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. 

 
 
 
 

Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

When it comes to infrastructure, they’re all all talk. Image: Getty.

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.