Last week, residents unhappy with Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s plan to demolish their homes and build a new Cundy Street Quarter in their place received confirmation from Westminster City Council that all council tenants living on the site in south Belgravia will be offered a “right to return” to it and a new home there if and when the new Quarter secures planning consent and is built.
The council tenants live in a 40-flat housing block called Walden House, which Grosvenor owns but leases to Conservative-run Westminster. The other 111 dwellings on the site, collectively known as the Cundy Street flats, are for private rent. In a letter to Walden House residents, dated 4 September, Councillor Andrew Smith, Westminster’s cabinet member for housing, wrote that the “right to return” can be conferred:
“Because Grosvenor has now confirmed to us that any proposed development will increase the number of affordable and social homes over and above the units on the site today, in line with our planning policies. This will ensure that there will be enough social homes of the right size and tenure to enable us to make it possible to offer a right to return for all council residents”.
A campaign called Save Cundy Street and Walden House has described this as “a big win that has only happened because of our tireless campaigning”. The campaign has received support from two of its three Churchill ward councillors, both of them Labour, one of whom, Shamim Talukder, is himself a Walden House resident (the campaign is less keen on the other Churchill councillor, Conservative Murad Gassanly, whose approach to the scheme will be covered by On London on another day). In a press release, Westminster’s opposition Labour Group has said that Grosvenor has had a welcome “change of heart” which it contends is “undoubtedly due in part” to the residents’ campaign, pointing out that Talukder and his Labour colleague Andrea Mann have supported it from the start.
There’s no doubt that the campaign has made an impact. There’s been a lot of media coverage of its cause, including from the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Sunday Mirror and BBC London News. A petition, focussing on the formidable wealth of Grosvenor’s owner, the Duke of Westminster, has attracted over 170,000 signatures so far – an impressive total. Having a commitment from the council, clearly set down in writing, is clearly of value to the campaign. It will provide some reassurance to those Walden House tenants who want to eventually be rehoused on the same site, although they will still have to move somewhere else temporarily until their replacement homes are ready.
What’s harder to tell is whether this development in the Cundy Street Quarter story counts as a concession to the campaigners’ pressure that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, or whether it would have anyway at a later date. After all, it’s not unusual for social landlords, be they boroughs or housing associations, to make a “right to return” pledge when homes are being knocked down – the arguments usually centre on what this “right” really amounts to and how far it will be honoured in the future.
It’s important to recognise the difference between Grosvenor’s part in all this and Westminster’s. The council is in charge of the allocation of homes to its tenants, so a right of return is its, not Grosvenor’s, to grant. Andrew Smith’s letter effectively makes the point that Westminster couldn’t provide a right to return without knowing that Grosvenor intends to build at least as many new social homes on the site as the number of existing ones it intends to knock down.
For its part, Grosvenor says it has always said it intends to replace all the social homes demolished and to build additional “affordable” homes in the envisaged Cundy Street Quarter too (as well as “senior living” accommodation for older people and homes for market sale). Certainly, the commitment to re-provide the affordable housing on the site at present (all of it social housing) was being being made in statements to journalists before last week’s events and, in any case, any failure to re-provide social homes in a redevelopment of this size would run into trouble with Sadiq Khan. Grosvenor will also need to meet Westminster’s forthcoming requirement in its new city plan that 35 per cent of homes in new housing developments are “affordable”.
On Grosvenor’s website, chief executive Craig McWilliam sharply rebuts accusations of “social cleansing” that have been made and states that when a planning application is submitted “we will offer to double the number of affordable homes on the site”. He doesn’t specify what type of “affordable” the additional “affordable” homes will be – social rent, shared ownership or whatever – but he says Grosvenor’s wish is to “increase, not reduce, the area’s diversity”, which seems to underline the likelihood that the “intermediate” variety of “affordable” homes will be prominent in the eventual application.
All of that raises at least the possibility that a “right to return” could have been on the cards anyway, though it also raises the question of whether Grosvenor and Westminster might have worked together to provide it sooner. It might have lessened some of the criticism they’re received. Labour’s Andrea Mann says, “We only wish the council had worked to put this guarantee in place from the start.”
Meanwhile, the Save Cundy Street and Walden House campaign continues. The details of the proposed social housing re-provision will no doubt be of interest to them and their Labour supporters as they emerge. More immediately, the campaign, including Shamim Talukder, is asking Grosvenor to offer a right to return to its tenants – the private renters in the Cundy Street flat – though they recognise that Grosvenor is under no formal obligation to do this.
Grosvenor says it notified its tenants back in 2012 that redevelopment of the site was a possibility, confirmed it earlier this year, and that since then has been “providing tailored support, over and above what is required of us, to help them plan carefully for the future”.
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