Newspaper columns usually talk politics or policy, but not this one. Today I want to discuss an emotion: contempt. “The action of scorning or despising” is the dictionary definition. “The condition of being held worthless.”
Contempt is the thread that runs through much of the worst barbarism in today’s Britain. When Grenfell Tower burned down, killing at least 80 men, women and children, one campaigner told the Financial Times: “It was not that we stayed silent, but that they never responded. It was not just that they ignored us, but that they viewed us with contempt.”
Contempt is the Tenant Management Association being warned again and againby residents that their homes are a deathtrap, but not lifting a finger. It is a local authority watching its tenants burn to death, then mounting a response so pitiful its leader is forced to resign. It is elected councillors holding the first meeting after the Grenfell tragedy to which they could have invited the survivors, but instead locking them out, citing “the risk of disruption”.
When one group of people is deemed unworthy of the place in which they live, the product is inevitably contempt. That applies to the security guards and nursery workers dying in Kensington just as much as it does to disabled people impoverished by the benefit cuts of austerity Britain.
Contempt doesn’t belong solely to one neighbourhood or political party. Ask Sam Leggatt, who lives on the other side of London from Grenfell, in the north-eastern borough of Haringey. Tonight the Labour-run council, for which she has always voted, is likely to approve plans to privatise her entire housing estate. If that happens, her home will probably be demolished. Yet neither she nor any of her neighbours have been told this by officials. When I put these and other allegations to Haringey council, it said that “no decision has been made on the future” of Leggatt’s estate – but that it is among the first earmarked for privatisation, with “regeneration” to follow. A friend told her last night, and now she keeps having “little wobbles”. “We’re not worth anything, are we?” she says. “We’ve been treated with utter contempt.”
Except Sam is worth a lot. She’s lived on Tottenham’s Northumberland Park estate for over 30 years, and does the finance and admin for the local childcare centre. She helped clear up the mess after the Tottenham riots of 2011 and went to all the residents’ meetings. She’s raised two kids in her council maisonette, always pays the rent on time and turns everything, even the prospect of being turfed out of her home, into a husky “What you gonna do?” laugh. Her only crime is that she doesn’t fit her council’s ideas for her own neighbourhood.
In what must be one of the biggest gambles ever to be made by local government, Haringey plans to stuff family homes, school buildings, its biggest library and much more into a giant private fund worth £2bn. It’s the largest scheme of its kind – “unprecedented”, in the words of backbench councillors. Together with a property developer, it will tear down whole streets of publicly owned buildings and replace them with a shiny town centre and 6,400 homes.
As someone who grew up nearby, I can see that it needs investment – but this is something else entirely: it is privatisation, even if the council holds on to a 50% share and claims otherwise. Those houses will almost certainly not be for the likes of Sam. When I last wrote about the HDV – the Haringey Development Vehicle – the council told me that the private entity had no targets for building social housing.
Its chosen partner in the HDV is Lendlease. Haringey will entrust the developer with a major plank of its housing strategy for decades, even though when Lendlease partnered with Southwark council on its “regeneration” of the Heygate estate it bulldozed nearly 1,200 social homes and built just 82 replacements.
However easy it is for pundits to conflate today’s Labour party with Jeremy Corbyn, to do so ignores the daily experience of people under many Labour councils that are his ideological opposite. Such as the zombie Blairites who run Haringey, and who bear as much resemblance to Corbyn’s Labour as Jive Bunny does to death metal. This shower recently sold an art deco town hall to Hong Kong investors to turn into a boutique hotel and expensive flats – with just four affordable homes.
They spent more than £40,000 of taxpayers’ money this year to swan off to a property fair in Cannes and sell their land to multinational developers. Alongside nuggets about how easy local transport connections make it to leave the borough, their investor brochure bursts with computer images of a FutureHaringey full of shiny towers, a bit like Blade Runner for buy-to-let landlords. Strangely, for an area in which around one in four residents is black, it features not a single black face. The council’s own 2015 assessment of its housing strategy says: “Black residents may not benefit from the plans to build more homes in the borough.” It goes on: “The ability of local people to afford the new homes being built, is dependent on them … increasing their incomes to a sufficient level to afford the new homes.”
Sam Leggatt gets the point: “They want to turn our home into Kensington, without Grenfell.” She quotes an assertion from a senior cabinet member that the estate on which she lives is worth “minus £15m”. The council says this is the net cost of improving the 1,300 homes, but Leggatt has her interpretation: “They think we’re what makes it worth minus £15m. Us, the plebs, the people who’ve lived here, raised our families here, worked here, got our memories here. We’re just a commodity to them.”
Unlike its Conservative equivalent, Blairite contempt pretends it is no such thing. Haringey boasts of being transparent, then releases 1,500 pages of legal and financial documents on the HDV just a week before tonight’s cabinet meeting. The council leader, Claire Kober, promises in this newspaper and everywhere else “to rehouse all existing tenants in the same area, if that’s what they want, on the same rent and the same terms”. Then, among the appendices and redactions of last week’s paper mountain, she buries this: “The HDV Business Plans prioritise a single move for residents rather than Right of Return.”
This means that, whatever the public promises, when Sam is moved out of her home, her coming back isn’t a priority for the council. The 63-year-old can see how she’ll live out her days: “A one-bed on the top floor of a tower block. I won’t be able to get another job, or see my friends.” Council press officers told me the papers were only “a provisional set of proposals”, yet they are what the cabinet is being asked to agree to on Monday. If they are approved, one of the biggest privatisations ever known to local government will begin – not provisionally, but for real.
Contempt, Haringey-style, is publishing a text longer than War and Peace and expecting the public to digest it in just five working days. It is showing foreign investors one thing, and telling local residents another. Employing a director of regeneration who openly describes part of the area she’s regenerating as a “warzone” – a comment the council claims was taken out of context. It is creating a future for an area in which the very people living there are erased.
Tonight, as Haringey council’s cabinet hands over public assets to an unaccountable private giant, protesters will march peacefully on the civic centre. If you care about our capital remaining a home for all, rather than a chewtoy for international speculators, you should try to be there.
Sam and her neighbours have done nothing to deserve this official contempt. But the politicians and officials forcing through this reckless, arrogant gamble – now, they really are contemptible.