A rousing defence of private property in The Guardian of all places


This is all rather Dr. Johnson in a way, as with seeing a woman preacher. It's that thing with a dog walking on its hind legs: not to see the thing being done so well but to see it being done at all. So it is with Aditya Chakrabortty and his tale of how some council house tenants in East London are being railroaded.

What is powerlessness? Try this for a definition: you stand to lose the home where you’ve lived for more than 20 years and raised two boys. And all your neighbours stand to lose theirs. None of you have any say in the matter. Play whatever card you like – loud protest, sound reason, an artillery of facts – you can’t change what will happen to your own lives.

Imagine that, and you have some idea of what Sonia Mckenzie is going through. In one of the most powerful societies in human history – armed to the teeth and richer than ever before – she apparently counts for nothing. No one will listen to her, or the 230-odd neighbouring households who face being wrenched from their families and friends. All their arguments are swallowed up by silence. And the only reason I can come up with for why that might be is that they’ve committed the cardinal sin of being poor in a rich city.

It's as if the assembled plutocrats of the planet are descending to feast upon the bones of good honest working class Brits, isn't it? So, who are the villains here?

Sonia lives in one of the most famous landmarks in east London. The Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers are the first things you see getting off the train at Leytonstone High Road station; they hulk over every conversation on the surrounding streets and the football matches on Wanstead Flats. Since completion in the 1960s, they’ve provided affordable council homes with secure tenancies to thousands of families. Named after two local councillors, they are a testament in bricks and mortar to a time when the public sector felt more of a responsibility to the people it was meant to protect, and exercised it too.

And so they must go. Last month, Waltham Forest council agreed on a plan to strip back the two high-rises to their concrete shells, rebuild the flats, and in effect flog off one of the towers to the private sector. In between Fred and John, it will put up a third block.

Difficult to think of a more rousing argument in favour of private property and against council housing really, isn't it? If you owned the home you lived in, or if the tenants collectively owned the building (as is common enough in buildings of flats) then they, the people who lived in that housing, would be able to control what happened to that housing.

Given that they don't, that it is owned by the local council, they have no such rights. They are subject to the whims of whatever turnips in red rosettes the local Labour Party put up for election. This isn't an argument in favour of "democratic control" of housing or anything else, is it? It is however a very strong argument in favour of private ownership, that private ownership which protects property from such "democratic control".

Chakrabortty doesn't quite manage to spot that logical conclusion to his argument, so we cannot say that he's done it well. But it is still interesting to see this argument in The Guardian, as with the dog on two legs.