The New Era housing estate scandal in Dalston, east London, highlighted by Aditya Chakraborrtty, tells a poignant and tragic story about how Victorian philanthropic ideals has been transformed into commercial assets in play in the international market with not a shred of concern about the human consequences. Arthur Barsht, the man who built this 93-flat estate, must be squirming in his grave. It was preserved for more than 80 years by the Lever family who ran the estate as a place where low-income workers in teaching, health and construction could live near where they worked. Now the grandson of the founder, who lives in a 5-bedroom detached house in Northwood, Middlesex, has announced the family is to sell up to an American private equity company which intends to quadruple the £600 a month rents for a 2-bed flat to £2,400. The US company was assisted in the takeover of the estate by Richard Benyon, the Tory MP whose multimillion-pound family estate in extensive parkland near London was a partner to the deal. None of the tenants will remotely be able to afford the new sky-high rents and they will all be evicted before Christmas. Welcome to Cameronian capitalism.
The whole Tory aim of squeezing public services, ostensibly to pay down the deficit (which is actually rising this year), is to restructure a public welfare state as a fully privatised market system. The New Era estate is just one of thousands of initiatives designed to achieve this end, though a strongly redolent one. The callousness of this nakedly monetary transaction is shown by the fact that nobody from the London office of the US private equity firm, Westbrook, has even deigned to visit the estate and talk to the residents, all of whom will be abruptly made homeless within the next 3 weeks. It is purely a financialised arrangement transforming a tight-knit community into a global investment.
So why wasn’t this outrage stopped? Because the families will have been evicted from private properties on private land, Hackney Council will have no responsibility to re-house them. They will be forced to leave London, but wherever they end up the public taxpayer, not Westbrook, will have to pay the cost of their accommodation. It is ironic that Westbrook invests money from US public and private pension funds, endowments and foundations, including investments from many lower-paid workers similar to those now about to be evicted. It is also resonant that Westbrook Partners have been taken to court for their shabby, vermin-ridden, unrepaired housing complexes in New York and been forced to carry out basic repairs and compensate their tenants.
In the light of this revelation of the new Tory Britain which Grant Shapps, the former Tory housing minister, hailed as a model for private landlords as “the unsung heroes of the housing market”, Labour should bring in legislation to require local authorities to be offered first rights to take over all such estates being sold, with reserve rights of compulsory purchase where necessary to protect tenants.