Tower Hamlets: The parable of the Aberfeldy estate regeneration ballot

Tower Hamlets: The parable of the Aberfeldy estate regeneration ballot

Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Planning Jules Pipe has used City Hall’s planning powers to “call in” an application to demolish the Aberfeldy estate in Poplar and replace it with a new development. It means the Mayor has taken the decision out of the hands of Tower Hamlets Council and will make it himself.

City Hall’s intervention follows the council’s strategic development committee rejecting the Aberfeldy scheme earlier this year. It is, therefore, a story of mayoral muscle being exerted. It is also an ongoing parable of London conflicts about housing, regeneration, the wishes of communities, the politics of protest and the question of how best to resolve tensions between conservation and renewal, continuity and change.

The Aberfeldy rose in stages on the north side of a famous London dock between the 1930s and, in the wake of wartime damage, the 1970s. By 2007 ownership had transferred from the council to local housing association Poplar HARCA which, to cut a long story short, went on to tie up with the London wing of Malaysia-based developer EcoWorld to produce the plans whose fate City Hall will now decide.

This was always likely to happen. Tower Hamlets planning officers recommended that the scheme, presented by the joint venture company Aberfeldy New Village, be approved. But the committee voted unanimously against it, encouraged by objectors complaining about the proposed heights of the new buildings, claiming there would be more traffic congestion and alleging that local people would be “pushed out” and replaced by rich incomers, the latter being the familiar refrain of anti-gentrification activists.

What do Poplar HARCA and EcoWorld have in mind? As the Tower Hamlets officers’ report showed, they wish to level a total of 330 homes, of which 252 are for social rent and 78 are in leasehold or freehold ownership. As the application stands, these would be replaced by a total of up to 1,582 dwellings, of which 368 would be for social rent or affordable rent, 79 would be for intermediate rent and 1,135 for market level rents.

The increased number of homes in the combined social and affordable rent categories – up by 116 – represents 38.8 per cent of the total number of new homes, and the officers were satisfied that this was the most the financial structure of the scheme could bear.

City Hall has approved funds to help finance the scheme. In line with Mayor Khan’s policies, Poplar HARCA had to secure majority support for it from residents before the cash could be approved. The “landlord offer” voted on included a promise that every social rent tenant would be offered a “right to return” to a new home meeting their needs, together with a compensation payment. Turnout for the ballot was 91 per cent and 93 per cent of tenants voted in favour .

The Aberfeldy New Village application was, therefore compliant with Tower Hamlets Council policies, overwhelmingly supported by the residents most directly affected – those who would have their current homes flattened – and had also already been given City Hall’s stamp of approval. And yet, despite all this, the strategic planning committee gave it a blanket no.

Why? Andrew Wood, not a member of the committee but an experienced former Tower Hamlets councillor who followed the debate, thinks committee members had legitimate concerns about the proposed repurposing of a Transport for London road underpass for pedestrian and cyclist use, road access generally, car parking and the impact of the construction work. He claims, “Councillors were poorly served by planning officers whose interpretation of their own planning policy (on open space) I thought was bizarre”.

There is also a wider political context to consider. The previous May, Labour lost control of the council due to a remarkable comeback by the once-banned Lutfur Rahman as borough Mayor and his allies of the local Aspire party. Rahman’s stance on planning issues is orthodox hard left – as the furore over Brick Lane showed – and aligned with the anti-gentrification view that historic social housing should always be preserved whatever its condition or the arguments for redeveloping it. And during the election campaign he and Aspire opposed the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods introduced by his predecessor.

A majority of the nine strategic development committee members listed as present, including its chair, were Aspire councillors, though even the four Labour members voted against. That was despite the recommendation of council officers to approve and the enormous majority of residents backing the scheme. Did the committee members really think there would be no appeal – highly likely to be successful – or that the Mayor would not step in?

It seems improbable. It therefore seems reasonable to speculate that committee members were motivated either by political bravado or a calculation that capitulation before the fervour of protesters might be the better part of valour, especially given that the scheme would probably go ahead anyway. Tower Hamlets community politics can be vicious. There is an argument for only picking battles you can win.

The episode also shines a light on something bigger, reaching beyond the distinctive political climate of the East End borough. The Mayor’s requirement that ballots be held before City Hall supports estate regeneration was campaigned for across what I call the Protest Left. Their belief was that estate communities would use their votes to rise up and reject the demolition of their homes and promises to build them new ones.

But it turns out that hasn’t happened. Only one estate ballot held under Khan’s rules has produced a “no” vote, and that one was atypical. Twenty-nine have had “yes” outcomes. When I spoke to Khan and Copley about this in Stonebridge last week, they said it showed that the need to ballot had obliged housing associations and councils to raise their consultation and engagement game. They had duly been rewarded with communities’ support.

And yet the housing Protest Left, having fought for ballots, now seems reluctant to accept their outcomes. There have been other manifestations of this, in Thamesmead and Tottenham. They draw me to the conclusion that the wishes of tenants and “the community” have never been the top priority of some pro-ballot activists, and that their chief motivation has been blocking what they term “privatisation” and what they characterise as “neoliberal” colonisation of working-class territory by “the rich”.

The principle here seems to be, let the people speak – but ignore them if they say what we don’t want to hear. Some things never change.

Twitter: Follow On London and Dave Hill. Photo from BBC News footage.

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