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Lambeth_LogoBy Brixton Observer

Labour-controlled Lambeth Council describes itself as the “co-operative council”. But it is in the process of destroying a number of housing co-operatives, shipping out residents of longstanding and destroying their communities, selling the properties allegedly at a loss, and acting in an opaque and heavy-handed fashion against residents who get in its way.

In the 1980s, much of Lambeth’s housing stock was in disrepair and the council did not have the funds to maintain it. In response the council allowed residents to live in certain decaying properties for low rent. Many of the residents were low-income and would otherwise be in need of social housing. They formed a myriad of small communities typically based in the six or eight flats within large Victorian properties. A number of housing co-ops were formally established and a distinct form of housing tenure evolved: Lambeth’s “short-life” tenancies. In some cases the alternative would probably have been demolition of the
property.

At its peak, some 1,200 Lambeth housing units were shortlife. Through the 80s and 90s the Council’s housing policy changed incessantly: various proposals came and went and the shortlife properties became an established feature of the Lambeth housing scene. The term “shortlife” is now a misnomer: many of the residents have lived in the properties for decades, and some have spent tens of thousands of pounds in making once dilapidated properties habitable.


But now Lambeth Council is keen to raise cash, and quickly. Lambeth says this is for investment in social infrastructure. Residents say it is because Lambeth’s housing arm has for years been beset by mismanagement and internal fraud and so it is hard up. For whatever reason, Lambeth is selling off the properties and is down to its last 170 or so.

But the residents – in danger of losing their homes and aghast at seeing their communities dispersed – are fighting back. A number of cases have gone to court, with the council’s attempts to clear the housing for vacant possession typically being postponed for want of full information. (I work intermittently with one of the resident groups fighting the council.)

Now some tenants want to establish a borough-wide co-operative, while others wish to remain in situ while their block is sold to the private sector (retaining an element of social housing). Both solutions seem sensible given that any evicted tenants would go directly onto the Council’s housing list in any case. Why not let them stay as tenants where they are?

Conservatives might have some sympathy for what could be described as an asset disposal to the private sector, but the details lead to a different conclusion.

First, Lambeth’s sale of the properties has been cack-handed. The Council says that the existing tenants were given the right to buy their homes. But this is disputed: Some tenants say they were given no clear deadline to purchase, and that it has been unclear as to whether they were being offered their flat or their block.

Moreover, one of the reasons Lambeth says it can’t sell to residents backed by housing company finance is that all tenants must be treated equally. But there is some evidence that different groups have already been treated differently, with talks entered into with some groups but not others (details are hazy as Lambeth will not discuss these cases for legal reasons).

Absurdly, one reason Lambeth won’t allow residents to remain in situ as the houses are sold is that this would allow the residents de facto to “jump” the housing queue; yet when they are made homeless they will be put at the top of the housing list in any case – but by then their home will have been sold and their neighbours dispersed.

Second, it is questionable whether Lambeth’s fire sale is achieving best value. As properties are sold in industrial quantities mistakes are seemingly being made.  According to the local press, a 10-bedroom house in Clapham was sold for £1.6m for the council in July 2011, but a much smaller house on the same road is being marketed privately for £2.6m. A three-bed maisonette in West Norwood was sold for £260,000 two years ago, while a neighbouring six-bedroom house was sold for £925,000 in November 2011.

Meanwhile, Lambeth’s legal bills rack up and staff are recruited or allocated solely to oversee a programme that is socially damaging.

Third, this is not just about money. Conservatives rightly support private home ownership and generous discounts for tenants who buy their council house. These policies promote pride in one’s home and neighbourhood and are conducive to stable communities. Why won’t Lambeth allow long-term residents to stay with their neighbours, either as owners or tenants, and maintain their social network rather being shipped out to take up council housing elsewhere? Why should their investment in once dilapidated properties be given away or even ripped out?

Throughout this process, no council officer and no Labour Councillor has come forward with an option that would allow the residents to remain in situ. It is group think at its worst. The officer in charge of housing confuses her obduracy with legal clarity. At least one Labour councillor is handling the issue by seemingly dodging emails. Local MPs Chuka Umunna and Tessa Jowell are conspicuous by their absence. The Labour group whip is famed for his smarty-pants criticisms of national Government housing policy, yet has nothing to tweet on his own council’s policy of urban clearance.

The indifference to the plight of the “small people” and the abject cleaving to the party line are redolent of East Germany circa 1972.

An exception has been Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey, who has spoken up for the residents in Parliament and has urged the Council to come forward with more sensible proposals. Opposition councillors have made the same demand.

Lambeth should recognise that winding down its shortlife tenancies takes time. An orderly move to other forms of tenure would save money in the long run by avoiding a fire sale. Treating each housing co-op on its merits would be more humane in that communities could stay together and the housing waiting list would not be extended needlessly. Lambeth claims to support “diversity” in other areas of life: why not in housing tenure? It takes courage to admit a course one has embarked on is wrong, but surely Lambeth Labour can see the Orwellian absurdity of a self-proclaimed “co-operative council” steamrollering housing co-ops and causing immeasurable stress to its residents.

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