Ben Derbyshire: Tenant ballots increase democratic participation in London planning but they must be done well

Ben Derbyshire: Tenant ballots increase democratic participation in London planning but they must be done well

Way back in 1981 in the wake of dangerous and destructive riots in Brixton, Margaret Thatcher commissioned Lord Justice Scarman to investigate. Scarman’s report concluded it was essential that “people are encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area”. While the importance of community involvement in policing was recognised, the judge also pointed to the need for “community redevelopment and planning”.

The late twentieth century saw a growing influence of the consumer in the built environment. Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities articulated the proposition that places worked better when local populations had a say in their design or adaptation and subsequent management.

Powerful support for this thinking came from the Prince of Wales: “Local communities must be involved at the earliest stage, and as the key partners. If this happens there is a chance that we might see rather less campaigning against the things people don’t want and rather more pro-active campaigning for the things they do want.” A definitive book about the issue, Community Architecture by Nick Wates and Charles Knevitt, was published by Penguin in 1987 with HRH on the front cover.

From retired judges to radical activists and royalty, the case has long been made for demonstrable community participation in placemaking as a prerequisite for success. And what better way to demonstrate approval than by testing for it in a ballot?

This reality found its way into the legislation surrounding transfers of housing stock in the early 1990s when the Conservative government of the time decided to selectively pour money into housing action trusts in order to deal with problem estates. The then Housing Corporation followed this with grants such as the estates regeneration challenge fund which subsidised housing associations to take over council stock, subject to ballot approval from residents.

I chair a housing design practice with decades of experience founded in these early schemes. We have learned to deliver transparently accountable ballot outcomes based on a fair representation of residents’ preferences. Don’t take it from me alone. Back in 2016 we joined with three other well-known housing architects to publish Altered Estates – how to reconcile competing interests in estate regeneration and the same group is about to update this with a sequel that takes into account more recent changes in the political and regulatory context – not least the introduction of mandatory ballots in the Mayor of London’s 2018 estate regeneration guidance – over the intervening six years.

It is therefore a worry that the legitimacy of some recent ballot results in London has been challenged on the basis that political or commercial pressures may have conspired to undermine probity of process and thus validity of outcomes, almost of all of which have favoured redevelopment. How then can the suspicion be dispelled that, on the one hand, developers’ access to expensive and persuasive PR agencies or, on the other, misinformation from politically motivated and over-zealous activists, have been able to hijack the proceedings?

I won’t attempt to precis our Altered Estates guidance document here, but it is worth identifying some of the essential points. Crucially, ballots should be preceded by a residents having equitable access to resources and information to support meaningful engagement and decision-making.

Actually, before we get to that, we spend time building networks of communications among local schools and community groups as a foundation for mutual trust. In the early stages you might come across our engagement team working out of a shipping container using a CNC machine to make Christmas trees or bird-boxes of plywood with local kids – we call it “assemble and join”. Before that even, we’ll have done feasibility studies so that we know we are not wasting people’s precious time.

Of course, we know from recent national referenda that there is nothing so divisive as a finely balanced outcome. When it comes to decisions that affect the lives of residents so directly and acutely, what you’re after is a stand-out decision – a substantial majority on a large turnout.

A ballot for our project at Bellamy Close & Byng Street in Tower Hamlets saw a 100 per cent turnout, with 84 per cent of residents voting in favour of a sixfold increase in density. At Pike Close in Bromley 92 households saw the benefits of more than doubling the capacity of the site voting 82 per cent in favour on an 89.5 per cent turnout. And at Joyce and Snells estates in Enfield 78.5 per cent voted in favour of redevelopment on a turnout of 85 per cent of the residents.

To achieve these results you have got to offer people more than binary choices long before they decide whether or not to go ahead with any approach to regeneration. There must be a full range of options which range from doing nothing, to partial renovation and infill, all the way to redevelopment and the addition of new homes. These choices must be fully costed and not just in financial terms – it’s critical to understand the lifecycle energy costs and the relative payback for embodied carbon.

To enable this, landlords must be persuaded to offer a residents’ charter with binding commitments on tenure, rent and service charge, capital contributions for leaseholders and entitlements during decanting programmes and for new homes. It’s not fair to ask residents to consider any other changes before they can be satisfied about the basics. So there’s the key to avoiding the bitter recriminations surrounding some recent ballots – a savvy and enfranchised electorate clear about the pros and cons and confident of their choices.

Ben Derbyshire is chair of HTA Design. Follow Ben on Twitter.

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