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‘This is the next big battle’: Haringey Labour and the Future of Local Government

The night of 7 February was bitterly cold in London. But at Haringey’s town hall, shivering demonstrators persisted outside, while upstairs the public gallery was rammed. Journalists and TV cameras fussed around behind councillors as a woman named Sam addressed the chamber.

Sam hails from the Northumberland Park estate, a sweep of mostly low-rise buildings which was due to be scooped into the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) – reportedly the largest regeneration bid in municipal history. She offered her case against the HDV: no guarantee of new social housing, residents sold false promises by the council, and that the developer involved in the deal was untrustworthy. (While the partnership is 50-50, campaigners insist that developer LendLease would retain day-to-day control.) Her case has been well-worn since the HDV first emerged last January.

But the landscape has shifted dramatically since then. After tight internal elections, the local Labour party chose a majority of anti-HDV council candidates. A thread of opposition to the HDV now runs from resident and community groups, through local councillors and the local MPs, and up to Labour’s national executive. Following Lib Dem showboating and local fury, the council resolved to pause the HDV. It looks like a slow denouement for the scheme. A High Court challenge brought by campaigners floundered the next morning, but most feel on the cusp of getting their way regardless.

The HDV defence case is simple: what’s the alternative? “We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be”, embattled Labour leader Claire Kober tells the council meeting. “But to be fair”, says a more critical council candidate, “residents don’t need to come up with fully-fledged alternatives to oppose something. They aren’t the ones with teams of officers to work on this stuff.”

In any case, alternatives abound. Firstly, say campaigners, there are perfectly reasonable and practical alternatives that other councils are pursuing. The leadership, one campaigner argues, “came up through student politics together on Labour’s right – they’ve not much of a political compass and just can’t see how working with a firm like LendLease is a problem.”

But in many quarters of the anti-HDV movement is a more radical pitch; a hope that Haringey’s new administration would not only end this project, but provide a newer, more rebellious and more participatory model of local government in an age of austerity.

For some months the Labour left have been suggesting a council-owned development vehicle instead of a partnership. Campaigners have cited neighbouring Islington, who on some schemes have outsourced building but not planning and land, and added that Haringey’s lower housing density is an advantage. Another veteran local councillor points out to me that Haringey has access to more cash for housing than other boroughs; a council strategy document indicates there will be £49m in borrowing headroom available on the ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account this financial year.

The HDV, proponents argue, will deliver more housing overall than such a scheme – citing the urgent need of 3,000 residents in temporary accommodation. But thousands of homes will be no good if those in need can’t afford them. The HDV has promised no council housing at council rents. “Even if we were to build just a thousand council flats, that’s a thousand more than the HDV would, and 1,000 more than have been built in the last four years”, says one activist. Another council candidate raises the prospect of acquiring brownfield land from TfL for new council flats. A local expert is voluntarily mapping potential sites for development.

The anti-HDV lobby are not necessarily anti-demolition if it is gradual and residents have a right of return to decent new homes. “Many of these estates have experienced managed decline”, says one candidate. “Of course people wouldn’t say no to a proper plan.”

Haringey Labour recently held a conference to discuss policy for its local manifesto. In the run-up, the party and wider community fizzed with discussion. Labour campaigner Celia Dignan says, “we have articulate, bright and sensitive residents both inside and outside the Labour party who are not only opposed to the HDV but brimming with ideas about how we can improve our community.”

Some of these are ideas for improving the landscape – a cultural quarter, new cycling corridors, barrier-planting to stop air pollution. Some are borrowed from other authorities, such as setting up a Fairness Commission to investigate specific causes and solutions for poverty and inequality. There is also consideration of the council’s bargaining power, such as not employing firms that refuse to recognise unions. Inevitably some ideas will be more viable than others, but people can now be more confident the manifesto has gone through a broad development process.

The housing question doesn’t stop with the HDV. There are discussions about ending gated developments and encouraging mixed communities with mixed housing tenure, about replacing temporary accommodation with modular housing, and about avoiding punitive methods like bailiffs or evictions to deal with debt collection.

People on both sides of the HDV debate claim that more residents agree with them, which makes the leadership’s resistance to a ballot seem odd. But if there are a broad range of ideas, there are a broader range of people who have been pulled in by the HDV campaign – sometimes entering politics for the first time. Should Labour hold all its current seats in May, the new intake will include councillors in their twenties (often a rarity in local government), a charity worker from the Broadwater Farm estate, and newcomers like Khaled, who lived in often mould-ridden temporary accommodation in Haringey for seven years.

Khaled has been active in the area’s affairs since he was sixteen, and his first real job was a community organiser there. He is now a consultant lawyer and wants to use his “skills, alongside his passion for Tottenham, to transform the lives of the people who rely on the council.” He talks fluently about the dangers of academisation, austerity, and about the inappropriateness of LendLease for the HDV (citing its history of fraud in the US, blacklisting trade unionists and botched regeneration of a Southwark estate.)

The blacklisting issue was also raised by Jenny, a young trade unionist who moved to Haringey from Scotland. “Labour councils shouldn’t strike deals with firms that go out of their way to aggressively undermine the labour movement. It’s that simple.”

She adds: “Now we’ve a chance to do things differently. Often younger people in London are transient, moving from place to place too quickly to feel part of an established community. The movement around the HDV has been an example of something that has bound hugely different demographics in the borough with a sense of common purpose.”

One of the local constituency Labour parties is among Britain’s largest, with hundreds of members estimated in each ward. Around a thousand voted in the selection. Outside the Labour party, people from faith groups to resident associations to interested individuals have fed into the development debate.

Nationally, the surge chimes with a growing desire for resident influence in housing policy. When Jeremy Corbyn announced support for compulsory ballots on regeneration in a speech dealing with the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, many on Labour’s moderate wing disagreed. Now Sadiq Khan has joined the call.

Charley Allan, a Labour candidate, says he “never wanted to be a politician” but has spent his life “helping friends and neighbours exercise their democratic and legal rights” and came to realise being a councillor would be an extension of that. He adds that “grassroots members are now more encouraged to get involved.”

He’s dismissive when claims of a Momentum coup at the town hall are brought up, saying “the communities were up in arms all by themselves. Momentum helped network inside Labour – but there’s no “line” you have to follow, and here it’s mostly just a way for local pro-Corbyn members to stay in touch.” And he adds that he believes all sides of the Haringey divide can “come together and win the argument.”

The optimism in Haringey is tempered by circumstance. Conservative-led Northamptonshire announced last week that it would no longer be funding anything beyond services it had a legal duty to provide. They have joined other local government figures, from former Tory Local Government Association chairs to Labour leaders, in decrying the human – and ultimately financial – impact of seven years of slash-and-burn. A Labour government would re-invest, but that provides little comfort to those trying to fund libraries, parenting programmes, child protection, youth centres, anti-loneliness programmes for older people, community events, and everything else that local government does – both the essential work and the things that make life a little more exciting.

In Haringey, £15m more in cuts must be found this year. To most of the Labour left, the two strategies on the table – ‘lie down and take it’, or ‘set an illegal budget’ – are unacceptable. The first order of a new left-wing administration will be to write a survival strategy.

There are tentative steps towards that. Haringey will have the support of Labour nationally. The party have just established a community wealth-building unit with a team of experts to aid councils with bringing services back in house, set up new energy companies (municipalised energy is being talked about in Haringey) and fuel local economic development. Much of this is inspired by Preston, which has returned more than £200m to the local economy and supported more than 1,600 jobs by using the town’s anchor institutions and local government contracts to keep money in the local economy and develop worker-owned cooperatives.

While progressive council tax rises are not directly permitted, a council tax rise with a rebate for the lower bands achieves effectively the same result and is a possibility under consideration. And a few councils will benefit from the new financing model which more closely ties council income to business rate receipts. “We need to be more imaginative, and always take communities with us”, says Allan. Others have raised consultants or executive pay as expenditure areas that could be reined in.

But for many, it comes down to being “honest and upfront,” as one candidate puts it. “This is the next big battle. If we don’t have the money to keep a library open, we hang a sign on the door explaining that closing it is the last thing we want to do, but explain exactly why it’s happening and who’s responsible. We have to be actively campaigning against every cut, and mobilising communities to help.”

Haringey is a borough of contrasts geographically as well as financially; from the wooded hills of Highgate to the low-lying land by the Lea. It is home to a rich diversity of people, professions, businesses, and communities – even by metropolitan standards. In such a context, local engagement and people-powered planning is seen as particularly important.

It is hoped that the ecosystem of organisation forged by the anti-HDV campaign can provide a base for future campaigning. Several ideas for new forums of civic engagement are being discussed, as well as democratising the local Labour party. Haringey Labour has already faced a drubbing from the right-wing press, and if the left win they can expect much more when in power. But throughout the last year, people have drawn strength from each other and the networks they have created, along with a strong sense of civic pride and local identity.

As Allan puts it: “Haringey is really quite a left-wing place and everyone knows we have a responsibility to each other. No-one wants to live in an unequal borough and no-one wants to move out of Haringey either, so that just leaves trying to make it more equal. I think that’s something most people can get behind.”

Published 9th February 2018

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