Should councils use estate ballots to decide on regeneration projects? Richard Watts and Heidi Alexander debate
This country needs to build a lot more homes. Many of these are inevitably going to have to be built on public land, some of which will already have housing on it.
However, building new homes, and especially the dreaded words ‘estate regeneration’, has become a toxic issue. In this atmosphere it has become very hard to have constructive conversations with residents about how building new homes can, if done right, improve their lives while solving the housing crisis.
Blunt instrument it may be, but securing residents’ permission to demolish their homes through a ballot breaks through the current logjam and can help increase the numbers of new genuinely affordable homes being built.
There is no reason why the need to hold ballots will slow down much needed good developments. After all, ballots were necessary to secure Government funding to re-build estates until 2005 and many were won.
I agree ballots cannot be allowed to become a way for nimbys to block much needed new homes, so I strongly welcome Sadiq Khan’s proposal to extend the franchise to people on the housing waiting list in the area being consulted. If possible, I would go even further and give a vote to all those on the waiting list in the affected council ward. This would give a voice to the often voiceless, increase the chances of good developments being supported and incentivise landlords to offer the maximum number of new homes to local people at rents they can afford.
Frankly, if ballots force landlords to focus on how local people will benefit from any change, and engage residents in planning the future of their communities, then so much the better.
I know all Labour councillors approach estate regeneration with the right motivations but, frankly, not all others do. For example, Khan was absolutely right to halt Barnet council’s plan to significantly cut the number of social rented homes on the Grahame Park estate. Schemes like Grahame Park would have seen communities destroyed and lives uprooted. Our estates should never be seen as assets on a balance sheet to be exploited; they are people’s homes and communities.
I have no doubt that the right schemes to re-build estates can improve residents’ lives. I look at the Market and Packington estates in Islington as estate re-builds that really benefitted their local residents. Both projects were approved by a ballot, the need for which forced the council and housing associations to really involve residents in their plans. The result of that resident engagement process was a better scheme.
There can be no doubt that we need private as well as public investment in new homes if we are to solve the housing crisis. But private investment needs stability. Investors say privately to me that the current toxic environment around house building makes planning investment very difficult and they would welcome the clarity a ballot brings. It could actually speed up new house building.
The demolition of people’s homes is a massive step to take. Ballots will, rightly, put the focus on the needs of existing residents and those in housing need. I have no doubt that if the offer to residents is right, then ballots will be successful. Frankly, if the offer to residents is wrong, then perhaps the scheme should never have been suggested in the first place.
Richard Watts is leader of the London borough of Islington. He tweets at @RichardWatts01
Photo: Nigel Cox
‘It’s my forever home.’ Those were the words of one of my constituents to me recently when I visited her in her new two bedroom house on the old Excalibur estate in south-east London.
Eight years ago, in a ballot of local residents, she voted against any redevelopment taking place.
‘I’ll be honest, I was against it happening back then. You know, that bungalow had been my home, but I’ve got to say this is lovely.’
It is easy to characterise the politics of estate regeneration – as we have seen in recent debates about Haringey – as being about social cleansing or private greed versus public need but the reality is a lot more complicated.
How we best use public assets to best address the chronic shortage of housing (of all types and tenures) is an issue that confronts Labour councillors across the country, day in, day out. There are no easy answers.
The principle of asking local residents in a direct vote whether regeneration schemes should proceed undoubtedly has its attractions. Indeed, it is an issue on which our highest profile politicians such as Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn have been outspoken.
But is it all that is cracked up to be? I spent four years of my life navigating the politics of regeneration in inner-city London and I am not so sure.
In the last 15 years, there have been at least six estate regeneration schemes in the London borough of Lewisham – only one involved a direct ballot of residents: Excalibur. It is the project which has taken the longest to deliver.
The ballot happened because of political agitation in support of a minority of residents who were against the demolition of their homes. Those who were against redevelopment favoured an alternative that the council could not justify and did not have the means to deliver – a massive investment in existing homes that were so badly dilapidated that it would have been uneconomic to refurbish.
It was also an opportunity to build additional affordable housing (by utilising public land more efficiently) that the council could not ignore.
The result of the ballot was 56 per cent to 44 per cent in favour of demolition going ahead.
Local politicians were still left with the difficult decision of whether it should proceed. The estate was left divided (public plebiscites on binary issues tend to have that outcome). The scars took many years to heal.
I now fear regeneration schemes which are still much needed in my Lewisham constituency might never happen. Who gets to vote? How do you define an estate? How do you balance the understandable anxiety of those who face the disruption of having to move, with the wider interest of the community? How do you balance the interests of those on the housing waiting list with those who bought under right to buy?
The public elects politicians to make decisions – often difficult decisions which we have to stand or fall on, taking into account the wider considerations that are at play.
So, I say this to those who believe estate ballots are the answer: engage people yes, consult people yes, but ground solutions in the real world and do not automatically give a restricted interest group a veto.
We have a responsibility as Labour politicians to come up with genuine answers – selling unworkable solutions will not address the housing crisis, nor will it help tackle poverty. Labour should think again.
Heidi Alexander is member of parliament for Lewisham East. She tweets at @heidi_mp
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