Prior to the launch of the ASH report on Central Hill, which we’re holding in the Residents’ Hall of Cotton Gardens estate in Kennington on 26 April, we thought we’d catch up with what’s happening on Knight’s Walk, the low-rise component of Cotton Gardens that was specifically designed by London County Council architect George Finch for elderly residents or residents with disabilities – and the news isn’t good.
In December 2014 Lambeth council placed Knight’s Walk on its six-estate ‘regeneration’ programme and the following February the residents were presented with three options, all of which were for full demolition. In response, residents invited ASH to start working with their campaign in March, when we set about producing design-alternatives to demolition that forced the council to look at other options and ultimately helped save half the estate from demolition. In October 2015, Lambeth council proposed to cabinet the partial demolition of Knight’s Walk according to option Scenario 2D drawn up by Mae Architects. This would entail the demolition of just over half of the existing homes – 18 out of a total of 33 – and the development of 82 new and replacement properties. 1 of these was to be a replacement freehold property and 17 would be replacement homes for council rent; while of the 64 proposed additional properties, 25 were to be for council rent, and 39 for private rent. These figures, however, were described in the proposal (above) as ‘indicative’, and subject to what the council called ‘further detailed analysis’. This was where things stood when ASH last wrote about the Knight’s Walk redevelopment scheme, in which we ended with the warning: ‘Watch this space to see if Lambeth council honours its promises!’
While mid-size estate regeneration schemes such as Central Hill with 475 homes or Cressingham Gardens with 306 homes will take 10 years or more to complete, and large schemes such as the Aylesbury estate with over 2,700 homes several decades from the start of the process to completion, the regeneration of Knight’s Walk is set to start on site in 2019. This allows us to follow the journey from the time the council announced its plans to regenerate the estate to residents in February 2015, through the brief period of resident consultation culminating in the council’s proposal to cabinet that October, and up to the granting of planning permission in March 2018, within a relatively short period of time – in this case 3 years. This provides a more immediate and clearer picture of the practices pursued by councils such as Lambeth in pushing estate demolition and redevelopment through, and therefore of the extent to which current legislation and policy on estate regeneration either enforces their duties as public bodies or, on the contrary, allows them to act like property developers, without any obligation to honour the guarantees and promises they make to the residents whose homes the proposed schemes will demolish. This article, therefore, is not only about exposing the dishonest practices of Lambeth council and the warning the example of Knight’s Walk should present to residents on other estates threatened with demolition and redevelopment, but also about the inadequacy of existing legislation and policy from the UK Government, the Greater London Authority, the political parties whose local authorities are implementing estate regeneration and the councils putting them into practice, in protecting the right of residents to continue living in their communities.
1. Homes for Profit
Two years is a long time in politics. Fast-forward to December 2017, when CPC Development Management, which is providing project, development and commercial management services for Lambeth council’s Knight’s Walk, Westbury and South Lambeth estate regeneration schemes, submitted the planning viability report for Knight’s Walk to public consultation. Under these new plans, the total number of new and replacement homes had risen to 84, an addition of only 2; but the total homes for council rent homes had been reduced from 42 to 14, 3 less than the 17 that will be demolished. Presumably this is because the council has relocated the tenants off the estate, but it may also be because the residents of the missing three properties only had assured short-hold tenancies and the council are not obliged to rehouse them. More seriously, the promised 25 new homes for council rent have been replaced by 13 in the new category of ‘tenancy strategy rent homes’, which apparently are for new council tenants, plus 12 intermediate rent homes, with the remaining 45 homes now designated as ‘market rate’.
To clarify what these tenancy categories mean, the viability report included the financial modelling assumptions for the GLA Planning Viability Report, which provides the following weekly rental rates (somewhat strangely based on 2016/17 rates):
In addition to which revenue sources, the following property prices are based on 2017/18 sale values:
There are no figures given in these financial assumptions for private rent, so we must assume that the 45 new ‘market rate’ homes are all for private sale, rather than the 39 for private rent designated on the proposal accepted by Lambeth cabinet two years ago. There are also no figures provided for what the council now calls ‘council level rent’, which is not defined anywhere in the viability report. We might assume from this that by ‘council level rent’ Lambeth council means ‘social rent’, for which the financial assumptions are provided, even though council and social rent are two different tenure types, with different security of tenancy and with the latter subject to additional service charges. However, in the breakdown of costs and revenues from the different tenure types, the 39 affordable units are all designated as ‘affordable rent’, which means up to 80 per cent of market rate. Again, we might assume that this range will embrace something less than 80 per cent, including social rent at 30 per cent. However, the category of social rent is included under the affordable housing units, and the quantity of homes listed in this category is ‘0’.
Several things can be observed about the CPC application. First of all, it’s extraordinary that in the planning viability report on which the financial assumptions for the entire Knight’s Walk scheme is based the ‘council level rent’ homes designated to replace the demolished homes for council rent don’t have any definition.
Second, that the indication that these replacement homes will be for social rent is contradicted in the same report, effectively allowing them to be replaced by homes for affordable rent.
Thirdly, that even if the 17 homes for council that will be demolished are replaced by 14 homes for social rent, the 25 new homes that were promised for social rent at 30 per cent of market rate will in fact be replaced by 13 for nearly double that rent and 12 for the full 80 per cent of market rate.
And finally – which has always been implicit in the council’s plans but never made plain to residents – since the new development will be a housing association under the management of the special purpose vehicle called Homes for Lambeth, there will be additional (and equally undefined) service charges for tenants, which can be raised by whatever private homes management company Homes for Lambeth will subcontract to run the development, and which, under the Business Plan approved by Lambeth cabinet in January 2018, will be under the obligation to make a profit for its private investors and development partners.
2. Policy and Practice
The argument Lambeth council made for demolishing Knights Walk was that they have an obligation to house the 28,000 households on Lambeth council’s housing waiting list. And in 2014 Lambeth Labour ran their last election campaign exactly four years ago on the promise to build 1,000 council homes for council rent by 2019. In the current manifesto for the forthcoming election, Lambeth Labour council claim that over 950 homes have been completed, are being built or have already been approved by cabinet. This figure has been challenged by campaigners as deliberately misleading, as it includes all the homes approved by Lambeth planning committee, including private development. Indeed, in her letter of resignation from the Labour Party stating her intention to stand as an independent candidate in the local elections on 3 May, Councillor Rachel Heywood has revealed that only 17 homes for council rent have been recorded in Lambeth council’s returns to central government.
According to its own report on the State of the Borough 2016, of Lambeth’s 318,000 residents in 136,000 households, a third are homeowners, with 65 per cent living in rented accommodation; 20 per cent of these rent from the council, 16 per cent from social landlords, and 29 per cent from private landlords. 87,000 people, well over a quarter, are living in poverty (60 per cent below median income) after paying their housing costs, and 49,000 before those costs, meaning 38,000 Lambeth residents are being driven into poverty by the cost of their housing in the borough. Nearly 12,000 of the residents in receipt of housing benefit are in employment.
The ratio of Lambeth house prices to median earnings has risen from 6.4 in 2000 to 13.2 in 2014. In 2015, you’d need a salary of over £70,000 to afford the average home in Lambeth, which sold for £493,000. Median income in the borough is £26,000. In 2016, the household income required to afford median house prices in the borough by ward were as follows:
According to the real estate company Rightmove, in 2017 sale prices in Lambeth were up 4 per cent on the previous year and 8 per cent on 2015, with flats sold for an average price of £502,000, terraced properties for £896,000, and semi-detached properties for £1,040,000.
What Lambeth council has to answer, therefore, is how the Knight’s Walk estate development, by providing 13 homes for rent between £885 and £1,150 per month (plus service charges), 12 homes for rent between £1,335 and £2,150 per month (plus service charges), and 45 properties for private sale between £420,00 for 1-bedroom and £735,000 for 3-bedroom homes, is meant to reduce the 28,000 households on the council’s housing waiting list, lift 87,000 residents out of housing poverty, take 12,000 working residents off housing benefit or help its 136,000 households onto the housing ladder.
Finally, Lambeth council has to answer how the promises made to residents of Knight’s Walk and submitted to its own cabinet can be so drastically changed under the caveat of ‘further detailed analysis’. In response to this affordable housing planning viability report and the other 71 documents submitted for public consultation for 21 days between 16 February and 9 March 2018, the council received 50 comments, 7 of which supported the application and 35 of which opposed it. Among these latter were the following:
‘I find it extraordinary that only after the initial consultation on this plan has been completed, a viability assessment has been done which totally changes the nature of the development. Residents of Knights Walk and neighbours have been consistently told that this is a Lambeth development and that no flats were to be sold: we now find the plan is to sell 50% privately so making any possibility of increasing the social housing in the future, especially for essential but low-paid workers (such as NHS workers), impossible as Lambeth will no longer own half the estate. We were told that from the very outset that the purpose was to provide housing for the thousands on the housing list; as it now stands this will be for a tiny number and the majority of the development will be sold or at 80% of market rent. The project has turned from being a housing project to a money-making venture for Lambeth because of the relatively high property values locally. And why in the viability assessment were there not a range of options considered including stating the financial option of not selling the flats? After a long period of co-operation in this process the Knight’s Walk Residents feel betrayed by Lambeth.’
‘The residents of Knight’s Walk fully understand the financial constraints under which social housing can be provided and we have been consistently reassured that this would be thorough private renting of up to 50% of the new development, but we were also categorically told on numerous occasions that this project would remain under Lambeth control and that no properties were to be sold on the open market. We have reached the point where the planning application on this basis was open for public consultation, so were astonished to discover after the formal consultation was closed that a planning viability report has been added under which 50% of the new homes are to be sold at market value and of those remaining only 13 are available for those on the housing list, with the remaining flats to be intermediate rent homes at 80% of market rent, which still remains unaffordable for many workers in essential occupations. As you might expect, I feel that Lambeth Council have deliberately mislead us and that the original intention to provide homes for those in need, which we supported and which underpinned our estate regeneration, has instead been turned into a vehicle for generating income. This is a breach of trust and a complete betrayal of the co-operative spirit of engagement that we have had with Lambeth over the last few years. To make matters worse, we were only informed of the precise nature of these plans on Monday 5th March 2018 and have less than 5 days in which to lodge an official complaint.’
‘The cabinet decision/approval stated clearly that the regeneration was to adhere to Section 2, where it states “2.3 Redevelopment of Knight’s Walk, Cotton Garden estate will deliver: around 25 additional homes for council rent”. This planning application is in breach of the cabinet approval as it only delivers 10 extra homes at council rent, which is less than 50% of what was promised. This planning application should never have been submitted. In the consultation residents were assured that the land would not be sold. This agreement has now been breached as it is now proposed to sell. The consultation must therefore be rerun to have any validity. There are significant errors in the “Introduction and Summary to the Planning Application” which are extremely misleading, particularly the repeated assertion that Knight’s Walk is unsafe, which is used as justification for demolition and draws on lazy stereotypes of modernist estates: “The bungalows turn their backs onto the open green space and Cotton Gardens Estate, which creates an unsafe and disconnected atmosphere on the green space”. In who’s judgment is this communal space regarded as unsafe? I have casually chatted with local residents (people not living within the estate but close by) who choose to walk their dogs or children through these spaces, because they feel tranquil and safe, especially being free of traffic and the fumes they emit. Interviews with residents conducted by Soundings show that “Knight’s Walk is considered clean, open, airy, peaceful and safe”. Also criticised are the alleyways: “Pedestrian routes and connections are poorly defined” and “Knight’s Walk and the surrounding pedestrian routes are poorly overlooked and are not all well used, because of this they don’t always feel very safe.” Is there any shred of objective evidence that these spaces are less safe or less well used than is the average across the borough, or on other estates? None is quoted. Knight’s Walk is also condemned for not providing “homes that meet current design or insulation standards or meet the needs of many of its long-term residents for accessible homes.” This is an absurd objection since, provided the basic structure is sound, they can be up-graded. Those grounds (if upheld) could be used to justify the demolition of every structure in UK built prior to current building regulations. However, the ecological cost in lost embodied energy should be added into that equation. It is unconscionable that bungalows, which are often inhabited by older residents and are wheel-chair friendly, should be categorised as unsuitable, particularly since, of all the countries of Europe, we have one of the poorest provisions in housing suitable for the elderly.’
Despite this widespread opposition by both residents and stakeholders, on 20 March Lambeth’s Planning Application Committee resolved to grant full planning permission to the proposal. In his own comments on the success of this application, Councillor Paul McGlone, the Deputy Leader of Lambeth Council, wrote:
‘I’m pleased that planning permission has been given for the rebuilding of the Knight’s Walk estate, providing a new home for every council tenant and additional council rent homes for local families as part of our commitment to tackling Lambeth’s housing crisis. We are delivering on our guarantees to existing tenants and resident leaseholders to provide them with a brand new home built to the highest standard on their estate – and the overall scheme will provide more genuinely affordable homes for local people.’
3. The Carrot and the Stick
As the figures provided by Lambeth council itself very clearly show, this is a lie – another to add to the long list of lies the council has told to the residents of Knight’s Walk ever since they initiated this scheme. If Lambeth council are free to do this on the Knight’s Walk regeneration, what guarantees do residents have that – bad as they are – the tenancy splits they are promising on the Central Hill, Cressingham Gardens, Fenwick, Westbury and South Lambeth estate regenerations will be adhered to by the time they reach planning application, and that the number of homes for council rent replaced by affordable rent, shared ownership and properties for market sale won’t be even higher than the losses Lambeth council are already proposing? The answer to this is equally clearly – none whatsoever.
Lambeth council has no interest in reducing its housing waiting list. On the contrary, in its housing programme as in its privatisation of the borough’s libraries and its eviction of market traders, Lambeth council is behaving exactly like a property developer – selling off public land and assets to the highest bidder. Like a property developer, the council’s bottom line in estate regeneration is the generation of profit, not housing. And like a property developer, the council is using successive viability assessments at every stage of new developments to retain the profit margins of Homes for Lambeth and its private development partners at the expense of homes for council rent – even while pocketing the public subsidies for affordable housing from the Greater London Authority.
At present, as Knight’s Walk and many other examples testify, estate regeneration is undertaken by councils under both the stick of reduced budgets and restrictions on borrowing against their assets imposed by central government cuts and changes to legislation, and the carrot of private finance initiatives and funding for shared ownership, rent to buy and other so-called ‘affordable’ housing products. But within those limits they have considerable autonomy, which the Greater London Authority’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration – the actual powers for which are limited to the granting or withholding of funding for individual schemes and calling in planning applications under its jurisdiction – does little or nothing to curb. Since the London Mayor and the councils primarily responsible for implementing London’s estate regeneration programme belong to the same political party, that’s hardly surprising. It’s clear that the Mayor’s ‘Good Practice Guide’ is written for Labour councils, not the residents looking for help in defending their homes and communities from destruction. What we need, therefore – and quickly – is new legislation that sets legally enforceable target requirements for both councils and housing associations when undertaking an estate regeneration scheme. That change in legislation, however, will only come about following a fundamental change in the housing policies of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, none of which contain anything that contradicts or curbs the practices of Lambeth and other London councils when implementing the demolition and redevelopment of hundreds of London housing estates. On the contrary, the housing policies of the three political parties running London’s 32 boroughs are all founded upon estate redevelopments just like Knight’s Walk being pushed through without resident support, which as this example shows is manipulated through deception, ambiguity, deliberate disinformation and outright lies.
Until we make a ‘regeneration’ such as the one being implemented against Knight’s Walk impossible by law, it would be naïve to think that the London Mayor’s promise of ballots for estate residents facing the demolition of their homes will stop such practices as those being employed by Lambeth council, or to describe current policy on estate regeneration as anything other than a ‘Good Practice Guide’ to the land grabbing, privatisation, social cleansing and profiteering that passes under the guise of ‘gentrifiction’, and which created the housing crisis this programme is supposedly meant to solve.
Architects for Social Housing
Illustration by Morganico, GentriFLEAcation (2018)