“Sadiq Khan has a defining decision to make”: on the morality of demolishing communities against their will

Protesters at Cressingham Gardens. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

Publication of the mayor of London’s revised Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration has been suspiciously delayed after Jeremy Corbyn backed resident ballots. Late consultation responses since Grenfell Tower may be one reason. But Sadiq Khan also has a defining decision to make – on residents’ right to vote to approve or reject proposals to demolish their homes.

Whose side will he come down on: some influential Labour councils and land-hungry developers? Or the 2m Londoners living on social housing estates, and the London Assembly’s Labour Group, amongst many others? The signs so far suggest a fudge.

Leaders of boroughs like Haringey don’t want ballots to interfere with their current right to demolish estates against resident opposition. Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey, has already been persuaded to clarify that the central party isn’t saying that elections should be required now. Instead votes will only become necessary under a future Labour government, after investment could be stepped up. In other words, Labour now see giving residents voting rights to veto schemes that could ruin their lives is as a good thing – but they’ll have to wait until 2022.

So far, Sadiq Khan has also ignored overwhelming grass roots support for elections. Unlike all other guidance, his draft 2016 standards consciously failed to even recommend ballots, claiming that, “in most cases, surveys... will be appropriate ways to test... views and satisfaction with proposals”.

But topic guides for a recent City Hall Housing Strategy consultation stated that his revised guidance, due “shortly”, will set out “conditions in which ballots will be required”. Campaigners’ relief at a potentially huge policy change was instantly tempered by sickening deja vu. One said, “He’ll give councils a get out again. Somehow. I just know it.”

Boris Johnson also turned a blind eye to communities being wrecked, mostly by Labour councils – though both the motivations behind ‘regeneration’ schemes and their results have changed for the worse since drastic funding cuts. Without naming names, Sadiq Kahn’s manifesto recognised failings, by saying that demolitions should only be allowed if residents support them. Then his original draft guidance claimed surveys were the best measure.  

Elections versus surveys

Ongoing travesties in Lambeth say different. At Central Hill a substantial survey by residents found 78 per cent opposition to demolition, 4 per cent in favour, and 18 per cent don’t knows. By contrast, an independent ‘Test of Opinion’ designed by Lambeth showed 47.6 per cent for; 39.4 per cent against; and 13 per cent undecided. (The figures include residents of all tenures.)

Many questionnaires were filled out by researchers with council officers present at consultation events. Response rates were similar; between 65 per cent-72 per cent of households, or around 38 per cent-40 per cent of all adults. All this suggests that some peoples’ answers depended on who asked the questions and how, and the scant information they were given.

There were similar problems at Cressingham Gardens, where residents complained that initially they weren’t allowed to fill in questionnaires themselves, or see what researchers had written. Their own survey showed 86 per cent opposition versus just 4 per cent support, with a 72 per cent response rate. Lambeth conceded that there was a “preference for refurbishment”, but plans to demolish all 306 homes regardless.


Does anyone really need reminding why Athens invented democracy, not consumer research questionnaires? In both cases majority support for ‘regeneration’ has obviously not been demonstrated. But Lambeth has ruled out ballots, against recommendations from the London Assembly's Housing Committee, and its own Overview & Scrutiny panel, where officers clarified that ‘Tests of Opinion’ only ‘inform’ decisions rather than ‘governing’ them. Consultations were another box-ticking sham to meet a legal duty to ‘meaningfully’ consult.

Whose side will Khan take? Different fudges are possible. On behalf of Labour London Assembly members, housing spokesman Tom Copley expressed, disappointment at the absence of ballots in the case of demolition, proposing that a “certain percentage of residents... calling for a ballot should trigger one”. But who wouldn’t call for a right to vote to protect their futures?

Alternatively, if elections were only required from some future date, councils and housing associations could carry on with existing plans, without having to improve current ‘offers’ to residents to win their support in elections. Alternatively, ballots might only be ‘required’ if minimum conditions aren’t – like providing enough replacement social rent homes are not met.

But such triggers for elections wouldn’t address inherent flaws in redevelopment schemes. Specific standards were glaringly absent from the draft guidelines’ vague principles, which effectively only required landlords not to break shamefully inadequate laws.

Why legal safeguards ruin lives

Votes matter because estate regenerations ruin some peoples’ lives. That’s true even if enough affordable replacement homes are provided and demolitions are carefully phased to deliver a theoretical ‘right to return,’ unlike in Southwark. Commonly held assumptions are false: estates aren’t bulldozed because they need to be, and residents don’t get re-housed on the same terms.

Lambeth’s strategy exposes the inherent flaws. Council-owned companies can deliver more genuinely affordable homes than joint-ventures with developers, because councils can capture a larger share of profit margins, but their plans are still mostly private sector-led. In future public investment could deliver much more.

Under the current system, some tenants will be priced out of their communities by 25 per cent rises in ‘social’ rents for replacement flats, because the rent-setting formula is partly based on property values, which will increase by more than half. Older or poorer owners, unable to transfer mortgages, can be forced into the private rented sector. Shared ownership options can also treble housing costs, and lead to eviction for rent arrears. In the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty and Sophie Robinson-Tillett have documented the impacts on some real lives, along with Southwark’s 35 per cent Campaign and Architects for Social Housing.

Increasingly the main selection criteria for demolitions has little or nothing to do with ‘unviable’ repair costs. Instead landlords choose marketable locations with opportunities to increase density, to maximise revenues through public-private partnerships, partly to plug relentless budget cuts to General Fund services like social care.

Accept that logic and we’d start tearing down estates to fund the NHS – except many patients and staff would have nowhere to live. These are the consequences of market fundamentalism in a wilfully incompetent, self-pauperising state. To force schemes through, usually viable alternatives to demolitions are dismissed without even giving residents full information on the costs and revenues for all future options.

If Sadiq Khan decides not to require ballots, starting immediately, he’ll give councils and housing associations a green light to expose his general principles as worthless on the main life-changing issues. In terms of raw politics, here’s his dilemma: no votes to ‘redevelopments’ would reduce overall housing supply, at least short-term; but denying ballots could make him the potential enemy of 2m Londoners.

Then again, most would only find out how vulnerable they are one estate at a time – so the damage in next May’s local elections might be limited to a few ex-Labour councillors in Lambeth, Southwark, and Haringey.

Longer term, Khan’s planning powers will keep putting him centre-stage. Rubber stamping death warrants for Cressingham Gardens or Central Hill would very publicly tear up his manifesto promise to stop forced demolitions and tell 786,000 London households that no one is safe. Significantly, neither estate features among Lambeth’s first Compulsory Purchase Orders.

The political fallout will go on for years, as local Labour Parties split and voters ask: who’s next?

Tony Coyne is a freelance journalist and housing activist living in London.

 
 
 
 

Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”


In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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