Interview with socialist no-cuts councillor Tolga Aramaz
London’s biggest regeneration project, Meridian Water in Enfield, is being opposed by a growing local campaign. As with regeneration projects around the country, once again a Labour council is handing publicly owned land to private property developers to build housing that will not meet the needs of local people. ‘Meridian 4 Council Homes’ is demanding 100% council housing.
The campaign is led by local Labour councillor Tolga Aramaz and Corbyn-supporting Labour members. They have decided to make a stand and fight for council housing and against Tory cuts being passed on by Enfield Labour council. They are planning a conference to discuss setting budgets based on local needs. This will be a conference of councillors, Labour Party members, trade unionists, local residents – anyone who wants to come together and fight the cuts.
Tolga was suspended from the Labour group for his stand, but this has not left him isolated. He is fighting alongside Labour Party members, local people and trade unionists, including Socialist Party members.
“I was away from my duties for six months because of an accident I suffered in July 2018, so not on top of things as much as I wanted to be. When I got back I wanted to look at the detail of this ‘flagship’ council policy.
At first it sounded like a good project – affordable homes were mentioned, council homes were mentioned. So I thought it was positive, until I looked at the detail.
It’s a project to build 10,000 homes, 725 in the first phase. I quickly understood it’s not the project I imagined. For now, there is a commitment to 35% ‘affordable’ and just 75 council-owned homes.
These are on Greater London Authority affordable rent. That is more affordable than what is normally meant by affordable rates. But it’s not council rent, which is what people would expect so we can’t really call them council homes.
All the rest are private homes for sale. In Enfield the median house price is £400,000. Intermediate ‘affordable’ levels means that these houses would be 80% of the market value, so £320,000. If someone were to get four times their income for a mortgage – and that’s being nice – they would need an income of £80,000. 95% of this borough doesn’t earn that!
So who are these homes for then? On the website it’s clear. It says this project is “to meet the needs of the city”. So not to meet the needs of local people then! This is a gentrification project!
There are 4,500 families on Enfield’s housing waiting list, on average waiting for 15 years. There are 3,400 in temporary accommodation. There’s not even proper tracking of homelessness in the borough. Enfield council spends £300 million on housing benefit, over half of which goes to private landlords. So the council is subsidising the private sector, and building housing that will be bought up by overseas investors.
We held a public meeting and about 100 people came and demanded 100% council housing. That’s what we need.
The council held a meeting to explain Meridian Water to residents, and we went to speak to residents too. There was an indication of a shift in the number of council homes to 40-50% – though that was only an oral commitment, it’s not in writing yet. I’ve been raising this issue as a councillor and been rejected. But when we initiate a campaign, it seems things can function in a different manner!
So we have to carry on campaigning. Leafleting, protesting, lobbying, marching, holding the councillors to account. I made a commitment to fight for 100% council housing, and if this doesn’t happen we need to explain why. There’s no feasibility study been done to see how we can maximise council homes in this project. If we need to borrow £100 million, £200 million, let’s consider that.
As I said at the public meeting, socialism is cheaper! We can borrow to build council homes, and save the money we spend on housing benefit and temporary accommodation – they will pay for themselves.
No cuts commitment
This is linked to making a stand on the cuts. When you get elected you run on a manifesto, and you make promises to people. I promised I’d be a socialist. I promised I’d meet the needs of the working-class and deprived people in Enfield.
All other Labour councillors should do the same. Labour should be a socialist party. Some people say it’s a party with socialists in it. But I think it’s a socialist party with a lot of non-socialists in it. The membership card says it’s a democratic socialist party, it shouldn’t be open to debate. But unfortunately, the drag to the right has been successful for a long time.
I’ve lived in Enfield all my life. I share a 6m-square bedroom with my 16-year old sister. We’ve been on the council housing list so long and we can’t get rehoused. I’ve gone through years of poverty, I’m a working-class person, I know what it’s like at the bottom of the economic chain.
Edmonton, the ward I represent, is the 11th most deprived ward for children in the UK. Four in ten children are in poverty. £50m has been cut from our schools. Knife crime has gone through the roof, unemployment is through the roof, there’s no investment in Edmonton. The burden of austerity is paid by young people!
We have been facing relentless cuts year on year since 2010. How can I pass on any more cuts and not meet the needs of people I represent? These now amount to 60% cuts from our council budget in real terms. We are now at breaking point as a council.
I got elected in May 2018, and in January 2019 I went to Enfield North Constituency Labour Party, my home constituency, and made a commitment to the labour movement not to vote for any more cuts. The constituency I live in and the constituency I am a councillor in both passed motions for a no-cuts budget and I met their demands.
Councils are at breaking point. We need to look at radical alternatives as we are not in normal times anymore. There may be ideas that other councils have had that we can think about, so we need to have a conference amongst councillors to discuss this.
As I see it, if we don’t make a stand we have two choices. We either carry on cutting services and sacking people or go bankrupt just like Northamptonshire Council – and that is a Tory council.
There’s a groundswell of feeling against the cuts. Right now, the Tories are saying austerity, the LibDems are saying austerity-lite and Labour’s message seems to be we can manage austerity. Labour councils are seen to implement the cuts and will be blamed.
We have to campaign to bring the Tories down. But we can’t hold our breath and wait for a Labour government, we need a plan B. We need to create a People’s Budget by not implementing any cuts and meeting the needs of the borough.
We could do this by trying to cover the cost through reserves and closing the deficit with any loans.
While this is happening, we need a conference among Labour councillors to share ideas on what could be done and also mount a campaign to bring this government down. Having the fight would make it more likely we get a Labour government.
A lot of people in the Labour Party always mention to me what Liverpool council did back in the 1980s and how terrible it was as there was very little support for them from the party nationally at the time.*
This is not what I am necessarily suggesting we do, but the only thing Liverpool council was trying to do was to meet local needs. There is no point demonising them, as because of their stand people still vote Labour today in Liverpool.
If Labour doesn’t want to lose, like it did in Scotland, we need to show we’re willing to fight with working-class people
In Enfield, among activists, we will be looking into organising a conference for residents and anyone else who is interested in meeting the needs of the borough and generating an alternative People’s Budget.”
- Labour council led by Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party, which refused to make cuts, mobilised working people in the city, winning more funding from the Thatcher government which it used to build 5,000 houses and flats, cancel cuts and redundancies planned by the outgoing council, build six new nursery schools and expand council services and jobs.