By Tom Esslemont
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From the moment Jan Sweeney first got the keys to her council flat in west London 35 years ago, she hoped she had found a sanctuary from the economic unrest gripping the city.
Like thousands of other working class people across Britain, Sweeney was offered “social housing” – a home for an affordable rent on a secure basis in the heart of the capital where council housing estates dominated the skyline in the 1950s and 1960s.
“It was a rough area but people were friendly,” said Sweeney, squinting as dazzling sunlight poured through the windows of her North Kensington home.
But fast forward to 2016 and Sweeney says she finds herself confronting new British housing laws that could see housing estates bulldozed to make room for more expensive developments.
Rising income inequality has led to poorer residents being squeezed out of London as wealthier inhabitants and investors snap up real estate in central areas, say property rights campaigners who want better protection for council tenants.
Under the new Housing and Planning Act, London tenants like Sweeney with an annual household income of more than £40,000 ($51,812) will be able to stay in their homes under the “Pay to Stay” scheme requiring them to pay market rents.
But in the three decades since Sweeney and her husband moved to North Kensington, the area’s once crime-ridden streets have transformed into an affluent neighborhood, a short walk from the nightclubs and restaurants of vibrant Notting Hill Gate.
In that time, the market value of her home has soared more than 3,000 percent to £800,000 ($1.04 million), making the rent she would be forced to pay unaffordable, said Sweeney.
The new housing laws will price many tenants out of the capital, Sweeney and other social housing campaign groups said.
According to the Local Government Association (LGA), a council support agency, almost a third of eligible social housing tenants are unable to afford the new tariffs.
The social fabric of a city renowned for its diverse communities will be altered dramatically because of the changes, said Sweeney, a school teaching assistant.
“With these new laws, London will soon be rid of working class people; the shop keepers, the park attendants, the postmen – and we won’t be able to afford to stay,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
TOWER BLOCK VILLAGES
Pressure from David Cameron’s Conservative government on local authorities to build new homes has left planners earmarking swathes of the capital for redevelopment with plans expected to be formally implemented by early 2017.
Britain’s government has revealed plans to build 400,000 affordable new homes by 2020.
The government says Britain’s new housing laws, which follow years of austerity and changes to the welfare system, will enable more young people to get on the property ladder.
“The (housing) act will contribute to transforming ‘generation rent’ into ‘generation buy’, helping us towards achieving our ambition of delivering 1 million new homes,” said Brandon Lewis, housing and planning minister, in a statement.
Silchester estate, a collection of gray tower blocks down the road from Sweeney’s home, is one of the areas listed for possible redevelopment, said resident Piers Thompson.
“The government is tinged with animosity towards council estates, social and low-density housing,” said Thompson.
His house and decked garden, which is adorned with poppies and pink foxgloves and overlooked by towering apartment blocks, could soon be demolished if local authority plans are approved.
“They think these areas are full of feckless skivers who rub off badly against each other,” said Thompson. “They look at us and think ‘that is an area that is ripe for redevelopment’.”
According to the local authority, so far no final decision to regenerate any estate in the district has been made.
Secure tenants will have the chance to remain in the same area after regeneration, and that redevelopment of the area could result in between 1,500 and 2,000 new homes being built, a spokesman for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea said.
Tenants on higher incomes will be required to pay “fairer rents” under the new Housing and Planning Act, the UK department for local communities said on its website.
The squeeze on financial support to local authorities has drawn criticism from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, noting “with concern” the adverse impact of this on the “the right to adequate housing”, according to a recent report.
Campaigners said they feared the new laws could spell an end to the concept of social housing.
Around half of all tenants deemed to be on high incomes in London, the southeast and east of England would not be able to afford to pay market rents or take up “Right to Buy”, said Peter Box, spokesman for the LGA.
“Councils have warned that social housing tenants unable to afford market rents need to be protected from the unintended consequence of Pay to Stay,” Box said.
Uncertainty over Brexit and political turmoil since Britain voted to leave the European Union have also held up the finalization of the housing reforms, leaving many residents in the dark about their future – and that of their prime minister.
Cameron, who resigned on June 24 after the referendum result, has yet to confirm whether he will move back into the North Kensington house he owns, a block from the Silchester estate, when he officially steps down.
If he does, he may not be greeted warmly by everyone he passes in playgrounds and communal gardens, said Sweeney.
“You are destroying mixed communities and bringing council homes to their knees,” she said, in a comment directed at Cameron. “We need social housing more than ever before and your government is selling off what little we have.”
($1 = 0.7720 pounds)
(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Paola Totaro and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)