Sadiq Khan’s ‘U-turn’ on estate demolition ballots draws scorn as well as applause

by Dave Hill

The long-awaited publication of Sadiq Khan’s good practice guide for estate regeneration – entitled Better Homes For Local People – has been greeted with delight by campaigners against estates being demolished without this first being approved by their residents by means of a ballot.

In the draft of the guidance, Khan had urged caution around ballots, saying: “They can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways over many years into a simple ‘yes/no’ decision at a single point in time.” But his Introduction to the final version says this:

I want the good practice and principles in this guide to be applied on all estate regeneration schemes across London. Where demolition is involved, I intend to use my planning powers, and a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved, to help ensure this is the case.

Green Party AM Siân Berry, who has long argued for ballots, has hailed a “huge policy U-turn from the Mayor,” and called this “a massive victory for community and grassroots campaigning”. And in a press release she says: “It’s only fair that if your home faces demolition that you can vote against bad plans.”

There has also been a welcome from Adam Hug, leader of the opposition Labour group on Westminster Council. This is of particular interest in the context of Westminster, which has always been Tory-run, very recently dropping a long-standing policy of always balloting estate residents in advance of regeneration schemes, and doing so for reasons indistinguishable from those Khan originally gave for being war of them.

Also in favour is that veteran of the housing battles the Shirley Porter era Westminster Jonathan Rosenberg, who, for nine years, has been co-ordinating a residents’ campaign against the demolition of the adjoining West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates as part of the now floundering Earls Court redevelopment project. He says it’s “about time” the Mayor accepted the case for ballots, but adds that he is impressed by a significant detail in a separate consultation document also published today addressing what residents’ ballots should entail.

Paragraph 3.17 proposes that voting rights should be given not only to social housing tenants and residents leaseholders and freeholders, but also to “any resident who has been on the local authority’s housing register for at least one year, irrespective of their current tenure”. This means that ballots would embrace a group of people temporarily housed on some estates whose circumstances currently leave them at the bottom of the heap in terms of re-housing and compensation rights.

The launch of the ballots consultation demonstrates that a lot of detail has yet to be finalised about a policy the Mayor cannot automatically bring to bear on every regeneration involving demolition and to which reasonable objections can be made.

Its power lies in the Mayor’s ability to, in his words on page five, “encourage the wider use of ballots by requiring them as a condition of his [providing] funding”. .

Its potential drawbacks in terms of improving the quality of existing housing stock and increasing the overall supply of all kinds of new homes, including the “affordable” range, have been articulated in the response of Centre for London director Ben Rogers. “Too often in the past, developers have failed to secure support from local residents for their plans,” he says. “This has created local tensions and threatened the whole process of delivering more homes. The proposal for compulsory ballots puts existing residents’ views at the heart of the redevelopment process.”

However, Rogers warns: “It could also frustrate the supply of social and affordable housing in London. We will need to be careful to ensure that the voices of families on housing waiting lists, and other Londoners in need of decent and affordable housing, are also heard in the process.” By those on waiting lists, Rogers doesn’t mean only people temporarily housed in estates earmarked for demolition, but the many thousands in unsuitable private rented dwellings, hostels and B&Bs.

One thing we can be very sure of in all this is that a huge amount of backstairs negotiation will have gone on between affordable housing providers, boroughs keen on regeneration, and national Labour party figures. Jeremy Corbyn announced in his party conference speech last autumn that ballots were now party policy, to the delight of many activists. His endorsement of Khan’s guidance and his appearance in support of it at the West Hendon estate in Barnet – which Labour hopes to relieve the Tories of in May – make the involvement of Labour’s top  brass very clear.

Unsurprisingly, Conservative AM Andrew Boff, though himself supportive of ballots, believes the Mayor has shifted his ground for ignoble reasons: “In almost two years as Mayor, Sadiq Khan has consistently flip-flopped on this issue and refused to be drawn,” he says. “The fact he’s finally settled on a position in favour just weeks before his potential re-selection [as mayoral candidate for 2020] smacks of pure cynicism and self-interest. There is a debate to be had about how regeneration plans are put forward, but Sadiq Khan’s stance is motivated purely by how far it could propel his career.”

The issue attracts strong feelings. It also shines a light on many issues about the capital’s evolution and various deeper political forces at work. But all that is for another day.

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