Resistance by Design: West Kensington & Gibbs Green Estates

The regeneration of London’s council estates is by now widely regarded as the answer to the housing shortage that is driving up the cost of living in the capital beyond the means of most Londoners, both renters and home buyers alike. However, in one of the contradictions that is driving London’s housing crisis, this solution has been used to justify demolishing the only homes to have escaped this escalation in house prices and destroying the communities they house, all in order to increase their housing capacity. ‘Densification’ is the typically ugly watchword on every property developer’s lips. But the argument for and against the demolition of London’s council estates should not rest on the ability of developers to increase their housing capacity but on the identity of the residents that will be housed in their replacements. Despite empty promises to the contrary, every new development scheme reduces the rights and increases the rents of the existing tenants, typically to prohibitive levels, while leaseholders are invariably offered less than half the cost of the new homes in compensation for their demolished current ones. Behind all the brave talk of single-move decanting and rapid re-housing of residents in shiny new units, regeneration schemes are little more than a crude grab at some of the most valuable land in the world in order to profit from London’s hugely inflated housing market.

It is no surprise, then, that the increase in the number of homes has been made the deciding factor in whether or not estates should be regenerated, when that increase is the measure of the profits their demolition and redevelopment will generate. In this numbers game, increase in private buyers, increase in private renters, increase in property sales value, increase in developer profit margins – with the corresponding decrease in council management costs, decrease in council maintenance costs, decrease in developer construction costs, and decrease in council tenants’ rights – are the arguments that add up. The use value of the properties as homes, the class identity of the occupants housed, the quality and longevity of the communities they form – all these have no measurable, quantifiable value in the real estate market. A home is an asset, a community a consumer market, a housing estate an investment opportunity for capital, and the people whose homes stand in its way are, in these terms, expendable. It is in these terms that the homes and lives of the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates have been measured, counted and valued by property developers Capco, and declared by them to be worthless.

1. The Right to Transfer

In July 2015, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) was contacted by West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes, a community-run management team set up by residents in 2011. West Kensington and Gibbs Green are two adjacent estates in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which in May 2014 elected a new Labour controlled Council. Together, the estates contain 760 homes and nearly 2,000 residents. 600 residents are members of Community Homes, and represent two-thirds of the estate homes. They asked ASH to suggest possible architectural practices that might be interested in drawing up plans as part of a feasibility study identifying infill options and other housing and community opportunities for the estates. This was to be part of their application for a Right to Transfer from the local authority to a community owned, resident controlled housing association.

On their behalf, ASH contacted several practices that worked in the regeneration of council estates. However, every one of them declined the commission. The reasons they gave for doing so were various – because they were too busy, because they lacked the necessary experience, because the fee was too low, because they were already working with the local authority and it would potentially jeopardise their relationship with a client, or because they were already working for Capco, the property investment and development company behind the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estate regeneration.

On 11 August 2015, West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes served legal notice on Hammersmith and Fulham Council proposing the transfer of their homes under section 34a of the Housing Act 1985. The legislation required to do so had finally been implemented at the end of 2013 after years of lobbying the Coalition government, and the notice only served after many months delay at the request of what was then the Conservative Council. In fact, as far back as January 2010, residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates had written to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, asking him to write the regulations requiring local authorities to cooperate with transfer requests.

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In response to the Right to Transfer, Hammersmith and Fulham Council, who had excluded estate residents from their meetings with Capco, said that the land the estates are built on had already been sold that April to the developers subject to vacant possession. Presumably it was for this reason that the Conservative-led Council had asked Community Homes to delay putting in their transfer request. Community Homes responded that, since the estate was still being run by the local authority, the sale of the land could not have gone through as claimed. Either way, having first taken legal advice, the now Labour Council wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whose present incumbent is Greg Clark, requesting that he refuse the Right to Transfer. The important point in all this is that the change from a Conservative-led Council to a Labour-led Council had made no difference either to Capco’s plans or to the willingness of the local authority to listen to residents’ opposition to them.

On 26 August, Community Homes gave ASH the brief to produce a fee proposal for a feasibility study for their Right to Transfer. We submitted this in September. On 23 October residents presented their case to the Secretary of State, laying out their alternative plan to the planned demolition of their estates; and at the end of the month ASH, which is a working collective, assembled its own team and began work on the feasibility study.

2. The People’s Plan

On 12 November Community Homes launched The People’s Plan, their proposal to become a community-run housing association. As part of the launch, ASH conducted their first consultation workshop for refurbishment, infill, and extensions on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. Residents were grouped into the building type they lived in – high-rise, 4-5 storey blocks and terrace houses, as well as its location on the estates – and asked to talk about what they did and didn’t like about where they lived and why, as well as their thoughts about the estate in general, problems they wanted addressing (such as access, safety, rubbish disposal and maintenance), plus what opportunities they saw for new developments (where new homes might be built, community halls restored, play areas recovered). Facilitators from ASH and Community Homes chaired the discussion and recorded comments. Residents were encouraged to write their views down on tags: red for problems, blue for things they liked, and green for solutions, and to pin them on the accompanying map of the estate. More than 60 residents turned up, and the very lively conversations went on for over three hours.

Four further consultations followed. Two walking tours guided by residents were conducted around the estates on 18 and 19 November, including invitations into their homes; a landscape and refurbishment workshop was held on 24 November; and a new buildings workshop on 1 December. Approximately 150 residents participated in these consultations. The responses were compiled in a large plan of the two estates titled ‘What You Have Told Us So Far’, which took the form of a textual map of the residents’ thoughts and feelings about particular places. In contrast to the God-like vantage point of most architectural plans put forward by developers in order to justify the demolition of what they see exclusively as concrete buildings, the ASH map sought to represent the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates as a living community of people with voices and opinions about the homes and spaces in which they live.

WKGG_ what you have told us so far

The conduct of these consultations is at the heart of ASH’s strategy. The first time council residents realise their estate has been earmarked for regeneration is often after they have gone through the Council’s consultation process. This is typically conducted under the misleading promise of refurbishing their homes, an option which is then found to be financially ‘unviable’. However, in the case of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, even this option was never put on the table by the Conservative Council, which went straight for full demolition and redevelopment. What consultation they have conducted has been about the replacement apartments.

As was the case with the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, the consultation process is also usually the first time residents make contact with ASH. By then, however, which typically occurs several years into the regeneration process, much of the information subsequently used to justify the demolition of their homes has been gathered. When consultation practices come into estate regeneration with a fixed set of objectives, supplied in advance by the client, for the demolition and redevelopment of the existing estate, the consultation process is used to generate the reasons and excuses to achieve this. At ASH, by contrast, we start by asking the community about their needs and wishes, and use these to generate objectives and initiatives to bring them about. As such, it is a process that moves from the inside outwards, from the community to genuine estate regeneration – and one that leaves the existing community intact. In the case of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, residents have consistently voted against demolition and for the refurbishment of their homes. In a 2012 consultation conducted by the Council in March 2012, an overwhelming 80 percent of residents voted against the demolition of the estate. It is this majority decision, reached democratically and transparently by the community rather than imposed from outside and above by secret committee, that our designs have sought to realise.

On 15 December, drawing on these varied and extensive consultations, ASH held an exhibition of a range of architectural proposals for the estate, to which residents came and offered further responses and comments. This feedback was listened to, further changes were made, and on 19 January, at a meeting with the Community Homes Board of 14 residents and 4 housing sector experts, we presented our final proposals. In response to these designs, a resident of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates said: ‘There’s not one aspect that wouldn’t be an improvement and better than demolition.’

3. The Master Plan

Capco is the abbreviation for Capital & Counties Properties PLC, one of whose businesses, EC&O, owns the Earl’s Court and Olympia venues. Earl’s Court Properties Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Capco, submitted the planning application on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green sites in June 2011, and outline planning consent was granted by Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s Planning Application Committee in September 2012. In January 2013 the Council signed a Conditional Land Sale Agreement to include the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in the redevelopment of Earl’s Court, and that April the Government gave its consent to the transfer of the estates to Earl’s Court Properties.

Capco has proposed a £12 billion scheme to demolish the 760 homes on the existing estates and replace them with a total of 7,500 units spread across the entire Earl’s Court and Olympia site, with over 800 being built on the Seagrave Road development to the south, which they have now renamed Lillie Square. Following Capco’s own viability assessment, which has been criticised by the District Valuer Service for grossly underestimating the developer’s future profits, 89 percent of the 6,740 additional homes will be sold privately at full market rate. Only 11 percent, a meagre 740 new homes, are earmarked as ‘affordable’ housing – which means sold or let at up to 80 percent of market value – with none set aside for social rent. The remaining 760 new homes are allocated to replace the demolished homes on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. The construction timetable aims to re-house residents within ten years.

However, the Government’s 2015 Housing and Planning Bill, when it becomes law, will remove agreements made under Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act to build any affordable housing, either for sale or for rent, and replace them with an enforceable duty to build Starter Homes capped in Greater London at £450,000. Moreover, this cap, which already requires an annual salary of £77,000 and a deposit of £97,000, is only provisional, and may be amended by the Secretary of State for different areas in the capital. Hammersmith and Fulham is the fourth most expensive borough in which to own a property in London, with house prices an average of £950,000. So, bad as the current deal sounds, if Capco’s plans come to fruition it’s highly unlikely that any of the new apartments on the new development will sell for anything below half a million pounds, and most for far more.

As for the 760 homes allocated to re-house existing residents – the land for which Hammersmith and Fulham Council will have to lease back off Capco – residents will only qualify for them if they have lived in their current properties for at least 12 months before the July 2011 deadline. This excludes anyone who submitted a Right to Buy application after June 2011, when Earl’s Court Properties submitted their planning application. Qualifying leaseholders and freeholders will receive an offer to purchase their properties, but the decision to sign these contracts must have been made within 12 months of June 2011. Qualifying leaseholders will receive what an ‘independent evaluator’ decides is the full market value of their homes, plus 10 percent home loss compensation capped at £47,000; but they must use these funds to purchase a property on the new development. If they cannot afford to purchase the new property outright the Council will hold the equity, and providing this equates to a minimum of 25 percent they will not have to pay rent on the council’s equity. Otherwise, people who are now homeowners will find themselves renters, the exact opposite of the Government’s crusade to turn ‘generation rent into generation buy’.

Capco masterplan

However, these figures are from a council brochure sent to residents in July 2013, some 20 months ago now. Since then, residents have heard nothing about their re-housing. What they have been told in a letter sent to them by Stephan Cowan, the Leader of the new Labour Council and member of the right-wing Labour cabal Progress, is that there is now ‘no legal way’ to get back the land that was sold to Capco by their Conservative predecessors. This hasn’t stopped either Capco or Hammersmith and Fulham Council from repeating their hollow mantra about ‘consulting the community’. Despite this, neither the evaluations of leaseholders’ homes nor the prices of the replacement properties have been forthcoming. But the fact that provisions have been put in place for re-housing them in properties costing more than four times the purchase price of the existing homes is an indication of both how much residents are likely to be offered in compensation and how much the new properties will cost. In confirmation of which, properties in phase 2 of the Lillie Square development, which is scheduled for completion in 2017, were advertised at £800,000 for a 1-bedroom apartment, £1,200,000 for a 2-bedroom, and £1,700,000 for a 3-bedroom.

The 171 estate leaseholders that purchased their homes under the Right to Buy may have the ‘right to return’ to the new apartments that will replace their current homes, but that doesn’t mean they will have the financial means to do so. Whether by independent evaluators or compulsory purchase orders, sales are typically forced through at considerably less than 50 percent the price of the homes built to replace them. Residents of the 58 housing association homes that were built within the past twenty years will face the same choice when those homes are destroyed, but on the additional condition they become council residents. And under new legislation in the Housing and Planning Bill, council tenants currently with secure tenancies who are fortunate enough to be offered a new home on the redevelopment 5 or 10 years after they have been decanted, may by then find themselves offered new tenancies of between 2 and 5 years; or, as is already occurring in other Labour Council regeneration schemes, fobbed off with assured tenancies for increased rentals and reduced rights, including no Right to Buy, no Right to Transfer, and no Right of Succession to the tenancy for their children.

Equivalent deals struck on the Heygate and Aylesbury estates by Southwark Labour Council show that, once evicted, few if any of the council tenants, let alone any of the leaseholders, will ever return. Subsequent viability assessments invariably increase the quota of homes nobody but property investors will be able to buy, as the prices on the Lillie Square development demonstrate. The 20 percent profit margin demanded by developers on the properties they build always takes precedence over the council’s duty to house the people whose homes they have demolished to make way for what are no more than assets on London’s real estate market. In actuality, the returns are far, far greater.

But that, precisely, is the point. Capco isn’t investing £12 billion in this project out of a desire to re-house London’s council tenants, but to accrue the profits in a UK property market that has expanded by £400 billion in the past two years alone. It is this financial motivation, which relies for its realisation on the demolition of people’s homes and the social cleansing of the communities they house, that ASH’s designs are designed to resist, by proposing architectural alternatives to demolition that keep those communities intact. For once residents move out of their homes, decanted to the four winds with the promises of developers and councillors whispering in their ears, what rights and leverage and bargaining power they once had are gone with them.

4. Resistance by Design

In July 2010 Greg Clark, the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but then the newly appointed Minister for Decentralisation, wrote in the Catholic Herald:

‘For too long, those with the best ideas, striking energy and the most innovative responses to social and other needs have either not been taken seriously enough, or have been held back by rules decreed by well-meaning Whitehall departments that often make no sense on the ground.’

On our walking tours around the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, residents pointed out possible areas of improvement to the existing landscape. Drawing on this local knowledge, which far surpasses that of property developers, consultation agencies and architectural practices, ASH identified key areas that will greatly improve the public realm through the addition of new homes and community facilities. For example, there are opportunities in the 1-bedroom flats in the tower blocks for winter gardens that will bring these flats up to current space standards. On Lillie Road to the south of the estates, where there is a single storey community hall and long derelict children’s centre, we have proposed the construction of an additional 60 new homes, with the potential for community and other spaces on the ground floor around a new urban square. And our refurbishment of the existing blocks aims to significantly reduce energy use, so we have proposed that solar panels and improved insulation be added to the majority of the existing buildings.

Crucially, a certain percentage of the new homes will be for private sale, and the funds used to pay for the work – both the new builds and the refurbishment of the existing homes and landscape. While we admire their vision and design solutions for communal living, ASH does not wish to embalm these housing estates in the formaldehyde of history. Our proposals both increase the number of homes on the existing estates as well as generate the funds to refurbish and renovate the homes they already house.

1504_A1_Axo_final axo

ASH’s designs propose between 200 and 300 new homes on the two estates, an increase of between 26 and 40 percent, depending on how many new homes the residents are willing to accommodate and need to generate sufficient funds for refurbishment. These range from 1-bedroom flats, including disabled accommodation, to 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom flats and houses. Refurbishment of the existing homes will include additional insulation to walls and roofs, improved ventilation systems, new lifts to existing blocks allowing additional floors to be built on top, and new fob access to communal areas. Community spaces will include new communal halls, a new housing office, a relocated football pitch, improved landscaping including allotments, underused garages converted into workshops, facilities for the elderly, a new community hall, improved adventure playgrounds with climbing walls and skateboard parks, a nature trail, an outdoor gym and a market square over existing parking, improved communal gardens, a community greenhouse, new roof gardens on top of many of the existing blocks, reconfigured parking and pedestrian routes, and the reinstatement of a concierge office in every block. All these can be achieved and paid for without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single family.

The design proposals by ASH are exemplary of the Secretary of State’s stated commitment to decentralisation and localism. They will bring a new boost to the local area through a variety of community enterprise initiatives. New workshops will bring local people into the estate and potentially offer apprenticeships and work to the estate’s youth population. They involve the community in taking responsibility for the construction of their own future. And they retain the character of the local area against the homogenisation of hastily and often poorly designed new-build developments.

But the most important factor in favour of our proposals is that they retain the element that is so often forgotten and passed over in considering the viability of regeneration schemes for housing estates. This is, of course – though it needs repeating more and more insistently – the people for whom these homes were made and who, through decades of living together, have built a strong, mixed community reflecting London’s demographic – the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates that Capco’s master plan threatens with social cleansing from the area.

5. Homes for Londoners

Last month the Labour Party candidate for London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced to the press that if elected on 5 May he would review the Earl’s Court masterplan, which includes the regeneration of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, ‘as he has serious reservations about the overall direction the scheme is taking’. It is perhaps coincidental that this followed the recent drop in share prices for Capco from £4.72 in August 2015 to £3.27 in March 2016, and their fears that the market for luxury homes in London is falling following a drop in sales for the apartments in Lillie Square. On top of which, Gary Yardley, Capco’s managing director for the Earl’s Court development, complained last November that following the elections the previous year, Stephan Cowan, the Leader of the new Labour Council, had not spoken to him for nine months.

Then this February, in its end of year report for 2015, where they look at ‘Political Climate and Public Opinion’, Capco identified the principle threats to its plans: these lie with changes in legislation following the London mayoral elections, and opposition and challenges by public interest or activist groups – the impact of which, they conclude, will expose them to risk of litigation, prosecution for non-compliance, the distraction of their management and damage to their reputation. Perhaps most revealingly of all, they included among their ongoing attempts to mitigate such damage not only, as one would expect, engaging with key stakeholders and politicians and monitoring changes in policy and legislation, but also, they write, ‘monitoring intelligence on activist groups.’ It seems the London mayoral candidate is not the only one to have serious reservations about the direction Capco’s scheme is taking.

Homes for Londoners

Sadiq Khan’s announcement came only days after the publication of his Manifesto For All Londoners, where, under the title ‘Homes for Londoners’, he placed housing at the heart of the London mayoral contest and promised, if elected, to build what he calls ‘genuinely affordable homes’. Unfortunately, he does not define what constitutes ‘genuinely affordable’ and for whom, or disclose where he will find the land on which this new housing will be built. But alongside his commitment to introduce a London Living Rent based on one third of average local wages, and to oppose Government legislation to raise rents for council tenants to market rates and sell off high value council homes – all of which are welcome – Sadiq Khan also lays out the conditions under which council estate regeneration will proceed under his mayorship – which is, of course, the undisclosed source of this land. He will, he writes in the Manifesto:

‘Require that estate regeneration only takes place were 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.’

Ahead of his review of Capco’s plans for Earl’s Court and Olympia, we remind the Labour candidate for London Mayor that none of these conditions have been met in the regeneration plans for the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. Indeed, we challenge Sadiq Khan to identify any London council estate community that 1) supports the demolition of their homes, and 2) thinks that the consultation process has been either full or transparent. We also remind him 3) that council housing is not social housing, and that the replacement of secured tenancies by assured tenancies on increased rents with reduced rights is itself a loss, and one unnecessary to genuine estate regeneration; and 4) that notwithstanding the ‘or’ that elevates this condition to the over-riding one, the exhaustion of other options must require more than the profit margins of property developers established by their own viability assessments, as has occurred in every estate regeneration scheme in London that has resulted in demolition, and that all options must include, as their priority, the continued existence of the community the estate houses. Finally, we point out 5) that a right to return to homes a resident can afford neither to rent nor to buy is no right at all, and as empty a guarantee as the promise of a fair deal. Residents have already heard such promises in the mouths of our current London Mayor and Housing Minister, and know what they’re worth; they don’t want to hear them repeated by a future Labour Mayor of London.

The demolition of one of the greatest sources of homes for social rent in the middle of a housing crisis can only be an additional cause, and never a solution, to that crisis. Anyone genuinely concerned with turning the tide of that crisis should make the continued existence of London’s council estates their first priority. As we have demonstrated, infill between, extensions on top of, and the refurbishment of the existing homes on London’s council estates offer genuine solutions to the capital’s housing needs at a time when the very existence of council housing in England is under threat from both the Conservative Government’s Housing and Planning Bill and Labour Council estate regeneration programmes.

We therefore urge both Sadiq Khan and Greg Clark to honour their commitments to transparency, fairness, innovation and decentralisation, and give their backing to ASH’s proposals. Above all, we remind them of their commitment to the residents of London’s council estates, which must be measured in different terms to those used by a property developer. Parallel with the Labour candidate’s plans to build homes that Londoners can genuinely afford to rent and buy, ASH’s designs for the genuine regeneration of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates is a genuinely sustainable and financially viable response to the housing crisis, and a model of home and community building that we believe can be exported across London.

Architects for Social Housing

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