John Biggs: How Tower Hamlets worked with residents to find solutions for their deteriorating homes

John Biggs: How Tower Hamlets worked with residents to find solutions for their deteriorating homes

The issue of estate regeneration, particularly in urban areas, has been a political hot potato for many local authorities, not least in London. It presents a multi-stranded challenge that can be difficult to meet.

In Tower Hamlets, we’ve recently worked with residents to find the right solution for two of our housing blocks, Lister House and Treves House in Whitechapel. Like a lot of our borough’s social housing, these were built in the 1950s and had deteriorated following some years of neglect.

In 2014, the council secured an estimate for doing major refurbishment works. This found there were big structural issues with the properties and this meant deciding whether it would be better to provide new housing on the site or attempt to repair the homes as they stood.

That was the situation I inherited when I was elected the borough’s Mayor in 2015. My administration commissioned a survey, delivered in 2016, to ensure the previous estimate was accurate. We then used this as the basis for looking at what it might cost the council to buy leaseholder residents’ homes, purchased from the council under Right To Buy, back from them – a way they could be spared punitive charges for meeting the cost of the works.

I also asked for a resident-led steering group to be set up. We worked with residents and paid for them to have an independent technical advisor provide a further survey. This came up with three options, one of which was a major works refurbishment programme costing less than the original 2014 one. After some delay, that was the one proceeded with.

I attended meetings with residents throughout the process. They were not happy, either about the potential disruption of their lives or the cost to leaseholders, and there were fears about “gentrification”. Having uncertainty about what is happening to your home is never going to be easy. 

All of the options available involved a cost and underlined that Right to Buy has created a whole new class of residents – leaseholders, many on modest incomes – for whom leasehold re-charges if their home is repaired or the cost of buying a replacement home if there’s is demolished can be an unwelcome burden. These factors are why the interests of leaseholders tend to diverge on some finance and value issues from those of their tenant neighbours. As a council, we worked to come up with a solution that was fair to both parties. 

Our aim was to be clear with residents that we had to look at all the options when faced with such major repairs, including demolition and rebuild. As a borough of over 300,000 people and growing fast we have to ensure we are using our resources wisely and also try to accommodate the increased demand for housing.

Claims that our approach to Lister and Treves amount to a “u-turn over social cleansing” might make a good headline, but it’s not helpful if regeneration is seen as a hell-bent and unthinking process to demolish at all costs. Decisions must be based on an honest conversation and there is a need to listen and reflect.

Doing what’s best for residents involves juggling the differing demands of tenants of leaseholders and also recognising the potential for building new, additional homes for people on our housing waiting list. As politicians, we have to make choices that will benefit our whole community and it is often a complex and delicate task. 

John Biggs is Mayor of Tower Hamlets.

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