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. 

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.