The Castle: Freedom of Information and Commercial Confidentiality at Lambeth Co-operative Council

Lambeth Town Hall

‘Ultimately, I think it’s better to be as transparent and as open as possible, but that does slow things down. But it also means that as we start the consultation residents know that we have looked at all options, that they’ve been robustly tested and scrutinised, and that’s why we can say with confidence that rebuilding is the best option for the residents of Central Hill.’

– Matthew Bennett, Lambeth Cabinet Member for Housing (October 2016)

‘Where estate regeneration takes place there should always be full and transparent consultation. Initial engagement should clearly state any non-viable or undeliverable options which have been discounted and why, and these decisions should be open to scrutiny by residents and other stakeholders.’

– Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London (December 2016)

‘When councils come forward with proposals for regeneration, we will put down two markers based on one simple principle: regeneration under a Labour government will be for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators.’

– Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party (September 2017)

In May 2016 Architects for Social Housing (ASH) presented its design alternatives to the demolition of Central Hill estate to Lambeth Labour Council. The result of a year’s work in consultation with the estate residents, our alternative proposed building up to 250 additional dwellings on the estate, partly infill development on land identified as free by the estate residents, partly roof extensions on the existing properties, a proportion of which would be for more council housing, a proportion for private rent and sale, and use the proceeds to fund the refurbishment of the existing estate, whose maintenance the council has neglected for years. We had previously exhibited these designs at a meeting attended by over 120 Central Hill estate residents that February, when we had received their full support; and the campaign to save Central Hill from demolition continues to use them in the defence of their homes. Despite this support, the conditions under which we presented our proposal to Lambeth council three months later were hostile at best, with the venue changed at the last moment to a room without projection facilities; the Chair of the Residents Engagement Panel absent without explanation; not a single Lambeth councillor bothering to turn up, including the local ward councillor and Cabinet Member for Housing, Matthew Bennett; and Lambeth’s Assistant Director of Housing Regeneration, Neil Vokes, leaving for an apparently more pressing engagement after only half an hour.

We weren’t in the least suprised, therefore, when the following month Lambeth’s Capital Programme Manager, Fiona Cliffe, the only Lambeth employee to attend our presentation, issued a terse statement on the council website declaring our proposals to be ‘financially unviable’. In the absence of any invitation to respond, or indeed any communication whatsoever from the council, in September 2016 we wrote our own detailed rebuttal of the miscalculated figures, inaccurate assessments, false claims and deliberate misunderstandings on which this descision had been made. High in the list of mysteries of how the financial unviability of our scheme had been arrrived at were the withheld figures on which the calculations had been based that showed every single one of ASH’s site proposals result in a negative Net Present Value, making it impossible, apparently, to build anything at all that didn’t require the demolition of every one of the 456 homes on Central Hill estate. In order to acquire these figures, therefore, we sent Lambeth Labour council a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Little did we suspect that this would begin an exchange of letters that continues to this day, some 15 months later, and which would extend to include the Information Commissioners Office and the London Assembly.

This is the story of Lambeth Labour council’s refusal to supply the information on which their plans to demolish Central Hill estate rests and the excuses they have invented for not doing so, each of which flies in the face of the promises of transparency in estate regeneration made by the London Mayor, the Leader of the Labour Party, and indeed by themselves. Lambeth describes itself as a ‘co-operative council’, and in their brochure congratulating themselves on being the first such council to be so they list among their many examples of co-operative behaviours their commitment to ‘follow up requests for information’. Then again, Lambeth Labour council has recently responded to a People’s Audit that found evidence of ‘extensive financial mismanagement and a systemic lack of financial governance’ by appealing to the Conservative government to restrict public scrutiny of local government finances in the future; so let’s have a look at how the co-operative council has responded to more than a year of FOI requests. Like everything to do with London’s estate demolition programme, its a long story composed of numerous sub-plots, all of which lead to a bureaucratic dead end. Writing it – a task I have put off for many months – increasingly reminded me of The Castle, which I have therefore adopted as a title; and as in Kafka’s great unfinished novel, the longer we have approached our destination, the further away it has got.

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Embodied Carbon Estimation for Central Hill Estate: Report by Model Environments

‘A conservative estimate for the embodied carbon of Central Hill Estate would be around 7,000 tonnes of CO2e, similar emissions to those from heating 600 detached homes for a year using electric heating, or the emissions savings made by the London Mayor’s RE:NEW retrofitting scheme in a year and a quarter. Annual domestic emissions per capita in Lambeth are 1.8 tonnes. The emissions associated with the demolition of Central Hill Estate, therefore, equate to the annual emissions of over 4,000 Lambeth residents.’

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Deliverability of the ASH proposal on Central Hill: ASH response to Lambeth Labour Council

Fiona Cliffe
Capital Programme Manager
24 June 2016

Introduction

‘Following the February 2016 Resident Engagement Panel (REP) meeting the Council has sort to establish a constructive dialogue with Architects for Social Housing (ASH) so their proposals for Central Hill could be considered.’

‘The Council has now had the chance to review the ASH proposal and this report sets out a summary of the Council’s findings.’

Architects for Social Housing undertook to produce an architectural proposal for The Alternative to Demolition of Central Hill estate pro bono publico and with very limited financial resources. Lambeth Labour Council has not provided us with a brief, a housing needs survey, a measured survey of the existing estate, a consultant team, a criteria for deliverables, and of course we have received no payment. Not a single member of Lambeth Council, including the Cabinet Member for Housing and Ward Councillor for Crystal Palace, attended ASH’s formal presentations of our proposals: not when we presented to the Central Hill community in February 2016; nor again when we presented to the Residents Engagement Panel in May. Instead, with the backing of PRP Architects, Lambeth Council dismissed our design proposals even before they were published; and they continue to refuse to answer our Freedom of Information request to see their viability assessments months after it was issued. So Lambeth Labour Council’s ‘dialogue’ with us has been anything but ‘constructive’; on the contrary, it has been unrelentingly negative, dismissive and obstructive. Finally, as further evidence of their unwillingness to engage in ‘constructive dialogue’, Lambeth Labour Council has not invited ASH to discuss the issues they raise in this report, or to present our responses, which we are, therefore, publishing here.

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Criteria for Estate Demolition: ASH response to Lambeth Labour Council

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In October 2012, Lambeth Cabinet agreed the development of a Lambeth Estate Regeneration Programme, according to which any council estates meeting one or more of the following criteria would be eligible for demolition:

1. ‘Where the costs of delivering the Lambeth Housing Standard would be too expensive and would not be good value for money.’

2. ‘Where the Lambeth Housing Standard works would, in themselves, not address the fundamental condition of the homes nor address many of the wider social and economic problems faced by residents.’

3. ‘Where the wider benefits from regeneration would justify the investment. This includes where the existing estate is relatively low-density and where there is an opportunity to create additional much needed new homes.’[1]

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Central Hill: The Alternative to Demolition

The images in this report were presented to the Central Hill estate Residents Engagement Panel on the 17 May, 2016. The proposals also take on board comments from Lambeth Council’s planning department, as well as comments from residents, neighbours and other architects following ASH’s previous exhibition on 20 February, 2016.

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The award winning Central Hill estate is a unique and highly successful piece of architecture and landscaping that is home to an established community, many of whom have lived here since it was built in the early 1970s by LCC architect Rosemary Stjernstedt under Ted Hollamby.

ASH’s proposals illustrate the potential to add around 222 new homes on Central Hill Estate, without demolishing a single home.

The proposals here reinforce the ideology and intentions of the original architecture of the estate, whilst allowing for the full refurbishment of the existing homes and public realm – bringing them up to a ‘decent standard’, and thus addressing any current concerns about their homes voiced by residents.

Lambeth’s arguments for the demolition of the estate do not stand up to scrutiny in any way other than increasing the density and land value of the estate. We believe this alone cannot justify the demolition of the 456 existing homes, and the uprooting of a long-standing community.

This is an initial feasibility study, and there are many possible design solutions to the fundamental proposition that architectural alternatives to demolition exist. What is presented here is an outline proposal to demonstrate the numbers of additional homes that could be gained on the estate.

The scheme has been costed by an independent quantity surveyor, and planning advice has been sought to ensure that all proposals correspond to local and national planning policies. Structural advice has also been sought to establish the feasibility of roof extensions.

If you would like to sign the petition supporting these proposals, see the ASH Petition

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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.

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Central Hill: Design Proposals

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1. Continuation not Demolition

Central Hill is an extremely well-designed estate whose masterplan, drawn up by LCC architect Rosemary Stjernstedt, is a model of community living and estate planning. Completed in the early 1970s, it consists of 456 structurally sound flats that are home to an established and strong community of over 1,000 people.ASH’s proposals aim to respect and continue the existing architecture, both its social vision and design intentions. These include the democratic access of all residents to views over London and the accompanying sunlight, the cleverly designed and well-proportioned interiors, the numerous outdoor and communal spaces, the car-free places where children can play in safety, and the many green ‘fingers’ that run through the estate, linking it to the surrounding neighbourhood of Crystal Palace and its parks. Far than demolishing the estate, ASH believes we should be exporting Central Hill as a model of council housing that can meet London’s housing needs.

The aims of our design proposals are threefold: 1) The continuation and improvement of the existing estate, with an increase in the number of homes; 2) The generation of the funds to pay for its refurbishment; and 3) The continued existence of the community it houses.

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