Two symbolic results in the politics of housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The overall results may be more mixed but the Conservative loss of its flagship councils Wandsworth and Westminster could hardly be more symbolic in terms of the politics of housing.

Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since its creation in 1964 while Wandsworth has been run by the Tories since 1978.

Both were retained by the party at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity in 1990 and throughout the Blair and Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 but not anymore.

Together with Barnet, which also went Labour for the first time, they represent a sea change in politics in London, as former housing minister Lord Barwell noted in a tweet this morning:

That gives some idea of the resonance of the results for the Conservatives, but Wandsworth and Westminster are possibly even more significant in the history of the politics of housing.

Wandsworth switched between Labour and the Conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s at the peak of the post-war development of council housing before turning decisively blue in 1978.

That was a year before Mrs Thatcher’s general election victory in 1979 and the borough became the crucible for municipal Thatcherism and an enthusiastic early adopter of the privatisation of council services.

It was one of the councils at the forefront of selling council homes to tenants even before the creation of the Right to Buy and also pioneered the sale of flats at a time when they were much more difficult to sell than houses.

The council established a Home Ownership Unit whose tactics included sending targeted letters to residents urging them to join ‘the happy band of owner-occupiers’ on their estate. Within 30 years it had sold around half of its housing stock.

Wandsworth also pursued voluntary sales of empty properties even as the number of homeless acceptances and families in temporary accommodation soared. As happened more famously in Westminster, this policy was challenged by the district auditor.

However, the Conservatives retained power at election after election and former council leaders went on to become MPs (Paul Beresford and Christopher Chope) and senior advisor to Boris Johnson as London mayor and prime minister (Eddie Lister). Wandsworth Tories resisted a strong Labour challenge even in 2018.

The borough has also seen extensive gentrification as affluent families have moved in and developments such as Nine Elms have changed its skyline. The area includes perhaps the most visible symbol of housing inequality in the country – the Sky Pool.

However, Nine Elms has run into  financial problems following disappointing demand and blowback from the Chinese property crisis. 

If the Wandsworth result was not totally unexpected (all three parliamentary constituencies in the borough went Labour at the 2019 election), Westminster looked a much longer shot.

Many of the same issues to do with council housing, the Right to Buy, homelessness and gentrification were in play here.

In one famous example, residents successfully resisted council attempts to sell the Walterton and Elgin estates to private developers. They eventually used the Conservative government’s own Tenants’ Choice legislation (designed to encourage transfers to private landlords) to take control of the estates through their own housing association, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes.

Labour overturned a significant Conservatives majority to win but it had previously come very close to victory in 1986, when the Tory majority was reduced from 26 to four.

It was that close result that led to what was (until Grenfell) perhaps the most serious scandal in the history of the politics of housing.

To recap briefly, council leader Shirley Porter instituted a programme called Building Stable Communities that focussed on eight key marginal wards.

The strategy was basically to renovate vacant council homes for market sale (designated sales) at the same time as homeless households were moved to other parts of London and the South East and safer wards in Westminster.

The most visible signs of this were steel security doors blocking vacant homes and homeless families housed in two tower blocks riddled with asbestos.

It worked politically as the Conservatives increased their majority to 30 in 1990 but Labour had already complained to the district auditor over what was dubbed Homes for Votes.

In 1996, the district auditor found that Building Stable Communities was unlawful, the now Dame Shirley Porter was guilty of ‘wilful misconduct’ and ‘disgraceful and improper gerrymandering’, and that she and other councillors and officials were jointly liable to repay millions in lost revenue.

Cutting a very long story short, a succession of legal cases followed culminating in a case in the House of Lords before a final settlement between the council and the Audit Commission was agreed.

In 2009, the then Conservative leader of the council apologised and severely criticised Shirley Porter. Inside Housing reported that Westminster had spent £14 million on buying back 60 former council homes at up to ten times what they had been sold for.

More recently, the borough was at the heart of media coverage of the ‘scandal’ of housing benefit payments made to families living in ‘luxury’ accommodation that was used to justify the extensive programme of benefit cuts under the coalition. It is hard not to join the dots.

Those brief accounts only cover the basics of what happened in Westminster and Wandsworth and do not include the low council tax policies that were crucial to Conservative success up to now.

Both councils have retained their (dramatically reduced) housing stock in the years since. It’s worth noting that Wandsworth was one of only two English councils to freeze its rents this year.

What happens next will be fascinating to see. Wandsworth Labour has promised to build 1,000 new council homes using the ‘vital asset’ of council-owned land in Wandsworth, set a target of at least 50 per cent affordable housing on all developments and campaign for London-wide rent controls. 

Westminster Labour is also promising a council building plan for social and affordable homes, to ‘end the cosy “business as usual” relationship with private developers and take greater control of council-owned land and homes delivered through the planning system.

A Westminster Housing Review will be held into how housing management and engagement with residents is working while the council will also tackle empty homes and Airbnb.  .

These are only two of many results in local council elections and the usual debate is already raging about what they mean for national politics. As I’m writing this, results were still awaited in some English councils and counting had barely begun in the rest of the UK.

In the politics of housing, though, it will be hard to beat the results from Wandsworth and Westminster.


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