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 Then his original draft guidance claimed surveys were the best measure.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

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.