While Dave and Nick grapple with the vital task of figuring out who'll put the phone down first on their next love-call, in London councils are grappling with the first direct consequence of the newly declared War On The Poor, who appear to have caused the credit crunch all by themselves. Naughty old poor. Alex has already covered the potential political consequences, what of the geographical ones?
Basically the situation is this: In London there are a number of long-term Conservative one-party states, notably the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster, to which we can probably add Wandsworth and, increasingly, the laughable 'flagship' Propaganda Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. They have, unsurprisingly, a certain amount of social housing, inherited from the time when London actually did social housing, some of which is grotty 60s/70s concrete but quite a lot of which is decent, solid stuff like the Queen Caroline Estate. Likewise not entirely surprisingly this social housing sits on some very handsome and valuable real estate, in places like Notting Hill, Fulham as well as the Hammersmith riverside, and could thus, if suitably monetized, be expected to make a substantial contribution to the fiction that running a low council tax in a mainly wealthy area with high business rate income and relatively little demand for services indicates the moral ascendency of Conservative one-party states. It's a win/win/win - lose the poor, gain the land, pocket the income, or at least what is left over after paying as little as you can get away with for B&Bs in Hastings or Slough. It's interesting to go back to as long ago as 2009 where this sort of thing was coming out:
Under the plans, new homes will be built to attract residents with higher incomes and areas that have traditionally voted Labour will be broken up as more than 3,500 flats and houses are demolished. Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh, who also heads Mr Cameron's Conservative Councils Innovation Unit, believes council housing is "warehousing poverty" and entrenches welfare dependency.
Mr Greenhalgh denied he plans to ship low income residents out to other areas of London, but tenants and leaseholders fear they will be left with nowhere to go once their homes are demolished and fewer replacements built.
Another non-surprise, therefore, comes with the cosy relationship enjoyed by local government and the property industry, despite Boris Johnson's numerous protestations about changing the planning laws to favour family homes over high rises and small local shops over superstores. When the bullshit stops walking and the money talks, the conversation invariably seems to involve Conservative local government types and property developers drawing up huge schemes that involve the transfer of public land in one direction and cash in the other. Having the former leader of Westminster as Boris's Chief of Staff to whom planning decisions tend to get devolved is, in this context, something of a masterstroke for the property interest, as a blind eye and a plausibly spun cover story can be virtually assured. Indeed, the Earl's Court exhibition centre freehold is even *owned by Transport for London*, which is virtually certain to come in handy at some point. Under Labour there was a final central line of defence in the form of John Denham, who developed quite a reputation for doing Boris's job for him and canning inappropriate developments. Under the Coalition we have Eric Pickles, who can be expected not to raise a finger - in fact I strongly suspect that this power might well be given up in the forthcoming Localism Bill under the guise of 'freeing the councils', who will then gratefully flog everything off. It's already happening - in Hammersrnith there's a sizeable opposition to the redevelopment of council land around the Town Hall (including the registry office where we registered my son's birth), which for no apparent reason now appears to involve 14 storey blocks. Other talk has been of turning the area into a sea of exhibition centres and hotels, presumably once the remaining proletariat have been convinced to make themselves scarce.
It's against this backdrop, therefore, that the clouds of spin around the 'supercouncil' formed by combining the services of H&F, K&C and Westminster should be seen. Numerous lucrative development sites dot the area, not least the aforementioned Earls Court exhibition centre, along with the estates north of Shepherd's Bush which are already being masterplanned in such a way as to remove a large amount of social housing and privatise the rest. The joy of having the services combined is that it essentially extends the one party state into areas of Hammersmith that might conceivably vote Labour - even if the borough does swing back (which demographically is unlikely - the ruling Tories lost two seats in May but are still well in charge) there's unlikely to be much a new administration can do when outvoted two to one by solid Tory councils. A large area of London that basically thinks and works the same way with regard to existing social housing and has effective control of the Mayor's blue pencil is obviously useful for developers.
Indeed, it's this latter point that shows up the superficially attractive prospect of sharing services as a substantial democratic attack - if a council is not actually in charge of what it charges council tax for, the legitimacy of charging council tax is reduced, as is its freedom to make its own decisions. It's here that Nick Clegg's principled rhetoric about freeing councils up rather loses the battle of ideas with reality - what's actually happening is that a small set of metropolitan councillors with an effectively permanent powerbase and their property industry mates are rigging things up at Whitehall to make themselves a bundle of cash while simultaneously making their powerbase even more secure and no amount of pious Lib Dem waffle about tax increment funding is likely to persuade them that the planning system exists for the benefit of the people as well as the property men.