The Fight for Montreal Square: Questions and Strategies for Housing Campaigners

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In September 2018 Architects for Social Housing received a letter from the Residents Association of Montreal Square in Cambridge (above) asking for advice on opposing the demolition and redevelopment of its 18-homes for social rent by the landlord, Cambridge Housing Society (CHS). The following month I went to talk to residents, and over a 3-hour meeting we discussed the consequences for them, socially, economically and environmentally, of CHS’s proposals. The 9 semi-detached homes of Montreal Square are located in a quiet, leafy cul-de-sac surrounded by private residencies and large playing fields within cycling distance of Cambridge train station, and without me having to say so it was obvious to residents that the real reason for CHS’s plans was the value of the land on which their homes are built, and therefore the potential value to CHS in rents and sales of the properties that could replace them. However, residents were shocked by what I told them about the actual spectrum covered by deliberately ambiguous terms like ‘affordable housing’, what it meant to enter into the so-called ‘shared ownership’ schemes being offered by CHS, and above all by the financial costs of demolition and redevelopment and what this would mean for the tenure type, rental levels and sale price of the properties CHS would have to build in place of residents’ demolished homes in order to recoup their costs.

Since then, ASH has been periodically advising the campaign to save Montreal Square, and we thought it may be useful to similar campaigns to publish our advice here. Although each estate demolition scheme is particular to the location, the architecture, the residents, the community, the landlord, the council and the investors, nonetheless the process and how it is pushed through against residents’ wishes is largely the same. In our advisory capacity for the many campaigns that contact us for help — for only a handful of which we are able to develop design alternatives — ASH finds itself writing the same or similar advice again and again. In what we hope will be our forthcoming book, For a Socialist Architecture, we are intending to include a section specifically for residents facing such demolition schemes. This will be composed of questions residents should ask their landlord (including housing associations), their private development partners and the consultants they employ (including architectural practices) to misinform residents about their situation, in order to challenge, resist, delay and explore and propose alternatives to such schemes. It is not my intention here to recap the long campaign to save Montreal Square, which is ongoing and supported by far more organisations and individuals than ASH; but I hope it will be possible for residents threatened with the destruction of their communities to extrapolate from the particular questions and strategies we’ve proposed for Montreal Square their own strategies and questions applicable to their own campaigns.

1. First Letter

On ASH’s advice, the following month, November 2018, the Residents Association of Montreal Square wrote a letter to CHS asking that they carry out a feasibility study and viability assessment for the refurbishment of their homes. The reply from Nigel Howlett, the Chief Executive of CHS, was peremptory, informing residents that this was ‘not what our proposal and consultation is about’. The Chair of the Residents Association wrote to me: ‘You can see the arrogance we are up against from our landlord’; rightly pointing out that ‘there is nothing to consult if there is only one option’. He asked me for a response, and in January 2019 I wrote:

  1. If the CHS proposal is to increase the amount of affordable housing, they are obliged to look at the option to refurbish the existing homes for social rent, the lowest rent level of affordable housing, and explore options for infill development, for instance on the garages pointed out at our meeting. As a regeneration project, rather than a social cleansing programme, ‘affordable’ must mean affordable for current residents if they are to return to the redevelopment. This means keeping their social rent tenancies, not decreasing them.
  2. The financial costs of demolition and redevelopment in the ASH report demonstrate that if the existing homes are demolished, what will be built in their place will not be for social rent. So-called ‘affordable housing’ can encompass affordable rent at up to 80 per cent of market rate and shared ownership properties, neither of which, presumably, are affordable for existing tenants; so CHS saying they want to increase the amount of ‘scarce affordable housing’ means nothing (and commits them to nothing) in terms of what they intend to build, or indeed can build, given these costs.
  3. Given this looseness in what the term ‘affordable’ refers to in defining tenure type, rental level or sale price, and the strong likelihood that the costs of the demolition and redevelopment of the existing homes will mean that the new-build properties will be for a mix of market sale, shared ownership and affordable rent, the housing association must be under an obligation to consult with residents on the option to refurbish their homes and explore infill development. If they don’t, the single biggest decision determining what will get built on the new development will already have been made unilaterally by the housing association. That wouldn’t constitute a consultation in any meaningful sense of the term.
  4. In its Group Annual Report 2017/18, CHS states that it is ‘listening to and working alongside customers in an innovative and collaborative way’; and that it is ‘open, positive, flexible to new ideas, encourages innovation and creativity’. If these statements mean anything, rather than being empty phrases for residents, CHS has an obligation to explore all the options possible to achieve its objectives.
  5. That means, first, making the viability assessment for their proposal for the demolition and redevelopment of Montreal Square available to residents, showing clearly and in detail the costs of the scheme and what tenure and costs of housing they are proposing to build in its place — i.e. whether affordable means for social rent, 80 per cent of market rate, or shared ownership. But it also means that they must explore the alternatives to demolition that are capable of building additional affordable homes, including homes for social rent, without demolishing the existing social rent homes, which will destroy the existing community.

That same month the Residents Association received a Proposed Site Layout Plan (below) for the redevelopment of Montreal Square from 18 homes to 45 properties that were designated by the number of bedrooms but not by their tenure type, rental cost or sale price. This feasibility study was designed by Ingleton Wood building design and construction services, and looked like something drawn up by an intern in their lunch hour. At this point CHS closed the so-called ‘consultation’ period, and the following month residents of Montreal Square were informed by CHS in a letter dated 4 February 2019 that they would not be given a ballot on the future of their homes and that the Board ‘has decided to proceed with redeveloping Montreal Square’.

Ingleton Wood, Proposed Site Layout Plan, Montreal Square Development

2. Infill Option

At our initial meeting, residents had informed ASH that where Montreal Square meets Montreal Road there is a brownfield site occupied by four disused garages. At the time I suggested these could potentially be demolished and used for infill residential development which, if sold at market rates, could generate funding any refurbishment required to the existing residential buildings, or, alternatively, could be let as additional social housing. At the request of the Residents Association, therefore, we looked at the possibilities for infill development for this site. In addition, we also looked at the possibility of infill housing in central square and in the large back-gardens of the 18 homes. This was not an ideal situation, since it would deprive residents of much of the pleasure of the original design of the square and their gardens; but we wanted to explore every possibility that would avoid the destruction of their community by CHS. In June 2019 we wrote to the Residents Association:

  1. We’ve had a chance to look at the photographs you’ve sent us of the garages and of the site on Google maps (below), and made an estimate of their potential for infill development.
  2. At the moment the four garages appear to be partially situated in what would have been the back garden of the corner house on the right-hand side entering Montreal Square. In other words, the end home of this house has a reduced garden space, mostly located to the side and smaller than the space of every other home in the square. I hadn’t seen the site before I came to talk to you last year. Although you could build on this site — assuming the landlord was willing to give the land up — its proximity to the house on Montreal Square and that on Montreal Road wouldn’t allow for a tall block with many units, as it would infringe on the right to light and other amenities of the neighbouring homes.
  3. The other available land is, of course, the square itself. Obviously, this is a very valuable space to the Montreal Square community, particularly, I’d imagine, for those with young children. However, it might be possible to retain much of its function and value as a communal space while building a narrow block of housing at the Montreal Road end. This would, in effect, close the square off, with the two existing access roads in and out. Again, though, given the likely restrictions on the height of the block in relation to the surrounding housing, it’s not likely to provide a large number of new dwellings.
  4. On the basis of the limited information we have, therefore, we believe that the possibilities for infill housing on the Montreal Square site are limited. They exist, but at the moment we don’t think they provide a sufficient architectural alternative. That said, we haven’t visited the site or been informed of what land CHS own, which could revise this initial opinion.
  5. At present, therefore, we think the best argument for saving your homes is to challenge the bases of CHS’s justifications for demolishing them.
  6. You’re already familiar with some of these from my presentation about what ‘affordable housing’ means in practice, and it’s good to see you challenging the equation between this term and what you as residents can afford to live in. If the argument being used by CHS is that they need to contribute to addressing the housing crisis, what they should be doing is not building new properties only the wealthy can afford to buy or rent, but retaining and maintaining their existing stock of housing for social rent.
  7. In fact, however, as a housing association CHS has no obligation to build any new housing at all. Although they receive all sorts of tax breaks and funding from the government, housing associations are not government bodies or councils. The Guinness Trust claimed the same thing when they tried to demolish the Northwold estate in Hackney, London, and we challenged them on the grounds of this obligation. In any case, demolishing what look like very well-made homes for social rent and replacing them with market sale, shared ownership and unaffordable rent properties is clearly not going to do anything to address the housing needs of either the existing residents of Montreal Square or potential new residents.
  8. The argument that, because of other obligations, CHS does not have the funds to maintain the homes on Montreal Square is similarly unfounded. This is a standard argument used by councils and housing associations, to which residents justly respond: ‘So what have our last 10, 20 or 50 years of rents and service charges been paying for?’ Montreal Square tenants haven’t been paying decades of service charges to cross-subsidise CHS’s other ventures, as they have implied, but to maintain the homes they live in. If CHS has mismanaged those funds that shouldn’t be redressed by demolishing your homes on the grounds they can’t afford to maintain them. I think you have a case for demanding to see CHS’s books and ask them to explain where your service charges have gone. This alone may cause them to withdraw this claim.
  9. The other argument, that new legislation on the environmental performativity of housing means that the required refurbishment — and not merely maintenance — of the existing homes is unaffordable is also unfounded. The environmental sustainability of housing needs to be taken as a totality. Yes, new-build properties will have a better environmental performance than older buildings such as those in Montreal Square. However, if the point of a new development is to improve the thermal performance of the homes — reducing the loss of energy and therefore contributing to reducing the drain on resources and the environment — that has to be set against the environmental cost of demolition and redevelopment. This includes the loss of the embodied carbon in the existing buildings (i.e. what was consumed and emitted in order to build them and which will be squandered in their demolition) to the pollution in the air from demolition and disposal, to the carbon cost and environmental impact of the new buildings. It has been estimated that it will takes at least 30 years for the more environmentally efficient buildings one might expect to be built on new developments to recoup the environmental losses of such demolition and redevelopment.
  10. In 2016 ASH commissioned a green engineering organisation called Model Environments to produce a report estimating the embodied carbon that would be lost from the demolition of the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace, London. Before CHS starts using environmental sustainability to justify demolishing a community they need to commission an independent report on the total environmental impact of their proposals, and then make it publicly available. Until they do, that argument is nothing more than empty assertions.
  11. The last thing we can recommend is about the appearance of Montreal Square itself. Remember that I didn’t see it before I spoke to you last time, but having a look round on Google Street View we were stuck by how beautiful the square is and how well-made the houses are, with quality brick work, mature hedges and trees and, of course, an extremely nice village green. I think we were expecting the development to be from the 1960s, but it looks older than that. If, as it appears you might, you have the local council on your side, might it be possible to apply for the square to be designated as a conservation area?
  12. Finally, housing associations are commercial companies, and as such they are very concerned about their public image. Unlike councils, therefore, they are subject to public opinion. Even if we came up with a design alternative, its value to your campaign would only be as strong as the publicity you could give it. The arguments I’ve laid out here, many of which I imagine you know already, are other forms of leverage. The way we managed to save the Northwold estate from demolition was through a very public campaign, using the local gazette to publicise the inconsistencies in the arguments and claims of the Guinness Trust. There are just as many inconsistences in those of the Cambridge Housing Society, so my final advice is to make as much noise as you can. That means getting the local community involved, the schools, the church, the council, the local paper, and compelling CHS to address your counter-arguments and demands in public.
  13. Let me just reiterate, this advice is based on our limited knowledge of the site and its possibilities. We don’t think there’s much we could do in terms of design work, and if you’re relying on CHS to pay us to do so it’s unlikely that’s going to happen. But if we can help in any other way we will do our best to do so.

The following month, we followed up this advice with some further thoughts:

  1. We have had a second look over the documents you sent, and believe there is a very interesting alternative to demolition in which we could add 15-16 new dwellings with separate access without demolishing a single home (below). These would be located in the back gardens of the existing homes, including the land currently occupied by the 4 disused garages. If we add this figure to the existing 18 homes, we could accommodate nearly the same number of people as the current proposal by CHS. Obviously, this is only a preliminary sketch, and would require a fair amount of work to be explored in more detail before it could be put forward as a proposal.

Many of the current residents, however, have lived in Montreal Square for decades, some for over forty years, and have devoted years of labour and love to their gardens, which are a real attraction of the homes, and the Residents Association rejected this option. In our opinion, this was the right decision. If available land can meet housing need there is a duty to explore its development as such, but not at the expense of existing communities or to fill the coffers of developers. It was important, therefore, for ASH to investigate this option before putting our support behind residents’ demands for a maintenance and refurbishment option without demolition.

ASH_2020_MTSquare plan_A3. Second Letter

3 months later, in a letter dated 7 October 2019, CHS informed residents that, in response to the preservation orders issued on 7 mature trees in Montreal square and other planning restrictions, they were now looking at a partial demolition option, and told residents what this would mean for them. The residents requested that I translate its jargon into what they called ‘plain speak’, and this is what I wrote in response, beginning with CHS’s claim that residents had requested such an option at a meeting:

  1. The fabrication by CHS of a request for a partial redevelopment option by the Montreal Square Residents Association has to be exposed as a lie. Perhaps ask for a copy of minutes from the meeting, if that’s where they’re claiming this request was made. And clarify that the request was for a refurbishment and possible infill option on the garage site with no demolition of existing homes.
  2. If they’re making assessments of the feasibility of the options: first, residents should insist that one of those options is for refurbishment and possible infill option with no demolition of existing homes; and second, that the financial viability assessment of all options is made available to them.
  3. Until the option for refurbishment and possible infill with no demolition of existing homes is tabled, residents should refuse access to their homes, which includes their gardens. It might be well to get some legal advice on this. Perhaps Unison (the trades union) could help. But I’d imagine that, even though tenants don’t own the properties, CHS still need to have their permission to enter them. If not, residents might consider a protest blocking access, then calling the press to watch CHS use security guards and police to gain access.
  4. Residents should ask if the redevelopment plans, as CHS write in this letter, ‘could include’ homes for social rent, affordable rent and shared ownership, does that exclude properties for market sale? And if it does, how they are planning to cover the costs of demolition and redevelopment?
  5. Ask for the legal documents stating that, as a charity, CHS has a duty to build ‘affordable homes’. This sounds completely fabricated.
  6. Ask for the studies into housing need in Cambridge concluding that there is a ‘desperate need for more affordable housing’, rather than homes for social rent. And, if there is, what tenure of affordable housing: affordable rent, shared ownership, etc?
  7. Ask CHS to explain why it is ‘almost impossible’ to build affordable housing in Cambridge, and how that justifies demolishing homes for social rent, the lowest rental tenure of affordable housing?
  8. Since CHS is offering existing residents ‘new homes’, that implies demolition of their existing homes. How is that compatible with their stated plans for a ‘partial redevelopment’ of the site?
  9. Since the CHS has three times in this letter stated that new homes will be ‘more energy efficient’, residents should require them to produce an impact assessment of the carbon emissions and energy costs of demolishing, clearing, removing, disposing of and replacing the existing homes, plus the cost of the additional properties.
  10. Since CHS is planning to make the new properties for affordable rent, ask them to produce a statistical analysis of how this meets housing need in Cambridge, including how many households on the housing waiting list of Cambridge City council can afford 60-80 per cent of market rate. This should also include how many would have to claim housing benefit to do so, which would suggest that these homes are a means to transfer government funds into the pockets of CHS.
  11. Since CHS’s intention not to build properties for market sale is dependent upon them winning funding from Homes England, residents should require that they cease any further consultations or surveys until that funding has been won, as without it all the promises CHS is making in this letter are without financial basis.
  12. What does CHS mean by ‘temporarily relocated’ in terms of time? What is there time estimate for a full demolition and (partial) redevelopment option? 5 years? 10 years? How many of the current residents do they anticipate returning after each period?
  13. Will residents have a statutory Right to Return to the new development, and if they do, will it be dependent upon their ability to afford the increase in rents and service charges? Will CHS make up the difference between the current and future costs of housing for existing residents, as they are promising to do for the temporary accommodation?
  14. How does CHS propose to replace the bonds of mutual support between the long-standing neighbours of Montreal Square that the demolition of their homes and dispersal of the community will break? Will they, for example, provide childcare current provided by neighbours and family? Will they provide care and support for the elderly currently provided by neighbours and family? Will they provide shopping and other duties for elderly or disabled or other residents without mobility that is currently being provided by their neighbours and family? Residents should require CHS to provide an impact assessment of the social, financial and mental and physical health costs of demolishing the homes and dispersing the Montreal Square community.

Residents and campaigners used these 14 points as the basis to a letter dated 29 October 2019 which they sent to CHS challenging the Board’s decision. This was signed by 13 residents, including the Chair and Secretary of the Residents Association, together with the signed support of 4 members of the local community and 2 members of Unite the Union. By then, residents, who had been holding a weekly stall on Mill Road for over a year-and-a-half (below), had collected over 4,750 signatures in support of their campaign in a ward (Romsey) of around 8,000 voters.

Lionel Vida, Flyer for Montreal Square campaign

4. Third Letter

In a letter dated 12 December 2019 residents received a response from CHS, although not one that answered all their questions, either satisfactorily or in full. Again, this was sent to ASH in January 2020 for our clarification and response, and this is what we wrote, retaining the sub-headings from the residents’ letter:

1. Partial Redevelopment

Without seeing the infill options ‘considered’ by the architects appointed by CHS we cannot comment upon them. However, it is strange that, even with the restrictions on overlooking, CHS claims not to be able to build any housing at all on the garage site. If the options considered do not meet planning and space requirements, the very obvious answer is to explore other configurations. If the architects appointed to do so are unable to design anything that fits such requirements, CHS should consider employing a practice with the skills to do so.

ASH has repeatedly been able to find room for infill development on schemes where architects employed by councils and housing have been unable to find sufficient housing. On the Northwold estate in Hackney, for example, TM Architects, employed to explore an infill option by the Guinness Partnership, found room for only 40-60 new residences. ASH, asked by residents to explore the same, found room for 245 new residences.

However, since the residents of Montreal Square have said categorically that they wish for no new development, either in their back gardens or on the land at the centre of the square, we will restrict our comments to CHS’s deductions from this failure of their architects to design a single unit of housing that fits the garage site.

The conclusion that ‘the only potentially viable option’ for CHS is ‘partial redevelopment’ is inaccurate. The option CHS has refused to consider is of continued maintenance of Montreal Square. Since CHS has explained that any major investment must ‘pay for itself over 40 years’, the most immediate and pressing option they should be exploring is the cost of maintaining and, where and when necessary, refurbishing the homes in the future.

Since residents have not complained of any significant deterioration to their homes, or identified any components of their housing that needs replacing, it’s fair to assume, for the moment, that this will not be more than is covered by their rent and service charge payments over the past forty years.

If CHS suspects that certain aspects of the housing (e.g. window frames, roofing, kitchens, water pipes, etc) have come to the end of their design life and require replacing, they should conduct a survey of the housing before making any decision about whether they can afford to make those replacements.

Since they should be expected to have factored in these repairs and replacements into residents’ service and rental charges, it would be surprising if they had not covered these costs. But if they have not, and CHS cannot afford to carry out the repair that any building would expect to require, that mismanagement of the income from Montreal Square should not be justification for demolishing residents’ homes.

By the same token, CHS’s declaration that refurbishing Montreal Square homes to the ‘space and energy standards’ they would build new homes to is ‘not financially viable’  justification for demolishing them.

First, there is no obligation or duty for CHS to refurbish the existing homes to this standard. According to the English Housing Survey stock report published in 2008, 79 per cent of our housing stock was built before 1980. If every home in the UK that didn’t meet contemporary space and energy standards was demolished we’d have to demolish four-fifths of the UK’s housing.

Second, this desire of CHS to reduce energy consumption in the housing in Montreal Square, ostensibly to address the UK’s carbon emissions, does not take into account the embodied carbon lost and carbon emissions produced as a consequence of demolishing, disposing of and redeveloping Montreal Square. As a general measure, it takes at least 30 years before the environmental benefits of more energy efficient buildings offsets the carbon cost of demolishing them, disposing of the waste and replacing them.

Until CHS produces an impact assessment of these relative costs, their claim to be addressing carbon emissions is without factual basis. But even if such energy efficient redevelopment did, in thirty years times, offset its carbon costs, this does not constitute a justification for destroying the Montreal Square community that is as much a part of the Cambridge environment as the trees, wildlife and other natural aspects of this long-standing community that will be destroyed by redevelopment.

Finally, CHS makes the first of numerous references in this letter to an option being ‘not financially viable’ for them. They should be reminded that if a given proposal is found to be financially unviable it should be abandoned. Its viability should not be created by, for example, reducing the energy efficiency of its development, or altering the tenure of the housing from that meeting housing need to that generating profit for the scheme.

2. Reassessment of the Feasibility Options

If CHS has produced a viability assessment (or what it calls ‘financial viability information’) for ‘all options’, they could not be ‘shared’ in a letter, unless that letter was many hundreds of pages long. Viability assessments are extensive, detailed documents produced at considerable cost by quantity surveyors. If CHS, as a housing association benefiting from charity status for tax purposes, is to meet its commitment to transparency and collaboration with its tenants, the viability assessments for all the options it has considered must be made available to residents of Montreal Square, not abbreviated in a letter but in full.

Without this having been done, their claim here that ‘refurbishment without demolition is clearly not viable’ is without factual foundation. It is also, as explained above, highly unlikely. Indeed, without having carried out a survey of the houses, I’m at a loss to understand how CHS could possibly have established the cost of refurbishment or why it is ‘clearly’ unviable. It is anything but clear.

ASH has found that landlords are tempted to artificially elevate costs for refurbishment when their objective is demolition and redevelopment. In 2018 residents of Treves House and Lister House in Whitechapel contacted ASH for advice. Their local authority, Tower Hamlets council, had informed them they couldn’t afford to refurbish their homes, and that demolition and redevelopment was therefore the only option. This would have resulted in the loss of homes for social rent, the eviction of most of the existing community, with the rest rehoused in housing association homes in segregated affordable-housing blocks. We looked at the deliberately over-inflated costs for refurbishment, which the council’s quantity surveyor had estimated at £7.4 million, and recommended residents demand the council allow them to nominate an alternative quantity surveyor recommended by ASH to produce a new costing. They were successful, and the new figure for the refurbishment of their homes, which came to only £1.8 million, less than a quarter as much, compelled the council to call off the demolition. The quantity surveyor told us that he recognised the original costs had been obviously exaggerated the moment he looked at the viability assessment being quoted by the council.

Given which, the statement that the refurbishment of Montreal Square is ‘clearly unviable’, allied to the withholding of the viability assessment, is strong grounds for doubting the sincerity of CHS (or at least their quantity surveyor) in relation to the tenants whose homes it appears they are manufacturing reasons to demolish. Until CHS starts being honest and transparent with the residents of Montreal Square, rather than making unsubstantiated, untrue and bullying statements such as this, residents would be right to treat them with suspicion and doubt their sincerity about the reasons for their wish to redevelop their homes.

CHS saying they will share ‘future’ financial viability ‘parameters’ for partial redevelopment ‘once they have positive ‘pre-App feedback from the City Planning Department’ is not an example of transparency, as few outside the building industry would recognise this terminology. A pre-application for planning permission is important in establishing the likelihood of permission being granted for the development by the local planning authority. However, CHS are putting the cart before the horse by saying that until they get this feedback they ‘do not know what type of partial redevelopment might be acceptable’.

By unilaterally making the decision to partially redevelop (and therefore partially demolish) Montreal Square, CHS has already made the single biggest decision about the future of the residents and without their consultation or agreement. When CHS writes ‘acceptable’, the obvious question is: acceptable to whom?

Without resident support for a proposal they have signally not agreed to, withholding the financial viability assessment for such a proposal can only be interpreted as concealing from residents what will be built in place of their demolished homes. The grant funding from Homes for England, the contract costs and planning approval are all variables, but they do not change the basic costs of demolition and construction or the rate of government subsidies for affordable housing.

Again, if CHS deem these variables to be sufficient to make any proposal financially unviable, why have they unilaterally committed to a partial demolition and redevelopment option? Should they not be exploring the residents’ preferred option of maintenance and, when and where necessary, refurbishment?

Finally, are residents to be given a ballot on the demolition of their homes before a pre-planning application is made? If before, on what basis would this ballot be held when CHS are withholding the viability assessments for all options? And if after, what power would it have to veto the partial redevelopment option?

It very much appears as if CHS have unilaterally committed to a partial demolition and redevelopment option for which they have produced no assessment of its environmental impact, and which they are intent on pursuing with or without residents’ support, and to whose financial viability they are ready to sacrifice the tenure type of the new housing.

3. Survey

If CHS thought it ‘very important’ to talk to residents before making a development proposal, why have they ignored what residents said back to them?

And if the costings quoted to the board in January 2019 were ‘indicative only’, why were they sufficient for the CHS board to make the decisive ‘decision in principal’ to demolish and redevelop Montreal Square, when CHS has argued in this letter that they are not sufficient to establish whether that proposal is financially viable? Shouldn’t all the options have their financial viability established and made available to residents before the board makes this or any other decision?

If viability is only established after the primary decision to demolish and redevelop has been made, it cannot serve its function, which is to establish whether the aims and objectives of CHS undertaking this scheme can be met. Instead, it will only serve to retrospectively reduce those objectives, for example, by reducing the number of homes that meet housing need and increasing those that generate profit for the scheme.

This is the third time in this letter that CHS has questioned the financial viability of the scheme, which is a strong indicator that the demolition and redevelopment option they have decided on in advance is not viable. The board should recall its ‘decision in principal’ until a survey has been conducted that will establish the viability of the option the residents wish for: that is, the continued maintenance of their homes and their future refurbishment.

To commit unilaterally to a demolition and redevelopment option without knowing whether it is viable is not, as CHS claims, ‘typical for any development in its initial stages’. On the contrary, as a housing model it is unaccountable to residents wishes, and financially irresponsible as a development model.

4. Do both development plans exclude market sales?

Ambiguous phrases such as referring to ‘current’ development options and being ‘committed to the principal’ of retaining social rents is another indicator that, when CHS’s proposals turn out not to be financially viable, the extra costs will be recuperated at the expense of existing and future residents, specifically by turning social rent to affordable rent, affordable rent to shared ownership, and shared ownership to market sale. The use of subsequent viability assessments to such ends is very much the norm, and not the exception, in contemporary residential development.

Indeed, it is this type of ambiguity in terminology, which is designed to deceive residents and laymen, that is ‘typical for any development in its initial stages’.

Since CHS has admitted that retaining the social rents to which they have committed only in principle ‘puts pressure on viability’, and that ‘costs mount up unavoidably’, they should do everything they can to avoid such an eventuality by exploring a maintenance and refurbishment option before making the decision to demolish.

Since CHS has also admitted that building market sale properties, which in Cambridge will start at upwards of £300,000 for a 2-bedroom residence, may be necessary to make the scheme financially viable, how do they justify demolishing homes for social rent to build properties that do not meet housing need except for the very wealthy?

What should be fixed is the tenure type of the homes CHS hopes to build, before establishing whether this is financially viable; rather than, as CHS has done, unilaterally deciding on the demolition and redevelopment of homes for social rent and placing a bet on what will be built in their place.

This may be a model for property developers hoping to make as large a profit as possible from evicting social housing tenants from potentially lucrative land; but it should not be a model for a charitable organisation whose purpose is the provision of housing.

In its Group Annual Report 2017/18, CHS states that it is ‘listening to and working alongside customers in an innovative and collaborative way’; and that it is ‘open, positive, flexible to new ideas, encourages innovation and creativity’. Leaving aside this inappropriate but telling description of residents as ‘customers’, if these statements mean anything, CHS has an obligation to explore all the options before committing to the demolition of Montreal Square.

5. CHS duty as a charity to provide ‘affordable housing’

Since the objects of CHS, as defined in its Rules, is ‘for the benefit of the community’, it is incumbent upon CHS to lay out how and what community its plans for Montreal Square benefit. Since it is opposed by a majority of existing residents, it clearly and evidently isn’t acting to their benefit. And until it can establish the financial viability of proposals that would benefit a future community of residents that meets its definition of that community as ‘poor people, aged, disabled or chronically sick’, neither is it acting for their benefit.

Departing from these Rules to build half a million-pound properties for investment may be justified if they subsidise the building of more homes for social rent that meet the housing needs of such a community. But nothing in CHS’s plans indicates this. Indeed, CHS has made it clear that it is the homes for social rent that will be sacrificed to the viability of the scheme, not the other way around.

It is clear from the quoted extracts that developing more housing is a purpose of a housing association; it is not an obligation. Unless that development meets housing need, it cannot meet that purpose. Demolishing homes for social rent and the long-standing community that has lived in them for forty years is most definitely not within the purpose of CHS housing association.

Like most UK housing associations, and indeed many local authorities, CHS has departed from its social purpose by setting up a wholly-owned subsidiary that acts as a commercial vehicle. If CHS justifies building market-sale properties by arguing that they cross-subsidise homes for social rent, then it should stick to such a model. That does not mean demolishing homes for social rent to make land available for building market-sale properties, which appears to be what they are intending to do on Montreal Square.

6. The desperate need for affordable housing

The question asked by residents here is the need for affordable housing in Cambridge. They did not ask for evidence of a ‘housing crisis’, which is the question CHS answers. In fact, neither question is correct.

The category of ‘affordable housing’ is so broad as to be meaningless in determining whether it meets housing need in Cambridge, and therefore contributes to addressing the housing crisis. There is no common resident of a 25 per cent share in a property costing £450,000, a renter paying so-called affordable rent and a housing association tenant on social rent. CHS has consistently said there will be slippage between these three categories of so-called ‘affordable housing’, which undermines their claim to be addressing the housing crisis in Cambridge.

Saying that the ‘greatest demand’ for housing is for ‘one- and two-bedroom properties’ is disingenuous at best, when such bedroom sizes could mean anything between a 2-bedroom council house for social rent and a 2-bedroom property for £350,000. Tenure, rental cost, sale price and service charges are what determines whether a residential development meets housing need, not bedroom size.

7. Impossible to build affordable housing?

Since CHS is unsure of the level of grant funding from Homes for England from March 2021, that by their own admission ‘high levels of grant are needed to make these schemes viable’, and that the new Conservative government is committed to building properties for market sale rather than homes for social rent or even so-called affordable rent, this again suggests the board’s decision to commit to the demolition and redevelopment of Montreal Square was precipitous and imprudent.

Contrary to what CHS assert here, there is no justification for demolishing the 18 homes for social rent on Montreal Square.

First, because their commitment to replacing them is in principle only, which they have admitted is dependent upon viability, which is no commitment at all.

Second, because the time required to evict residents, demolish the buildings, clear the land and complete redevelopment means that it is likely that many if not all the residents, having started a new life elsewhere, will not return to the new homes, whatever their tenure.

Third, because CHS are not only demolishing homes for social rent but also, because of the realities of such a scheme, destroying a long-standing, low-income, self-supporting community of the kind their organisation is meant to be housing, not socially cleansing from the land CHS want to develop.

Fourth, because, as CHS state clearly here, any new properties to which existing residents do not return will revert either to affordable rent or to shared ownership schemes, so it is likely that many if not all the ‘replacement properties’ will not be for social rent, and that, therefore, in a middle of a housing crisis CHS refers to in order to justify demolishing the existing homes, there will be a net loss of homes for social rent resulting from this scheme.

This is completely unacceptable and indefensible either as a proposal for existing residents or as a model for housing provision for future residents.

8. ‘New homes’, demolition of existing homes and ‘partial redevelopment’

‘Some’ is not a clear description of what homes CHS is proposing to demolish on Montreal Square. Do these targeted homes correspond to the 8 households that are in favour of demolition, or do they overlap with the 10 households that are opposed to the scheme?

Or is the partial redevelopment option a consequence of the preservation orders protecting the 7 mature trees in the square from demolition? If it is, is CHS genuinely telling residents that their homes will be demolished or maintained depending upon where a seed took root 100 years ago?

It’s quite extraordinary — though unfortunately typical of how developers conduct such schemes — that CHS has given residents of Montreal Square no explanation for why they are pursuing a partial redevelopment scheme, or how it can meet the needs that neither a full demolition and redevelopment option or a maintenance and refurbishment option apparently cannot.

9. Energy efficiency

Without an impact assessment of the embodied carbon in the existing buildings lost to demolition, the carbon emissions from their demolition, including the energy cost in fuel of the machines used for demolition, transportation of waste and disposal, plus the carbon cost of the extraction of materials, their transportation, manufacture and the construction of the new development, any claims by CHS that new residencies built to contemporary energy standards represents a contribution to reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions in the existing homes on Montreal Square is, of course, completely without foundation. As already noted, the general estimate is that it takes at least 30 years before the considerable carbon cost of demolition, disposal and redevelopment can be offset by the improvements to energy efficiency in new housing.

In light of this, CHS’s statements that they demolishing and redeveloping Montreal Square will ‘significantly reduce both residents’ running costs and continuing carbon emissions’ cannot be asserted with any factual basis.

As for reducing ‘running costs’ for residents, this has to be set against the anticipated increase in rental costs from social rent to affordable rent, as well as the proposed doubling of the number of residencies on the site. Compared to this, the financial benefits of the reduced energy consumption in new residencies will be negligible at best.

10. ‘Affordable rent’ or ‘social rent’

CHS has already said (in section 4) that it is ‘committed to the principle’ of retaining social rents for returning residents only, so it is unclear how this relates or is superseded by this ‘guarantee’. Until residents receive this guarantee in a legally binding form that is not subject to revision following future financial viability assessments this guarantee is nothing more than a principal designed to convince existing residents of something they do not (yet) have. Again, this ambiguity of phrasing within a single letter does not reflect well on CHS’s sincerity or transparency.

Or even greater concern is that the additional housing proposed by CHS will be ‘either’ for affordable rent or shared ownership. There is no correlation financially between these two categories of so-called affordable housing, so bracketing them together here as if they were exchangeable is misleading as an indicator of what CHS intends to build. Indeed, until all the shares in a so-called shared ownership scheme have been purchased by the resident, he or she has no more than an assured tenancy while being responsible for repairs and maintenance to the entire property. Shared ownership schemes are being widely discredited by residents facing uncapped service charges by predatory housing associations, and in no respect represent a means of addressing the housing crisis.

Since CHS is clearly willing to admit that the entirety of the additional housing will be for shared ownership (and that some will have to be made market sale properties), it remains for them to explain how such schemes, which have been shown to be far beyond the financial means of those most affected by the housing crisis, satisfies their justification for initiating the demolition and redevelopment of Montreal Square.

Contrary to what CHS state here, the ‘greatest need’ is not for ‘affordable rent housing’, but for social-rent housing, which they have no plans whatsoever to build.

CHS’s proposal that affordable rents set at the Local Housing Allowance cap would be paid for through Housing Benefit is, frankly, astonishing. The government has made it very clear that it regards HB as a stop-gap measure for residents who have lost their job or face some other unexpected financial hardship. It is not mean to be — and with the roll-out of Universal Credit will not be funded as — a permanent subsidy for housing costs.

Housing Associations such as CHS should not be basing their development proposals on extracting central government funding in perpetuity to fund homes their target tenants cannot otherwise afford. Living on Housing Benefit is not the same as living in a home for social rent. CHS’s proposal, besides being a dubious backdoor path to gaining government funding that is lacking for social-rent housing, actually condemns the recipient, and their tenant, to a life of benefit dependency (or until they are moved to Universal Credit) in order to afford their proposed rental charges. This is not a model of social housing provision; it is a barely concealed attempt to extract public funds into private hands.

Again, if CHS is unable to make their partial redevelopment scheme financially viable without resorting to such underhand and unacceptable schemes, then this scheme should be found financially unviable and dropped.

Finally, since even those tenancies that will remain for social rent in the unlikely event that existing residents return to the new housing in 5 years’ time, CHS has stated here that once those social-rent tenancies for returning tenants expires — either because the tenant doesn’t return, or leaves, or dies — they will revert to affordable rent. Since housing associations cannot offer secure tenancies, they will not be passed to dependents. However long it takes, therefore, CHS’ proposal is for a net loss of 18 homes for social rent, their replacement with affordable-rent housing for tenants claiming housing benefit, shared ownership schemes for those able to afford a 25 per cent deposit on £450,000 homes, with the likelihood of market-sale properties for investment.

How CHS can argue that this proposal addresses the housing crisis in Cambridge is quite incredible, and doesn’t reflect well on the credibility of their other claims.

11. Funds from Homes for England

Given that, of the 18 households in Montreal Square, 10 are opposed to the redevelopment and 8 support it on the terms communicated to them by CHS, it is unclear why CHS has unilaterally made the decision to demolish and redevelop residents’ homes without their approval.

The Residents Association denies that residents ‘agreed’ to the exploration of a partial redevelopment option, as they have always opposed any redevelopment and the demolition it would require.

A survey of the existing homes would establish their level of repair and therefore the cost of their maintenance and future refurbishment. It’s unclear, and CHS have not clarified, how such a survey would establish the financial viability of the partial redevelopment option they are exploring without residents’ consent. Since residents have not given their consent to such an option, and their request for the viability assessment for the maintenance and refurbishment has been denied, it is understandable that residents are refusing CHS entry to their homed with the purpose of demolishing them against their wishes.

This is the tenth time in this 9-page letter that CHS has questioned the financial viability of its own proposed scheme (in sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11). The most obvious conclusion to draw from this, and one with which we would agree, is that it is not financially viable, and should therefore be abandoned rather than spending more money paying consultants to convince residents of the benefits of a scheme that has no benefit for them and which they have rightly rejected. To continue to explore this option for partial demolition and redevelopment under such financial uncertainty represents a mis-use of CHS funds that could otherwise be used for what they were paid by residents to fund: the maintenance and, where necessary, refurbishment of residents’ homes.

In the absence of any supporting evidence of housing need in Cambridge, CHS’s repeated assertion that so-called affordable housing is ‘badly needed’ in Montreal Square has no factual basis. And, indeed, as explained in section 10, the affordable housing it is proposing, ‘either’ affordable rent of shared ownership, is not a tenure of housing provision that will meet housing need, but is, rather, a means of channelling public funds into CHS’s coffers.

Again, if CHS is unsure about the level of grant funding for so-called affordable housing from Homes for England, it behoves the board to withdraw its precipitous and financially imprudent decision to redevelop Montreal Square and explore the residents’ desired option for the maintenance and refurbishment of their homes.

Demolishing homes for social rent against the wishes of the majority of residents, destroying a long-standing community, and replacing those homes with properties that, for rent, can only be afforded by tenants on Housing Benefit, or, for shared ownership or market sale, can only be afforded by far wealthier residents than those described in CHS’s target community, can in no respect be described, as it is here, as a ‘regeneration scheme’. It is what residents across England targeted by the Estate Regeneration National Programme have described it as: social cleansing.

12. Temporarily Relocated?

It is unlikely that even a partial demolition and redevelopment scheme would take 2 years, as CHS indicates. Montreal Square is surrounded by the terraced residences of privately-owned homes, whose owners will presumably object to their back yards bordering a demolition and construction site, and are likely to issue numerous complaints about noise, pollution, reduced air-quality, unresponsive builders, disruption to their quality of life, blocking of road access to their homes, etc.

Given which, it is highly unlikely that, having been evicted from their demolished homes in which they have loved and made a community, some of them for over forty years, residents of Montreal Square will want to return to the new development. Indeed, it appears that this is very much the purpose of CHS’s proposals, so that most if not all of the new build residences can be affordable rent, shared ownership and market-sale properties.

(Given which, residents would be advised not to discuss option for their eviction individually with CHS, but to maintain and present a united front to their plans. Only by staying united and refusing to accept individual offers of relocation can residents of Montreal Square hope to resist CHS’s plans to destroy their community.)

13. Statutory right of return and CHS funding of rent increases

CHS’s statement that they will ‘fund any difference in rent levels between their existing rent at Montreal Square and the possibly higher rent at the “temporary” relocation home’ is riddled with ambiguity.

First, unless CHS has located homes for social rent that are free to move Montreal Square residents into, the rent on any homes they may move into will not ‘possibly’ be higher, but almost undoubtedly will be. If CHS has locate free social-rent tenancies, this raises the issue, which CHS has not addressed, that such tenancies will effectively be lost to house other tenants for up to five years as a direct result of CHS’s demolition proposal for Montreal Square. In other words, they will be losing the social-rent homes at Montreal Square twice over: first when they needlessly demolish the 18 houses in Montreal Square, and second when they rehouse the 18 families evicted. In effect, 36 homes for social rent will be lost for 5 years because of CHS’s plans.

Second, CHS has not specified what increase between the social rents in Montreal Square and the new accommodation residents find they will fund. Will they, for example, fund the considerable difference between the social rent residents currently pay and market-rate rentals in a 2-bedroom home in Cambridge?

Third, for how long will they fund this difference? By ‘temporary’, does CHS mean that they will only fund residents until they return to the new residences at Montreal Square? If they don’t return, and choose to remain in their ‘temporary’ residence, will CHS cease to fund the rental difference? If that is what this means, then CHS are committing residents to moving twice in the time period required to demolish and redevelop their existing homes. Since a number of the existing residents are elderly, and 3-5 years is a long time, how can CHS justify this unwarranted and unnecessary disruption of residents’ lives.

Fourth, what are the location parameters within which CHS is willing to fund this difference in rent levels? If residents are relocated, either by CHS or by necessity (i.e. the availability of housing) sufficiently far from Montreal Square to interfere with their employment, will CHS fund the travel costs? Will they fund the difference between unemployment and residents’ salaries should this enforced relocation lead to residents losing their job?

14. Montreal Square is a community not a commodity

Following on from the previous section, what input will residents have into whether the ‘temporary accommodation’ CHS has earmarked are ‘potentially suitable’ as homes? This statement alone is very much in line with the unilateral and arrogant manner in which CHS has approached this so-called consultation process. Without knowing the needs of households, how can CHS possibly know whether this accommodation is ‘suitable’ to residents?

Will it, for example, be equally close and accessible to residents’ places of work? Will it include some equivalent — impossible though this is — to the large gardens that are such a feature of Montreal Square, and which many residents have devoted decades of love and horticultural care.

Without understanding the complex levels of support, relationship and interaction between residents of Montreal Square, how can CHS possibly know whether the neighbours they prioritise for relocating together will be those who, for example, look after each other’s children when the other is at work, or do the shopping or look after an elderly neighbour or a neighbour with mobility issues, or any of the other myriad interdependencies that bind a community together?

In the light of which, CHS’s assertion that they have ‘extensive experience of building, managing and supporting new communities’ sounds extremely hollow. Communities aren’t built and managed, they grow over long periods of time. Just like the trees that CHS plans to cut down, they can be replanted again, but it will take decades before they meet the size of the demolished trees, and the complex eco-system they supported will have been destroyed. By the evidence of this letter, CHS has little if any understanding of how communities grow, only how to destroy them

Focusing on the possible anti-social behaviour of new residents is not only an underhand way of justifying reducing the rights of new tenants, but is also a transparent attempt to divert attention from the real and very present threat to the community (below). This doesn’t come from the anti-social behaviour of future residents of the redeveloped Montreal Square but from CHS itself, which without justification, and without understanding the social, economic and environmental consequences, has committed to wantonly destroying this community in order to gain access to the land on which residents’ homes are built, in order to replace them with properties that will generate increased income for CHS in rents and sales.

Photograph by Keith Heppell for the Cambridge Independent, May 2018.

Architects for Social Housing

One thought on “The Fight for Montreal Square: Questions and Strategies for Housing Campaigners

  1. The detail the technical support and above all the commitment to workers housing by ASH, when faced with the parades and rituals of Government Regulators, Councils, Charities and Housing Associations in self-serving and profiteering risks and gambles, is unbelievable. Architects for Social Housing should register with the Trades Union Congress as an official Union of Housing Workers and Tenants (UHWT), charge a modest subscription and build a movement to not only stand up for the defence of workers in their homes, but also to expose the opportunists and grandstanding officials and wannabe politicians using the defence of workers rights to further their own careers and that of the ‘plight’ of their middle class and petty-privileged backers.

    Our two year campaign to stop the demolition of Montreal Square, right from the beginning in May 2018, has demanded that existing National and local Unions and their Labour backers mandate:
    • a senior officer, rep, volunteer, activist to help Montreal Square Residents Association with our activities to stop the Demolition and redevelopment and support our residents to live in the peace, security and comfort of our homes.
    • to help in the stand against all landlord attacks. To expose these attacks in public on the street, in letters, leaflets and in meetings challenging the landlords stage-managed consultation and class actions
    • to help build the legal defence campaign, by combatting the weight and intimidation of landlord bureaucracy so we can make a political, economic and legal challenge in our letters and in the courts
    • to help build the defence fund campaign to pay for expert witnesses and technical professionals
    • to demand landlord funding support for independent professionals, architects, quantity surveyors and engineers with no conflicts of interest with the landlords demolition, gentrification and social cleansing proposals
    • to combat the disinformation, lies & secrecy surrounding the financial viability, costs, and financialisation of the Redevelopment of Montreal Square

    The mandated senior officer, rep, tenant, volunteer, activist would then attend our weekly street meetings not to stand around looking good for photo-opportunities for their own social media ‘friending’ campaigns, or to bolster their own sectarian political interests, but to contribute in a practical and helpful way, talking and mobilising ordinary people on the street in building a defence movement for workers currently facing attacks on their homes.

    The mandated person would also have the backing of their organisation to contribute in a consistent (weekly) active and material way to our legal defence campaign, committee meetings, and emergency incidents. Nice words have been uttered by Post Office Workers Union, Unison, Unite, Unite Community Branch (Cambridge), Cambridge University Students Union, The Labour Party (Cambridge and Romsey) but no consistent action or mandated official has materialised to come forward to give weekly support. One or two hours a week is not too much to ask when workers under siege in their social and council homes have to face insecurity and insanity everyday. Tenants are grateful for the consistent principled and mandated support from three organisations: Architects for Social Housing, The Solidarity Federation, The Communists, The Argyle Street Housing Coop.

    Mealy-mouthed words or conditional support based on political or ideological self-interest seeking meetings with the landlord without guarantees in backstage, wheeler dealer affairs is not what we need. A meeting without guarantees – is merely an empty sound. It does not believe in begging and haggling.

    The tenants committee has worked tirelessly in drawing up the demands and looking at all the options. But what good is this if they are being ignored by the landlord or drawn into meetings with more fake promises, delays and no guarantees.

    Let all the political representatives of local and national government agitate against guarantees. Let them preach and rant about the virtues of meetings, elections, one-off demonstrations and conferences without guarantees. They can flounder in the bog of information for its own sake, which is no use to any of us. Our Saturday street meetings and general tenant meetings are the place to meet, talk and persuade the ordinary people of the community, 7,321 of them who are outraged at the way the tenants have been subjected to 24 months of housing insecurity.

    Without the consistent and practical weekly help of the official labour movement onward to victory. No to stragglers! No to backstage dealers! No to the Demolition of Social Rent Homes at Montreal Square, Cambridge. Every Saturday 3pm at the Coop Mill Road, Cambridge CB1 3AN.

    There are those that posture and and do nothing one day and are bad;
    There are those that posture and do nothing one year and they’re worse;
    There are those who posture and do nothing many years and are very bad.
    But there are those who posture and do nothing their whole lives, those are the rotten, repugnant ones
    (Adapted from a poem by Bertolt Brecht)

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