Saving West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates: An Open Letter to Labour Activists

Yesterday it was announced that the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, whose residents have been living under the threat of the demolition of their homes since 2012, will be sold back to Hammersmith and Fulham council at the price they sold it. Since the estates were sold to Capital & Counties Properties PLC — the property developers that wanted to redevelop the site before they sold it on to Delancey — by the previous Conservative-run council, we hope the council that has been run by Labour since 2014 will now discard these plans and implement the options proposed by Architects for Social Housing (above) for the refurbishment and — with resident agreement — the infill development of additional homes for social rent on the two estates.

When Architects for Social Housing was first approached by West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes (WKGGCH) in July 2015 they asked us to suggest an architectural practice that would produce a feasibility study and design alternatives to the proposed demolition of the two estates. This was to be part of the residents’ application to the Secretary of State for the Right to Transfer both estates into their ownership. In the event, the application was rejected this July — presumably because to grant it would be an implicit criticism of the decision of a Conservative-run council by a Conservative Minister; while the same application, in contrast, was granted to residents on the Cressingham Gardens estate, which is threatened by the Labour-run Lambeth council. On behalf of WKGGCH, ASH approached several practices to produce this feasibility study, including Karakusevic Carson Architects; but none of them would touch the brief, primarily because the money Community Homes was offering was a fraction of what they’d charge for the work, but also because no practice wanted to jeopardise their relationship with a council or developer that might be their client in the future. So instead, we ended up doing it ourselves.

It took about 6 months of work for three ASH architects together with a lot of unpaid help from ASH volunteers on consultations (above) to produce the feasibility study; and by the end we were paid about £11,000, which was barely enough to pay the architects. This money came from the two charities WKGGCH had managed to get to support their campaign financially; but there are 760 homes on the two estates, and the cost of our work came to about £14.50 per household. For the similar feasibility study ASH produced for the Central Hill estate, and for the design alternatives to demolition we produced for Knight’s Walk and the Northwold estate, we received nothing in compensation for our work — despite various promises by residents to do so. In return for these hundreds of hours of our free labour, ASH has been accused by Labour trolls of profiting from the housing crisis, and WKGGCH, whose Right to Transfer application was founded on the 40-page Feasibility Study Report ASH produced, expressed their thanks by removing ASH’s logo both from the reproduction of our designs on their website and from the 3-D model (below) we made of those plans. Such, such are the rewards . . .

Anyway, of the five estates for which ASH has produced these design alternatives — of which three of them (West Kensington, Gibbs Green and Central Hill) have been up to feasibility study stage — three estates (Northwold, West Kensington and Gibbs Green) have been saved from full demolition; one estate (Knight’s Walk) has been downgraded from full to partial demolition; and the fifth estate (Central Hill), is still standing two-and-a-half years after it was condemned to demolition by Lambeth Labour council.

Despite this extremely high record of success, Labour activists and councils continue to warn residents against working with ASH. We know this because of personal reports to us by those residents — for instance on the Silchester estate and St. Raphael’s estates, on the latter of which Brent Labour council told residents ASH ‘weren’t proper architects’; but also because two years ago several Corbynites — claiming to speak on behalf of what they called the ‘housing movement’ — rather pompously informed us by letter that ‘conversations are taking place to refuse to organise with ASH or support its initiatives.’ I know this sounds ridiculous, but the housing movement is rife with private fiefdoms of power that activists defend with many times the energy they do council estates against Labour councils.

We don’t know, but we suspect it was because of such advice that residents of the Achilles Street estate — whose campaign has known about ASH’s work for years, even hosting Open Garden Estates in 2017 — never once asked us even to come and talk with them, let alone produce a design alternative. As a result, last week residents had their homes condemned to full demolition by Lewisham Labour council. This is an avoidable disaster for residents, the blame for which lies squarely at the foot not only of the Labour council but also of Labour activists, who have trolled ASH off social-media platforms in Lewisham such as I Love Deptford, where we have tried to make public the alternatives to the demolition not only of the Achilles Street estate but also of Reginald House and Old Tidemill Garden.

When people ask us why ASH is so opposed to Labour — particularly with the General Election coming up — we answer that it is not only because Labour councils — with the full acquiescence of Labour MPs, the London Labour Mayor and the Labour Party — are demolishing and privatising hundreds of council estates in the middle of a crisis of housing affordability; it’s also because Labour activists are putting the parliamentary ambitions of their party above the survival of the estates Labour councils threaten. The ASH model of estate refurbishment and infill is real. It’s not only by far and away the most socially and environmentally preferable alternative to demolition and redevelopment, but it’s also financially viable. And as a weapon of defence against estate-demolishing Labour councils like Lewisham and Lambeth and Hackney, it has been shown, time and again, to work.

If Labour housing activists genuinely cared — as they claim to do — about the hundreds of estates their party threatens with demolition and privatisation, they’d be directing every estate housing campaign to ASH. And to facilitate our ability to help them, they’d be lobbying the various Labour-run charities and funding bodies at the Labour-run Greater London Authority and elsewhere who, despite our success in saving housing estates — or rather, because of it — refuse to fund ASH with the money we need to pay the numerous young architects who want to work with us. Instead, the pro-Labour activists who make up 90 per cent of the so-called ‘housing movement’ tell residents to avoid ASH and vote Oh Jeremy Corbyn. As we’ve seen on estate after estate whose residents put their faith in Labour, this is the equivalent of advising geese to vote for Christmas.

The fees we received for helping to save the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, and the fees we didn’t receive for helping to save the Knight’s Walk and Northwold estates, are not a sustainable financial model for ASH. Most of the large amount of advisory and research work we do is already unpaid, and we can no longer take on unpaid design work. There are a lot of variables, but we estimate we can produce a feasibility study for a design alternative to the demolition of a 400-500 home estate for around £20,000. Even that’s between £40-£50 per household, and around the same amount it will cost for a judicial review. If residents really want to save their homes, they can raise that money. The alternative, in most cases, is the complete demolition of their estate.

Contrary to the advice of pro-Labour organisations like the Radical Housing Network and the organisations they lure into their orbit, painting banners and singing songs won’t save your estate. Going on marches and listening to speeches outside the Houses of Parliament won’t save your estate. Screening films and organising poetry readings won’t save your estate. Organising resistance at the point of eviction won’t save your estate. These are all actions with different degrees of agency and effectiveness, and they are often all that residents and campaigners are in a position to do; but they are only a means to galvanise the resident community into action. They are not an end in themselves. Raising thousands of pounds through crowdfunding for judicial reviews and public inquiries might save your estate; but in the overwhelming number of cases the courts — unsurprisingly — have found in favour of the council, and that money has gone straight into the pockets of lawyers. The action that has the best chance of saving your estate is commissioning a costed, financially viable, design alternative to demolition that shows that — contrary to the lies of Labour activists, Labour councils, the Labour Mayor and Labour housing policy — it is financially viable not only to refurbish the existing homes up to the Decent Homes Standard plus, but also to increase the housing capacity on the estate, and in doing so increase the number of homes for social rent London so badly needs.

This isn’t rocket science. This is the ASH model of estate regeneration. So let me end with a challenge to every Labourite who affects to care about council housing. Stop trolling and slandering ASH on social media over your infantile obsession with identity politics, your professional ambition to become famous on our coat-tails, and your naïve faith in Oh Jeremy Corbyn. We’re not asking for your help: we can make our own banners and sing our own songs; but stop advising residents not to work with ASH. Too many council homes we could have saved have fallen to your vanity and stupidity. It doesn’t matter if you hate us for revealing the truth about the Labour Party you unconditionally support no matter how many estates it demolishes. It doesn’t matter if you think I’m the Antichrist of political correctness who should be burned at the stake beneath Marble Arch. Between you and me, we don’t have a high opinion of you either. But there’s a bigger picture to consider. There are hundreds of estates and tens of thousands of council homes at risk from the estate demolition programme, and ASH can help save them if given the means to do so. West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates are the proof of that.

In a speech titled Social Housing and Regeneration: Earl’s Court and West Kensington, which he delivered in the House of Commons on 20 February, 2018, Andy Slaughter, the Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hammersmith, said:

‘Residents came up with the People’s Plan, which shows the professionals how new development ought to be done. At the outset, Community Homes brought more than 100 residents into workshops and site visits with architects. Residents and architects together identified space for up to 327 new homes and devised plans for improvements to their homes, streets and community spaces. The plans were costed and valued, and residents were able to show that they could help to pay for improvements and subsidise the building of new homes at social rent levels through sales. Residents from 65 per cent of households provided written feedback on these proposals, and 90 per cent of respondents said that the plans were “excellent” or “good”, and “better” or “far better” than the Capco scheme.’

ASH are the architects to which Slaughter refers; we are a professional practice; and the ‘People’s Plans’ we have produced for five estates — six, including the Patmore estate in Conservative-run Wandsworth — are not only residents’ best defence against the demolition of their homes, but a financially viable way to refurbish the existing stock and increase the number of homes for social rent on our council and housing association estates.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

 

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