Why the Churches ought to oppose the demolition of homes by wealthy developers in Haringey

6 November 2017

“Property, he said, in Jewish and Christian Scripture, was something that was lent to the user. Never absolutely given.” Archbishop Rowan Williams about Archbishop Oscar Romero in Westminster Abbey celebrating the centenary of the birth of Romero on the 23rd September 2017.  

Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated by agents of a right wing government on Monday March 24th 1980 as he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence in the cancer hospital where he lived. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture.

Why the Churches ought to oppose the demolition of homes by wealthy developers in Haringey  

All major faiths, and many people following no partcular faith,  share the tenet that we love our neighbours as ourselves. In the Christian faith land is the gift of a generous and loving God; to a humanist land is the gift of nature; to both it is a gift intended to provide shelter, food, water, fuel and clothes for all. Great efforts, some successful, have been made over the centuries to turn that moral statement about land into city and national policy. The opposition comes from landowners and landlords who fight to exclude outsiders from the human needs their land provides. It is a conflict described by Jesus in two of his parables, “The workers in the vineyard” (Matthew 20 1-16) and “The wicked tenants”  (Matthew 21:33–46, Mark 12:1–12, Luke 20:9–19).

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard what does the landowner do? He goes out early in the morning hires all the available workers and agrees to pay them one denarii. He goes out again at nine, noon, three and five hires all further available workers. They are all told go and “work in my vineyard.” At the end of the day pays them all one denarii and when some complain he says “I am not being unfair ….are you envious because I am generous.” 

That parable is about land. If we start with the proposition that land is the gift of a generous and loving God intended for the provision of health, shelter, food, water, fuel, clothes for everyone then that parable and the parable of the tenants of the vineyard become clear.

The land owner in the first parable ensures that everyone benefits from the land he owns; the wicked tenants in the second parable grab the land for themselves fighting and killing anyone who comes for their share.  

In the parable of the wicked tenants what does the land owner do? He builds a wall round his vineyard and rents it to some farmers. He then moves to another place.  At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.  But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully.  He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all,saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But they killed him.

The tenants had assumed they owned the land and could exclude for their own profit all comers from any share of the produce of land as demanded by the land owner. It is the reverse of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard where the land owner ensures that all comers get a share of the produce.

Rowan Williams had this to say about property at the commemoration service in the  100th year since the birth of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

“Almost exactly forty years ago, on the 25 September 19771, Archbishop Oscar Romero in his weekly mass homily… reflected on the biblical notion of property. Property, he said, in Jewish and Christian Scripture, was something that was lent to the user. Never absolutely given. Always to be used, rented from God. And so, he says, the truth is that the rich pay to the poor the rent for the land whose use they are given for a time. In a just world, that is how we should conceive property. We are given something through which we are set free to discharge our debt to the poor. Because if our God is with the poor, then when we serve the poor, we serve God. And we are delivered from the imprisoning falsehood of supposing that the world is something we can own, whether as individuals, as societies, or even as the human race collectively. What is given is given to be given.

I am amomng those helping an 80 year old widow whose husband died two and a half years ago. He died in Southampton but she wanted to live in Tottenham so her nephew has bought a house for her because she couldn't afford the London free market prices of housing. Haringey Council is regenerating Tottenham . She asked the council whether or not they were going to demolish the private freeholds in Northumberland Park, the ward in which she now lives and in which I worship in St Paul the Evangelist, Tottenham.

In 2014 the council said that they would not be demolishing her home if she bought it; they were only demolishing council houses. In 2017 they are now saying they will be demolishing her home and using compulsory purchase to do it.  The compensation will go to her nephew but it will not be enough to buy his aunt new a new freehold where she had decided to live and which will be too expensive.  She is one of thousands being excluded from a secure share of the land, its shelter and its produce by rich and powerful people for their own profit.

Her home will be bought under a compulsory purchase order.

Between 2014 and 2017 the council who own the land teamed up with the international property developer Lend Lease. At the heart of her problem is the viability assessment done by the land owner and the developer.  The amount of affordable housing depends entirely on the profit of the land owner and the developer. The fewer the affordable houses the larger their profit. A very good example of this in Battersea Power Station, which was being regenerated; at the very last minute the developer says they are not making enough profit so Wandsworth Council allows them to cut the number of affordable homers by 250.

The better alternative is for the council to campaign with others to be allowed to borrow to build on 100% affordable homes for the common good on public land rather than sell poblic land for private profit to an international property developer. Once gone that land is gone for ever.  

Glasgow University has researched regeneration in Glasgow. The same is happening in Tottenham.

“We expose Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) as a classed tool mobilised to violently displace working class neighbourhoods. In doing so, we show how a fictionalised mantra of necessitycombines neoliberal growth logics with their obscene undersidea stigmatisation logic that demonises poor urban neighbourhoods. CPOs can be used progressively, for example to abrogate the power of slum landlords.”

That stands on its head our theological positions that working with and for poor people comes first and land is there to provide shelter and produce for all. The rich and powerful have assumed exclusive use of the land for their own profit and are excluding the poor and the powerless by building unaffordable homes and evicting them into temporary accommodation or on to the streets.

A much better alternative is for all Haringey Councillors to campaign with others for the power to borrow to build 100% truly afforable homes in the common good on public land and a government that will give them tnat power.  

 An after-thought. 57 years ago I was a Church Warden and Chairman of Stewardship in the Parish of St Peter and St Paul Kimpton in the Diocese of St Albans. We had a very successful Stewardship Campaign both in terms calling on people to give of their time, tallents and money to the church. Our income increased and lapsed villagers re-joined to take up some work for the Church. We went out and it was great but looking back there was something missing.

I found myself wondering what the official position on stewardship of the CofE is today so I looked it up on the CoE website. It reads; “We are encouraged to give of time, skills and money to support the work of the church and that of other charities that build God's kingdom. Much of this giving may be regular giving from our income, but we should also consider what we will do with the wealth that we accumulate.”

I am not entirely clear what that last phrase means “but we should also consider what we will do with the wealth that we accumulate”.  I fear it is a hint that it would be nice if you bequeathed some your accumulated wealth to the Church. But it raises a huge question for the CofE.  Since 1979 land values have been allowed to rise so the prices to buy or to rent a home have become prohibitive for many poor people.  Since the 1979 government when lending was deregulated, rent controls abolished and money was allowed to flow freely in and out of the UK, land has become a source of immense, unearned wealth for landowners while the number of  tenants in poverty, homelessness and rough sleeping is ar record levels.   The CofE is part of this theft from the poorest people.

Rev Paul Nicolson

Taxpayers Against Poverty

November 2017