The Consultation Game: TM Architects on Northwold Estate

Last October, on the invitation of the residents of Northwold Estate in Hackney, ASH visited an exhibition held in the estate’s community hall by TM Architects, the purpose of which was to help the architects ‘consult’ with residents about the options they had been commissioned to draw up for the future of the estate by the Guinness Partnership. We had been asked to attend by members of Love Northwold  – a campaign which had recently been set up by residents worried about their homes – in order to give them architectural feedback on what they were being offered. ASH had met with the campaign a few times previously; and to judge by the reception we received from them it appeared that TM Architects had also heard of us. Architects may be able to endure the demolition of working-class homes to clear the ground for their designs with equanimity; but smelling a threat to their commission TM Architects turned into small yelping dogs who accompanied us around the room, answering all our rather difficult questions with frantic declarations about their good faith mixed with protestations as to just how beneficial all this will be for residents – if only they would open their eyes . . .

On entering the room the first thing we saw was a large plan of the estate on which every block was covered in stickers indicating where residents lived, places they liked, places they didn’t like, and places residents thought could be ‘redeveloped’ – this last category marked by a blue sticker. When I pointed out that every single block had a blue sticker on it, that this map could, therefore, be used as proof that residents were in favour of an option of full demolition, and that perhaps residents should be given some indication of what redevelopment would mean for them before they consigned their homes to demolition, TM Architects responded – as if this were some sort of excuse: ‘Oh, I think some kids got hold of the stickers . . .’

The exhibition began with an ‘Introduction and Update’ board filled with misinformation, half-truths and outright lies about what will happened to tenants and leaseholders in the event of their homes being demolished – all of which seemed a little premature given that residents were supposedly being consulted on what they wanted to happen to their homes. This was followed by what TM Architects – no doubt under the direction of the Guinness Partnership – had already decided were the criteria by which the different levels of development should be judged; but not once, in any of the material displayed, was the argument made why any development on the Northwold Estate at all should take place. Instead the exhibition pushed ahead with the presentation of the three available options: infill development, partial redevelopment and full redevelopment – which is where things really began to take off between ASH and TM Architects.

Having looked at the notice boards plastered with sticker-notes from residents asking for repairs and maintenance of their homes and the long-neglected upkeep of the estate’s communal spaces, the first thing we asked the architects was why there was no refurbishment option. They had no answer to this – quite simply because it wasn’t in their client brief, beyond which they saw no reason to look.

The second thing we asked TM Architects was why their infill option, which had come up with an additional 40-60 homes in an estate of ten times that number, had ignored the largest area of brownfield land available for redevelopment – a disused depot on Rossington Street owned by Hackney Labour Council on which they could easily have found room for a further 40-60 flats. They said the council were only willing to free up the land for regeneration if it involved demolishing the existing homes on the estate. We’ve subsequently been told that the council did in fact offer the land, but that the Guinness Partnership declined it except in the eventuality that they partially or fully demolish the estate. Whatever the truth, either the council or the housing association were interested in drastically reducing the number of homes that could be built through an infill option that would leave the existing homes and community intact.

Perhaps a better indication of how TM Architects infill option might have been arrived at was conveyed to us recently by an architectural assistant from Architectural Workers, a recently-formed group of junior architects unhappy at having to work for large practices on estate demolition schemes. The assistant we spoke to had only graduated the previous year, and yet the practice for which they worked – which to protect the worker’s identity we will not reveal – gave this graduate the responsibility, alone, for drawing up the infill option for an entire estate redevelopment project. And the time the practice gave this recently-graduated junior architect to complete the task? A single day. With such practices endemic in architectural studios given the remit of ruling out infill options in advance, is it any wonder TM Architects could only find space for 40-60 new flats, whereas ASH has consistently found an increase of 40-45 per cent housing on the estate’s we’ve worked with?

Finally, we asked TM Architects – who were really beginning to take a dislike to us – whether they had produced assessments of the social, mental health, financial and environmental impacts – on both residents and the surrounding community – of the partial and full demolition options they were proposing. They hadn’t, of course. So we suggested that doing so should be preparatory to any consultation with residents on these options. To propose these options without them would amount to deliberately deceiving residents into signing up to something whose consequences for them and their families were unknown – either to them or to the architects who, despite the complete absence of these assessments, for some reason presumed to know what was best for this Hackney community.

At this point TM architects were practically in tears, and I had to ask them not to shout at us. Like most architects whose practices we’ve confronted, they seemed to take our questions as personal attacks, rather than as a defence of the residents they threaten. Unused to being cross-examined on their own unexamined convictions, perhaps now TM Architects might know a little more what it’s like for residents who are forced to justify their right to continue to live in their own homes by so-called ‘consultations’ such as this. Except, of course, that residents have their homes to lose, while architects merely have a commission. Still, we have to start somewhere if we’re to cross the yawning gap between the professionals whose claims to know what’s best for residents is founded on their class arrogance and blindness, and the largely working-class residents whose homes their professional opinion threatens. I only wish architects showed such passion for the people whose lives their designs will have such an impact on as they do for their own offended professional sensibilities. With a final spurt of indignation the TM Architects shouted at us: ‘Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you design an option?’

So we are. This week ASH met with the Love Northwold campaign, and on their instructions we are beginning the process of designing an alternative to the demolition of their estate, one that will increase its housing capacity far more than the ridiculous 40-60 homes TM Architects came up with, leave the existing community intact, and generate the funds to refurbish their homes – as the rents, mortgages and service charges they paid to the Guinness Partnership should have done. We shall be calling on Hackney Labour Council, and in particular its elected Mayor, Philip Glanville, to make the land on which the disused depot sits available for redevelopment. Presumably this is entered on the land registry of brownfield land councils are now compelled to draw up, and therefore, under the Housing and Planning Act, should receive planning permission in principle for any new housing development. And as the only reason the Guinness Partnership has given for consulting on the redevelopment of the Northwold Estate is their declared desire to build more homes to address London’s housing crisis, residents will be approaching the housing association about funding our design work.

Since the Guinness Partnership is a private company and not a local authority, and therefore under no public obligation to solve the housing crisis, it’s unclear from where this civic-minded duty springs – other than the huge profits to be made from manipulating this crisis to their benefit. But we’ll take them at their word – for the moment, and remind them that the housing crisis in London is one of affordability, not supply. Given the rank inadequacy of the infill option put forward by TM Architects, Love Northwold will be asking for the full financial backing of the Guinness Partnership for a design option that does not demolish a single home for social rent in a borough in which such homes are everywhere being demolished by Hackney Council’s estate demolition programme. If the Guinness Partnership’s plans to demolish the Northwold Estate spring from a desire to solve the housing crisis, it should be clear to them that this will best be achieved by refurbishing what few homes for social rent the borough still contains, not demolishing them, while increasing the number of homes in Hackney in which residents can actually afford to live.

There is one final indication of the kind of practice TM Architects is. Since residents were informed last July that their estate is up for ‘regeneration’ they have consistently been told that nothing has been decided, no plans have been made, and that the Guinness Partnership is just ‘consulting’ on the possibilities. While I was taking the photographs in this article, TM Architects must have told me half a dozen times that there was no need to as the display boards would ‘all soon be up on our website’. I thanked them for offering to save me the bother, but told them I’d take the photographs anyway – just in case. Of course they were lying, and the display boards never were put up, either on their website or that of the Guinness Partnership. What they did put up on the TM Architects website, however, is a timeline of their projects, and one entry indicates work starting on an ‘urban design strategy for redevelopment of a large North London estate’. It’s clear from the anonymous ground plan that’s included that it’s the Northwold Estate. And the date the work started? August 2015 – a full year before residents were told their estate was even being considered for regeneration.

Of course, the Guinness Partnership might have their eyes on quite another prize. It’s clear from the urban design strategy of TM Architects in conjunction with Farrer Huxley Associates and BPP Construction Consultants – not to mention the failed attempts by regeneration consultants Newman Francis to lead residents to this option during their own farcical ‘consultations’ – that the partial redevelopment option has been the one the Guinness Partnership has intended to pursue from the start – long before it went through the motions of ‘consulting’ with residents. At first we thought this was a case of them grabbing a little handful now and then filling their boots later, and that living on a building site for the next ten years would encourage tenants and leaseholders not already decanted to take what re-housing offers and compensations packages the Guinness Partnership offered them before the rest of the estate was demolished. But now we’re not so sure.

The Love Northwold campaign has suggested that the real target of the Guinness Partnership is not, in fact, the 7 blocks already identified for demolition on the main estate, but the land that stands to the south-east, on the large square between Northwold and Clapton Roads, and therefore adjacent to the busy and commercially valuable high street. Currently occupied by three blocks, Hendale, Scardale and Whitwell, the phasing strategy of the partial demolition option put forward by TM Architects indicates that these will be the last to be demolished (years 5-8 on the timetable of the redevelopment) and redeveloped (years 8-10), and as such will be emptied of their previous residents. Under the guise of being decanted, those tenants and leaseholders that can afford to will be moved to their new homes on the main estate during demolition, but they won’t return – leaving the no-doubt high-quality, luxury apartments the Guinness Partnership will build on the corner of Northwold and Clapton Roads free for private sale at whatever exorbitant market price they command by then. Judging from the number of estate agents, artisanal bakeries and ethically-sourced coffee shops springing up on Clapton Road, that’s likely to be very high indeed.

We don’t doubt that the Guinness Partnership isn’t above turning a tidy profit on converting homes for social rent into ‘affordable’ housing in the 7 blocks identified for demolition north of Northwold Road. After all, according to their own Financial Statements (on page 25), they increased profits on ‘affordable’ rent from £14.6 to £21.1 million last year alone through converting 559 such homes and letting new homes at ‘affordable’ rent. But perhaps it’s here, on the corner of Northwold and Clapton Roads, away from the rest of the estate, that they intend to cash in on Hackney’s rocketing property prices – the highest rising in London. The average house price in Hackney has increased by a barely believable 702 per cent in the past 20 years, from £75,569 in 1996 to £606,269 in 2016. It’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be in 10 years’ time when the luxury apartments the Guinness Partnership wants to build here are put on the market in the newly gentrified neighbourhood of Clapton-on-Lea. Is it any wonder that the infill development produced by TM Architects was so inadequate in finding space for new flats, when such an option would fail to decant the residents of Hendale, Scardale and Whitwell houses from their coveted land?

And with such a golden fleece dangling before their eyes – no matter how high the Guinness Partnership propose building on this block of land, no matter how dense they pack the housing – Hackney Labour Council’s easily-lobbied planning department will have the ready-made excuse that only through selling luxury homes at the highest possible market value can Guinness afford to pay for all that ‘affordable’ housing on the rest of Northwold Estate. Under this new catch-all phrase – which doesn’t bother trying to distinguish between 30 and 80 per cent of market rate, homes for rent, homes for private sale, mixed equity, the scam of shared ownership or the even bigger scam of Starter Homes – no mention of the number of homes for social rent lost is ever made in the viability assessments of property developers. And despite describing itself as a ‘not for profit’ organisation, that is exactly what the Guinness Partnership is.

If this is, indeed, the case, and the real profit motive for the Guinness Partnership’s interest in Northwold Estate, then the blocks they have already proposed for demolition are nothing more than a means for redeveloping the far more commercially valuable land on Clapton Road; and the households whose homes will be demolished and whose lives will be thrown into chaos over the next ten years as they are decanted, relocated and evicted from Northwold Estate are being manipulated and moved around like pawns on a chessboard. And like all pawns, they will be sacrificed when the real prize comes into play. But though the board is laid against us and the game fixed in advance, it’s still our move.

Architects for Social Housing

ASH design proposals for West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates

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In response to the question addressed to ASH by the Architect’s Journal, there are many ways in ASH’s design proposals for the West Kensington & Gibbs Green People’s Plan are better than Capco’s masterplan, the primary and overriding one being that the residents, many of whom have lived here all their lives, will be able to remain living in their homes, the refurbishment of which can be funded by the provision of up to 250 new homes.

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ASH’s proposal is an entirely sustainable one, both socially and environmentally, that builds on the existing thriving community and surrounding neighbourhood, rather than wiping them out. A palimpsest of different styles over time is what makes cities dynamic, vibrant and interesting. Cities are places of cumulative memory, not something to be erased and rewritten every forty years like a cheap hard drive. That is cultural vandalism. The estates are well loved, and there is nothing wrong with them architecturally that cannot be addressed with investment and thoughtful and intelligent interventions that not only address any concerns residents may have but simultaneously provide the additional homes the area needs.

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ASH’s proposals provide a large range of new homes, from bungalows for the elderly and disabled (potentially freeing up some of the larger homes which may be under-occupied) to new townhouses for growing families needing more space.

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All this can be achieved without residents having to leave the estate, their friends, family and neighbours, all of which are the crucial but ignored foundations of our social structures.

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ASH’s proposal for a new block of flats on Lillie Road has the potential for a mix of uses on the ground floor, creating a new public square and entrance into the estates. This will make a really positive contribution to the public realm, working with the existing streets, not in spite of them.

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New and improved community facilities such as allotments and a new centralized community centre will support the existing community, which has matured and bonded over the years. The effectiveness of communal space is directly related to the maintenance of the environment and the stability and continuity of the community inhabiting the space. Reinvigorating the environment with new and improved communal facilities will only enhance this stable community’s enjoyment and use of the estate.

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Our proposal also sets out to increase the biodiversity of the existing green open spaces on the estates, which sit along a biodiversity corridor identified in Kensington and Chelsea’s latest Biodiversity Action plan.  As well as increasing the air quality on Lillie road and North End Road and Targarth Road, this will also ensure that it’s a great place for young families and children, and the elderly, which is not a defining characteristic of Capco’s scheme.

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Environmentally our scheme clearly also has the benefit – through retrofit and refurbishment – of retaining the embodied carbon and energy present within the buildings largely concrete and brick structures, which Capco’s full demolition scheme clearly doesn’t. In the Twenty-first Century it is unacceptable to ignore the devastating consequences demolition has on the urban environment when refurbishment is a much more viable and sustainable alternative. French architects Lacation and Vassal have shown how successful this is as a model architectural approach to french post war housing estates.

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In addition the construction could take advantage of recent advances in modern methods of construction using prefabricated elements thus aiming to reduce dust and noise, and with minimal disruption to the life of the estate.

More luxury homes are not what London needs. We don’t have a shortage of luxury homes, the market for which is collapsing. We do, however, have a severe shortage of low cost homes for social and council rent that people can afford. Capco’s plans will only exacerbate this lack of homes that Londoners desperately need and can afford to live in.

Wholesale devastation of longstanding neighbourhoods and communities, which are the direct effect of projects like Capco’s, are simply making things worse, for both the estate residents and the surrounding area. As a result of Capco’s plan, neighbouring communities will in turn suffer from increases in rent and council tax, a further burden on already overstretched public services like health clinics, schools and roads, and be indirectly forced out by stealth. This is an overt strategy discussed in real estate firm Savills’ ‘Complete Streets’ model. The estate demolition programme is destroying London with no regard for anything other than the profits of developers and investors.

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Many of the home owners who bought their homes via Right to Buy will – as demonstrated by the Heygate model – most likely have to move out of London altogether. Remaining tenants – if they can afford to return – will pay considerably higher rents, council tax, service charges, etc., forcing many of these families out as well, simply because they can no longer afford to live in their own neighbourhood. The promise of ‘like for like’ is simply a myth. Are they really going to be giving all the residents who currently live in a 3-4 bedroom home with a garden a whole house in the new development when a one bed flat is being advertised for £750,000?

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There is no evidence that estate regeneration improves the lives of the existing tenants. On the contrary, it is more likely to put residents in a significantly worse off situation economically, and have a significantly detrimental effect. Then there are the effects that the demolition of their homes has on the mental health of residents, many of the older of whom will die unhappily and alone during the course of this process, most likely in temporary housing during the so-called ‘decanting’ stage that drags on for five to ten years.

A house or a flat is not the same as a home. These places are peoples’ homes, and they are being destroyed for profit and political expediency. We know the lengths developers go to minimise what they are obliged to give back to the community through manipulated viability assessments. They have no interest in contributing to the public good of the city, unless it benefits their shareholders in some way. Is this who we want defining the future landscape of London?

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Michael Heseltine, Chair of the panel set up to look at how to implement the Prime Minister’s so-called Blitz initiative for council estates has said that estate regeneration ‘has to be locally led’, and that he wants to ‘see local communities coming forward with innovative ideas to achieve desirable neighbourhoods that local people can be proud of.’

ASH’s design proposals for the West Ken and Gibbs Green People’s Plan is a model for how estate regeneration should be done. In post-Brexit UK, we believe this is an example of how London should show its respect for its poor and working classes, whose needs have been ignored for so long.

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The People’s Plan is also a better deal financially for the local authority, whose deal with Capco was woefully (some would say, criminally) bad. We hope that by seeing what this alternative has to offer, the local Labour Council, London Mayor and the Secretary of State will support the residents’ application for a Right to Transfer the estates into community ownership, with the only genuinely sustainable, financially viable and socially just future for the residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates.

Geraldine Dening
Architects for Social Housing

Download the full PDF of ASH’s feasibility report here: WKGG_report_rev3

The article based on our response in the Architects’ Journal can be read here: AJ article 8 August 2016

 

ASH Presentation to Central Hill Estate Residents Engagement Panel

Introduction

We’re here to present the design proposals drawn up by Architects for Social Housing for the regeneration of Central Hill Estate to the Central Hill Resident Engagement Panel.

We also make our presentation – or rather re-present our proposals – to the residents of Central Hill Estate, whose exclusion from the decisions that will ultimately determine what happened to their homes and their lives has led the resident members of the Resident Engagement Panel to resign until a meeting is called involving all residents.

We also make our presentation to the neighbours of Central Hill Estate from the Crystal Palace community, who, despite being outside the red line Lambeth Council has drawn around the estate, will be significantly and negatively affected by the Council’s plans for its demolition, should it be realised: by the environmental impact of the demolition of 456 homes; from ten years living next to a building site; from ten years of lorries, bulldozers and cranes driving up and down their narrow streets; from the increased burden on their schools, nurseries, clinics, roads and what’s left of their libraries; and from the increased rents and cost of living that will follow the gentrification of their area by the building of high-cost, luxury housing in their place.

We also make our presentation to residents from the five other council estates currently threatened by Lambeth Council’s regeneration plans, since the fate of Central Hill, as of that of Cressingham Gardens, will have consequences for their own struggle to save their homes.

We also make our presentation to the supporters of the Save Central Hill Community, not only from the neighbourhood of Crystal Palace, but from across London, who are fighting to save their own estates or those of other campaigns faced with the London-wide assault on council housing that is being driven through Labour Council estate regeneration schemes.

We also make our presentation to every London resident, and indeed everyone in England, who is likely to be effected by the destruction of social housing by the cross-party collaboration between this Conservative Government and the Labour Party – not only the residents of social housing threatened with eviction, decanting, increased rents, reduced rights, homelessness or the unregulated private rental market; but also those residents already forced to pay some of the highest rents in the world on that rental market, which will be forced still higher as the 3.9 million households in England currently living in social housing see their homes either sold to private buyers or demolished to make way for luxury apartments.

Finally, we also make our presentation to the would-be home buyers whose faint hope of owning their own home will be altogether erased by the speculation in London’s real estate that is driving the estate demolition programme, the aim of which is not to re-house council tenants and leaseholders, but to replace council housing with housing investment opportunities that few Londoners, let alone working class Londoners, will be able to afford.

It is to all these residents, whose homes are threatened by the estate regeneration process, that Architects for Social Housing addresses its proposals. We hope you will support them in the fight by Central Hill residents for their homes, and adopt the principles we put forward in your own struggle for security of tenure and dignity of life.

Because of the broad reach of our presentation, I want to start with the context in which ASH is presenting its designs, which is much wider than the regeneration of a single estate whose ultimate fate, however, it will determine. It is within this wider context, which is that of London’s housing crisis and the role of estate regeneration in implementing the social cleansing of London’s council estates, that our design proposals for Central Hill estate have been developed.

1. Design Proposals by Architects for Social Housing

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I want to begin with why we’re here today. On Saturday, 20 February, Architects for Social Housing presented its design proposals for Central Hill estate at an exhibition and meeting held in the Goodliffe Hall, part of Christ Church in Gipsy Hill (above). We were there at the invitation of the residents of Central Hill estate, who has asked us to come up with architectural alternatives to the demolition of their estate at the hands of Lambeth Council.

The Save Central Hill Community campaign has been fighting since February 2015 to save their estate and the community it houses. ASH were invited to join them last June, since when we have been holding design workshops with residents and asking them what they want for the estate. Residents have voted overwhelmingly against demolition and for refurbishment, and in response we have come up with design proposals that we believe will save the estate from Lambeth Council.

Since the Day Centre in which we’re gathered this evening, despite being located on Central Hill Estate, has not been made available for residents’ use, the vicar of Christ Church, Jonathan Croucher, who is also Chair of the Residents Engagement Panel, generously offered the church hall for our use, and ASH exhibited its architectural proposals at a public event open to all. Our designs propose alternatives to demolition, with infill and build-over options that will increase the housing capacity of the estate by up to 250 homes, generate the funds to refurbish the existing 456 homes, and – most importantly of all – keep the existing estate community together while also providing housing for newcomers.

Presentations were also given by the Chair of the Central Hill Tenants and Residents Association, Nicola Curtis, who sits on the Residents Engagement Panel, and by members of ASH. Afterwards, the meeting opened to heated discussion from the floor that lasted for well over an hour. Finally, residents and community members were asked to write down their comments and opinions about the proposals and stick them on the design boards as part of ASH’s ongoing consultations with the Central Hill community, and we have subsequently take these on board.

As reported in the local paper, News From Crystal Palace, the meeting was attended by over 120 residents of Central Hill estate, members of the Crystal Palace Community, supporters from Cressingham Gardens and other Lambeth estates threatened with demolition. Despite this, not one of Lambeth’s 63 Councillors attended, not one even of the ward councillors for Crystal Palace, including the Cabinet Member for Housing, Councillor Matthew Bennett, who also sits on the Residents Engagement Panel.

2. The Residents Engagement Panel

On the Tuesday prior to our presentation, the Central Hill Tenants and Residents Association had been informed that the exhibition of proposals for the demolition and redevelopment of their estate that had been announced by Lambeth Council for that Saturday had just been cancelled, and the decision to demolish their estate put back from April to June. This was the third time (at least) that the date has been rescheduled.

When residents asked why, the only reason Lambeth gave is that they were ‘not ready’. Architects for Social Housing asked the TRA whether Lambeth Council were now reconsidering the infill and refurbishment options they have taken off the table, and were told ‘no’, they are still looking exclusively at demolition options.

Three weeks prior to this, on 31 January, an article by the widely respected architect critic and journalist, Rowan Moore, criticising Lambeth’s plans for Central Hill, had appeared in the Observer, and judging by Councillor Bennett’s response this may well have contributed to the Council’s sudden unreadiness to present their design. On 3 February Councillor Bennett wrote on Twitter – the favoured form of social media for his announcements on residents’ homes – about precisely the wider context in which I am presenting ASH’s proposals, though with very different conclusions. With the title ‘But if they are broken?’ – a terminology popularised by David Cameron and the Tory Party when speaking of working class communities – Councillor Bennett wrote:

‘For the wider debate about the housing crisis, about the quality of people’s homes, the strength of their community and how this city builds the homes we need, it would be enormously improved if we focused a little less on the whimsy of architecture journalists and a little more on the housing needs of real people.’

Two weeks before that, the ‘real people’ on the Residents Engagement Panel had voted for Architects for Social Housing to exhibit our proposals to residents alongside those by PRP Architects, the practice employed by Lambeth Council. Fiona Cliffe, whose job description is Capital Program Manager, Estate Regeneration Team, Business Growth and Regeneration Delivery, London Borough of Lambeth (and I note the absence of any reference to ‘housing’) – responded by saying that she would ‘consider it’.

In support of the resident’s vote, Central Hill’s Independent Resident Advisors, who also sit on the Resident Engagement Panel, argued that a precedent had been set by ASH’s previous work on Knight’s Walk estate in Kennington. This seems to have worked, as having cancelled their own exhibition, Lambeth Council then invited ASH to present our proposals to them at a closed meeting to which only members of the Residents Engagement Panel would be invited. We refused, saying we had no intention of conducting business with Lambeth Council behind closed doors. Too much of that is going on already.

Since then, we have lost track of the number of times dates for this meeting have been set and broken, with the result that it has taken three months for this presentation to occur. Even then, this weekend we were informed that the booking we had in the Goodliffe Hall for the past two weeks was now in conflict with another booking.

All of which raises the question of to what extent the Lambeth Council, the self-titled ‘co-operative council’, and its members on the Residents Engagement Panel, are genuinely open to consulting or co-operating either with residents of Central Hill or with the design proposals by Architects for Social Housing that those residents have invited us to present.

Last Monday, 9 May, at Lambeth Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee for the Cabinet decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens, one of the reasons given for rejecting the 326-page People’s Plan was that the Council received it too late. We suspect that a similar strategy of delay is behind the protracted booking of this meeting tonight. As confirmation of this, at 4.30pm today we received an e-mail from Ms. Cliffe declaring, with that arrogance with which she has conducted all her correspondence with us, that we had ‘one hour’ to present our proposal. We have in fact told her for several months now that our presentation will take two hours, and two hours is what we will take to deliver it tonight.

In the almost year that we have been working with the Save Central Hill Community campaign, ASH has never once been invited to any of the Council’s meetings with the Steering Group, nor been shown any of the designs by PRP Architects that have been presented to residents without the means to show them to other residents. This is an issue that has been repeatedly raised by Central Hill residents, who have been banned by Lambeth Council from using their own community hall, and therefore do not have the venue in which the Resident Engagement Panel can communicate what information they have been shown. In this context, I feel justified in using the same dismissive epithet used by Monday’s Committee Chair, Councillor Edward Davie, when he spoke of Cressingham Gardens’ People’s Plan, and call this the ‘so-called’ Resident Engagement Panel.

3. Lambeth Council Comments on the ASH Proposal

Finally, two weeks ago, on 5 May, Fiona Cliffe wrote in an e-mail to resident members of the Resident Engagement Panel:

‘I sent over to you the commentary on the proposals we had downloaded from the ASH website, and have asked that we have their response to the issues before we meet. Fundamental to the delivery of their proposals will be the cost and funding of both the new build homes and also the refurbishment costs for the estate.’

The comments to which Ms Cliffe refers in this e-mail were, as she said, made on images of our designs for Central Hill on the ASH website. However, these images, which are reduced from A1 and A0 size prints (33 and 47 inches long), are about 5 inches across on a laptop screen, and cannot be downloaded, so the best Lambeth Council could have used to comment on them is a screen shot. This was deliberate on our part. ASH’s proposal for Central Hill estate is not a set of images but a presentation supported by detailed plans that cannot be read on a 5-inch image. So the extent to which the authors of the comments on them are valid is one we challenge.

Moreover, the ‘Planning Comments’, as the first two pages of these comments were titled, were not signed, which again casts doubts on their validity. But we are also aware that several other comments have been made publicly about ASH’s designs. We know, for instance, that Councillor Bennett is not averse to making architectural comments on ASH’s plans in various journals, comments that amply demonstrate the limit of his knowledge of even the basics of architecture. Following our presentation to residents on 20 February, Jerry Green, the journalist from News From Crystal Palace who covered the meeting, asked Councillor Bennett, in an interview with him on 9 March, what he thought of ASH’s alternative plans for Central Hill estate:

Councillor Bennett: ‘They haven’t sent them to us. We’ve asked them and as soon as we’ve seen them we’ll look at them in exactly the same way as every other proposal has been considered, but they need to send them to us first.’

Jerry Green responded: ‘ASH’s proposals add 250 homes to the estate without demolishing any existing homes.’

To which Councillor Bennett retorted: ‘We’ve had experience elsewhere in the borough of proposals coming from ASH which can look very positive, but when you test them and dig beneath the surface they don’t always stack up, so we need to assess them and look at them and see if they are as positive as they are claiming. At Knights Walk, Kennington, they put forward proposals that put forward a tower on open garden space which planners said couldn’t be built on. Another tower was considered much too tall and involved building over the top of existing bungalows in a way that when assessed would have delivered a lot of single aspect homes.’

Jerry Green sent these comments to us for a response, and we explained that although one of ASH’s design options for Knight’s Walk did propose a tower on the green space, and that the planners rejected this, another option, which slightly less additional homes, but also without demolishing the existing ones, did not. We also clarified that none of our designs were for single aspect homes – a term Councillor Bennett, perhaps understandably in one so young, doesn’t understand.

Undeterred, however, two days later another interview with Councillor Bennett appeared in the Architects Journal, where the journalist, Keith Cooper, reported:

‘Bennett is sceptical that ASH’s alternative for Central Hill will pass muster, based on its previous effort to halt demolition at Knight’s Walk, one of the six Lambeth sites due for redevelopment. “ASH came in pretty late with a presentation that wasn’t costed and involved building a tower on green space. To be blunt, it was not something an architecture practice would want to put its name to.”

ASH does not have the financial means or time to pursue a legal case of defamation against Councillor Bennett, whose attempts to slur ASH’s professional competence appeared in a journal that has the widest circulation of any architectural magazine in the UK. But it is regrettable that Lambeth Council should have chosen a person of such character to be their Cabinet Member for Housing, someone who, as a resident of Cressingham Gardens testified, announced the demolition of her home on Twitter, and whose recent contemptuous dismissal of Lambeth residents campaigning to save the borough’s libraries – a campaign that was widely praised and supported in our national press and media – will be familiar to everyone here:

‘While they knock back wine in the library, almost 5000 homeless Lambeth children go to bed in temp accommodation.’

Only last week, at the Cressingham Gardens Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Councillor Bennett proposed the introduction of protocol measures in meetings against any residents who disagreed with the plans to demolish their homes, calling them ‘trouble-makers’ who used ‘violent and intimidatory tactics’ to ‘bully’ other residents. This, we should recall, was another way to excuse his dismissal of a People’s Plan that has the backing of over 80 per cent of Cressingham Garden residents.

As I said, it is regrettable that Lambeth Council has placed the homes of thousands of Lambeth residents in the hands of someone with such contempt for the opinions of residents. But in any case, ASH considers Councillor Bennett a hostile member of this Panel who has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that he has rejected our proposals in advance of them being made here today.

4. PRP Architects Comments on Ash Proposal

PRP Consultation

But this is not all. Further commentary on ASH’s design proposals, titled ‘Architectural Comments’ – comments which, again, are based on 5-inch images taken from our website – were made by PRP Architects, who have been employed by Lambeth Council first to conduct consultations with residents last year, then to draw up the plans for the redevelopment of the estate following the demolition of their homes.

PRP famously began their consultation by posting – again on Twitter – a photograph of the estate taken at night with the misspelt statement:

‘Consultation in South London. Would you walk down this alleyway!’

Their redevelopment plans, which were apparently not ready to be presented alongside the regeneration plans of ASH, were ready two weeks later, when they were presented to residents, again in this hall, between 10 and 3pm on Saturday, 5 March.

Among the 23 panel and one large model telling residents why every one of the 456 homes on Central Hill must be demolished, an entire paragraph was given to the consideration of their refurbishment, as follows:

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We find it highly unprofessional, not to mention odd, that an Architectural practice that has been commissioned by the council to design the redevelopment of residents’ homes on the ruins of their current ones should be regarded as a neutral, disinterested or objective commentator on the alternative plans by an architectural practice such as ASH that, for them, is simply a competitor in the market. But in any case, we hope their consideration of our proposals for the refurbishment of residents’ homes receives more consideration than their weighty 22-word thesis on the homes and lives of the more than a thousand residents whose homes they want to demolish for profit.

To this end, PRP Architects, like Councillor Bennett, have not let pass any opportunity to dismiss ASH’s designs and proposal – all, once again, on the evidence of 5-inch screen shots. On 24 March, only two weeks after Councillor Bennett’s comments, Brendan Kilpatrick, the joint Managing Director of PRP Architects, was quoted in the journal Building Design as saying:

‘He dubbed an alternative proposal by pressure group Architects for Social Housing (ASH) to increase density at Central Hill without any demolition as a “noble idea but not really practical”. Kilpatrick said any scheme had to generate enough income to pay for itself – and that ASH’s would not do that. He said PRP’s aim was to keep all the residents on the estate.’

Noble aims, indeed, but hardly compatible with the needless demolition of residents’ homes and their replacement with homes for increased rents, or the transformation of leaseholders into shared owners or even, as Councillor Bennett suggested last Monday, housing benefit claimants. Yet despite this, another director of PRP Architects, Manish Patel, was quoted on 11 March, again in the Architects Journal, as saying:

‘Regeneration is very, very hard for people and there are some voices that come through in the consultation process that play on people’s sensitivities. When community groups come from outside, their voices can sometimes be a bit louder than those of residents living on the estate. Some tenants, she says, had been “unnerved” by “scaremongering” on social media like Twitter and by residents from other estates. She adds: “The most important opinions are those of people who live on these estates.”’

We agree with Ms Patel. Regeneration is very hard for people when regeneration means the demolition of their homes, and when groups such as PRP Architects come from outside with a remit to play on people’s sensitivities, and use scaremongering tactics such as those used by her own practice on Twitter. We also agree that the most important opinions are those of residents, and we hope that both PRP Architects and Lambeth Council will start to listen to those of the residents on Central Hill estate.

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That said, we wonder why, since Brendan Kilpatrick, Manish Patel and Councillor Bennett clearly all take such interest in the validity of ASH’s designs, they did not turn up to see the presentation of our proposal on 20 February. This was a date they had presumably left free for their own exhibition, which they cancelled at such short notice, and at which, when it was finally held in these rooms two weeks later, there were considerably fewer in attendance than the 120 that turned up to see our exhibition, and half of those were Lambeth councillors and employees (above).

However, far more important than this smear campaign conducted in the architectural press by Lambeth Council and PRP Architects, or the attempt to dismiss our proposal before it has been presented, is Ms Cliffe’s statement to resident members of the Resident Engagement Panel that (and I quote this again):

‘Fundamental to the delivery of their [i.e. ASH’s] proposals will be the cost and funding of both the new build homes and also the refurbishment costs for the estate.’

In answer to this statement, which she puts forward with the absoluteness of all threats, we would like to make clear that the ‘fundamentals’ of our proposal lie somewhere very different. This does not mean our proposal will not address the cost and funding of our proposals. We will. We will even answer the ‘comments’ by the anonymous author or authors, and by members of another architectural practice that are no more than mercenaries employed by the Council to do the dirty work of social cleansing the Central Hill community.

But our proposal is founded on very different values. Before we get on to presenting our design proposals for Central Hill estate, let me say what those values are, as it is these that are, to use Ms Cliffe’s terms, ‘fundamental’ to the delivery of our design proposal, and it is these we advocate to the consideration of the residents of Central Hill estate, those both present and not present on the Resident Engagement Panel.

5. Homes for Lambeth

Savills Map of London

We were not surprised to learn, at the Lambeth Cabinet meeting on 22 March to announce the decision to demolish Cressingham Gardens, that Lambeth Council had called on the technical expertise of the real estate firm Savills in order to set up Homes for Lambeth. But we were surprised to learn, shortly afterwards, that the Chairman of this housing association that would have no employees but farm its functions out to private contractors was to be none other than Councillor Bennett.

I raise this point, not merely to question the conflict of interest in the Cabinet Member for Housing with ultimate responsibility for the demolition and redevelopment of tens of thousands of Lambeth residents’ homes also being chair of the housing association that profits from building their replacements, but to take the opportunity to pose again the question I asked at last Monday’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee into the demolition plans for Cressingham Gardens Estate, a question which has direct relevance to the future of Central Hill Estate residents.

My question, which was never answered, but which I repeated to the Committee Chair several times, and was asked again by Councillor Scott Ainslie who had called the scrutiny meeting, and even by one of Progress’s own members on the committee, was as follows.

On the Lambeth Council’s own website it says that in order to be sold, Homes for Lambeth would require the unanimous vote of the Lambeth Cabinet, the unanimous vote of the Homes for Lambeth Board, and the two-thirds majority of Lambeth Council. Now, since the Cabinet, including its whip and deputy whip, is dominated by members of Progress, the right-wing group within the Labour Party that dominates Labour Councils across London, and is driving its policy of council estate demolition; since the Lambeth Labour 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 whipping given to Councillor Rachel Heywood over her comments on the Council’s cuts to libraries and estate demolition programme; 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 is this:

Beyond the consciences of a Cabinet that has consistently refused to listen to the opinions of residents, 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 a policy of the social cleansing of the borough, and of a Board composed of people who stand to benefit financially from the complete privatisation of Homes for Lambeth – beyond this collection of people who are actively pursuing the privatisation of Lambeth’s public realm, what guarantees do the residents have that Homes for Lambeth won’t be sold?

I ask this not merely out of an interest in the covert business dealings of Lambeth Council, but because of its direct impact on the residents of Central Hill Estate, and the likelihood of them being re-housed in anything like similar or genuinely affordable homes on the land their current council homes currently sit on. And to answer this question, which Lambeth Council have refused to answer, we should consider the role of Savills not only in setting up Homes for Lambeth, but in the demolition of council estates across London.

6. The Role of Savills in Lambeth Council’s Regeneration Programme

Savills Densification

In January of this year, Savills submitted a research report to the Cabinet Office, Completing London’s Streets: How the regeneration and intensification of housing estates could increase London’s supply of homes and benefit residents. In it they estimate that London has around 8,500 hectares of land currently occupied by local authority estates, and containing around 660,000 households. Of these, they recommend that 1,750 hectares be regenerated according to what they call their ‘Complete Streets’ model (above). It is indicative that Savills refers to these homes in terms of the land they occupy rather than the people they house, as the regeneration model they propose is exclusively for the total demolition and redevelopment of existing council estates at higher densities. By their own estimate, however, each hectare of land in local authority housing estates holds 78 homes, making a total of around 136,500 households. They don’t say how many people these figures equate to, but at a rough estimate of three residents per household, Savills’ report recommends the demolition of the homes of over 400,000 Londoners.

The basis of Savills’ report is the assertion that London’s council estates can and should be ‘densified’, a claim we hear repeatedly made by Lambeth Council. On the 136,500 homes they propose demolishing, Savills claim they can build between 54,000 and 360,000 additional homes. The selling point for Savills’ recommendation, and why it is so appealing to Lambeth Council, is their argument that the regeneration of housing estates using the Complete Streets model not only delivers more housing, but also creates what they call ‘value uplift’. Through the implementation of this model, they write, ‘underperforming, undesirable and low value’ locations – terms that will be familiar to residents of Central Hill – will be transformed into ‘actively sought-after, high-performing and higher value’ real estate.

Estate regeneration, under this radical restructuring, will become an active means of gentrification, raising house prices across the wider area according to what Savills calls a ‘multiplier effect’. To this end, the new homes built on the demolished council estates must necessarily be high cost if they are to serve their main function: this is the social cleansing not only of the estate demolished to make way for them, but also of the local community and neighbourhood around the new development. Savills even propose an investigation into whether this multiplier effect might be quantified in what they call a ‘value capture mechanism’, which they consider conducive to implementing estate regeneration on a ‘pan-London’ basis.

Savills go on to argue that such long-term projects must transcend local and national government policy cycles. Since local authorities, they say – and here we must agree with them – lack the leadership and technical skills necessary to manage large-scale regeneration, Savills argues that they will require the help of long-term investors. These will propose options to the local communities, draw up proposals, and then implement them with the backing of government legislation, whose job is to remove ‘policy, legal, fiscal and institutional barriers’ to the emergence of this new market.

In case we haven’t guessed whom they have in mind for this role – to take just four examples: Savills produced the viability assessment on the Heygate Estate redevelopment that convinced Southwark Labour Council to accept that out of the 2,700 new apartments only 79 will be for social rent; Savills were subsequently commissioned by Southwark Labour Council to produce a financial and sustainability analysis to decide the future of the remainder of the borough’s council housing; Savills are currently auditing the financial model for Hackney Labour Council’s regeneration programme which threatens 18 council estates with demolition; and Savills have, of course, been appointed to manage Homes for Lambeth, the Special Purpose Vehicle being set up by Lambeth Labour Council in order to demolish and redevelop 6 council estates, including Central Hill Estate.

If further proof were needed that here are the authors of London’s housing policy, and the architects of the programme of mass estate demolition being pursued by Labour Councils across London, Savills are also advising the London Housing Commission, and the housing policies of our new London Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, whose manifesto promise to build 50,000 new homes a year on demolished council estate land, are based on the figures and proposals in Savills’ report.

This movement of professional estate regenerators between London boroughs is not limited, however, to real estate firm Savills. The Strategic Director of Regeneration in the Borough of Lambeth, Sue Foster, one of five Lambeth officers on a salary in excess of £150,000 (in her case nearly £180,000), has been invited hot from her success in the demolition of Hackney’s estates to oversee Lambeth’s demolition of its own council housing stock. And she has brought with her Neil Vokes, Lambeth’s Assistant Director of Housing Regeneration, who sits with us here this evening on the Resident Engagement Panel. Although we do not have the exact details of Mr. Vokes’ salary, I would guess that Mr. Vokes is one of the 32 Lambeth Council officers earning over £100,000. Clearly, like Councillor Bennett, he has a lot at stake in seeing that Savills’ demolition plans are carried out under the guise of regeneration. But since his time is clearly so valuable, I will come to my question, which I pose not to him but to the residents on the Residents Engagement Panel.

Given the nature of Savills plans, what is the likelihood that Homes for Lambeth, a housing association that is being set up by Savills, will not be designed to pursue this aggressive policy of the demolition of council estates and their redevelopment as upmarket homes far beyond the means of the current residents? Because unless Councillor Bennett’s skills as a property developer are considerably greater than those as an architectural critic, it is Savills, and not Lambeth Council, that will be running Homes for Lambeth. Or, indeed, what is the likelihood that Homes for Lambeth will not be sold to one of the existing large housing associations – Peabody, Notting Hill Housing or London and Quadrant seem to be the favourites of other Labour Councils – and that the replacement homes that have been promised by Lambeth Council to residents, tenants and leaseholders alike, will never materialise?

To answer this, I draw your attention to the instance of Lambeth’s current promises – promises not guarantees – to residents of Knights Walk, a part of Cotton Gardens Estate, which is being partially demolished to make way for new homes. Having consistently promised to make 50 per cent of the new homes for social rent as late as two weeks before the final recommendation to Cabinet in October 2015, that final decision saw the promise quietly reduced to 40 per cent. And even these figures, they make clear in their proposal, are only ‘indicative’, and subject to what the council calls ‘further detailed analysis’.

Let me repeat: this reduction in homes for social rent by 10 per cent occurred between the final consultation with Knight’s Walk residents and the Council’s final recommendation to Cabinet. What chance is there that whatever half-promises that same Cabinet makes to Central Hill residents now will be honoured in the ten years’ time it takes to compulsory purchase leaseholders, evict tenants, decant them to temporary accommodation, demolish their homes, build the new developments, and then re-house them on the new Homes for Lambeth housing association development in what we can already hear being marketed as ‘a vibrant new community in leafy Crystal Palace with unparalleled views of London and quick and easy transport connections to the City?’

Or, will residents find themselves socially cleansed from yet another up-and-coming neighbourhood of London according to the ‘value-capture mechanism’ Savills have so accurately anticipated the benefits of in actively gentrifying an area, through driving up the house prices beyond the reach of the local community, let alone the residents whose homes have been demolished to make way for them?

This is the context in which Architects for Social Housing makes it design proposals: not as one among several regeneration schemes, not even as the only refurbishment scheme among plans for demolition; but as the only proposal that will keep the existing Central Hill community intact and in control of their own lives. The alternatives are designed to do one thing: get residents out of their homes, with the only ‘Right to Return’ that of their financial ability to afford the deliberately increased prices of the luxury developments that will be built in their place.

Conclusion

Much has been made by Labour Councils of the recently passed Government’s Housing and Planning Act, on which they have been quick to blame the social cleansing of council estates they have in fact being pursuing independently for the past two decades. At the Cressingham Gardens Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Councillor Bennett said that under the Act’s new legislation secure tenancies will no longer exist, and that Lambeth Council, by offering residents what they call ‘assured life-time tenancies’, are taking the best option to counter this attack by Central Government on council housing.

This is a lie. Under the new legislation, secure Council tenancies will not be passed onto children, as they once were, and new council tenancies will only be for between 2-5 years. But existing secure council tenancies remain just that: secure tenancies. They are residents’ last line of defence against eviction from their homes. That is why Labour Councils everywhere are so threatened by the obstacle they present to their redevelopment plans. Unlike the assured tenancies they offer, from which residents can be evicted on as little as 8 weeks late rent, secure tenancies require the reasonable judgement and discretion of a court in order to evict the tenant, and the onus is on the Council to argue why they should be evicted. None of that has changed.

If residents give that security up, it is highly unlikely they will ever return to the estate in the ten years time it will take to build their replacements. The offers residents have received from Lambeth Council to ‘bid’ for a home within the borough will soon become a compulsory offer to accept temporary accommodation outside the borough. In the three years up to April 2015, nearly 50,000 London families were moved by councils, and mostly Labour Councils, outside their borough, some to outer boroughs, some outside the capital altogether. At the moment, this is a policy used by Labour Councils on people in temporary accommodation or who become homeless. But that is exactly what residents will become when they give up their existing secure tenancies for the empty promises of an utterly unscrupulous council that has demonstrated at every turn, every meeting, every consultation, every review and every decision that it is not to be trusted.

Their figures for Central Hill Estate have not yet been made available, but Lambeth have revealed that rents on the new developments at Cressingham Gardens Estate will be between 10 per cent for 4-bedroom homes and 25 per cent for 2-bedroom homes over current rates. The new homes to which leaseholders have a Right to Return will start at around £435,000 for a 1-bedroom flat, going up to £860,000 for a 4-bedroom flat, with the compensation they are likely to receive from their current homes around £250,000 for a 1-bedroom home going up to £470,000 for a 4 bedroom home. The sums may be higher in Brixton than they are in Crystal Palace, but the relation between them is indicative of what will be on offer. In effect, Lambeth Council will be almost doubling house prices on Central Hill Estate.

Homeowners now will have to come up with 60 per cent of the equity on the new Homes for Lambeth developments, or share equity with their new landlords, whomever that may be by the time the new developments are built. Secure tenants now, as Councillor Bennett indicated last week, will be offered the solace of housing benefit . . . This shambles is what Lambeth are promising residents now. And there is nothing, beside the opinions and consciences of the Council and its Cabinet, to stop them changing those promises in the future.

In conclusion, we remind the council officers on the Resident Engagement Panel that Lambeth Council’s commitment to the residents of the council estates that voted them to office must be measured in different terms to those used by a property developer or housing association; they must be different to those used by Ms Cliffe when she talks about the cost of the new build homes in ASH’s designs and the cost of refurbishing the homes the Council has neglected for so long, but characteristically makes no mention whatsoever of the cost, both financial and psychological, to the people who live in the homes Lambeth proposes demolishing.

We urge the Resident Engagement Council and the residents of Central Hill Estate to adopt and support ASH’s plans for the infill, refurbishment and genuine regeneration of their estate, and the continued existence of the Central Hill community it is home to. Against the greed and lies of those who seek to destroy it for their own political and financial gain, long may it flourish.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

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.

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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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Community Consultation: The future of Central Hill estate

Exhibition Poster

On Saturday, 20 February, from 2-5pm, Architects for Social Housing presented their architectural proposals for the continuation and future of Central Hill estate at an exhibition and meeting held at Christ Church hall, Gipsy Hill.

The Save Central Hill Community campaign has been fighting since February 2015 to save their estate and the community it houses. ASH were invited to join them last June, since when we have been holding design workshops with residents and asking what they want for the estate. Residents have voted overwhelmingly against demolition and for refurbishment, and in response we have come up with design proposals that will save the estate from Lambeth Council’s bulldozers.

At the invitation of the Residents Engagement Panel, and as guests of the vicar of Christ Church who generously offered the church hall for our use, ASH exhibited its architectural proposals at a public event open to all. Our designs propose alternatives to demolition, with infill and build-over options that will increase the housing capacity of the estate by up to 250 homes, generate the funds to refurbish the existing 456 homes, and (most importantly) keep the existing community together.

Presentations were given by the Chair of the Central Hill Tenants and Residents Association and members of ASH, the contents of which can be found in posts on this website, including the full architectural proposals. Afterwards, the meeting opened to heated discussion from the floor that lasted for over an hour. Finally, residents and community members were asked to write down their comments and opinions about the proposals and stick them on the design boards.

The meeting was attended by over a hundred residents of Central Hill estate, as well as members of the Crystal Palace Community, supporters from Cressingham Gardens and other Lambeth estates threatened with demolition, journalists and a film-crew making a documentary about estate regeneration in London. Not one of Lambeth’s 63 Councillors attended.

The future of Central Hill estate lies in the hands of its residents, not in those of Lambeth Council. Please join us. 

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Photographs by Leonie Weber, Geraldine Dening and ©L.G.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home: Pin it Down!

ASH consultation workshop at the launch event of The People’s Plan, feasibility study for refurbishment and additional buildings for West Kensington & Gibbs Green estates, as part of their application for the Right to Transfer.

Residents were grouped into the building type they lived in, high-rise, 4-5 storey blocks, terrace houses, etc, and its location on the estates, plus, where appropriate, with a translator, and asked to talk about what they did and didn’t like about where they lived and why, their thoughts about the estate in general, problems they wanted addressing (access, safety, rubbish disposal, maintenance), plus opportunities for new developments (where new homes might be built, community halls restored, play areas recovered).

Facilitators from ASH and West Ken & Gibbs Green Community Homes were at each table to chair the discussion and record comments. Residents were encouraged to write their views down on tags: Red for problems, Blue for things they like, and Green for solutions, and to pin them on the accompanying map of the estate.

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Knights Walk Public Consultation: Alternative Proposals

ASH’s latest proposals for Knights Walk, in collaboration with If-Untitled, were presented at a public consultation meeting in the Cinema museum off Renfrew Road on 22 September, 2015. Audience included residents, neighbours, Matthew Bennett (Lambeth’s cabinet member for Housing) and Neil Volkes (Lambeth Head of Regeneration) as well as the usual suspects of Leslie Johnson and Joanne Simpson from Lambeth, Doug from MAE, and Naomi from Soundings.

Following MAE’s presentation of their proposals (from partial infill to full demolition) we presented our two latest infill and build over proposals, both of which retain ALL the existing homes, with the addition of an extra 39 no 3 bed homes (30 of which sit on top of the existing bunglows), and a further 35-45 new homes in two buildings on Renfrew Road and Kennington Lane respectively (options A and B). A total of around 80 new homes.

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Not having to rebuild the existing 33 homes (which are in perfectly good condition, and fantastic designs) – at approximately £150,000 each (say)- comes to a saving of around £5m. If Lambeth are obliged to buy out the current freeholders, this could add a further £3-4m, resulting in a saving of a whopping £8-9m which could be used to fund the construction of over 50 council homes elsewhere – or could enable the construction of a much greater percentage of council rent homes on this site (or pay for the refurbishment of the whole of Cressingham Gardens!)

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Lambeth are currently exploring these options alongside those proposed by MAE. Their investigation over the next few weeks will include costs and structural investigations, which will enable the proposals to be evaluated by the Cabinet in November. We are hoping to obtain our own structural advice over the next week (if possible) because we are determined to get a really clever (and simple) structural solution. It is a slightly more complex condition (and potentially more expensive in some places – but not necessarily throughout), but its certainly achievable (and, due to the savings through non demolition – potentially genuinely viable).

If anyone is in the Kennington area on thursday, the exhibition will be up in the community hall at Cotton Gardens Estate, and all comments on the various schemes much appreciated!

There will be a final presentation on 13th October by Lambeth of the outcomes of their investigations, followed by their recommendation to Cabinet in November

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