A five year-old girl doesn’t want her house knocked down. “It is sad because it’s a beautiful house,” she writes. “I feel happy with my home. It’s reawlly (sic) nice.” An 80-year-old neighbour feels the same way about his flat. “Leave us alone,” is his message to the Conservative council of Hammersmith and Fulham, conveyed in curved, ballpoint-pen capitals.
The messages go on. “It’s not necessary to demolish my house,” says a girl of 15 in her tiny, neat handwriting. “I like my home because I’ve been here since I was a baby.” A man who looks after his 76-year-old mother, who has dementia, sets out his view in angry ink: “If she was forced to move anywhere else it would kill her. I am her eldest son with power of attorney and will not allow you to kill my mother.”
Two estates in the west London borough are lined up for the wrecking ball: the larger West Kensington and the smaller Gibbs Green next door. Built in the 1960s and 70s and containing 760 houses and flats, they are earmarked by the council for sale to the property firm Capco for £100m. Their demolition would clear much of the way for the redevelopment of 31 hectares of some of the most expensive real estate in Britain. The Earl’s Court project would also see the levelling of the two exhibition centres that share the area’s name.
From the rubble would rise what Hammersmith and Fulham and its adjoining Tory borough Kensington and Chelsea term a “new urban quarter” based on Sir Terry Farrell’s masterplan for “four villages and high street” – a high-rise, high-density, high-value neighbourhood quite different from the one it would replace.
Ten thousand jobs and around 6,500 housing units are promised, the great majority for private sale. The Hammersmith and Fulham council leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, a Tory grassroots hero and “big society” evangelist, has assured tenants on the two estates that they will be rehoused within the redevelopment area, and promised leaseholders compensation.
He told the Guardian the Earl’s Court project was “the best deal in the history of redevelopment in London”, and as part of the formal consultation process has written to residents seeking their views, providing a form to be filled in.
A large number, though, seem unimpressed. Their miniature essays are outpourings of mistrust, dismay and rage.
A 67-year-old, Harold Greatwood, describes himself as “horrified by your mercenary intentions on a peaceful and settled location, the size of a small village. No amount of sycophantic persuasion will permit me to believe you have the welfare of this community at the core of your motives.”
More than 500 of these testimonies have been written and delivered to the council: middle-aged carers call the council’s plan “shameful;” a woman in her 20s complains of “a one-way conversation”; teenagers say they’re “devastated” and “betrayed;” a seven-year-old calls the council “a big bully”. Stop it,” she demands. “It’s not kind.” A residents’ anti-demolition campaign has helped these passionate respondents, some of whom struggle with the written word. “It’s incredibly moving,” says one of the organisers. “These are voices that usually go unheard.”
The prospect of bulldozers moving in has turned this patch of the capital into a political battleground, where bedrock national arguments about regeneration, welfare, localism and tensions over the social and architectural character of London are fiercely crystallised.
Hammersmith and Fulham has been a radical Tory local authority since 2006, when control of it was wrested from Labour. It has sold off buildings, reduced council tax and drawn up an ambitious regeneration programme under the banner term of “decent neighbourhoods”.
Its Labour group’s leader, Stephen Cowan, says the borough has long been a test bed for a range of Conservative polices, “shrinking the state and weakening the rights of individuals who rely on it”, but David Cameron has called it his favourite local authority and the communities secretary Eric Pickles describes it as “the apple of my eye”.
Stephen Greenhalgh has influenced national Conservative policies since before the 2010 general election, heading his party’s “innovation unit” for local authorities.
In a pamphlet co-authored with the chartered surveyor and Conservative London assembly candidate John Moss, he advocated an end to “concentrations of multiple social deprivation” and called for “the extensive deregulation of the social housing sector”, involving a move to “near market rents”.
These proposals now echo through government policies and the rhetoric of Tory ministers, from the introduction of the new “affordable rent” funding model for housing associations to the assertion by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, in the wake of last summer’s riots that concentrations of social housing perpetuate criminality and worklessness.
But Hammersmith’s Labour MP, Andy Slaughter, whose constituency contains the two estates, characterises the council’s regeneration agenda as “an exercise in demographics”.
He cites an article by Greenhalgh and Moss for the ConservativeHome website in 2009 that noted that Commons library figures supplied to Fulham’s Tory MP, Greg Hands, had shown that some target marginal constituencies, including Hammersmith, contained “huge percentages” of social housing.
Slaughter says the council “set out to gerrymander the electorate by reducing the amount of social housing in the borough and increasing the amount of high-value, mainly investment property”, a claim Greenhalgh has always strongly denied.
The fate of the two estates has become an issue in London’s mayoral contest too. Questioned about the Earl’s Court project in 2010, the Tory incumbent, Boris Johnson, described Greenhalgh as “the great man”, and, in a mocking exchange with a Labour opponent, said he’d personally take part “in any act of demolition that leads to the improvement of the estate”.
Johnson has powers to block planning applications of strategic importance or determine them himself if they don’t meet the requirements of his spatial development document, the London plan. Capco’s Earl’s Court proposals underwent revisions after they were judged in breach of 44 London plan policies, including the proportion of “affordable” homes proposed, but the mayor himself has not yet intervened.
Three of Johnson’s challengers at the forthcoming mayoral election – Jenny Jones for the Green party, Labour’s Ken Livingstone and the Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick – have written to Johnson, challenging him to support residents’ calls for a ballot on the future of the estates. The council has consistently refused to put the issue to the vote, claiming that many residents are positive about the scheme and that the anti-demolition campaign is scaremongering. The ultimate goal of the campaigners is for residents to own and run the estates themselves, under new localist powers the government is due to consult on.
Greenhalgh is soon to step down as council leader to steer a pilot community budget in White City, another part of the borough with a lot of social housing. His admirers revere him as one of localism’s pioneers.
But several hundred of his borough’s poorer residents seem to define the concept differently. “What happened to the Conservatives’ big community plan?” asks a woman in her 40s. “I’m very happy in the home I have,” declares another, in her 30s. “I don’t trust the council one bit.”