If you missed the Housing and Local Government debate which took place at the Labour Conference in Brighton on Tuesday you were not alone. The hall seemed half empty judging by the film recording of proceedings available from the Parliament Channel on the BBC website. (Click here and scroll forward – it's about an hour in.) But the Hammersmith Labour Party made an effort to try and fill the hall bussing in "tenants from the West Kensington estate."
On closer inspection these turned out to be Labour activists including the Labour MP Andrew Slaughter and former Labour councillor Charlie Trellogan – who was defeated at the polls three years ago in the North End Ward, the ward which includes the West Kensington estate and much other social housing. Having been voted out by local residents he pops up on a regional TV bulletin to present himself as their spokesman.
They were rewarded with a straight lie from the Communities Secretary John Denham in almost the opening lines of his Party Conference speech. " 'They are hard to get rid of' the Tory Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham moans about his council tenants," said Denham. The Council leader Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh has said no such thing. Denham knows that. That makes Denham a liar.
Then the Housing Minister John Healey did a turn. He said of the Conservatives "They don’t believe in building affordable homes. Their council leaders describe them as 'barracks for the poor'." Not true. The comment came from David Cowans, the head of a Housing Association called Places for People. As such Cowans credentials in "building affordable homes" are rather more impressive than those of Healey. Furthermore Cowans knows what he is talking about when he warns of some of our tower blocks becoming "barracks for the poor." He grew up on just such an estate.
There were also some noble sentiments expressed. Jack Dromey said he wanted a situation where: "You walk down any street in Britain and you can't tell the difference between public and private." Cllr Antonia Bruce decried those "well housed and self satisfied" who wanted to deny such opportunities to others. Both are strong arguments for the estate redevelopment we are seeking to achieve in Hammersmith and Fulham.
I understand the arguments over the sensitivities of the language used. But often the tower blocks that become the very ghettos they were supposed to replace. We have seen horizontal slums give way to vertical slums. Are we doing any favours to the people who live in them to pretend everything is fine? Or by listening to their aspiration for something better?
To criticise the tower blocks is not to attack those who live in them but to champion their interests. The Rev Jesse Jackson used to say in his speeches: "I was born in the slum but the slum was not born in me." Sometimes he would precede the comment with the words: "Like Jesus." This struck me as presumptious (as well as being a misleading reference to a family who could perfectly well afford a hotel room but simply found the all hotels were booked up.) Anyway at least Jackson's comment grasped the importance of aspiration. This is something many thought Tony Blair stood for. It has been abandoned by New Labour in their housing policies as in so much else.