Another Housing Scandal brewing?

Seems like Conservative controlled Kensington  and Chelsea are trying move to the beleaguered former residents of Grenfell Towers out of the borough? Could this have anything to do with the fact they they lost the parliamentary seat by just twenty votes at the last election? Rehousing poor potential Labour voters outside the borough could make all the difference at the next election which may come much sooner than five years.

There is a murky history of Conservative controlled councils trying to rid themselves of poor people who are statistically less likely to vote conservative. Here’s a bit of the background.

Homes for Heroes, the first council house building programme started after the First World War with houses initially built by private developers for rent on the open market. Councils (the forerunners to today’s Local Authorities) gradually took on more of the building as a huge house building programme and gradually expanded into a slum clearance programme.

Most social housing was built after the Second World War during which a huge amount of housing stock was damaged or destroyed. In addition the movement of evacuees from the cities to the Countryside highlighted served to highlight the poor conditions that many people have been enduring in the cities. This contributed to the unexpected Labour Landslide victory of 1945.

Between 1945 – 1955 no less than 1.5 million homes were completed and by 1961 a quarter of the population rented their homes from councils. Many of the houses were prefabricated or built from pre-cast concrete for speed of construction. In London many of the new homes were multi-storey tower block like Grenfell. Lack of maintenance meant that many quickly became run down.

In 1968 Ronan Point in Newham partially collapsed just months after opening due to poor design and construction. Four died and seventeen were injured. The block and similar ones in the local authority were demolished. The tragedy lead to a change in building regulations. (Which the current government have rolled back).

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher began a policy of selling off council homes to their tenants at a discount. The aims of this policy were twofold. Firstly homeowners were more likely to vote conservative and secondly it removed the power over housing from local authorities. They could only keep half of the money from house sales and they were not allowed to use it to build more houses.

Today virtually no councils actually build houses and the management of those properties still owned by councils has been delegated to Housing Associations who are much less accountable than councils were. The fire report which highlighted failings at Grenfell Tower years before the fire was kept secret by KCTMO the housing association which managed the block, as they are not a public body they could not be forced to reveal it by a Freedom of Information request

In the 1980s in Westminster operated the  Homes for Votes policy. They knowingly evicted poor council tenants and sold their homes to potential tory voters. This action was concentrated in the eight most marginal wards. They won the next local authority election by a landslide. But what they did was illegal; gerrymandering on a grand scale. Individual councillors were found guilty of malpractice and fined, with council Leader Dame Shirley Porter (daughter of Tesco founder Jack Cohen) eventually personally paying an unprecedented £12.3 million in fines.

As the great sell off continued those able to afford mortgages bought the most desirable properties in the most desirable areas leaving the rest to become sink estates. Before the Right to Buy, council houses, estates were more socially mixed with many tenants in work. Afterwards tenants tended to be only those in receipt of benefits as rents were gradually increased by housing associations to the maximum that housing benefit would cover. Council houses sold to tenants in areas like Kensington and Chelsea quickly changed hands as soon as the minimum ownership period expired. The area is now one of the most expensive places to live not just in the UK but in the world.

In 2015 Conservative controlled Wandsworth were accused of social cleansing when they offered council tenants a payment of £7,000 to move to Birmingham. The London Borough of Barnet offered well under market value to compulsorily purchase flat on the West Hendon estate, to be replaced with luxury flats which the existing tenants could not afford, not even the ‘affordable’ flats. The council claimed the estate was badly lit, poorly insulated with inadequate security, but they themselves were responsible for all these things. Their failure to maintain the estate is the cause of the problems which they cite as an excuse for demolishing it.

Given the track record of tory councils in rich areas one can’t help but wonder if Kensington and Chelsea will take advantage of the entirely avoidable tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire to move poor residents out of the borough and stack the electoral cards in their favour.

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