David Cameron recently vowed to ‘blitz’ a hundred of the worst ‘sink estates’. He promised that ‘brutal high-rise towers’ and ‘bleak housing’ would be bulldozed in an effort to tackle ‘drug abuse and gang culture’.
If you want to see how Cameron’s ‘blitz’ will play out in London you need look no further than London’s most populous borough, Barnet, where some of the largest-scale regeneration and development has been taking place. All this led in the last eight years by a Tory council working hand in hand with a Tory mayor.
Some of you will have seen the recent BBC One documentary ‘The Estate We’re In’ which covered the distressing experiences over the past year of residents living on the West Hendon estate.
It was clear that this Tory regeneration project has left residents feeling betrayed and the existing community shattered.
Paulette Singer, the former estate community organizer, summed up how many residents feel when she said “regeneration in Barnet appears to be about the open political and ideological pursuit of replacing low income households with high income households”.
Barnet Council is on a political knife edge. After the 2014 elections left the Tories clinging to a one seat majority the Labour Group decided to set up an independent housing commission to work out how a Labour-run council would do things better. Chaired by London Assembly Planning Chair Nicky Gavron the final report ‘Home Truths for Barnet’ was published this year with over 90 recommendations.
Our Commission took lots of evidence on regeneration from residents and those involved. We looked at best practice from Labour councils, such as Islington, that are making a far better job of working with residents to deliver estate regeneration.
How did it all go wrong in West Hendon?
The original estate had 680 council homes at social rent – a promise was given to replace all 680, and this was one of the reasons the council decided to sell the land to the developers for just £3. Unfortunately, the developers came back some years later with a plan to reduce the number of social rented homes down to only 250, and all because of ‘viability’.
It’s taken the council well over a decade to proceed with the regeneration. In that time all vacant council homes have been re-let to homeless families on non-secure tenancies. A third of council tenants on the estate are now non-secure tenants who have been living there for up to 12 years but will not be re-housed in the new development. They often face multiple moves and school changes and may be re-housed outside the borough.
Residents feel left out of the scheme design and alienated from the process. Non-secure council tenants have no place in the new community. Residents feel betrayed by broken promises. We know that many of the new flats have been sold off-plan to overseas investors and won’t be helping Londoners buy a home to live in.
The new scheme places the remaining social tenants at the back of the scheme on a traffic island, with the private housing benefitting from their old view of the Welsh Harp reservoir. The scheme’s density has been increased to include two high rise towers of up to 28 stories – Tory ‘brutal high rise towers’ in a completely inappropriate suburban setting!
We can only conclude that David Cameron’s vision for estate regeneration is shared by the current Tory candidate for Mayor of London. Vote Zac Goldsmith, and you’ll get more of the same.
Compare this with the manifesto commitments of Sadiq Khan which echo our Commission findings.
He’ll tackle off plan sales to overseas developers, support tenure-blind development and include stronger policies to ensure tall buildings respect the character of existing neighbourhoods.
Crucially he’ll insist that ‘estate regeneration only takes place where there is resident support, based on full and transparent consultation, and that demolition is only permitted where it does not result in a loss of social housing, or where all other options have been exhausted, with full rights to return for displaced tenants and a fair deal for leaseholders’.
West Hendon should never have gone ahead. Londoners need a new approach to estate regeneration – and we need Sadiq as our Mayor.
The author is Deputy Leader of the Labour Group and Housing Spokesperson, London Borough of Barnet