When Localism Is Anti-Social

Recent campaigns against council housing and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in London are a reminder of the dangers of localist rhetoric – and how it can be weaponised against progressive policies.

Recent months have seen small but well-organised campaigns against Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in London. (Credit: PA Images / Getty)

A few weeks ago, the cabinet member for housing in the London Borough of Southwark, where I live, resigned after it became clear he had used a ‘sock puppet’ account against a local campaigner on social media. It was absolutely right that he resign – no elected representative should be doing something like this, let alone one in charge of something so sensitive as housing. It’s irrelevant but true to say that in just a couple of cases, his sock puppet—under the name ‘Southwark YIMBY’ (that is, ‘Yes In My Back Yard’, an American pro-property development slogan)—had a point.

Some of the campaigners were campaigning against new council housing being built in their ‘back yards’, a position which prizes a scrubby bit of open land or even a few garages as being more important than the provision of decent public housing. However, this debate needs to be in the open. One reason why it is often done covertly is because it is a genuinely thorny question for the Left – how much should we trust local authorities with dodgy records who talk up their social programmes? And joined to it is an more fraught question – how much do we trust local community groups to be speaking for a genuinely common interest?

Anyone who knows anything much about the place where they live knows that localism is not always a friend of the Left. We’ve all seen campaigns against cycle lanes. We’ve all seen movements against social housing in areas where it would lower the tone and the property values. We’ve all seen the obsession with ‘anti-social behaviour’, which all too often just means people of the wrong age and wrong complexion using and enjoying public space. We can even see the Labour leader indulging in this miserable politics right now.

But when it comes to Labour local authorities today, suspicion is often a matter of good judgement. On housing, for instance, the cabinet member in Southwark represented a council which had in a recent incarnation destroyed thousands of decent council homes in a deliberate, cynical, and cruel effort to engineer a new ‘social mix’ in the area. Although current representatives distance themselves from this, there is still a huge and mostly derelict council estate in the heart of the borough that could be easily refurbished, and the wasteful and socially disastrous demolition of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre—whose bowling alley and bingo hall were among the few genuinely socially and racially mixed public spaces in inner London—is currently in progress.

So it’s easy to forgive vigilance. But I have seen numerous examples in recent months where campaigns have emerged in some of the leafiest parts of the borough against the building of infill council housing. This is phrased in the same terms of the fights against ‘social cleansing’ that correctly mark out housing campaigns; but building new council housing is something London desperately needs. It is not hard to argue that it overrides almost anything else a council could do right now. It is not cleansing, it’s healing.

A similar argument could be made about the ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ brought in by several London boroughs during the pandemic’s first waves. Though they were officially intended to encourage distanced pedestrian use of public space, they were really something councils (and green, cycling, and public transport campaigners) had wanted to do for a long time – that is, a reduction of the car dominance on British streets, finally moving us to the street model common in our direct neighbours in northern Europe, where car use is subordinate to pedestrians and cyclists, and road space is drastically reduced; this is not a novel idea, but one that began to be implemented in the Netherlands around fifty years ago.

Sometimes the LTNs were clumsily implemented. The policy was not well co-ordinated with disability rights groups – a particular problem given that being able to cross the road safely and not having to breathe in petrol benefits those of us with disabilities more than most. It’s also true that many London councils are so close to property interests that assuming a policy is linked to boosting house prices in an area is not excessively paranoid.

But the fact is that ‘LTNs’ were a policy that most people needed and wanted. They were instantly hugely popular with all but a (very vocal and well-connected) minority, saw huge increases in uses of local businesses, disproving the persistent myth that restricting driving and parking adversely affects high streets, and have been shown in repeated polls to be popular with most Londoners.

And why should they not be? Fewer Londoners drive than in any other big city. TfL’s own surveys show very clearly that poor Londoners drive less than any other Londoners, and black Londoners drive less than every other ethnicity – oh, and also that disabled Londoners use cars much less than able-bodied Londoners. There is also no evidence of the repeated claim that LTNs favour only wealthy areas – if anything, the evidence is the other way. Again, this is the sort of policy we actually need – something that makes everyday life better for most people, rather than worse; a precious thing, when life in Britain seems like the endless crushing of hope. To smash LTNs for being imperfect seems wilfully self-defeating.

A lesser example of this is perhaps the campaign against HS2. There are people in Somers Town who have every right to be extremely hostile to the high-speed link from Euston to Birmingham, because it will mean the destruction of their houses and estates. The redesign of what is now Euston Station and its environs into a series of malls and retail parks with railway stations beneath is gratuitous, and an example of—yes—social cleansing, in a still mixed inner London area.

At the same time, HS2 is clearly necessary. The important point of it is to raise capacity on the railways to the point where we can eliminate as much as possible intercity travel by plane in Britain, as is now being mooted in France. Instead of stopping HS2, the focus should surely be on stopping the needless destruction in Somers Town, which has nothing to do with the need to eliminate the ecological disaster of commuter air travel, and everything to do with the ongoing eradication of everything in London that isn’t property development.

There’s a recent very good example of creatively using the ‘positive’ official state goals in a campaigning fashion, though they may not thank me for invoking them here. One of the campaign groups concentrating on council housing in Southwark—who broke the scandalous story of the council selling the Heygate estate to the Australian developers LendLease for less than it actually cost to clear it for sale—is called the ‘35% Campaign’. This was a well-chosen name, because it held the council to what they said they actually wanted – 35% social rented housing on all their regeneration sites. This was something they resolutely failed to do, and at the rebuilt Heygate site now, the percentage is around 3%. What calling the campaign 35% did was take the council at their word and say ‘we support what you’re claiming you’re doing, and we’re going to try our hardest to damn well hold you to it’.

Would that not be a better approach to the current promises—common to many councils now, from the softs in London and Bristol to the socialists in Salford—of council housing programmes, better public spaces, better public transport, community wealth building, and a more humane city? To not give an automatic ‘fuck you’ to anything other than an entirely miserable status quo, but instead a creative response to the councils who are—under enormous public pressure—finally promising to actually do something to change it?

One of the few bright spots of a horrible year has been seeing public spaces like parks and streets and river embankments being used in a free and spontaneous way, a striking and welcome change from the Airbnb touristification that seemed all-powerful in 2019. Space is finally starting to be reclaimed. We can embrace—and try to change and influence—the tentative steps that are happening to make some of that permanent, from Peckham Rye to Primrose Hill. Or, we can complain that we haven’t got exactly what we wanted, and pretend that the ‘ruthless criticism of everything that exists’ is a real politics, rather than what it actually is – a sulk.