As London’s population and economy and have grown, so has the intensity of debates about how the city is evolving as a result. There are demands for more housing and for more buildings for businesses. Property owners and developers and London’s planning authorities – the boroughs and the Mayor are responding to these demands in their different but closely interacting ways. A further, important factor in this complex equation are the views and the interests of people living in neighbourhoods affected by rapid change and by plans to bring about more of it. And the strong feelings often stirred by regeneration projects underline the importance of a big question. Who speaks for the residents?
On London has been following the progress of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland’s plans to redevelop a piece of its large and prestigious property portfolio in Belgravia. Those plans propose the demolition of the Cundy Street flats – four blocks, comprising 111 dwellings for private rent – and, standing right next to them, another housing block called Walden House, containing 40 flats. Grosvenor leases Walden House to Conservative-run Westminster Council, which rents it to council tenants.
Grosvenor and the architect (or “spatial strategist”) designing the new housing and amenities that will rise in the current buildings’ place if the scheme – entitled Cundy Street Quarter – goes ahead, argue that it will greatly increase the number of homes on the site, and that these will include enough social rented homes to rehouse current Walden House tenants plus additional “affordable” homes. They also say the scheme will increase the area’s social diversity and improve the wider neighbourhood for all who live in and spend time there.
But the plans have met conspicuous resistance in the form of a campaign called Save Cundy Street Flats and Walden House. Energetic and shrewd, the campaign has, at the time of writing, secured over 180,000 petition signatures, picked up nearly 400 followers of its Twitter output and enjoyed sympathetic coverage from big national media organisations, including the Sunday People, the Sun, the Daily Mail and ITV News.
Walden House tenants have received a written assurance from the council that a “right to return” to a new home on the site will be offered if and when the new Cundy Street Quarter is built. The campaign has called this a “big win” and also succeeded in getting the media to convey its core message, which is that Grosvenor’s wealthy owner the Duke of Westminster wants to, in the words of the Sun, “kick out dozens of families from council homes to build posh flats”, and in so doing undertake the “social cleansing” of a settled and diverse inner London community. Who runs the Save campaign? What type of organisation is it? And how representative of the views of tenants of the Cundy Street flats and Walden House is it?
A distinctive feature of the electoral ward containing the intended redevelopment site is that its political representation on the council is split. Churchill ward has three councillors: two Labour and one Conservative. The lone Tory is Murad Gassanly, who is also Westminster’s deputy cabinet member for housing. He was invited to attend the first public meeting of residents affected by Grosvenor’s plans, but declined to attend. The reason he gives for that is that it was already clear to him that the campaign would be “initiated and dominated by the Labour Party” – including politicians and activists from other parts of the capital – and he therefore wanted nothing to do with it. Andrea Mann, one of the Labour councillors for Churchill ward, sees the situation differently, saying Gassanly turned down the chance “to work on this together as a cross-party group of councillors helping their local residents”.
There have been some frank exchanges of views about this issue. But is Gassanly right that the Save campaign is Labour-dominated? Does it matter if it is? Certainly, some other significant Labour Party figures have been heavily involved in the campaign, including Mann’s fellow Churchill Labour councillor Shamim Talukder, who is a Walden House tenant. Another of its leading lights is Walden House tenant Liza Begum. She and Talukder are brother and sister, and Begum too is a Labour activist, described by her party earlier this year* as the fundraising officer for Cities of London & Westminster constituency Labour Party.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with activists from any political party being closely involved in campaigns about neighbourhood issues of whatever kind. Indeed, the Momentumised Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn sees such grassroots mobilisation as exactly the sort of thing Labour members should be involved with. Is there, though, a sense in which the Save campaign presents itself as something slightly other than what it really is? For example, Begum does not mention the Labour Party in her Twitter profile or when tweeting about the campaign. And her Labour activism has not been mentioned in any of the media coverage of the campaign in which she has appeared.
Again, does that matter? The question is important because it goes to the heart of a broader one about how the wishes and concerns of London renters whose homes are earmarked by their owners for demolition are represented and addressed. If and when campaigns against regeneration schemes are or become primarily vehicles for wider political projects or are perceived as being so, their effectiveness and credibility can be weakened. In the first case, the views of residents who don’t care for the campaign being waged in their name or don’t share its larger objectives might be in danger of going unheard. In the second case, if a campaign looks to a landlord or local elected decision-makers to be unrepresentative or even a “front” for a party political endeavour, it is easier to justify ignoring it.
Andrea Mann describes Begum as the “leading campaigner from Walden House,” but states that the campaign “has the involvement and support of a wide-ranging group of residents, people with a variety of political affiliations and none”, and stresses that campaign embraces the privately-rented Cundy Street flats too. She also makes the point that she and Talukder are “simply doing what we were elected to do: helping our local residents and speaking up for them on the vital issues that affect their lives.” (Begum, by the way, has agreed to answer some questions from On London about the Save campaign which can possibly be published another time).
Unsurprisingly, Gassanly believes he has been discharging his duties as a councillor more helpfully than his Labour counterparts. In July, he accused the Labour Party of exploiting the situation “to advance its own partisan agenda” and derided “Corbynistas from across London” who he claimed were stirring up fears and spreading false allegations. He says that he – along with Westminster leader Nickie Aitken – rather than the Save campaign secured Walden House tenants’ “right to return” following “extensive talks” with Grosvenor and also claims credit for securing compensation payments of £6,500 for the Cundy Street tenants.
Gassanly has added that “much still needs to be done around affordable housing and planning issues” related to the scheme, which he supports. Grosvenor has said that it envisages there being between 250 and 275 homes altogether in the new Cundy Street Quarter, if it goes ahead. Gassanly says it is vital that the eventual planning application is right in every detail, including re-providing homes for Walden House tenants who want them that are of the right size, given that some of the households are overcrowded. He regards his approach as practical, consensual and far more representative of what tenants of both Cundy Street and Walden House want than the campaign group that carries their name. Needless to say, the campaigners disagree.
Perhaps, though, both sides would accept that there’s a fraught political backdrop to all of this, along with a bit of rancorous history. When Gassanly first won his Churchill ward council seat in 2014, he did so as a Labour candidate, but later crossed the floor. Labour had hoped for a Churchill clean sweep in the borough elections last year, but Gassanly held on (the Conservatives, incidentally, have proposed the abolition of Churchill ward in their submission to the local government boundary commission, prompting Labour to accuse them of attempted gerrymandering).
Another part of the backdrop is Labour’s aim of replacing the lately embattled Mark Field as MP for the “Two Cities” constituency, in which the proposed Cundy Street Quarter site lies. Those hopes took a bit of a battering last week when their then candidate, Steven Saxby, was suspended from the party late last week following an investigation of a complaint against him. One way or another, housing conflicts have a way of being party political, whether people want them to or not.
*The webpage linked to has been taken down since Steven Saxby’s suspension, along with all his other social media output.
OnLondon.co.uk is dedicated to providing fair, thorough, anti-populist coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations from readers and would like to pay its freelance contributors better. Can you spare £5 a month? Follow this link to donate. Thank you.