Future Brixton Open Day 22 November, 2014

I have a lot of thoughts about the enormity of the developments planned for Central Brixton that will completely transform the place I live in and love and won’t be able to afford to live in much longer. This is the extent of the area shortly to become one enormous construction zone if the council gets their way (and you have to factor in construction on the Lambeth College site too):

2014.11FutureBrixtonProjectAreas

So after a few days of letting it sit in my mind my primary question is, why the hell are they doing it now?

I wish I had asked them that. Though I’m afraid of the real answer.

The number one perceived need in the community as identified by every focus group and survey they themselves have carried out is housing affordable to people who live in Brixton now. They had a graphic even, housing dwarfed all other concerns, even jobs. And the one thing this development can’t honestly provide in the current climate without federal government funding is social housing. This ensures that this transformative development will only speed up the skyrocketing rents, the displacement of local residents, and the transformation of our community diverse in class and race to one that is homogenous, wealthy and probably overwhelmingly white.

We are in a period of ideologically driven austerity — all the evidence points to this government policy not working, even by Tory benchmarks, except in the sense that a massive transfer of land and money is taking place from public to private hands. It makes my heart hurt to see the infrastructure of social care and the urban fabric itself destroyed in this way. The slashing of central government funding has left the local councils scrambling to fund the provision of the services the community needs — and working with private developers out for as much profit as they can get rather than forming any kind of effective opposition to the destruction of a state that takes care of its people. Lambeth council has accelerated its sell off of community owned resources and housing to fund basic services.  They are in fact selling off the housing we so desperately need. Once it is gone only a nationalisation of land will ever get it back given the inflated prices of land and the costs of building things anew.

So what does the council say about the housing situation now being exacerbated by their own policies? Future Brixton’s latest newsletter, handed out at the open day, shows on page two the three priorities of the council from this development: ‘Bringing new jobs to Brixton’; ‘What’s good for business?’; and ‘Desperately needed new homes’. Under this last, it says this:

With over 20,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list and over 1,600 families in temporary housing, new homes are desperately needed. Since 1981, the council has lost almost 40% of its council housing stock, largely as a result of right to buy and of properties transferred to Registered Providers.

Over the same periods council rent levels have increased by approximately 500%, private rents and house price have increased by much more and the population of Brixton has risen by almost 18% to over 78,000 (according to the 2011 census). The Future Brixton developments will see about 750 new homes built over the next 10 years with the aim for at least 300 (or 40%) to be affordable housing.

At Somerleyton Road, building new homes for rent is the priority and as many of these as possible will be at council rent levels. It’s expected that all of the 300 new homes here will be managed by a housing cooperative. Read more about this on page 8.

20,000 people on the waiting list, and they are transforming all of Central Brixton through massive development and only providing 300 homes? It’s worse than that though, first because of how they are defining affordable housing, and second because they can’t even agree on what number of homes will potentially be built. As the Brixton Buzz reported, they originally stated the figure (as described clearly in this newsletter I’m holding in my hands) of 750 homes to be built, and received back an official letter from the council saying that only 250 homes will be built (of which 40% will then be affordable?). The number reported at Somerleyton estates alone is 300, are a fraction of those then the only ‘affordable’ units to be built? Confusion confusion.

We need to redefine ‘affordable’ as well, I hate the dishonesty of current definitions that ignore the deepening inequalities driven by low wages and unemployment to focus only on artificially inflated housing markets. The new and widespread meaning of ‘affordable’ in relation to housing is where rent is simply set as up to 80% percent of the area’s market rate rents, rather than what people can afford to pay. This is hardly affordable to any working people in Brixton (or anywhere), and also means the more expensive housing becomes (note the council itself is well aware of how private rents are steadily spiraling upwards), the higher rents will rise. This will ensure the steady displacement of the tenants who do manage to qualify initially as they are priced out.  This false idea of ‘affordability’ is very different from the traditional methods of calculating rent for social housing, which work to ensure a better level of true affordability and are usually set around 50% of market rate, if not lower in more expensive areas. A good description of both and the differences between them can be found here.

So we have a massive development that provides almost no homes (and a very questionable number of them set at very questionable levels of true affordability), that will also serve to send property prices (and therefore market rents) throughout the area soaring. What are we paying for it? Brixton Buzz reports: ‘What is clear is that Your Nu Town Hall will cost £50m. Cllr Paul McGlone, the Cabinet member for Finance has stated that this will NOT be borrowed money.’

I find the big picture of this, then, slightly vomitous. A massive development that, rather than produce the housing the community desperately needs, will instead force market rents and land prices higher, accelerating the displacement already rampant here. Worse, it’s funded partly through the sell-off of local cooperative housing and estates like Leigham Court, Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust that the council is carrying out to make up the shortfall between their budget and central government funding. Talk about social and ethnic cleansing.

It seems to me that some people working on the project must understand this, but that many probably do not. The project itself in its details has quite a lot of very nice things that are much needed by the community. Perhaps some people on the council genuinely believe that to get any housing at all they have to do something like this. I’d say they should wait until Labour get back in power and start funding social housing and social services again, so this development can include a high proportion of social housing as demanded by the community, and the council can once more work to provide the services their constituents really need. But wait…that isn’t Labour’s policy now is it. Makes you want to punch walls.

So instead this lovely community process has been held, the primary request for housing has been essentially ignored, but some beautiful public spaces will be created (how wonderful that they are developing and opening up that terrible area behind the town hall?), some help will be given to local business and more market stalls created, the train station will be improved which it desperately needs, and I love the idea of a chef’s school at Somerleyton Rd. Sadly, this will all go to benefit the new people moving to Brixton, replacing all of those who participated in this community process in the first place. But that’s not part of the discussion at the Open Day. You walk into a room like this:

2014.11.22OpenHouseInsideIt is full of details and pictures and helpful people to answer questions about the development particulars. It focuses you in on things like the proposed 14 story building replacing Olive Morris House, the terrible cookie-cutter architecture, the innovative opening up of more railway arches. You notice things like how all the pictures of community consultation show a vibrant Black community, but most of the individuals wandering many of the artist representations of what will be are white (a huge problem with computer generated renditions visible all over this damn city). You see that the consultants have tried to address some aspects of the problems with ‘affordable’ housing, but without grappling with how this development in its entirety will make the need so much greater. It’s frustrating, because you know most of the people involved have without much thought accepted right-wing defined limits of what is possible and just haven’t thought through the big picture.

There are lots of details on the Future Brixton website, and I’ll probably be looking more at those as I drag myself to future consultations, but really. This development just shouldn’t happen until a very large block of funding is included to develop a very large amount of social housing. That would help stabilise the community who make Brixton what it is. Given they are the council’s constituents, their right to remain as the community should be the council’s first priority.

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