"We Took the Last Option": The Fight for Democracy in Haringey

In the predictable rush by the right-wing media to label recent developments in the Labour Party a “hard-left purge”, the details of local circumstances are conveniently overlooked.

In the predictable rush by the right-wing media to label recent developments in the Labour Party a “hard-left purge”, the details of local circumstances are conveniently overlooked. In the case of Haringey in North London, the deselection of sitting council candidates has been the logical result of popular opposition to the council’s unpopular approach to regeneration, with the local Labour Party the most appropriate and effective forum for expressing this discontent.

Labour party membership in Haringey has more than tripled in the two years since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, and this influx of new blood has manifested in increased engagement and energy. Last month’s deselections were influenced by this, but more significantly by its interaction with the longstanding controversy surrounding the regeneration project known as the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV).

Haringey is one of the UK’s poorest boroughs, and like other areas of London, faces a housing crisis, with 9,000 households on the waiting list for council accommodation and 3,000 homeless in temporary accommodation. No one would disagree on the need for material improvement to the lives of its residents. Differences of opinion centre on how, not if, this should be attempted, particularly when the propensity for ‘regeneration’ projects to act as cover for gentrification and the selling off of public assets has become increasingly apparent in the past few decades.

Like other local authorities under austerity, Haringey is cash-strapped, having lost funding of around £160m in the last seven years with around £70m of further cuts to come, as well as hamstrung by borrowing rules set down by central government. In 2015, a cross-party review of the council’s housing stock recommended that the best option for regeneration was an “overarching joint vehicle”, in which a private partner contributed funds and expertise in property development and the council contributed land, homes, business properties and civic amenities for redevelopment. Out of several bids put forward, the one chosen was a 50/50 partnership with the multinational property developer Lendlease. The HDV would be the biggest transfer of local authority resources to a private entity in UK history, and would see Lendlease own a fifty per cent stake in a company which will profit from public assets for at least twenty years.

Misgivings over the HDV are about far more than knee-jerk dislike of private-sector partnerships. Lendlease is a strikingly unsavoury choice of partner for any council, particularly one led by Labour: sued by UCATT in 2013 over its blacklisting of unionised construction workers, the company’s history in the UK, US and Australia includes accusations of routinely overcharging customers and ignoring minority hiring mandates, as well as dangerously shoddy building practices. Lendlease’s involvement in Southwark Council’s redevelopment of the Heygate Estate saw the demolition of over a thousand social homes and just 82 “affordable” units built in return, with the estate’s existing residents displaced in favour of richer private tenants. Haringey residents who anticipate their communities being similarly scattered may be forgiven for not being filled with confidence in their council’s ability to deliver a better deal: although the council’s revised Rehousing Policy promises tenants a right of return, including for housing association tenants, Lendlease’s business plans “prioritise a single move for residents rather than Right of Return” to redeveloped homes; and “do not allow for rehousing of housing association tenants”. Residents have also raised concerns that the HDV will give Lendlease a monopoly on property development in Haringey at the expense of local firms and workers.

Wider anxieties centre on the lack of public consultation for a proposal of such size and import, and on issues of transparency and accountability both in current proceedings and if the HDV goes ahead. While there will be equal representation on the HDV’s governing board between the council and the developer, the council’s claim of equal partnership is somewhat undermined by the imbalance of legal and financial resources and expertise available to a local authority and a large multinational corporation, as well as conflicts of interest between the company’s duty to its shareholders and the council’s to its community.

In January 2017, the council’s own Overview and Scrutiny Committee produced a reportrecommending that the HDV plans be halted and further consideration undertaken. The report identified concerns on how the HDV would be managed, highlighting “very significant risks” and a “fundamental democratic deficit”. It cited the failure of similar – though far less ambitious – development vehicles, including those in Croydon and Tunbridge Wells, and claimed that regeneration could generate “the break-up of well-established communities”. This report was narrowly rejected by the council.

Opposition to the HDV has grown along with awareness of it. Unease over the council’s choice of Lendlease and the nature of their plans for Haringey have been raised repeatedly by residents, campaigners and councillors themselves. The issues surrounding the HDV have been publicised on social media and the campaign against it well-catalogued in a series of reports by Aditya Chakrabortty. In July 2017, Tottenham’s MP David Lammy officially expressed his misgivings about the project, as has neighbouring MP Catherine West and both local constituency Labour parties. Sitting Labour councillors have consistently warned that the council has been unable to win residents’ support for HDV, and that it should listen to their concerns. Political opposition has been vocal and public for over a year, and regularly reported in the local and national press, and it can hardly come as a surprise, or as evidence of a hard-left plot, if it is now being expressed through the mechanism of deselection.

The anti-HDV campaign is broad and eclectic, rooted in the local community and represented among Labour party members as a function of this. The campaign exists within and outside the party as a loose coalition of residents’ groups, left organisations, trade unions, faith groups, community activists and individuals who are uncomfortable with signing over so much council property in the face of so many reservations. Early 2017 saw a series of public meetings and actions called around relevant council, cabinet and Labour group meetings, along with public demonstrations. In recent months, following the final decision by the council’s leadership to ignore the scrutiny committee’s report, the campaign has turned from street protest to legal and political tactics.

The HDV is currently the subject of a High Court challenge – brought by Haringey resident Gordon Peters and funded by public donations – which identifies the main grounds around which opposition has crystallised: the lack of consultation and closed-door nature of decision-making; the project’s future risks; and the council’s failure to take adequate account in its procurement process of its duty of care to vulnerable groups in social housing, including elderly people, disabled people and BAME residents. The verdict is expected in the next few months.

This is the context in which, within Haringey Labour itself, the attitudes of council candidates to the HDV proved a decisive factor in their success or failure in being reselected. Across the borough’s nineteen council wards, sitting anti-HDV candidates were reselected – as was pro-HDV council leader Claire Kober – but other pro-HDV councillors narrowly failed to win initial reselection votes or chose to stand down rather than contest them. With some selection meetings still to go, the latest results show a shift from 24-18 councillors supportive of the HDV to 41-7 new candidates opposed, suggesting that next spring’s council elections will see the Labour group swing against the HDV proposals.

Opposition to the HDV chimes with the concerns of Corbyn’s leadership, although its roots predate them. In September’s speech to party conference, Corbyn criticised “forced gentrification and social cleansing” and said tenants on redeveloped estates “must get a home on the same site and the same terms as before”. Haringey was not identified by name, but Corbyn’s speech was referenced in the resignation letter of Stuart McNamara, a sitting Labour councilor and former council cabinet member, which comprehensively criticised the council leader’s running of the borough.

Scaremongering media splashes which present the current stage of these longstanding struggles as a sudden “Momentum coup”, or sneering dismissal of “Crouch End Corbynistas” with no connection to working-class Haringey residents, display a wilful ignorance of how the anti-HDV campaign has taken shape and grown (as well as of how Labour selection meetings work: Labour members voting to deselect their own candidates will be resident in that particular area, not bussed in from some sinister Momentum HQ in the leafy suburbs1). Campaigners and those within the local Labour party emphasise that Momentum’s contribution to the anti-HDV coalition is and remains “significant, but not decisive”. Gordon Peters, the architect of the HDV’s legal challenge, is a former Green parliamentary candidate and now an “eco-socialist” making common cause with Labour members. The Liberal Democrats who form the opposition group on Haringey council – and who presumably have not been infiltrated by Trotskyist conspirators – also oppose the HDV. Labour councillors from all points of the party’s spectrum, both pro and anti-Corbyn, have criticised the HDV from its inception. The Labour left has a long history in both constituency parties, and its association with Momentum is often a matter of convenience or concordance of views and objectives. Anti-HDV campaigner Phil Jackson wrote recently:

As a [Haringey] resident and a Labour activist I was faced with three choices. I could accept the current situation and have to look my neighbours in the eye when I knocked on their doors and told them to vote for councillors that are planning to knock down their estates. I could refuse to campaign for Labour – in spite of Jeremy Corbyn having committed the party to a policy of balloting local residents on changes made to their homes and communities. Or I could use the party’s existing democratic structures to select councillors who are committed to protecting our homes. We took the last option.

The council leadership has argued that the HDV is the only way to deliver new homes under a Conservative government, and accuse their opponents of having no better ideas and of wishing to retain an intolerable status quo. But anti-HDV campaigners have in fact put forward alternative strategies and models for regeneration – community land trusts, local-led redevelopment trusts, a municipal housing company – rather than simply being hostile or obstructive. Local Labour branches have passed motions urging that alternative development vehicles based on full council ownership be explored. The borough’s MPs David Lammy and Catherine West, in their letter on the HDV, recommended the use of a wholly council-owned housing company to purchase and manage social and affordable housing.

It is a further myth that opponents of the HDV have a blanket objection to private-sector involvement, rather than to the terms of that involvement and the council’s willingness to make itself a hostage to fortune. Campaigners including Gordon Peters and Patrick Fleming, an organiser for Haringey UNISON, say their opposition would be less certain if the council proposed to hold a controlling stake in the HDV:

Clearly Lendlease is willing to put up investment because it feels a 50-50 share of the stakes between it and Haringey will allow it to effectively hold the council to ransom, as it has done everywhere else. If Haringey had a controlling 60% stake then obviously Lendlease would be much less willing to invest, but if investment could be found under these conditions then it might be worth doing.

Opposition to HDV within the Labour Party in Haringey is not driven by factionalism or dogmatic attachment to state provision, but by deep unease and anger at the seemingly reckless displacement of London’s poorer populations, with what looks like blind faith in the benevolence of corporate property developers. In this case, it is the HDV’s proponents who appear to be clinging dogmatically, in the face of demonstrable and well-informed opposition, to a risky and unpopular idea which they claim is the only way forward. The refusal to accept, engage with or reflect on the political results of this opposition, attributing it instead to an unrepresentative hard-left takeover, is both unedifying and inadequate as a response to the expression of popular opposition channeled through a reinvigorated Labour Party. If the anti-HDV campaign has also thrown into relief existing tensions and divisions within the local council and membership, it is clear which side currently has more popular support.

Debates around the Haringey Development Vehicle cut to the heart of not only contemporary local politics – increasing gentrification and privatisation, provision of social housing, and budget cuts to local authorities – but also of wider questions around the ability of constituents to raise concerns and the accountability and responsiveness of elected representatives. This particular saga is already having an impact across London, with Camden Council recently rejecting a similar joint venture and citing the Haringey controversy as a reason for doing so. The HDV’s defeat in favour of alternative, locally and democratically decided strategies for improving the lives of Haringey’s residents could be even more significant, but this will entail equally significant changes in the funds made available and freedom granted to local authorities by central government, and it will require councillors who are prepared, with local support, to fight for this.

  1. Clause III.5, Chapter 5 ‘Selections, rights and responsibilities of candidates for elected public office’, Labour Party Rule Book 2017, p.22