This guest post comes from Tony Coyne. Tony is a freelance journalist and housing campaigner. He writes under a pseudonym to prevent any backlash against the campaigns he is involved in.
During the election Mr Khan made a great deal out of the fact that he was brought up on a council estate, with his campaign slogan, “the council estate boy who will fix the housing crisis”. However, is the Mayor now abandoning the people who live on estates? In this post Tony provides a well researched and powerful critique of the Mayor’s new policy guidance on estate ‘regeneration’, which is currently out to consultation.
Why residents will be denied the right to vote about the demolition of their homes
By Tony Coyne
Sadiq Khan’s manifesto promised that social housing estates shouldn’t be demolished without ‘resident support,’ but his draft guidance discourages councils and housing associations from holding ‘approval’ ballots; ignoring recommendations by the Estate Regeneration National Strategy; the Joseph Rowntree Trust; community group coalition Just Space; experienced architects; Respublica, and Labour Party members.
A reaction from my estate is typical, ‘He’s sold us out. We might get a say on types of new front doors, not whether we get bulldozed.’ The London Tenants Federation condemned Khan’s line as ‘disrespectful and patronising.’ The consultation is open until March 14th but all the evidence indicates that this life changing decision has already been made.
In 2015 the multi-party London Assembly Housing Committee recommended that ‘an independent ballot…would…inform any final proposals to demolish.’ Yet no Labour or Conservative Assembly Members will now publicly support voting rights, even for demolition schemes, with the sole exception of Labour’s Nicky Gavron. Tory controlled Westminster is the only council to require ballots, although Labour led Hammersmith and Fulham wants to give residents ‘ownership’ of estates. Most housing associations don’t hold votes either.
Liberal Democrat, Caroline Pidgeon, supports ballots, ‘as a general principle,’ with the caveat that, ‘real involvement…should be an ongoing process; not just turn on a single vote.’ Sian Berry worries that, ‘Without a binding democratic process…councils will continue to get away with sham consultations, trampling over residents and making a mockery of the Mayor’s manifesto commitments.’ Electorally the Greens will have a motivating ‘offer’ in some concentrated areas; ‘Unlike Sadiq Khan and your council…’
City-wide guidelines could enforce badly needed protections, at least for new schemes applying for GLA grant. So why ditch voting rights, the key safeguard that gives residents real influence? Apparently, ‘in most cases surveys…and small-scale meetings…will be appropriate ways to test views.’ It highlights potential reasons ‘for caution around using ballots…, since they can risk turning a complex set of issues that affect different people…over many years into a simple ‘yes/no’ decision at a single point in time.’
Anyone who has been through a ‘regeneration’ process will recognise this as obfuscation disguised as common sense. It’s true that evaluating future options is complex, and surveys and meetings could assess views for ‘non-binary’ issues like design standards. But for schemes that propose demolitions – the majority – at the final stage a very drastic, very binary decision has to be made, based on protections offered to tenants and leaseholders
If surveys are as legitimate as secret ballots, logically new Mayors could be chosen by sample questionnaires filled out by party door-knockers. Demonstrating majority resident support is self-evidently not possible without quantifying views in a fair election, a legal right before council estates can be transferred to housing associations.
Horses for GLA courses
In a Mayor’s question Labour’s Housing lead, Tom Copley, asked whether ballots are always necessary. Khan ominously replied, ‘No, it’s horses for courses.’ Councils need ‘different ways of consulting.’ But his generic ‘regeneration’ guidance fails to take his own advice, deliberately, by not adopting stronger safeguards for demolition proposals.
The truth is the GLA’s corporate imperative is to boost housing supply, from all sources. ‘No’ votes to ‘regen’ projects might get in the way. Councils, housing associations, and developers have lobbied hard. For different reasons, most demand the unstated right to bulldoze communities against their will, if necessary.
Councillors privately protest that some estates need redevelopment, due to repair costs. True, but the history of regenerations shows that residents will vote for demolition of they see a genuine need. New Union Wharf Estate voted for demolition, partly because East Thames Housing Association built trust by committing to a ballot, then phased demolitions. Removing democracy for fear of ‘divisive’ elections is the weakest objection. All decision making can be divisive, whether taken by ballot or executive order. That’s why Athens invented democracy; to help stop fist fights.
Legal rights, ruined lives, and government policies
What Guinness Partnership Housing Association did to Betiel Mahari shows why guidance matters; demolition led to doubled rents, then unemployment, benefit dependency, and an eviction notice for rent arrears. Legal rights are shamefully minimal, as detailed below. Nobody has the ‘right’ to return. Aylesbury estate leaseholders won an appeal against Southwark Council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders for breaching their human rights. How did well meaning social landlords descend to this?
Regenerations like the Packington Estate – focussed on residents’ needs – aren’t possible now, thanks to government policies like the confiscation of £800m of right-to-buy receipts from councils since 2012, and funding switched to subsidise home ownership. As a result, social landlords want to demolish structurally sound homes to cash in lucrative land ‘assets’ in high value areas. Disproportionately low housing targets for outer boroughs increase the pressure on inner London. (London Plan annual targets range from 315 additional units for Richmond to 3,931 in Tower Hamlets).
Imagine proposals to compulsorily purchase half of Richmond Upon Thames, on the grounds that low-density semis waste precious land, with no right to vote, or return. Instead CHAVs become the collateral damage, partly justified by caricatures of ‘social’ housing as a means tested benefit for an undeserving minority, despite the economic fact that social housing covers its costs long term. Tenants pay for their homes too.
The London Assembly Housing Committees’ report, Do it up, or knock it down? assessed over 30 estate regeneration schemes. Despite densities doubling, there was a net loss of 8,292 social rent homes. Architects for Social Housing keep proving that refurbishment is almost always cheaper, cross-subsidised by sensitive infill building of some private sale units. It also maximises genuinely affordable homes just by retaining what’s there. But government prefers demolition, primarily as another means to deliver more private homes.
Councils go with the political flow, to deliver community infrastructure, increase their Council Tax base, or create ‘mixed communities.’ Planning policy language echoes London’s idea of itself as tolerant melting pot, but there is no balancing imperative to build more social housing in higher income areas, despite evidenced need.
Interest groups become enemies; the leaseholder problem
Increased densities should deliver real ‘fair deals’ to all existing residents as well as more affordable homes. Instead, interest groups get portrayed as the enemies of housing waiting lists. Tenants need to retain ‘social’ rents based on local incomes, but that keeps revenues down compared to ‘affordable’ rates, reducing cash available for new affordable housing. Khan’s guidance only requires ‘same or similar’ levels.
Leaseholders and freeholders get more flack, for the same reason, and because they bought at discounts, between £16k and the current £103k depending on timing. Owners protest that they paid rent for decades, and landlords’ 125-year leases never mentioned unnecessary demolitions. The value of new flats can be twice the ones being demolished – not their fault – so they can’t afford to own them outright, and their children may inherit a forced sale.
The Estate Regeneration National Strategy details a model where owners buy shares in advance, and a ‘Home Swap’ where landlords gradually ‘top-up’ the equity owners can’t afford to buy, over 7 years to avoid cashing in. A hybrid could allow a portion of large savings in landlord’s borrowing costs to be passed on as equity ‘top-ups.’ But Sadiq Khan omits both options. Because anything above the legal minimum of market value compensation would reduce resources for new affordable housing – the rarely admitted ‘progressive’ justification for demolishing decent homes against people’s will.
Moral dilemmas: short and long term
With councils in regulatory strait-jackets, private ‘partners’ usually take the lead; a crucial factor Sadiq Khan has not yet addressed. Thanks to Southwark’s 35% campaign – London’s most forensic, relentless public information service – the Aylesbury Estate’s disclosed Viability Assessment revealed that Notting Hill Housing Association and Barratt Homes both got 21% profit margins guaranteed as a cost, subsidised by Southwark council and tax payers. Yet better resident ‘offers’ weren’t viable.
Although most new housing association homes still qualify as ‘affordable,’ many are beyond average earners. But corporate cultures still vary, despite financial challenges. Councils need to decide who they do business with, on what terms. Potentially there’s a big gap in the ‘affordable market’ for associations and developers prepared to cut their profit margins. Reverse auctions could open at 15%. Which other sector gets guaranteed margins of over 20%? Possibly cocaine dealers, but they do have a stronger case based on ‘market risks’ that aren’t just copper-related.
Desperate attempts to meet short term needs means longer term questions rarely get asked. When even super-density ‘regenerations’ can’t deliver additional social rent units, why wreck lives? No more affordable homes will be built on that (ex) public land for more than a century, so how will future councillors house their waiting lists? Will de-regulated housing associations sell off re-let vacants or double the rents?
One thing is certain, almost; Sadiq Khan, ex-council estate resident, will not protect his successors and ‘primary stakeholders’ by requiring votes, so communities will have to try to protect themselves, estate by estate. What forms will that take? Will your local councillors, Assembly Members, and social landlords support ballots? Any denying votes could do everyone a favour by not spouting platitudes about ‘resident-led’ decision making processes for reasons that should be obvious.
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Legal rights for displaced tenants and owners
The Homes and Communities Agency Tenancy Standard currently protects those with ‘secure’ tenancies – new homes must be offered somewhere – but not rent levels, as mentioned. Tenants’ ‘Home Loss’ entitlement is a flat rate £5,800.
Leaseholders of more than a year get market value compensation, plus a Home Loss payment of 10% of the value of their equity, up to a maximum of £58,000. As replacement properties are likely to be valued at twice as much as existing homes, owners are typically ‘offered’ an equity share with no rent charged on the proportion they can’t afford to buy. But not always, and succession rights could go. If landlords require their equity share to be recouped on transfer of ownership, owners’ children may inherit a forced sale if they can’t afford to buy out the landlord’s share.
All residents get ‘reasonable’ moving expenses reimbursed, even ‘assured short-hold’ tenants, (who are entitled to nothing else). Non-resident owners get market value compensation only. Their private tenants get nothing and may have their tenancies terminated if owners decide to move back to their homes, possibly at unnecessarily short notice, given that regeneration processes take a long time.
Commercial leaseholders like retailers in estate shopping parades also get market value compensation based on their remaining lease periods; likely to be short. Although regeneration may make them unemployed they are rarely ‘meaningfully consulted.’ There is no legal requirement or policy guidance for landlords to replace premises, or offer affordable rents.