Regeneration Ballots: Will a vote give power to residents at risk of losing their homes?

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Gerlinde Gniewosz at Cressingham Gardens march for demolition ballot at Lambeth town hall.

Cressingham Gardens is often described as one of London’s most beautiful estates. Lying right next to Brockwell Park, it is made up of low-rise, high- density housing and was designed by renowned architect Ted Hollamby in the 1960s to complement the landscape of the park.

In 2011 Gerlinde Gniewosz bought a home on the estate and invested her life savings into fixing up the place. Gerlinde was starting up an educational technology business, and as a single mother it was the only home she could afford in the area. Then, a year later, Lambeth Council announced plans to demolish the estate.

Almost immediately, many Cressingham residents objected to the plans for demolition and sought to defend their community against the disruption and displacement they felt this would cause. In a ballot organised by residents with a 72 per cent response rate, 86 per cent voted in favour of refurbishment instead of demolition, and only 4 per cent chose demolition. Six years later and after two judicial reviews, Lambeth Council is still pushing ahead with plans to demolish the estate.

“Everyone who comes to Cressingham Gardens says what a lovely estate it is. Some residents have lived here for forty or fifty years, they love it here”, says Gerlinde.

“But it doesn’t matter what you feed back to the council, they don’t listen, they don’t care.”

Now, new proposals announced by Sadiq Khan in his Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration look to give more say to residents on estates undergoing regeneration. The guide, published earlier this month, proposes mandatory ballots for projects where any demolition is planned and that involve the construction of at least 150 homes as a strict condition of funding.

Khan’s estate ballot proposals will be consulted on for two months, during which time the Mayor will seek views on the principle of the idea and how it will work in practice. But if these ballots are introduced, will they truly protect the interests of the residents living on estates undergoing regeneration?

City Hall estimates that at any one time in London, about 25 estate regeneration schemes involving mayoral funding are underway. Well-organised and determined residents campaigns across the capital have brought much-needed public attention to the dangers of ‘social cleansing’ through estate regeneration. Would mandatory estate ballots mark a major victory for these campaigns?

Speaking about Khan’s latest version of the estate regeneration guide, Gerlinde describes the ballot as PR spin. “A lot of pressure has been put on the mayor by estate regeneration campaign groups across London, so it’s positive that Khan has moved back towards the ballot”, she says.

“But ultimately the ballot proposals won’t actually protect the estates undergoing regeneration now or in the next few years. The announcement simply took the attention away from the rest of the estate regeneration guide that, from a residents perspective, is completely inadequate.”

Leader of Lambeth Council Liz Peck has already ruled out a ballot for Cressingham residents. In a statement published on the same day that Sadiq Khan announced his estate ballot proposals, she said that their plans for Cressingham, alongside four other estate regeneration projects in Lambeth, already complied with the principles in the guide.

“We’re building a new generation of estates with no loss of social housing and a guarantee of a new home for every resident on each rebuilt estate having secured the largest Mayoral grant funding of any London borough, without the involvement of private developers”, she said.

However, Gerlinde points out that a ballot of Cressingham residents has not been taken and that current regeneration plans propose only 16 extra council homes. She also argues that the planning process for the regeneration is still at a preliminary ‘resident engagement’ stage and could be altered at this point. She says that there are not even basic designs for a new estate available.

“Lots of the residents across London who have been fighting to get a ballot, some true democracy, are being denied it”, she says.

Residents of the Achilles Street area also highlight the necessity of introducing a ballot for all existing regeneration schemes for Khan’s ballot proposals to have a meaningful impact. Achilles Street Area is a low density housing estate near New Cross, which Lewisham  Council proposes to completely demolish in order to build high rise, high density housing including “as many new council homes as possible”.

Jacquie Utley has lived on the street for 27 years and got involved in Achilles Street Stop and Listen campaign eighteen months ago, when the council first announced their demolition plans. She says that Lewisham Council have failed to properly consult residents and have only presented the option of demolition so far:

“We have repeatedly asked to see options and costing for refurbishment and infill so that residents and the businesses can have a genuine choice about what happens… Demolishing council homes during a housing shortage makes no sense. The majority of homes on Lewisham’s plans will not be for the homeless or those on the waiting list.”

Jacquie is hopeful that as the council have delayed getting permission to take the proposals forward, the Mayor’s new estate ballot proposals “might have some impact on how they will proceed”. Simon Elmer, the co-founder of Architects for Social Housing (ASH), is also quick to point out the importance of giving residents more say than a zero-sum choice between ‘demolition’ or ‘no demolition’.  “The consultation on ballots is a bit of a smokescreen, which defers responsibility for demolition to residents refused other options”, he says.

Simon highlights that the Mayor’s balloting proposals only apply to regeneration projects where demolition of residents’ homes are being considered. This mirrors the rest of Khan’s estate regeneration guide, which presents estate regeneration as being “overwhelmingly about  demolition rather than refurbishment”.

Rather than view the proposals as a cure-all that will put residents at the heart of decision making, Emily Jost from Hackney’s Northwold Estate sees them as “a symbolic step in the right direction.”

Emily notes that Khan’s proposals only apply to councils and housing associations seeking mayoral funding for regeneration projects. The Northwold Estate, where Emily has lived for nine years, is run by the Guinness Partnership.

Up until three weeks ago, Save Northwold campaigners had been involved in a year-and-a half-struggle with Guinness to save their homes from partial demolition of the estate. It was only after significant pressure was put on the housing association that they are no longer considering demolition and plan to ‘infill’ the estate with 100 new homes instead. “For estate defenders it’s another weapon in our armoury, we can use it to put pressure on councils and housing associations to use ballots”, Emily says.

So what should be done to ensure that residents really do get a say in estate regeneration? Many residents campaigns stress that they should be involved in the decision making process right from the start, rather than simply being asked to choose between a limited set of options later down the line.

Gerlinde suggests that more residents should be provided with resources to enable them to shape regeneration plans and even to help them create their own ‘people’s plan’. She points to Cressingham’s Peoples Plan, which details a sympathetic upgrade of the estate involving no demolition of homes (except for six voids that have stood empty since 1999), an extra 37 homes for council rent and a lower overall cost than the council’s plans.

“If you’re going to do estate regeneration both sides have to get equal support”, she says. “I will fight to death with this one because the council’s demolition plans are morally and ethically wrong. As it stands, I will probably have to leave London- like many others. If I can’t work in London then I’ve lost my career. Me and my family will have to start again somewhere else.”