Last night I gave another presentation of the findings in the ASH report on The Costs of Estate Regeneration. This time it was to the Tulse Hill branch of the Labour Party, one of whose members had invited me to come and talk. He told me that, while the previous Chair had always refused any debate on Lambeth council’s estate regeneration programme, the new Chair was more amenable.
I didn’t know quite what to expect, but as we were waiting for everyone to arrive a woman walked in, sat apart from everyone else in the room, and gave me a look that would have curdled milk. The chair addressed her as ‘Mary’, and suddenly it dawned on me who she was: Mary Atkins, Councillor of the Tulse Hill ward. Under the pretext of carrying out repairs to the estate, it was Councillor Atkins who had initiated the regeneration of Cressingham Gardens that turned into the excuse for its demolition. The last time I’d been in a meeting with her was back in May 2016 at Lambeth Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting to review the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate. In an extraordinary statement for which she produced no proof beyond her own accusations, and which the Committee accepted without question, Councillor Atkins declared that there was a ‘climate of fear’ on the estate, that the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign is ‘intimidating’, that tenants on the estate are ‘scared to get involved’, and that they ‘do not want to see such tactics rewarded.’
I wasn’t the only member of the public to challenge this characterisation of the single mothers, elderly couples, families with young children and other residents who have fought so long and with such bravery to save their homes against such underhand tactics. But displaying the lack of interest in residents’ views that has characterised Lambeth council’s consultations, Councillor Atkins then went on to what quickly became apparent was her main point. ‘I want residents’, Atkins said, ‘to adhere to a code of behaviour during consultation.’ This move – first to slander and denigrate residents who form a campaign of resistance, then to ban them from opposing the council’s plans – was taken up on cue by the Chair of the Committee, Councillor Edward Davie, seconded by Councillor Matthew Bennett, then Cabinet Member for Housing and Regeneration, and unanimously carried by the rest of the Committee.
Following this decision, residents of Cressingham Gardens were sent a report from Lambeth council announcing their intention to bypass the existing, democratically elected Tenants and Residents Association and replace it with a Resident Engagement Panel composed exclusively of residents who were willing to engage with the plans to demolish and redevelop their homes. It became clear that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which had ostensibly met to review the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate, had chosen this opportunity to set in motion Lambeth council’s plans to silence opposition to their estate demolition programme.
That was two-and-a-half years ago, and since then little has changed. The meeting last night began with a number of questions from the floor asking Councillor Atkins to provide the financial figures for the relative costs of demolishing and redeveloping Cressingham Gardens estate versus refurbishing it. She replied with two lies. First, she said that she would give them the figures as far as she could, but that all the available information was already in the public domain on Lambeth council’s website. Then, when further challenged, she responded more confidently that the figures had not been produced yet because nothing had been decided.
Then it was over to me. There was real tension in the air by now, so I thickened it by explaining that Lambeth council’s 6-estate regeneration programme was being implemented through the special purpose vehicle called Homes for Lambeth, and that this was a holding company that will subcontract out the development, management and maintenance, and sales and lettings of the new developments to subsidiaries. But because Homes for Lambeth, which will allow the council to act as a housing association, is a commercial venture that, in order to attract investment partners, is constitutionally obliged to make a profit, the figures they were after – as ASH has found out after 18 months of trying to attain them, first through the council and then through the GLA – are withheld from public scrutiny as ‘commercially confidential’.
This brought the first gasp from the room, and these increased throughout my presentation as I exposed the finances of estate regeneration and what is being carried out with their tacit approval and in their name in the borough. If you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve also read the ASH report (and if you haven’t please do so); but I ended by returning to Councillor Atkins’ assertion that no financial figures have been produced for the demolition and redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens estate, or Central Hill estate, or Knight’s Walk, or any of the other estates they have targeted for regeneration. Without directly referring to Councillor Atkins, I pointed out the unlikelihood of a half a billion pound project such as the Central Hill scheme being initiated without a financial estimate of the costs. In fact, despite their attempt to redact every bit of information relating to these costs, I have been able to reconstruct what those costs are with an accuracy that comes within a few million pounds of the Indicative Financial Costs the council omitted to redact from the estimates by Airey Miller surveyors of each of PRP Architects’ redevelopment options.
Having previously spoken at several Lambeth council meetings, where I’ve been allowed 2-3 minutes to speak and interrupted, on one occasion, over a dozen times in that period time by Council Leader Lib Peck, it was a genuine pleasure to be able to speak the truth about estate regeneration to a room of Labour members for around 30 minutes without being interrupted by Councillor Atkins and her fellow councillors in the Cabinet.
It still surprises me that staunch leaders of the Labour Party are so unaware about what is being done in their name, not least in the estate regeneration programme which, as I said last night, is reproducing and expanding the housing crisis it was putatively initiated to address. After my talk we had a Q&A for a further 15 minutes, and the response I remember best was from a man who said it will be necessary to check the veracity of the figures I had just given, but that if they were correct it is a ‘scandal’ that a Labour council is engaged in these practices. I told him the figures are correct, and if Lambeth council released the figures they have withheld it would corroborate them (which is why they won’t); and that he was right: it is a scandal.
It’s always fascinating to get an insight into how policy is made and implemented at council level, and to witness the tensions between the authoritative, unaccountable council executive and the party membership. Councillor Atkins wrote furiously throughout my presentation, and I expect Lambeth council to turn their cannon towards ASH and renew its attempts to delegitimise our findings through slander, ad hominem attacks and social media trolling, just as they have many times before. But against the enormous resources of the Labour Party ASH has one thing on its side: we speak the truth. I have been very open in the ASH report on the parameters of inaccuracy in my viability assessments, and have laboriously explained how I arrived at each set of figures and given links to all the sources from which they are derived. But the argument we make for refurbishment and infill versus demolition and refill is so unanswerable that it doesn’t rely on the pinpoint accuracy of my calculations, which are in fact very close to what we know about Lambeth council’s own estimates.
What we would like, to further substantiate our argument, is a quantity surveyor to produce a viability assessment of ASH’s proposal. To do so, however, costs money ASH doesn’t have. That’s why, among our other arguments, I ended the presentation with the following policy proposals on estate regeneration. One of the members made a motion that the Tulse Hill branch adopt these in full. We’ll see if they do.
Last night was the fifth time I’ve presented the findings from our report, and such has been the impact of our report that I already have another four invitations to do so, including to the Mayor of Newham and the government’s Planning Advisory Service. But if any other Labour Party branch is interested in adopting these policies and would like to hear the evidence supporting why they should, please contact ASH, and we’ll come and present our findings on the financial costs of estate demolition and redevelopment versus ASH’s design alternatives for refurbishment and infill.
Architects for Social Housing
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