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. 

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.