Estate regeneration ballots can’t be a referendum of whether to build new homes at all

The Pembury Estate, Hackney: not, to our knowledge, due to be demolished. Image: Geograph.co.uk/creative commons.

The Labour mayor of Hackney on the role of democracy in regeneration schemes.

Estate regeneration has become an increasingly polarised debate. Events in my neighbouring borough of Haringey this week and Sadiq Khan’s backing of ballots for future major estate regeneration projects this morning demonstrate this better than anything.

It’s always worth reminding ourselves why we’re talking about this at all. When our country is shamed by the 120,000 children who spent last Christmas in temporary accommodation, it’s clear we urgently need to unleash a new generation of genuinely affordable council housing – a challenge the government continues to spectacularly fail to meet.

We must stand up for the needs of the many – the 13,000 families waiting for a council home in Hackney alone – but not at the expense of existing tenants and leaseholders, some of whom have lived on their estate for generations. They are rightly concerned about the prospect of development and change on their doorstep.

That’s why I’ve been working closely with Sadiq to develop his Estate Regeneration Good Practice Guide, which he also announced today. And I’m delighted Hackney is recognised as a trailblazer.


It sets out the red lines existing tenants should expect when their home faces demolition – no net loss of social housing, a guaranteed right to return to a new home at the same type of rent and rights, and the opportunity to have a real say throughout the planning and design process.

That’s something we’ve been doing in Hackney for years. We’re building 3,000 homes ourselves through our estate regeneration programme, with the consent and deep involvement of local communities – and at least half of those are for social rent and shared ownership. That’s complimented by council housebuilding on empty and underused land, where we are increasingly focussed, with an even higher percentage of council social rent and shared ownership.

Regeneration done well can provide fantastic new properties for existing residents, much-needed homes for homeless families, and massive improvements to the sometimes poor public & community spaces on estates. It can also bring jobs, training and inject new life into the local economy.

But our estates aren’t just brownfield land ripe for development. They are real communities. The rhetoric of government ministers for the last eight years has suggested otherwise – and I’m pleased to see Sadiq redress that balance.

Labour councils aren't gentrifiers. They are trying to build new homes during the worst housing crisis since the war – a housing crisis in which, despite the rhetoric, there is no meaningful funding from the Tories for new council homes, just further years of austerity.

Londoners rightly want to see the system change, and we will continue to make their case loud and clear. But we can't just sit on our hands if we are to build the homes places like Hackney need.

This week, I joined local residents in Shoreditch to celebrate a construction milestone in one of our biggest projects. The same residents through a petition overwhelmingly backed the original planning application to build nearly 200 homes for outright sale, which will pay for their new Council homes.

That was only possible because of the years of close partnership with them, architects and independent advisors on where those homes should go, where those homes should be, and why we are building them at all.

This isn’t rocket science. If you want to demolish people’s homes, no matter how vital new ones are, they should have a meaningful say in what, how and when that will happen.

If a ballot of residents cements these principles, we should consider how we can introduce it into the process in a constructive way, and I welcome the necessary conversation Sadiq has started today.

Ballots have a long history in regeneration programmes – but this has generally been when Labour governments were ploughing cash into building new social housing. Because ministers now don’t give a penny to build council homes, local authorities like Hackney are forced to build homes for sale to subsidise the genuinely affordable homes we need.

Sadly, right now if we don’t accept that principle, we don’t build any homes. But what ballots shouldn’t be is a referendum of whether we build new homes at all – everyone worth their salt agrees with that. And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that a binary yes/no vote can be more complicated than it seems.

Philip Glanville is the elected Labour mayor of the London borough of Hackney.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.