This week, Labour’s ruling NEC stepped in to stop one London council from undertaking a property deal which could have seen hundreds of council tenants evicted from their homes. Yet meanwhile, a bus ride up the A23 from Croydon, at Brixton Town Hall, another Labour-run authority was pushing through plans to do much the same.
THOR KANDELLS reports
On Monday, Lambeth Council’s cabinet gathered to vote through Homes for Lambeth, the private company it has set up to demolish six estates – Knights Walk, South Lambeth, Fenwick, Westbury, Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens – and build and manage private homes on the cleared sites.
Even the location of the meeting ought to have served as a warning that the council can’t be trusted with construction projects.
This was the first day of full operation in Brixton Town Hall after an 18-month closure for a refit that was supposed to cost £50million but is likely to end up coming in at an eye-watering £150million, or perhaps even more. Which will make it only just a few million more expensive than Croydon’s palace to the pride of local politicians and local authority execs, Fisher’s Folly. Clearly, it is not just Tory-run administrations who are capable of frittering away public cash.In a time of austerity, as the council loves to remind residents when they complain about cuts to services, funds have been found to lavish on Brixton Town Hall, for the finest vintage paint matchers and the most expensive consultants that money can buy.
Yet it’s because Lambeth Council claims that it can’t afford to refurbish its housing estates that it wants to knock them down. And to do that, it says, it needs Homes for Lambeth.
Lambeth residents were ushered through corridors of fine marble and polished brass to the meeting, in which councillor Matthew Bennett would play a central role. Until not so long ago, Bennett worked as a parliamentary assistant to Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North.
The first item on the agenda was for cabinet to agree to the business plan for Homes for Lambeth. In a not-too-transparent corporate structure, Homes for Lambeth is comprised of four companies: HfL Group, the holding company; HfL Build, which will oversee demolition and construction; HfL Homes, which will provide social housing as well as homes “at various levels of sub-market rent and shared ownership homes”; and HfL Living, a private rental housing company operating on the open market which will also rent out shops and offices.
Lib Peck, Lambeth’s council leader and the chair of the meeting, claimed that setting up Homes for Lambeth was necessary to “reduce inequality” within Lambeth – which will be achieved, as one of the residents whose home is lined up for the wrecking ball commented, by driving existing tenants out of the borough and bringing in wealthier tenants and buyers for HfL Living’s new private homes.
It is a model of gentrification, which some regard as social cleansing of entire working class neighbourhoods, and which has been imposed on the housing estates of Southwark, where one-bed flats now sell for £300,000. Reports last year suggested that every new flat built on what used to be the Aylesbury Estate had been snapped up by wealthy foreign investors.
Back at the Brixton meeting, Paul McGlone, the deputy leader with responsibility for “investments and partnerships”, introduced the business plan for year one of Homes for Lambeth. This will see the demolition of the first three estates using £300million loan from central government through the Public Works Loan Board.
“This is not what I would call a business plan,” commented one resident of Cressingham Gardens, who happens to be a financial consultant specialising in due diligence.
“Where is the income? How will you repay the loans? If I’d presented a business plan like this, I’d have been fired on the spot!”
There were other glaring inconsistencies in the number of additional homes at council-level rent that Lambeth is promising after demolition.
The regeneration of Knight’s Walk, South Lambeth and Westbury estates was supposed to deliver 275 such homes, but in the pre-planning applications this has now dropped to 34 – a reduction of 87 per cent.
The resident also criticised the lack of detail in the plan. “Before you sign this off you need to see the full financials and understand all the risks, because this will bring the council down,” she warned.
Rachel Sharpe, Lambeth’s “Director for Strategy and Commissioning Housing” (and, as it happens, a director of Homes for Lambeth, although this was never mentioned in the meeting), gave this worrying response: “Around the financials in the business plan, there is a lot more information that could go into that… But we are fairly sure this is robust.
“There are risks of course, there are always risks… and there is a risk register included in this. I think it would be impossible to produce a business plan that included every single penny that is going in and out the door and includes every element of risk. What we’re trying to do here is produce a business plan that fairly balances the need to have that information up front, accessible for everybody and that balances the risks as well.”
Jed Young, a mere “assistant director” (for neighbourhoods and growth, if you must know), was then invited to provide some assurance that the massive financial risks Lambeth is taking on had been considered. “It’s not possible to be precise,” he began, somewhat unpromisingly, before mumbling so inaudibly and in such a boring manner that even Andrew Travers, the interim chief exec, was incapable of stifling his yawns.
Another resident of Cressingham Gardens spoke movingly about what it feels like to face eviction from a home on an estate that is loved by everyone who lives there, and which is regarded as a model of good design for social housing. “I’m crying inside, not for myself but for my children and others like my children… I’m not angry for myself, I’m angry for the next generation.”
There were sarcastic cheers from the public when Jane Pickard, the cabinet member for families and young people, offered this consolation: “We do understand that people are upset about losing their homes.”
Bennett, the grinning face of Lambeth’s estate regeneration programme until he was moved from housing to business last year, criticised those residents who dared to challenge the demolition of their homes “… as if spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new housing was a negative thing. It’s not only something this administration should be and is hugely proud of, it’s long overdue.”
At this point he was shouted down by angry residents: “It’s not empty land you’re building on, it’s people’s homes!”
As if to justify the demolition programme, another cabinet member, Jackie Meldrum highlighted the appalling conditions that some Lambeth council tenants are living in. She was stopped in her tracks when a member of the public pointed out: “You’re the landlord!”
The Homes for Lambeth business plan was voted through unanimously – just like every other cabinet decision on the path towards demolishing Lambeth’s council estates.
Next on the agenda was the voting through of Homes for Lambeth’s new tenancy agreements. Council tenants will see their existing secure tenancies torn up and replaced by new contracts which Homes for Lambeth claims will “closely mimic council tenancies”.
Lambeth Council likes to call these “assured lifetime tenancies”, but as council tenants in the chamber pointed out, there’s no such thing – by their very nature, assured tenancies offer no lifetime guarantees to tenants. The tenancies were voted through unanimously, as were the leases and shared-ownership leases for future buyers.
“If you’re going to improve housing, you sometimes have to regenerate estates. That is a fact of life,” said Jim Dickson, the cabinet member for communities.
“We’re not the only council doing this, many councils are doing this.”
‘This is a political choice’
“And they’re shit as well!” came the rejoinder, from a member of the public who had no doubt looked at Southwark and Haringey.
But the admission of the night, the admission that this was all being done for dogmatic political reasons, then came from Steve Reed’s former assistant. “Councillor Briggs said we don’t need to set up Homes for Lambeth,” Bennett said. “It’s true to a certain extent in that we’re not being forced to do this. This is a political choice to set up Homes for Lambeth.”
Another of the estates on Bennett’s political hit list is Central Hill, just over the borough boundary from Croydon in Norwood. It has been described by one noted architecture critic as “beautifully designed”. Certainly, the people fortunate enough to live there like it.
One tenant from the estate, a member of Lambeth Council’s resident engagement panel, asked to speak on several occasions. But even though questions were allowed from the floor, she was always blanked by Peck and her cabinet.
The resident’s questions were specific and concerned the accountability of Homes for Lambeth which, as a private company, will not be subject to Freedom of Information requests, as all council business is.
“I wanted to know how Homes for Lambeth will fit in with the existing structure of the council,” she asked from her seat only a few feet from the cabinet members, who carried on talking as if she wasn’t there. Several cabinet members were already on their way home.
So there it is. Homes for Lambeth is up and running and ready to flatten five estates, even though surveys carried out on two of them, Central Hill and Cressingham Gardens, show that approximately 80 per cent of residents oppose demolition. The “right of return” promised to residents by Lambeth Council is meaningless when the increased rents and other charges are likely to be unaffordable to ordinary, local working families.
Leaseholders on these estates may only be able to return if they enter into a shared-ownership agreement with Homes for Lambeth, given that the value of the new flats will be significantly higher than the price at which they bought their homes. That’s if they want to come back anyway: the density of the new-build estates is likely to be three times that of what’s there already, with private gardens and large common spaces replaced by cramped high-rise balconies.
The nature of the estates will change too, as only a minority of them be at “council-level rent” – a phrase devised because there will no longer be any council tenancies. Just how many homes at “council-level rent” won’t be revealed until planning applications are submitted, and by then, it will probably be too late to do much about it.
The setting up of Homes for Lambeth should concern residents in Croydon, where housing firm Brick by Brick is a similarly opaque enterprise. And there’s a common link, too. Jo Negrini, now the £187,000 a year chief exec of Croydon Council, earlier in her Town Hall career was Lambeth’s divisional director of regeneration, and her boss was Lib Peck’s predecessor as leader of Lambeth Council … Steve Reed.
Homes for Lambeth is a direct consequence of Lambeth Council’s Regeneration Delivery Plan, which was headed by Reed, on which Negrini worked and where she was listed as first point of contact.
In 2007, that report highlighted Lambeth’s Unitary Development Plan – on which Negrini also worked alongside Sharpe, now one of Homes for Lambeth’s directors – committing the council to “the best use of Lambeth’s land resources through good design, higher densities and more mixed and intensive development in appropriate locations. The council will seek the provision of at least 20,500 additional homes over the period 2002-2016, including 8,200 affordable dwellings”.
Lambeth Council’s transformation into a private housing developer and landlord has been on the cards for years – what Bennett called “a political decision” – and it was Negrini and Reed who started that process.
Croydon doesn’t really have many larger estates, like inner London boroughs, for Negrini to demolish, destroying the communities that live there. But Brick by Brick is already having a pretty good stab at overdevelopment and undermining the homes of some of its existing council tenants, with its in-fill schemes and by building on grass areas between flats where once the estate’s kids could play.
When it comes to council-housing mismanagement, where Lambeth leads, Croydon is likely to follow.
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