Housing associations’ support for estate regeneration ballots shows shift in political mood

by Dave Hill

Last week’s report from Inside Housing that the G15 group of London’s largest housing associations supports Sadiq Khan’s proposal that ballots of residents should be held before estate regenerations involving demolitions can go ahead is not so much a conversion to the cause as an acknowledgement of reality. “We support the Mayor’s call for ballots because we recognise the political environment in which we are operating in London,” said G15 chair Paul Hackett.

There is money involved too: balloting is to be a precondition of receiving mayoral funding and there’s quite a bit of that kicking around. The wider significance is that the shift of City Hall towards accepting the principle of ballots in its Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration (see appendix four), which had been rejected in the draft version, underlines the success with which Jeremy Corbyn and his kindred spirits among housing activists have made the issue of redeveloping, renewing, rebuilding or regenerating – pick your own preferred term for knocking stuff down and starting again – an emotive, politically potent issue within the Labour Party’s internal power structures.

The rights and wrongs of regenerating housing estates, can be genuinely difficult to weigh up. There will always be winners and losers from such schemes. At the planning stage, there will always be people excited by the prospect of a new and better home and others saddened by the idea of losing their present one and fearful of what the future might hold. Ballots might seem an obvious way to determine where the balance lies, but they are not unproblematic.

When is the right time to hold one? What options should be on the ballot paper and who decides? If the result is “no”, is that a “no” for all time and, if not, how soon should another ballot be held? Is there not a danger that a theoretical 51% of residents who are either happy with their lot or mistrustful of promises of better things prevent another 49% whose circumstances are less satisfactory seeing any change for the better in their lives, including some who might be desperate for it?

What about other people, including fellow local ones, who might benefit from the increase in housing density – two or even three times as many dwellings on the same piece of land in some case – which is often a big objective of regenerations at a time of serious housing under-supply in the capital? Don’t their needs and wishes count at least a little too? That would be the argument of boroughs, including Labour ones, and probably explains why ballots weren’t originally part of the Mayor’s advice.

The balloting provision is still subject to consultation, and the G15 have said it should not apply to schemes that are already underway or where health and safety concerns made alternatives to demolition to expensive. Dislike of ballots has been partly down to the ability of protest groups, often formed and controlled by people who don’t live on the estates in question, to mobilise “no” sentiment. There is, though, now a view in housebuilding circles that the best way to neutralise such opposition might now be hold a regeneration ballot and work hard to get a “yes”. Maybe a whole new phase in the politics of London housing is soon to get underway.

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