Lambeth Council are planning to regenerate the Central Hill Estate in Gipsy Hill. Though it’s outside the area I’m standing for, I’ve got involved to help the residents out.For this, I came under fire from the Labour Cabinet member, Cllr Matthew Bennett, and the leader of the council, Cllr Lib Peck. They took to Twitter to misrepresent our position with cheap shots, and Matthew then turned on me to accuse me of cynical scaremongering for electoral reasons.
In response, I have sent him this lengthy letter:
Dear Cllr Bennett,
Please excuse the long letter, but I wanted to follow up our Twitter exchange with a proper explanation of my position, and that of the Green Party, with respect to the Central Hill Estate.
Contrary to the misrepresentation in Cllr Peck’s original tweet, the Green Party wants to see more council homes built in Lambeth, as you do. In fact, we will shortly publish our General Election manifesto with a commitment to lift your borrowing cap, and to quadruple the affordable housing budget to enable councils, housing associations and co-operatives to provide half a million new social rented homes over the next Parliament.
We also support, in principle, the idea of building some of those new council homes on existing council estates, by whatever mix of approaches is supported by residents: infill, building additional stories on existing blocks and demolition and rebuild.
No. Our criticism is of your approach towards estate regeneration, which I shall explain more fully later in this letter.
Your attacks on my involvement with the Central Hill Estate
I want to explain our involvement in the Central Hill Estate, following your series of surprisingly aggressive and rude tweets in which you accused me of “playing the blushing innocent”, “scaremongering on central hill in a cynical election ploy” and “scaring people with lies”.
If you were to speak to many of the community campaigners and leaders in Crystal Palace and Gipsy Hill, and indeed to some of your Labour Party colleagues who have been involved with the Crystal Palace Park saga, I doubt you would find anybody who would describe me as cynical and electioneering. I was offended by your accusations.
I got involved with the Central Hill residents – who, I should like to note, do not live in the constituency that I am standing in – in order to offer them some advice and support, given that I have extensive experience of estate regeneration. In my initial meeting with residents, and again at their open meeting on the 21st, I:
- suggested there was clear potential to build new homes on the estate, particularly with infill and adding extra stories to buildings if they were structurally sound, and that they shouldn’t take a NIMBY posture but seek to find a solution that met your desire to build new homes there
- said they had good reason to be wary of your council’s promises, given the lack of trust held by other residents who have experienced estate regeneration both within your borough and further afield, and that they should engage in your process with their eyes open
- pointed them towards work done by the London Assembly, UCL Engineering and the Just Space Network on estate regeneration, and to your own Strategic Delivery Approach to your Estate Regeneration Programme agreed in October 2012, to assist them in better understanding what might happen, engage with and try to improve your process
The purpose of the meeting the residents organised on the 21st, and I believe of their leaflets and Facebook discussions, is not to scaremonger and lie. They organised it, with support from the wider community, in order to tell residents what was happening, to share information, to share skills, and to support each other. I hope you will seek to support that, instead of attacking them.
We have no involvement with the ‘Save Central Hill’ group – which is comprised entirely of estate residents – except to support them where possible.
Our criticism of your approach
I want to explain our criticism of your approach to the Central Hill Estate.
In the aforementioned Strategic Delivery Approach to your Estate Regeneration Programme, agreed in October 2012, Lambeth Council promised that “residents would be at the heart of any regeneration proposals”. If that were the case, why had the process up to last winter excluded most residents?
This is the first of many respects in which believe you have fallen far short of the very welcome aspiration of that document. It also stated:
“It is imperative that the Council develops this programme with the residents and that they own the objectives of the programme.”
To date, the objectives are being decided by the council without any meaningful involvement of residents. The objectives are being decided by you, and you have never engaged in a process that could meaningfully obtain consensus from the residents about their objectives, let alone one that would give them ownership.
The process by which you selected this and other estates for regeneration was highly unsatisfactory, based on subjective and misleading judgements about estates. It also has raised understandable suspicions that it is the capital value of the land which has driven this process. Using that capital value is not necessarily a bad thing, if explained openly and honestly, and if it gains the support and confidence of the residents.
These suspicions were strengthened by the way in which you and the architects have depicted the estate. Tweets scaremongering about crime and portraying it as a failed community or sink estate; display boards with a wholly one-sided story about problems, many of which relate to bad management rather than inherent flaws. These have upset residents, and undermined trust in your motives and intentions. I hope you will ask them to delete that tweet of the supposedly unsafe walkway, and apologise for it.
Your approach also promised that,
“The way in which these discussions on regeneration are taken forward will be designed, developed and implemented in partnership with the residents.”
“For each project a structure will be agreed with the residents as to how information is shared and how decisions are made.”
“The Council would also consider coproducing formal guidance where significant estate renewal schemes are proposed.”
These promises could be a model of best practice, but the process you have followed to date ignores all three. The process is owned, designed and implemented by you, and until recently the timetable and process wasn’t even made clear to the residents.
I should like you to return to this coproduction approach, helping the residents to work in partnership with you and council officers on all aspects of this process and the substantive work to be carried out. Determine, together, what the objectives should be, what information is needed to inform a decision, and how that decision should be made.
“Residents will be given the necessary support so they can develop the skills to work effectively with consultants in producing regeneration proposals for their neighbourhoods… this will involve visits to regeneration estates elsewhere in the borough and in London, as well as training and other opportunities”.
“The Council will provide support, advice and guidance as well as resources to properly investigate all of the regeneration and renewal options.”
These pledges are crucial. If residents are to own the objectives and coproduce the formal guidance, they really need support and training to become much more skilled.
The second of those pledges goes beyond training and skills, also offering the resources of the council to develop different options. So if the residents decided they wanted to explore an option involving refurbishment financed by infill, income from solar panels and a bid to UK or European funds for innovative retrofit approaches, the council should put some money behind working that idea up.
“The Council will also support the residents in engaging with key local stakeholders and residents in the wider area.”
This comes back to my involvement, and that of other community activists and groups. Residents weren’t even properly informed of the plans, let alone supported to engage with the police, housing professionals, local community leaders, people who walk through the estate and others who leave nearby.
Your failure to make good on this promise has left a vacuum, which we have all stepped into. The residents have been grateful for this help, and your reaction was to brand us as cynical and scaremongering.
Your failure to provide clear, robust information from the start of this process has left residents anxious and distrustful; that wasn’t my doing.
A time for trust
In his account of the Cressingham Gardens story, which was very sympathetic to your point of view, the journalist Dave Hill concluded that “homes are not the only things that need building… trust needs building too.”
Estate regeneration has a very bad recent history in London, and your residents won’t need to look far to find a long list of broken promises, lost homes and angry protests. They were then confronted with an opaque, unclear process, and with scaremongering tweets and consultations that misrepresented their views. So it is understandable that residents would be fearful, and wouldn’t accept your reassurances at face value.
If you haven’t already done so, you should carefully read the London Assembly Housing Committee’s report, Knock It Down or Do It Up?, published in February, with the full support of the Labour Group on the Assembly (along with the Green Party committee chair, and Lib Dem and Conservative members). I shan’t summarise its entire contents here, but there are three points I’ll highlight that are relevant to your approach to the Central Hill Estate regeneration:
It is all too common for consultation to be token, for information to be withheld, and for assumptions and constraints to be covered up, all the while the provider claiming it is an open and engaging process;
The residents’ needs, their “lived experience” of the process, and the wider social and psychological implications of regeneration are almost never properly considered, and are often trampled over for the greater good of more housing or some other objective of the housing provider;
Environmental considerations such as the lifecycle carbon impacts of different options are likewise rarely considered, (and going by my conversation with an architect on Saturday there are no plans to do so with this scheme).
I would have liked to talk to you about these points on Saturday 28th, but I couldn’t stay at the meeting for long and I didn’t want to interrupt your discussing the compulsory purchase process with leaseholders. I would be happy to talk about this more thoroughly at a future consultation event.
In summary, please re-read your Strategic Delivery Approach, review the London Assembly’s principles for best practice, and start again with the Central Hill Estate.