Why estate residents should get to vote on regeneration schemes

The London skyline. Image: Getty.

Labour’s London Assembly Housing spokesperson on the need for local democracy.

On Friday, Sadiq Khan published his long-awaited Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration. The major change from his draft guide, published for consultation last year, is the inclusion of mandatory ballots where demolition takes place as a condition of schemes receiving mayoral funding. By including ballots, the Mayor has shown he has listened to community groups, as well as the unanimous voice of the London Assembly.

I have long argued for ballots where homes are to be demolished. Estate residents are generally the only people who face the prospect of having their homes demolished. Therefore, it is only right that they should be able to vote on whether demolition takes place.

The question of exactly who should be balloted is one on which a consultation will now take place. It is my strong view that those balloted should be actual residents who live in the homes that it is proposed are demolished. That means private tenants should get a vote, but not their non-resident landlords.

The Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration also reaffirms his pledge that there must be no net loss of social housing on regeneration schemes. This is crucial. An assessment by the London Assembly’s housing committee in 2015 found that there had been a loss of more than 8,000 social rented homes across 30 regeneration schemes in London. The Mayor demonstrated he is standing by this commitment recently when he used his planning powers to reject a proposed estate regeneration scheme at Grahame Park in Barnet that would have resulted in the net loss of 257 social houses.


Estate regeneration can work well, but it is always done best when led by, or delivered in partnership with, residents. The regeneration of Bacton Low Rise by Camden Council is a superb example of this, and could not be more different to Barnet’s approach. The quality of the new build council homes is absolutely stunning, with residents involved in the design of the scheme from the beginning. Once the scheme is completed there will be a net increase in the number of genuinely affordable council homes as well as new shared ownership homes. Yes, market sale homes have to be built to pay for the new council homes in the absence of government funding, but crucially Camden Council retains the ownership of the land on which they are built.

It’s important to remember that when local councillors are coming forward with regeneration schemes, they often can’t do what ideally they would like to do because of national government policy. Councils that are looking to provide more and better housing for local people are constrained by government restrictions on their ability to borrow to build new council homes, by the Right to Buy scheme, and by outdated compulsory purchase laws that mean land can’t be compulsorily purchased for a fair value. Never mind the fact that government funding for new social housing is practically non-existent. VAT rules can sometimes make knocking down and rebuilding housing cheaper than refurbishing it, because VAT is charged on refurbishment but not new build homes.

I believe councils should welcome the inclusion of ballots as adding legitimacy to proposed schemes. Some councils are very good at including residents in designing regeneration schemes, but others sadly are not. Mandatory ballots mean that councils and housing associations must engage effectively in order to gain approval. This necessitates the active inclusion and involvement of residents from the very beginning.

Tom Copley is Labour’s London Assembly Housing spokesperson. 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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