“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 Then his original draft guidance claimed surveys were the best measure.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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.