Tim Briggs: Labour’s neglect of council housing tenants means the Party is losing working class votes

28 Jan

Cllr Tim Briggs is the sole Conservative councillor on Lambeth Council, and a London Assembly List Candidate for 2021

A recent survey suggested that Labour party members are now 70 per cent upper middle class and from London. The Labour party is losing touch with its roots: working-class people.

Former fire brigade union official, Paul Embery, has written that the Labour party now has ‘contrasting interests and priorities to millions of working-class people living in the more disadvantaged parts of our nation’. He complains that the Labour party is now ‘a movement almost exclusively for the managerial and professional classes, graduates, social activists and urban liberals’, with ‘no room on the modern Left for the small ‘c’ conservatism of the traditional working class, with its love of community and nation and its desire for social solidarity and belonging.’ Paul Embery’s observations tally with how Labour policies have affected working-class residents in boroughs like Lambeth.

First, Labour councillors are allowing big property developers to move in and demolish the estates of the same working-class people that they used to rely on for support. A Lambeth once known as ‘Loony Lambeth’ under ‘Red’ Ted Knight has swapped a culture of class warfare and revolution for a culture of property development, pushing out working-class residents and attracting wealthy middle-class Labour supporters – the professional classes, graduates, and urban liberals, described so precisely by Paul Embery. Communities near the South Bank of the river have seen their areas transformed by huge developments to become the largest building site in Europe. The building work continues around Vauxhall Station and the new Nine Elms underground station today.

Much of the new development is out of scale, and diminishes the sense of community and identity held by working-class communities. For example, Labour and Green councillors have approved the Hondo Building, an enormous tower block development in central Brixton, an area previously characterised by a horizontal cityscape. These developments have provided Labour councillors with money from developers under Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, that pay for spending on pet projects elsewhere in the borough to ensure continued Labour support at election time.

The culture of property development runs deep in Lambeth. The Labour Leader of the Council himself is a director of a property developer firm. In fact, Labour councillors are so keen to get in on the property development bandwagon that they are using the Council as a means to do so. Labour councillors have set up a private property company, ‘Homes for Lambeth’, owned by the Council, and are transferring public land and assets into the company. Labour councillors with no experience of private business talk gleefully about their plan to use land entrusted to the Council as security for loans from the financial markets to build more housing. They have, in effect, entitled themselves to long-held communal assets to become property developers, with all of the excitement but none of the personal risk.

The same Labour councillors seem determined to drive towards a cliff edge of debt, despite the law changing to make it easy for local authorities to borrow cheaply from Government to build council homes, despite a motion being passed by their own local Labour party members in Dulwich and West Norwood to stop transferring community-held land and assets into a private company, and despite next-door Labour-run Croydon going bankrupt after the collapse of its Homes for Lambeth-style property development company ‘Brick by Brick’. Nor can any finance officer at Lambeth Council say with any certainty when they expect any profits from the company. Most of the council officers who suggested borrowing huge amounts of money to set up a private property company have moved on to jobs in other local authorities.

The Lambeth approach to developing property tenanted by working-class residents differs from next door Wandsworth. In Wandsworth, estates are managed carefully as communal assets, maintained annually, not left to fall apart until repairs are needed. Residents of Lambeth with family or friends living on estates in Wandsworth are scornful of the quality of the repairs done by Lambeth Council. In Wandsworth, residents living on estates that are earmarked for demolition, like the Winstanley and York Road Estates, are consulted as much as possible to try to keep them onside. Whilst some residents from these estates have understandably found it hard having to move, none have lost their tenancies or property rights, and all have been offered generous terms to move, or have been given new properties to live in. Unused pieces of land on council estates have also been built on as part of Wandsworth’s ‘Hidden Homes’ scheme to build 1,000 completely new, additional homes. New flats get good approvals from residents, all have superfast broadband built into their structure, and they are built to last. Cabinet Member for Housing at Wandsworth Council, Cllr Kim Caddy, explains the Wandsworth Council approach as not being about property development, but building homes: prudent borrowing, lowering risks, and retaining council officers with the required skills and knowledge.

Contrast that with the ongoing conflict in Lambeth between the Labour council and working-class residents on Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill Estates. The line spun was to build “a 1,000 new homes at council rent” – but without Labour councillors admitting they had to demolish people’s existing council homes to do this. In other words, Labour council propaganda deliberately conflated regeneration and building council homes as the same thing, to imply that the only way to get new council homes built was by demolishing estates. These were many of the same council estates that the Labour administration had neglected to repair properly for decades.

The consultation process has shown up a Labour administration unable to engage or understand working-class residents, with the detail left to council officers unused to being directly accountable, or to having their ideas challenged, with skewed consultations, property rights taken away, late payments, and millions spent on public relations companies to try to placate mistakes. By way of example, one survey for the Central Hill Estate I read said something along the lines of: ‘Would you like to live in a new home?’ A box ticked ‘yes’ was taken to mean that the resident consented to having their home demolished.

Yet the pain for working-class communities under Labour is not limited to the way they are being ‘built out’ of London and displaced from their communities. Having been lobbied by a very articulate and organised cycling lobby armed with questionable data, Labour councillors in Lambeth, like many other Labour-run councils across London, have chosen to close roads and create so-called ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ that displace traffic and pollution, often onto larger roads and areas more likely to be inhabited by working-class people on lower incomes. These road and bridge closures disconnect local residents from families, local services and their communities, and from emergency services, all of which disproportionately affects vulnerable residents and working-class residents on lower incomes, who do not have the privilege of being able to avoid driving, or to avoid using gridlocked buses and public transport on nearby roads. The road closures have been devastating for local businesses already suffering as a result of the lockdown.

Labour councillors also use race issues and identity politics in their council propaganda to divide working-class communities, judging people by their skin colour rather than by the content of their character. At the same time they have allowed Lambeth to become the worst borough in London for knife-crime which disproportionately affects young black men, devastating families already hemmed in by road closures, other crime, and poor housing. Labour has kept council tax high and social mobility low, whilst Conservative-run Wandsworth is the fourth best borough in the whole of the country for children from lower-income, working-class families to grow up and do well in life. In Lambeth, community groups are dependent on council hand-outs to ensure that they remain Labour’s ‘chosen victims’, held back from excelling in the jobs and opportunities provided by the low-tax environment created by central Government to pursue their own interests freely, and live more prosperously.

Perhaps most of all, it is the failure of local democracy in Lambeth that irritates working-class residents. Until 2018 there were many “Call Ins”  – two to three hour commissions held in public, set up to explore issues raised mostly by opposition councillors: Homes for Lambeth, closed roads, the demolition of working-class estates. The outcomes were never in question, as well-drilled Labour councillors always had a majority of seats on the panel, but at least there was an outlet for residents to express their views. Yet from 2018 Labour councillors changed the Constitution to ensure that it was almost impossible for an opposition councillor to ‘call in’ a problem. At the same time, Leaseholder and Tenants Councils were abolished after years of criticism and frustration. Even in council meetings there is a limited right of reply, so no issue can be properly debated. Opposition Green councillors in Lambeth agree with Labour councillors on most issues, although taking a more extreme and impractical Left-wing view wherever possible. Inevitably, for the majority of Labour councillors who get to do the majority of talking, arguments from authority often replace detailed challenges or evidence-based arguments, and the truth or relevance of a statement made by officers or councillors is regarded as authoritative because no-one is there to say otherwise.

Moreover, across London as a whole, Sadiq Khan has failed on issues that disproportionately affect working-class people. He has failed to end gridlock across London caused by his road-narrowing and his road and bridge closures, despite the lockdown reducing traffic. He has failed to deal with knife crime and fund the police properly, which impacts most of all on working-class communities. Working-class people on lower incomes and disabled people are also disproportionately reliant on public transport, yet Khan managed to bankrupt Transport for London before the Coronavirus pandemic even started, and main roads are gridlocked. Accusations of cronyism are beginning to emerge around his awarding of contracts to chosen groups outside the usual tender process, which plays poorly for a Left-wing political elite that relies on convincing working-class people that their interests are its primary concern. Even Labour councillors are exasperated by the hypocrisy of a Labour Mayor keeping public parking spaces available for his two chauffeur-driven cars, despite making less spaces available for disabled people.

Labour councils in London like Lambeth and Khan do not consider their historic responsibility to working-class people, and their needs. These needs include a growing post-Brexit national economy providing more opportunities, an end to the gridlock created by traffic displaced by misguided road closures instead of encouraging walking and cycling, an end to divisiveness based on racial differences, proper consultations with residents on estates threatened with demolition acknowledging how working-class communities want to live, and an end to the aggressive property developer culture in Lambeth pushed by Labour. Diverse working-class Lambeth residents believe in our amazing country, want good schools, good homes, and they believe in their ability to work together freely and independently to achieve their dreams, with social solidarity and belonging, for themselves and for their children, and for generations to come. Let’s help them.

Tim Briggs: The Left are using “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” as an ideological tool to undermine wealth creation

4 Nov

Cllr Tim Briggs is the sole Conservative councillor on Lambeth Council, and a London Assembly List Candidate for 2021

As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson brought in a number of measures to encourage cycling, and lower car use. His cycling reforms were in line with a Conservative belief that cars should not be replaced, but that technology can make cars greener, less polluting, less necessary, balancing environmental improvements with individual freedoms.

So in May, local authorities in London were given £225 million by Boris Johnson’s government to implement traffic measures, to help achieve the Government’s aim to ‘build back better’ after the lockdown. One of the measures taken by local authorities has been to implement ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTN), closing off roads and residential areas from traffic.

If they did not know before, Ministers are now realising just how ideological Labour authorities in London actually are. Labour councillors in Lambeth were planning to close roads and create Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in January 2020 from Lambeth’s own budget, before the funding offer came from central Government in May. The keenness of Labour councillors to close roads is in line with a left-wing belief, shared with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, that if you create enough disincentives to drive, children can play on empty streets where cars once drove.

Now that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been imposed, the reality is different. Residents say that some streets are quiet and unsafe to walk through at night. Traffic is in gridlock on the roads around LTNs, car journeys are longer, and pollution has spiked. Many people in London (disabled, elderly, trades people, people delivering goods and services, key workers etc) simply do not have the privilege of choosing to use a bike in their everyday lives. The ‘consultation’ has been about-face: LTNs have been imposed, and residents now have to beg for them to be removed or changed. The strong support for imposing LTNs shown by Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens is in line with their strangely illiberal, undemocratic sense that being right requires no consultation, because they are the citizens most capable of making decisions for residents, not on behalf of residents.

The Government has pushed back. It warns local authorities not to simply impose changes without consulting residents properly, and that traffic orders “do not turn into permanent measures by default”.

Prior to drafting an Emergency Motion for a Lambeth council meeting on 14th October, I asked residents on the OneLambeth Facebook page to email me examples of problems created by LTNs across Lambeth. The testimonials were alarming.

Residents witnessing road-rage assaults on the road outside their properties, including a baseball bat being used to smash another car. Police stuck in traffic having to leave their vehicle and run up the road to chase suspects. The resident who had a driver spit in his face, unable to move his car forward or backwards on the road due to traffic, his car dented several times. A plumber unable to carry out an emergency job as he could not get to the next street. An ambulance on an emergency unable to get through (there are multiple videos on YouTube of ambulances stuck on Ferndale Road). Six named businesses in one Ward are in danger of closing, partly or directly as a result of the LTN. The Brixton Hill company which can only do 30 per cent of the jobs they have been asked to do, unable to give ‘firm appointments anymore, just a.m. or p.m.’ to assist mental health professionals, police and the ambulance service to carry out mental health assessments. The son visiting his severely disabled mother in Camberwell on a journey that used to take five minutes which is now ‘anywhere up to 45 mins.’ The district nurse in tears as she physically cannot get to all her patients and is late for all of her appointments. Vigilante groups intimidating drivers on Upper Tulse Hill. Women being harassed and frightened on their dimly lit LTN street at night. A fire engine in Oval stuck with its lights flashing, whose crew had to ask directions to leave the LTN, or Ocado stopping food deliveries in Oval and Streatham due to ‘road closures and traffic issues’.

Most alarmingly for a set of Labour councillors that likes to virtue-signal, it appears that ethnic minority businesses have been most affected by road closures, and many are threatened with laying off staff to survive, or closing down. There have been no Equality Impact Assessments carried out that have proper, verifiable data. Traffic and pollution are being displaced onto residential roads such as Coldharbour Lane in Brixton which are disproportionately affected by Covid, with pollution thought to be a factor in disease severity and mortality rates. Therefore even a short term increase in traffic on these roads is likely to be harmful to people of colour, before any mythical traffic evaporation. Compromising health outcomes for specific groups of residents is not a reasonable thing for a local authority to do, even temporarily, in pursuit of potential benefits for which there is little or no evidence.

Road blockages might work to stop a rat-run or protect a school area, but the net benefits on the wider area have to be shown, not assumed. It is common sense that there will always need to be some car use in London, for weekly food shops, for disabled people, elderly people, businesses, for people who need their cars for work or for family, or to travel out of London. Allowing streets to be ‘reclaimed’ by residents so that children privileged enough to live in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood can play on them safely, whilst other residents and their children live in or around gridlocked roads with higher pollution, is unacceptable, and benefits the few, not the many.

The knock-on effect of imposing more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods is circular, because people then want more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to protect their own areas from increased traffic. Yet if a Council made every non-main road a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, food supplies in London would be disrupted, and law and order would quickly break down. In Lambeth the groups calling for LTNs have been making their case loudly, and for a long time, and have been listened to by Labour councillors in control of the Council. Those supporting other traffic management measures have not.

No-one disputes that more walking and cycling is a good thing. If Councils do nothing to manage traffic flows, bottle necks and rat-runs develop. So whilst too many of the wrong measures can be counter-productive, clearly some traffic management measures are needed. The issue is whether LTNs are a good thing among a host of other alternatives.

Conservative-run Wandsworth Council suspended their LTNs, citing ‘concerns with emergency access and traffic flows… compounded by the changes that TfL [Sadiq Khan] is making to red route roads… [which] has caused confusion and long traffic queues’. Wandsworth councillors also confirmed to me that the emergency services were happy to see the road changes and blockages in Wandsworth withdrawn, after ambulances got stuck in traffic, and the police were unable to get to a high value robbery taking place despite being two minutes away in normal traffic. This evidence contradicts the ‘arguing points’ given to Labour councillors in Lambeth to copy and paste in their replies to concerned residents, that the ‘emergency services have expressed their support for these schemes’.

Chaos-ridden Labour-run Croydon Council has agreed to launch a consultation, with an option to scrap the scheme. The Labour Mayor of Lewisham has promised to announce ‘short-term’ changes to alleviate extra traffic displaced on to surrounding roads when the pressure from residents got too intense, but a week later now refuses to change almost anything. The Labour Mayor of Hackney is on YouTube admitting that LTNs are designed to create traffic congestion on main roads, in order to raise revenue from fines and road charging. Even the chauffeur-driven Mayor of London has removed some cycle lanes from TfL main roads and unblocked some turns into side roads, when the cycle lanes were hardly being used.

When Wandsworth cancels its LTNs, it allows people and capital to flow again. That enables wealth to carry on being created at the same rate, and for individuals and business to be connected as wealth creators, and as consumers of goods and services, at lower cost. Meanwhile Lambeth, with its gridlocked roads and struggling businesses, can only become poorer and more closed off for as long as badly-implemented LTNs are kept in place. Lambeth is already way behind Wandsworth on social mobility.

The concept of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods has become a meeting-point for opposing political ideas about what cities are for, and how city micro-communities flourish or decline. It has become a debate between residents with a pragmatist approach, in line with Conservatives, holding a vision of an open society where people and businesses have the freedom to move around, create wealth and take advantage of opportunity, against a more closed society envisaged by the Left, where wealth creation and opportunities are restricted on behalf of a shared idea of a greater good, but impacting negatively as ever on working people, and people on low incomes. Londoners have suddenly been confronted with the reality that local politics matters, and the reality of being what Shaun Bailey has called Labour’s ‘chosen victims’.