Our City.London can reveal that Enfield council has sent letters to leaseholders on the Alma Estate, which it plans to demolish, threatening them with the removal of an offer of a new home if they do not drop their objections to the council’s plans to compulsorily purchase their homes.
The letters have emerged as a public inquiry begins where the council is seeking to have their compulsory purchase order confirmed by the Secretary of State.
The Alma Estate
The Alma Estate has 717 homes. Located in North London next to Ponders End train station, the estate was built in the 1960s and is dominated by four tall towers with some lower rise buildings along the railway line.
Enfield council has plans to demolish the estate and some buildings surrounding it as part of a regeneration scheme. In total the council is demolishing 746 homes and replacing them with 993 new ones. As appears to be the norm with such regeneration schemes there is a net loss of affordable housing as part of the regeneration. The current estate has 556 affordable homes at council rent, the new one will have just 200. Enfield council says that everyone currently in council housing who wishes to remain on the estate will be able to be rehoused on the estate. They anticipate that a number of families will want to move elsewhere.
I visited the estate in January 2017. Demolition had already started on one of the tower blocks, but the place still had a great community feel. People you passed said hello, in a way that is almost completely unheard of in Central London. The estate appeared to be in relatively good condition, but suffering from signs of the usual neglect facing areas subject to regeneration. Councils are reluctant to maintain buildings that will be torn down in the foreseeable future (even though that future may be a significant amount of time away). A children’s playground had been abandoned and was overgrown.
The Alma regeneration area contains 170 home owners and the council is seeking to buy all of these homes in order to proceed with regeneration.
The council started compulsory purchase proceedings in January 2014, which if successful would force any landowners in the regeneration area to sell their homes to the council.
Compulsory purchase is a clear breach of someone’s human rights, which guarantees everyone the right to property. Because of this there are a number of rules which seek to protect residents during a compulsory purchase procedure.
The Council needs to make all reasonable efforts to purchase these homes by mutual agreement before they can resort to compulsory purchase; CPO can only be justified as a last resort. In addition, the council must pay for leaseholders to gain independent advice from a qualified surveyor. Leaseholders must be offered market rates on their property.
This last point can be a problem. Estates subject to regeneration are often the lowest value property in an area, and so an offer of market value for a home may force the homeowner to move out of the area, or even out of the city. A recent decision from the Secretary of State took this issue on and ruled that leaseholders subject to regeneration schemes must be given the opportunity to remain with the area of the regeneration.
At the Alma Estate some leaseholders are being offered the opportunity to participate in a shared ownership scheme in the new regeneration. Their property will be bought off them, and in return they will receive a percentage of a new home near the estate. The residents will have to pay rent on the remaining share they do not own.
If landowners refuse to sell their land, and object to the compulsory purchase order, the matter must go to a public inquiry before a planning inspector. The decision is then out of the hands of the council and instead made by the Secretary of State.
As of December 2016, almost three years after the CPO process began, only 85 home owners on the Alma Estate had come to an agreement with the council, just 50% of the number required for the council to complete the regeneration scheme. A number of objections remain and the CPO is now going to a planning inquiry on the 17th and 18th of January.
Enfield council are in no mood to compromise, and have taken an aggressive stance with home owners who have dared to object to their plans.
OurCity.London has been shown a letter sent to a leaseholder on the Alma Estate, which threatens them with the withdrawal of the offer of shared ownership if the leaseholder does not withdraw their objection to compulsory purchase. We have not published the letter to prevent the council taking further action against our sources.
In the letter, which was sent by Vicky Gardner, Leaseholder Buyback Manager at Enfield, the leaseholder was told that they must provide the council with evidence that they have dropped their objections, and “Failure to do so will result in the London Borough of Enfield withdrawing their offer of a home”.
Paula Higgins, the director of the Home Owners Alliance, was shown the letter from Enfield by OurCity.London. She told us:
“It is scandalous that councils are flexing their power as freeholders to forcibly remove residents from homes which they own in a heavy handed way. The offer of new accommodation after works have been completed should be a minimum requirement which any owner should expect, and certainly should not hinge upon them withdrawing their opposition to the scheme.”
Paula also told us that leaseholders on estates subject to regeneration were also often offered just ‘a fraction’ of a home’s true market value and that the whole system is in ‘dire need of review’. She said:
“Homeowners often expect their local council to be acting on their behalf, but as this proves, sometimes the very opposite is true. We have also been made aware of cases in which councils have obstructed homeowners’ right to independent professional advice.”
This is a practice which Enfield seem to have engaged in also. In July 2016 residents received this newsletter warning them that they may not pay all of the costs of surveyors acting for a leaseholder if the council decides they are not reasonable. Normally the council is obliged to pay for leaseholders to obtain professional advice from a qualified solicitor.
In another letter sent directly to residents seen by Ourcity.London, Vicky Gardner puts it more bluntly. Some firms of surveyors, she says, will charge £195 an hour to send emails and make phone calls. Those charges will not be met by the council. Instead, the council are only offering up to £500 plus VAT for a valuation.
The policy appears to be a breach of the Government’s CPO guidance, which states that during negotiations: “a suitably qualified independent third party should be available wherever appropriate throughout the whole of the compulsory purchase process, from the planning and preparation stage to agreeing the compensation payable for the acquired properties.”
Speaking to leaseholders on other estates in different parts of London, councils have paid costs of £5000 to leaseholders to secure independent professional advice throughout the process.
What is the point?
After having spent some time looking at the Alma case, the question that really sticks in my mind is was any of this aggressive behaviour by the council towards leaseholders really necessary?
Enfield claims that the regeneration plans have overwhelming support from the community. In May 2012 the council carried out what it calls a ‘test of opinion’, which returned a result of 78% in favour of redevelopment. The council said that 67% of households on the estate participated in the test, with responses coming from both leaseholders and freeholders.
If the regeneration is so popular, why then must Enfield resort to bullying in order to get their way?
The forthcoming inquiry into Enfield’s compulsorily purchase order is an important opportunity for the government to look at the kinds of practices employed by the council, and to take a stand to protect leaseholders from the predatory behaviour of councils like Enfield.
Enfield council were given the opportunity to respond to this article ahead of publication. They chose not to provide a comment.