‘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 surprised, 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 decision had been made. High in the list of mysteries of how the financial unviability of our scheme had been arrived 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.
Continue reading “The Castle: Freedom of Information and Commercial Confidentiality at Lambeth Co-operative Council”