Policy Exchange’s housing sell-off

Picture of a section of Portobello Road, west London, with a Tube train passing overhead and shops including Rinky's jeans, the Mau Mau bar and "Vegtarian hot food and pizza"Yesterday there was a report published by the Tory think-tank Policy Exchange (previously discussed here as a source of reports from spies in mosques) which proposed that councils should be forced to sell off council houses or flats they have in expensive areas, where the value of the property is greater than the average value of a house in that area, so they can build more, cheaper, social housing somewhere else. The plan was criticised as “social cleansing” which would result in a Paris-style situation where the poor live in out-of-town ghettoes while the wealthy lived in, or near, the city centre; an activist from Defend Council Housing appeared on last night’s Newsnight and said that the housing was built to be social housing and is only ‘expensive’ to people with pound signs in their eyes, and in fact has paid for itself several times over with rents.

The area most under consideration was Notting Hill, an area where very expensive private housing lies right next to council houses, and some of those are already for sale for £1m. I know people who live in a council flat which may well have been the same block the reporter was standing next to. Notting Hill is on the ‘front-line’ of gentrification; the Notting Hill Carnival originates in a time when most of it was poor and the infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman had a lot of power. Today, the poor mostly live towards the Golborne Road end (quite close to the now hip, but once ripe for demolition, Trellick Tower) while the rich live nearer Westbourne Grove and Notting Hill Gate (i.e. where the good Tube connections are). There is still a street market and a lot of ethnic shops (as with the Moroccans and Lebanese along Golborne Road) along with all the chic boutiques. Kensal Rise, to the north of the canal, has not quite been gentrified and is a highly ethnically mixed area.

Notting Hill is part of Kensington and Chelsea, but if the council were to sell off the stock of council housing to private buyers there, it begs the question of where they would build any new council houses. There are no green fields anywhere near: they would have to build outside London, or on the outskirts in places like Hillingdon or Barnet, or perhaps on “brownfield” sites which had previously been industrial, which could better be used for more industry and, thus, more permanent jobs (rather than temporary ones building houses). This is precisely what would cause the export of poor people and the rise of out-of-town ghettoes. We already have some of these, notably New Addington in the south and Borehamwood in the north, both of which are rather depressed areas with significant social problems. Policy Exchange deny that this would happen, but they need to answer as to where Kensington and Chelsea council would find the land, other than on the outskirts on what is currently Green Belt land.

Of course, the people who live in the council housing around Notting Hill are those who clear up after all the club-goers and the street market, those who run the market stalls and work in the shops. Retail in the West End doesn’t pay huge wages, so I don’t suppose it does in Portobello Road either. At a time when rail and bus fares are going up above inflation year after year, it is unfair to expect the low wage earners who make a wealthy area what it is to move 15 miles away and commute daily at huge cost — and that’s when they even get to the buses and trains. As this is a Tory think tank, it might be considered that the real prize is not Notting Hill but Earls’ Court in neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham borough which is under much less secure Tory control; any sell-off of a council house in that part of London is an extra vote or two for the Tories. As we saw in Westminster in the 1990s, the Tories have form for this kind of behaviour and any further social engineering attempts by them should be recognised and resisted.

Image taken by me in 2007; see the whole picture on Flickr.

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