How did regeneration become a dirty word in Boris Johnson's London?

South London's Heygate Estate, site of one of the more controversial bits of urban regeneration of recent years. Image: Getty.

In Boris Johnson’s London, argues Labour assembly member Nicky Gavron, regeneration is just a synonym for redevelopment.

In the capital today, long-standing communities are being bulldozed to make way for luxury developments that most Londoners could never dream of affording. Popping up in their place are residential skyscrapers, with no regard for the character of the local area or the needs of local people. Londoners are concerned that the capital will become unrecognisable.

It does not need to be like this. Regeneration should be about making an area better for the people who live there. It is about offering the chance for a better life by producing more diverse communities with improved public transport; a good range of local shops and other amenities; places to meet and congregate; good schools and health facilities; a range of jobs, and the skills training and education people need to access them. It should be about turning areas which don’t work well into areas which do.        

When he came to office in 2008 Boris Johnson was dealt a great hand. He had the London Development Agency. He had £5m for affordable housing. He had swathes of land.

Most importantly, the vision was there: the previous mayor had set out the route to accommodating a rapidly growing population within the boundary of Greater London, by co-locating denser mixed-use development with a vastly improved and expanded public transport system. One of the big ideas was to direct development to the east of London to redress the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity between east and west.

It was a vision of London being an exemplary sustainable world city economically, socially, and environmentally. But Boris brushed it aside, replaced only by the grand but meaningless ambition of becoming the “best big city in the world”.

The mayor of course continued with the Olympics, which has been a great boost to the inner east, but what has he done for outer east London? Cancelled the DLR and East London Transit Scheme. Cancelled the river crossing. Some of these proposals have been belatedly resurrected, but in the meantime we’ve lost years when we could have been moving forward.


The Olympics themselves did not achieve their full regeneration potential under Boris Johnson. There has undoubtedly been a striking transformation of this part of east London, turning a former industrial wasteland into a diverse cluster of shopping, culture, and sport. The park achieves high visitor numbers, and there are exciting plans to move academic and arts institutions and new tech firms to Stratford.

However the ambition to make this a mixed income residential area is being undermined by a mayor unwilling to commit to maximising affordable housing. In the former Athletes Village, now the East Village, 49 per cent of homes are affordable, albeit only half of them at social rented levels. The targets for the later neighbourhoods are slipping; Johnson has compromised from 35 per cent down to 31 per cent affordable housing on the west side, and the split means less than ten out of every hundred will be at genuinely affordable rents. The next mayor will need to negotiate the final totals for the southern neighbourhoods.  

There is no better example of what regeneration means under the Johnson mayoralty than Earls Court, the £12b development of 7,600 primarily luxury flats with not even one additional affordable rented home. This was not some derelict and dilapidated site; Earls Court opportunity area was a vibrant area with established communities and thriving businesses.

Yet the plans, which Johnson pushed through, will result in the destruction of an iconic exhibition centre supporting an ecosystem of local businesses and contributing £1bn to London’s economy. It will also mean the demolition of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates, and the potential loss of 550 high-skilled manufacturing jobs at the Lillie Bridge tube depot. Earls Court is not about regenerating an area for the people who live and work there, but about making big money for developers and providing luxury properties to international investors.  

Earls Court is one of the 38 Opportunity Areas identified as sources for new housing and jobs. There had been existing Opportunity Areas for which Johnson was very slow to create planning frameworks, but he created one for Earls Court in order to drive through his enormously destructive plan for the area. Meanwhile, other Opportunity Areas with far more brownfield land remain untouched.

Earls Court is particularly outrageous because it is on land owned by TfL. The mayor, as chair of TfL, is the owner of the largest portfolio of developable land in London, much of it around transport hubs and in town centres.

That presents the next mayor with an opportunity to lead on a model of true regeneration across the capital. That land should be developed to provide affordable homes and affordable workspace in walkable, well-connected, mixed-use and diverse neighbourhoods. That is the bare minimum we should demand of the next mayor.

 Nicky Gavron AM is Labour’s London Assembly planning spokesperson.

 
 
 
 

What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?


NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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