In London, "regeneration" all too often means "social cleansing"

Even Russell Brand can't save us now: residents of the New Era estate deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street last December. Image: Getty.

Ten years ago, if you asked pretty much anyone living in social housing if they’d like to see their estate regenerated, it’s likely they would have said yes. New kitchens and bathrooms, new windows, lifts that work – what’s not to like?

And if you said that, actually, you wanted to knock the whole lot down and rebuild it, but that residents could live somewhere else for a while before returning to a spanking new flat, they’d probably reason that they were still getting a decent deal.

But if you said you were going to knock the whole lot down, evict the social tenants and use Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) to pressure owners into accepting derisory offers; if you reneged on your promise to provide homes for residents to return to, while flogging as many flats as possible to the luxury end of the market – well, you might expect them to be a bit aggrieved, wouldn’t you?

But that is what regeneration means to residents on many of London’s traditional council estates these days. That, and an unexpected familiarity with Russell Brand.

The capital’s list of controversial housing regeneration schemes has started to sound a lot like Arya Stark’s prayer: Balfron, Sweets Way, West Hendon, Aylesbury, Montague Road, Guinness Trust.

Take the Ernö Goldfinger-designed Balfron Tower.  The brutalist block was previously owned by Tower Hamlets Council, before being taken over by the Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association (HARCA) in 2007. The estate's social tenants were told they could return post-regeneration, or move to new flats.

But in February, HARCA announced that it would instead be selling the refurbished flats, leaving 99 Balfron social housing residents with nowhere to return to.

Or take Walworth’s Aylesbury Estate. Southwark Council, which appears not to have learned anything from its experience with the neighbouring Heygate Estate, decided that rather than spend £350m refurbishing the Aylesbury, it would knock it all down and rebuild it from scratch. The organisation charged with the job is the housing association Notting Hill Housing (NHH).

The council used its own in-house surveyors to value residents’ homes, then issued CPOs as little as half of what independent surveyors said their properties were worth. Incidentally, the regeneration scheme will cost the borough 934 social homes.

Waltham Forest is at it as well, with their regeneration of Leytonstone’s Fred Wigg and John Walsh Towers on the Montague Road Estate. Residents are being temporarily “decanted” from their homes while the work takes place. But, because he social housing allocation on the estate is being reduced from 234 to 160, not all of them will be able to come back.

Barnet also went down the route of using its own surveyors to provide mysteriously low valuations for properties on the West Hendon Estate. The 540 council tenants were all promised new homes, but the social housing allocation has been reduced to 200, so it’s not clear how they can all have some.

What’s worse is that Barnet has said it wants to increase social rent levels to 80 per cent of market rates. That’s in line with the government’s “affordable rent” levels, but it’ll make living on the estate unaffordable anyway. Non-secure tenants will be evicted; the council is reportedly using a leaflet campaign to encourage residents to leave London completely.

It isn’t that regeneration schemes are inherently bad. But the gradual removal of social housing and its residents from large swathes of the city will mean gradually eradicating the mixed communities London has always had. Social cleansing, if you will.

The Conservative government’s response has been to increase the right-to-buy discount available to tenants to £103,900: that’ll mean that even more of the social housing that London can’t afford to lose can be sold off. As if that weren’t bad enough, extending RTB to housing associations – which, let’s not forget, are charities – means the only non-profit organisations actually building affordable homes will be forced by the government to hand them over at below market prices. The insanity of it is breathtaking.

Residents on most of these estates have been living with the effects of years of neglect and poor maintenance. For them, regeneration should be about improving their homes, and ensuring a mixed community is allowed to continue and thrive.

The key question we should be asking is who benefits from regeneration schemes. If residents aren’t top of that list, councils are getting it wrong.

Beth Parnell-Hopkinson is a senior editor at Londonist.


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