Peter Mason: Ealing Council has shown how estate regeneration ballots can be won

Peter Mason: Ealing Council has shown how estate regeneration ballots can be won

Balloting residents on housing estates set for regeneration is the new normal in London, and with Labour having pledged to implement them nationwide, early adopters are demonstrating that getting public support is more than possible.

Since February, any social landlord, housing association or council has been required to ballot residents on their estates in order to access the vital funding for housing subsidy the Mayor of London controls. Ballots have sent shockwaves of nervousness throughout the local government and housing association worlds as they regroup and consider the impact on their development pipelines.

Ealing, where I am cabinet member for housing, planning and transformation, is the first London borough to ballot estate residents. We announced yesterday that we won the overwhelming support of residents on our High Lane estate in Hanwell to move forward with our plans to renew the estate. On a turnout proportionally far higher than at the recent local elections, 90 per cent of residents put their trust in the council’s plans, a vindication of years of effort to develop a plan that achieved the best possible deal.

With housing associations Metropolitan and Thames Valley in Barnet and Riverside in Lambeth also receiving “yes” votes from residents of estates they own, early indications are that support can be won if councils and housing associations truly make the effort to build support for their plans.

It matters. With £4.8 billion of capital grant under his control and the tightening of planning rules in the emerging new London Plan, Sadiq Khan’s clever pincer move on those who develop housing is designed to reset the market and concentrate it on the task of boosting the supply of affordable homes.

By recruiting a team of eagle-eyed viability appraisers, publishing plans that don’t meet the grade, and signalling the need to deliver at scale and pace 10,000 new council homes by 2022, developers are now all too aware that the future must be decidedly affordable.

For local authorities and housing associations, the scarcity and cost of new land alongside growing waiting lists and spiralling homelessness is increasingly turning the attention onto existing estates. With the land capacity to absorb more homes and at a density more in line with 21st Century London, many of the capital’s mid-century estates are in pipelines earmarked for regeneration.

A decade of stagnant wage growth as well as historically low levels of home building have led not just to a crisis in the supply of new houses, but also an affordability crunch that has prevented most from getting onto the housing ladder, and many into a volatile private rented sector. Disaffected by a broken housing market, real anger has spilled over into the political arena, fuelling Britain’s current political climate.   

No longer simply a case of replacing outdated or dilapidated homes, investing and regenerating London’s estates to also provide for new homes has become a controversial debate with debilitating consequences.

The housing market crash in the Noughties spawned a period of planning permissions for estate regeneration with low numbers of new social homes. Austerity in local government finance, alongside viability assessments being hard wired into the planning system through the National Planning Policy Framework seeded a raft of pragmatic public-private partnerships between developers with cash and councils with land.

By giving residents on estates a binding ballot, where a “no” vote could scupper plans before they even get off the ground, the Mayor has put power into the hands of people who will rightly demand the best possible deal, negotiated through meaningful dialogue and engagement.

It presents real and practical challenges for a development world so used to the traditional models of pre-planning consultations. Glossy brochures and exhibitions so commonly seen in statements of community involvement won’t begin to cut it. The era of objectors’ so called “immaterial planning objections” being ignored is over.

Instead, housing associations, councils and development partners now need to win binary referendums in a political climate where results can’t easily be predicted. The well understood development risk of political challenge at planning committees has morphed into campaigns that must be won – not in town halls amongst their elected representatives, but on estates with residents themselves, on their doorsteps and in community halls.

As Ealing has demonstrated, it can be done.

Cllr Peter Mason is Ealing’s cabinet member for housing, planning and transformation. Follow him on Twitter.

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