The estate that I grew up on the west side of Leicester was built in the 1950s. Cavity wall insulation was installed in the 1990s and hacked out again in the 2000s. A kitchen was replaced and windows were made afresh, but the estate itself essentially remained exactly the same as when it was built. Compare and contrast that with the scale and pace of estate regeneration in London and the opposition to it and politics around it, and you have an insight into our affordable homes crisis in the capital and the challenges it presents.
As local authorities we find ourselves in a particular bind. Until recently we’ve had caps on our borrowing ability and little access to grant. We’ve lost a generation of planners and project managers to the private sector, and that has seriously constrained our ability to emulate the pace of housing construction that happened in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, we’ve had lengthening social housing waiting lists, growing temporary accommodation and Right to Buy has eviscerated our stock.
Over the last ten years in particular, addressing that situation has meant making pragmatic deals with housing associations and developers – joint ventures to leverage the finance and capacity we need against our ability to use the council estate land we own. And in the context of pretty hefty austerity from central government, there are plenty of local authorities that will happily tell you they use development as a mechanism for expanding their council tax and non-domestic business rates bases as a way of paying for the services people in their boroughs need.
But for residents themselves, that means declaring their homes obsolete and finding mechanisms for solving London’s housing crisis using their communities and neighbourhoods. And far too often, the justification offered for estate regeneration has been this dystopian notion of what a council estate is – think of Tony Blair’s visit to the Aylesbury estate in Southwark after his election in 1997 to talk about forgotten communities.
And yet, to some extent, that picture is true. The scarcity of council houses in the 21st century increasingly means that the people who get tenancies in Ealing and elsewhere are those who face serious social and economic challenges. Social housing has unfortunately become a welfare product, which it wasn’t in the past, when councils were building what we called “general needs” accommodation.
All of this means we need to ask ourselves very clearly what principles inform our decisions about regeneration and be confident about our answers, because there have to be strong justifications for creating such serious disturbance to people’s lives.
Estate balloting is the political response to this situation. I believe it’s a fundamental game-changer in power relationships between local authorities, their tenants and development. This might be the hyperbolic statement of the century, but I think it’s the biggest change in that power dynamic since the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, when we nationalised planning rights, because through estate ballots in London we’ve effectively devolved those rights down to residents.
Now, planning committees deciding the future of estates while reviewing dull “statements of community involvement” or resident engagement being limited to boring exhibitions of pretty pictures is being replaced by a serious process of serious negotiation and a binding vote. Now, the people most affected by estate regeneration projects can sink them before they’ve even begun. Every decision in the development process has to be justified down to the smallest detail, whether it is the rents and service charges, the guarantees given to tenants and leaseholders about their right to return or remain, or things like space standards and storage provision in the homes themselves.
In the case of one London estate I know about, a key issue for residents was whether they would be able to cook with gas in their new homes. Delivering that ability was vital to the landlord if residents’ support was to be won. It’s those sorts of conversations that need to take place, as well others about height, scale and massing which determine the financial viability of a project.
When Ealing Council, where I am cabinet member for housing, planning and transformation, organised a ballot of the High Lane estate in Hanwell, we made sure we provided a very clear landlord offer and that we had personal relationships with individuals. It was not just a process of communicating things we wished to do, but an engagement in genuine conversations about the future of people’s communities. Far from being nervous about estate ballots or viewing them as some sort of risk, we should embrace them as the mechanism that forces us to have to compromise.
It also helps to not be captured either by the anti-development mob that attaches itself to opposition to estate regeneration or by the architectural fetishists who want to save brutalist buildings with damp walls and no decent heating on aesthetic grounds. And if we can do all of that we can actually put people back in control and redistribute power to those who ultimately should be exercising it.
That’s also important in the context of our politics at the moment – a politics that is increasingly populist and extreme because, more and more, people feel they are not in control of their communities or their futures. And for people on estates who face social and economic barriers, that is more important than it has ever been when it comes to restoring faith.
Ealing’s experience tells us what it is possible, but a big challenge still exists. High Lane comprises 150 properties which will become over 250. It is a small estate. Boroughs wanting to do the same with estates of 2,000 homes will need much bigger exercises in compromise and negotiation. The future of estate ballots and regeneration is going to be very interesting.
Peter Mason is Ealing Council’s cabinet member for housing, planning and transformation. Follow him on Twitter. The London Society has been encouraging debate about key issues for the capital since 1912. Become a member here. Photograph: High Lane estate being visited by the Mayor’s housing deputy James Murray, now MP for Ealing North.
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