Estate regeneration: the case for residents’ ballots

by Colin Wiles

The news that Sadiq Khan will give residents a veto over regeneration schemes on social housing estates will be welcomed by the 350,000 Londoners who might be affected by plans to demolish their homes. Regeneration of social housing estates has been a hugely divisive issue in London. The likely collapse of the Haringey Development Vehicle is only the latest in a long history of controversial demolish and rebuild schemes.

The Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle is one of the most infamous, where 1,194 social rent homes (typically let at 30 to 50 percent of local market rents) were demolished. In its place 2,700 new homes were built but only 82 were social rented. Many of the remaining properties were sold off plan to overseas investors or let at rents that were unaffordable to people on low incomes. Former leaseholders on the estate were forced to move to cheaper parts of London because of the low value of their demolished properties. Complaints of “social cleansing” seemed to be justified in some of these schemes.

To a large extent the housing associations and councils involved are themselves the victims of years of government under-investment and of London’s febrile property market. Due to cuts in social housing grant the only way they can make these schemes pay is by including a large element of homes for sale, to “cross-subsidise” the lower rent properties. But there is little doubt that many of the proposals have been handled in a cack-handed way that has enraged many residents of all tenures. A failure to consult properly, secret reports discussed in secret meetings, and a revolving jobs door between councillors, council officers and developers has all added to a climate of distrust and suspicion.

Now the Mayor has sought to end some of these controversies by insisting that there should be no loss of social housing on larger schemes and that existing residents should vote Yes in a simple Yes/No ballot before any scheme can receive City Hall funding. Although many campaigners have welcomed this it does open up a wider debate about who benefits from regeneration.

Some critics argue that residents alone should not have the final say. What about the homeless, the thousands of people on council waiting lists, the priced out generation? Should their voices also be heard? If more homes overall are built on these schemes then isn’t that good for Londoners as a whole? Surely, say critics, residents will take a selfish view and ignore the wider community?

Others say this is misguided. They say that, of course, residents should be the main consultees and if your home was threatened with demolition then you would feel the same. But this doesn’t mean that residents are a monolithic bloc of “I’m All Right Jacks and Jills”. The individual stories emerging from the Grenfell tragedy showed that social housing blocks are diverse, with social tenants, owners and private tenants living side by side. Some were recent arrivals who were striving to improve their prospects. Not all of them saw their long-term future in social housing. If developers approach the process in a constructive and transparent way then there is no reason why residents should not vote on the wider issues.

One of the most important aspects of the Mayor’s proposals is the need for ballots to be conducted fairly and professionally. The Mayor’s draft guidance proposes that all residents listed on a tenancy or lease agreement, whether social housing tenants or owners, will have a vote, as well as any resident who has been on the council’s housing waiting list for a year or more.

This last category will include private tenants leasing from owners and aims to deal with the wider issues mentioned above. There will be no limit on the number of votes per household. This could open up divisions between long-standing and more recent residents and will require a rigorous voter registration and identification process to ensure fair play. Subletting is rife on many social housing estates and if the process is seen to be unfair it could cause significant bad feeling across these estates. And this could be compounded if the vote is close. Otherwise, well done Mr Mayor.

Colin Wiles has decades of experience in London housing, including with local authorities and housing associations. He is a fellow of both the Chartered Institute of Housing and the RSA and a member of the steering group of SHOUT. Follow him on Twitter.

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