Bleak House: Open letter from Architects for Social Housing to Lambeth Legal Services

Lambeth Legal

 

Your Ref: LS/H/ADV/AM
Our Ref: ASHASH-logo for cards

8 June 2016

Ms. Alison McKane
Lambeth Legal Services

Dear Ms. McKane

I acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 26 May 2016 regarding Lambeth Labour Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on 9 May 2016, which was called by Green Party Councillor Scott Ainslie to review the Cabinet decision on 21 March 2016 to demolish Cressingham Gardens Estate.

You are correct that I attended the above Council meeting, where I was one of the members of the public granted a two-minute spot in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting to speak against the Council’s plans to demolish the 306 council homes on Cressingham Gardens estate and replace them with luxury apartments. Specifically, I asked the Committee the following question – which, since it was never answered by members of the Committee, I repeat here for the record:

At the Lambeth Cabinet meeting to announce the decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens, we were not surprised to learn that Lambeth Council had called on the technical expertise of the real estate firm Savills in order to set up Homes for Lambeth, the special purpose vehicle that will allow Lambeth Council to act as a property developer. But we were surprised to learn, shortly afterwards, that the Chairman of this housing association was to be Councillor Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s Cabinet Member for Housing.

Such an appointment raises questions not only about the conflict of interest inherent in a Councillor with ultimate responsibility for the demolition and redevelopment of tens of thousands of residents’ homes also being Chair of the housing association that builds their replacements, but also about the future housing of Central Hill residents.

On Lambeth Council’s own website it says that, in order to be sold, Homes for Lambeth would require the unanimous vote of 1) the Lambeth Cabinet and 2) the Homes for Lambeth Board, plus the two-thirds majority vote of 3) Lambeth Council. However:

1) Since Lambeth Cabinet, including its Whip, Deputy Whip, Member for Housing, Member for Regeneration, Business and Culture, and Member for Healthier and Stronger Communities, is dominated by members of Progress, the right-wing cabal within the Labour Party that heads Labour Councils across London and is driving its policy of council estate demolition;

2) Since Lambeth Council itself is dominated 60 to 3 by Labour Councillors, and those who depart from the Party line are seriously disciplined, as evidenced by the recent suspension of Councillor Rachel Heywood over her comments on the Council’s cuts to libraries and estate demolition programme;

3) And since Councillor Bennett is the only member of the Homes for Lambeth Board we know of besides the likely representatives from Savills;

My question to the Committee is this:

– Beyond the consciences of a Cabinet that has consistently refused to listen to the opinions of the thousands of residents whose homes it plans to demolish;

– Beyond the consciences of a Council that – whether in its cuts to libraries, the redevelopment of the Brixton Arches, or the demolition of six housing estates – is unified in pursuing the privatisation of Lambeth’s public realm;

– Beyond the consciences of a Board composed of people who stand to benefit financially from the complete privatisation of Homes for Lambeth;

What guarantees do the residents of Cressingham Gardens Estate have that Homes for Lambeth won’t be sold to private investors, whether the real estate firm Savills that is setting it up, a larger housing association – Peabody, Notting Hill Housing, and London & Quadrant seem to be the favourites of Labour Councils – or even to a property developer such as Capco, and that the homes council residents have been promised now will materialise in the future?

I ask this question not merely out of an interest in the covert business dealings of Lambeth Council, but because of its direct impact on the residents of Cressingham Gardens estate, and the likelihood of them being re-housed, under the Council’s Right to Return, in homes they will be able to afford either to rent or to buy, on the land their existing council homes are built on.

In your letter to me, Ms. McKane, you assert that I acted in a challenging manner, specifically challenging the Chair’s management of the meeting. This is correct. As the members of the Committee mumbled their way inaudibly through their introductions, I requested that each member indicate clearly to the public attending the meeting whether they were members of the political group Progress. Progress, as I’m sure you know, is a right-wing cabal within the Labour Party that is independently financed by Lord Sainsbury to the sum of several million pounds. This was not a personal query, therefore, but a matter and concern that has been raised a number of times in the national press. When the residents of the London Borough of Lambeth voted Labour candidates to represent their interests on the Council, it is reasonable to believe they voted for the Labour Party on its election promises, not for a secret faction pursuing its own undisclosed political and financial ends at the expense of the public that voted them into office. Since members of that faction dominate the Lambeth Council’s Cabinet, with no less than 7 and maybe more Cabinet Members belonging to its ranks, it was clearly in the public’s interest to know which members of the Committee formed to review the Cabinet’s decision belonged to the same secret cabal. However, since the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Councillor Edward Davie, is himself a member of Progress, my request, which had the backing of other members of the public, was not granted. If my challenges to the authority of the Chair were, as you write, disruptive, it was because those challenges sort to bring some transparency to the deliberate cloak of secrecy behind which the decision-making of Lambeth’s Cabinet is conducted.

My second challenge to the Chair of the Committee was occasioned by Progress Member and Councillor Edward Davie’s response to my question to the Committee, which he first deliberately summarised incorrectly and then, when none of the Committee members chose to answer it, failed to insist that they do so. Perhaps you can explain to me how democratic accountability to the public is served if the questions the public addresses to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee are not answered; but since the Chair of the Committee failed to insist they do so I insisted in his stead. When, later in the meeting, my question was finally addressed by the Cabinet Member for Housing, Councillor and Progress Member Matthew Bennett, he merely repeated the conditions already written on the Council’s website, and so effectively ignored my question. Again, if my interruptions were disruptive, it was because the Chair of the Committee was failing to perform his role, and because the member of the Council best suited to answer my question failed to do so. From my attendance at previous Cabinet meetings I realise that this is how Lambeth councillors are accustomed to treating the public and conducting their business, but I was and am unwilling to let them continue to get away with such deliberate contempt for residents’ concerns.

My third challenge to the Chair of the Committee was Progress Member and Councillor Edward Davie’s description of the Cressingham Gardens People’s Plan as the ‘so-called People’s Plan’. It was this 326-page document – which had been put forward by the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign and dismissed by Lambeth Council in five days – that was the basis to Councillor Scott Ainslie’s decision to call the meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Meeting. Yet despite having the vote of 86 per cent of residents on a 72 per cent turnout – a figure many times greater than anything produced by Lambeth’s own so-called ‘consultation’ – the Chair of the Committee, Progress Member Edward Davie, questioned how representative the plan was of residents’ wishes, and suggested, to the contrary, that the 326 pages of the People’s Plan was the work of a small faction of politically motivated people who did not have the backing of the majority of residents. I think Councillor Davie must have been thinking of the membership of his own group, Progress, at this point, which conforms far more closely to this description than the democratically elected campaign to Save Cressingham Gardens. However, this dismissal of the legitimacy of the People’s Plan, which one would not expect to hear from the so-called Chair of an Overview and Scrutiny Committee were that Chair not himself a member of an unelected and undemocratic cabal, was only the preface to a far more slanderous attack on the integrity of Cressingham Gardens residents that followed.

My fourth challenge was in response to the presentation by Councillor Mary Atkins of the Tulse Hill ward, within which Cressingham Gardens estate sits. Under the pretext of carrying out repairs, it was Councillor Atkins who initiated the regeneration of the estate that turned into the excuse for its demolition, so what came next shouldn’t have surprised any of the residents. In an extraordinary statement for which she produced no proof beyond her own accusations, and which the Committee accepted without question, Councillor Atkins declared that there was a ‘climate of fear’ on the estate, that the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign is ‘intimidating’, that tenants on the estate are ‘scared to get involved’, and that they ‘do not want to see such tactics rewarded.’ You would be right in assuming that I was not the only member of the public to challenge the Councillor’s slanderous characterisation of the residents who have fought so long and with such bravery to save their homes against such underhand tactics. Nonetheless, displaying the arrogance and total lack of concern for residents that has characterised Lambeth’s so-called consultations, Councillor Atkins then went on to what quickly became apparent was her main point. ‘I want residents’, Atkins concluded, ‘to adhere to a code of behaviour during consultation.’

This move, first to slander and denigrate residents who form a campaign of resistance, then to ban them from opposing the Council’s plans, was taken up on cue (for it was clear that this had been stage managed in advance) by the Chair, Councillor and Progress Member Edward Davie, and seconded, again on cue, by Councillor and Progress Member Matthew Bennett, and was unanimously carried by the rest of the Committee. Since this decision, Cressingham Gardens has received a report from Lambeth Council announcing their intention to bypass the existing, democratically elected Tenants and Residents Association with a Resident Engagement Panel that is composed exclusively of residents who are willing to engage with the plans to demolish and redevelop their homes. It is clear now that this so-called Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which ostensibly met to review the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens estate, had chosen this opportunity to set in motion Lambeth Council’s plans to silence opposition to their estate demolition programme. And it is equally clear that your letter to me, Ms. McKane, and the personal threats it contains, are an extension and continuation of this aim.

Besides these four challenges to the Committee Chair, which you describe as ‘aggressive’, you characterise my interjections with a lively array of adjectives, including ‘insulting’, ‘derogatory’ and ‘unacceptable’ – all of which you use to describe what you try to dismiss as my ‘behaviour’, rather than addressing the reasons for my challenges, which I have related in this letter. However amusing I find the notion, I’m not really interested in being instructed in codes of behaviour by a lawyer, Ms. McKane, or in exchanging insults with one; nor am I interested in servicing the councillors (I’ll leave that to you). But since you raise the issue of conduct, let me draw your attention to the behaviour of the members of Lambeth Labour Council.

I will pass briefly over the already well-known incidents:

– Of Lambeth Labour Council sectioning 81 year-old resident Tony Healy when he refused to vacate the co-operative home he has lived in for 30 years so it could be demolished to make way for a new development;

– Of Cabinet Member for Housing and Progress Member Councillor Matthew Bennett bringing in High Court bailiffs to evict Trace Newton, another elderly and vulnerable tenant, from her home of 30 years;

– Of the damning indictment by the same High Court of the so-called consultation conducted with Cressingham Gardens residents by Lambeth Labour Council, which withdrew the option for refurbishment without even bothering to establish its viability, then lied to residents about why they had;

– Of the contemptuous and mocking responses on Twitter by, once again, Councillor and Cabinet Member for Housing Matthew Bennett and his fellow Progress Member, Councillor Alex Bigham, in response to the widely supported and lauded occupation of Lambeth’s Carnegie Library;

– Of the attendance of Lambeth Labour Council Leader, Lib Peck, and other Lambeth regeneration officers, first at Cannes MIPIM and now at the London Real Estate Forum, where Lambeth Council, which claims the borough has land for 32,000 new homes over the next 20 years, is selling the land council estate residents’ homes are built on to the highest bidder behind closed doors;

– Of Lambeth Labour Council’s ongoing denigration of resident communities as broken, their homes as poverty traps, their children as drug dealers, and their estates as havens of crime and anti-social behaviour.

All this is a matter of public record, and makes a mockery of any member of Lambeth Council or a spokesperson for it, such as yourself, Ms. McKane, passing judgement on someone else’s behaviour.

I will leave it to readers to come to their own judgements about the conduct of Lambeth Labour’s Councillors at the so-called Overview and Scrutiny Committee. But I will add, to the already overwhelming evidence of Lambeth Labour Council’s contempt for its constituents, the further evidence of its code of conduct at another meeting, held the following week on Tuesday 17 May, on Central Hill estate, one of the six estates and thousands of homes threatened by Lambeth Council’s estate demolition programme.

The meeting was called by the residents on Central Hill’s Resident Engagement Panel. At their request, the working collective to which I belong, Architects for Social Housing, had been asked to present to the ward councillors and regeneration officers our designs for the refurbishment and infill of Central Hill estate. These designs, which we had previously presented to over 100 estate residents in February 2016, increase the estate’s housing capacity by up to 50 per cent, as well as generate the funds to refurbish the homes that Lambeth Council has neglected to maintain, and they do so without demolishing a single existing home.

The meeting, which had taken three months to arrange and had been booked for two weeks, had been suddenly moved that weekend from the Goodliffe Hall in Christ Church, which has excellent projection facilities, to the Day Centre on Central Hill Estate, which doesn’t have any. A curious choice, one would think, if one wasn’t familiar, as we are, with the kind of disruptive tactics employed by Lambeth Council. Once we had overcome this hurdle, we found that in addition to Fiona Cliffe herself, a grand total of one Council Member of the Resident Engagement Panel had turned up. This was Neil Vokes, who with Sue Foster has been brought down from Hackney Council on a salary in excess of £100 thousand to oversee the demolition of the six Lambeth Council estates. Progress Member Matthew Bennett, the Cabinet Member for Housing and Labour Councillor for the Gipsy Hill ward, who lives just around the corner from the estate, didn’t bother to turn up. Nor did Lambeth’s Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport, Jennifer Brathwaite, the other Labour Councillor for the Gipsy Hill ward, who appears uninterested either in the damage to the environment of demolishing the 406 concrete homes of Central Hill estate, or in the burden on the roads of Crystal Palace caused by turning the estate into a building site for the next ten years. Lambeth Council have consistently told anyone willing to listen that they would consider the design proposals by Architects for Social Housing ‘like any other’, but I question whether PRP Architects, the practice employed by Lambeth Council to draw up the redevelopment plans for the demolished homes of Central Hill estate, presented their designs to two Council officers in a Day Centre without projection facilities.

Throughout our presentation Fiona Cliffe walked in and out of the room, back and forth, ten, maybe twenty times across the wood flooring, and every time she did so we had to stop speaking since no-one could hear us over the sound of her noisy and rather unattractive shoes. It was a little like having a misbehaving child in the room that all the adults had to tolerate. Strange behaviour, one would have thought, in a Capital Program Manager responsible for Business Growth and Regeneration Delivery; but in truth nothing about the behaviour of Lambeth Council employees surprises us now. Within the first few minutes of the presentation Neil Vokes tried on several occasions to interrupt us, something Lambeth Council, as you know, does not tolerate in their own meetings; but a quick democratic vote from the floor established that the resident members of the Resident Engagement Panel did, in fact, want to hear what we had to say about our proposal. At which point Neil Vokes, whose job title is Assistant Director of Housing Regeneration, got up and left the room. Despite his position on Lambeth’s self-titled ‘Co-operative Council’, Neil Vokes listened to maybe half an hour of our presentation, and never waited to see a single slide of our design work. I believe this is what the absent Cabinet Member for Housing and Progress Member, Councillor Matthew Bennett, likes to call a ‘robust consultation’.

We brought our own film-maker to this meeting, and the behaviour of the two Lambeth Council officers who did bother to turn up and the absence of those who didn’t is, once again, a matter of record, and may be viewed by interested parties, including residents, journalists and High Court judges. Again, I leave it to readers (and viewers) to decide whose behaviour is ‘insulting’, ‘derogatory’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘unacceptable’, and to whom a code of conduct should be applied during consultations with residents.

I know that Lambeth Council are used to bullying, slandering and intimidating residents who disagree with and oppose its plans to demolish their homes, so I can understand you might think you can use the same tactics with Architects for Social Housing. You are wrong. From the overwhelming response of Cressingham Gardens residents and Lambeth library campaigners at the Cabinet decision to announce the demolition of their homes and closure of their libraries, when Councillors were forced to vacate the hall to the cries of ‘Shame on you!’ from hundreds of members of the public, all of which has been captured on several filmed recordings that have been disseminated widely among London’s council estate communities, you will know the force of feeling against Lambeth Labour Council. What you presume to criticise as my ‘behaviour’ is the justified anger shared by the thousands of Lambeth residents threatened by the Council’s attack on the public realm, not only people’s homes, but their libraries, businesses, livelihoods and communities, and its deliberate pursuit of a policy of social cleansing in the borough.

I note, in addition, your stated threat to have me physically removed by security from future council meetings, much as Lambeth Council have used bailiffs and the police to forcibly remove residents from their homes, and I will be seeking legal advice accordingly. As for your threat to ban me from attending consultation events; given Lambeth Council’s failure to attend, and Council officers’ behaviour at, the so-called consultation with Central Hill’s Resident Engagement Panel, it’s a hollow threat. On the contrary, it is Lambeth’s councillors and officers who are barred from Architects for Social Housing’s consultations with residents; it is you that we ban from our presentations to resident communities of the viable alternatives to the demolition of their homes.

I will leave it to the reading public to decide what they think of your behaviour, Ms. McKane. I thank you, however, for your letter, which, together with my response, I will publish as widely as possible. If you wish to pursue this matter further, please do: we welcome all the publicity we can get to shine a light not only on the behaviour, but more importantly on the practices, of the Council you represent.

Yours sincerely

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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