On Tuesday 24 March 2015, West Kensington and Earl’s Court residents gathered outside the Royal Institute of British Architects. Inside, Labour Peer Lord Adonis was launching a report he had edited: City Villages – More homes, Better Communities, published by think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
In respect of what is suggested for the future of council estates, the tone of this report and the language it uses is disturbing. Communities of people are referred to as “sink estates” and “valuable reservoirs of increasingly scarce land”. Essentially, as Lord Adonis summarises in his introduction, it proposes that London’s council estates should be redeveloped en masse. Supposedly, this would produce a large increase in the number of homes and benefit the communities who live there.
The problem with this approach is that it does not feature the views or aspirations of the people who live on these estates. Nor does it appreciate the damage and dispersal that widespread demolition would cause to communities. Instead, it advocates a largely uncritical analysis of, and solution for council estates that has provoked huge opposition and controversy over the past few years. We are not alone in our concerns about the approach. Since the ‘City Villages’ report was published there has been a chorus of concern from Dave Hill of the Guardian, housing Professor Steve Hilditch, and Inside Housing commentator Jules Birch.
Lord Adonis’ proposal that housing estates should be put together with adjoining development sites to create larger development potential is precisely the approach that was pressed on unwilling council tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham by former Conservative Leader Stephen Greenhalgh. His development dominated policies brought about his downfall as Leader and led to the Borough being won by Labour in 2014.
The IPPR report has an essay promoting the Earl’s Court redevelopment in which Capco Director Gary Yardley refers to West Kensington and Gibbs Green as “the old estates”. Gibbs Green was completed in 1961 and the larger West Kensington in 1974. No mention here that 80% of residents have steadfastly opposed demolition and campaigned instead for community ownership and their own plans to add new homes to the estates. No mention either that the developer is in discussions with the Labour Council about how to honour its manifesto commitment to prevent demolition. Nor, unsurprisingly, any mention of the convictions for bribery and corruption affecting Capco’s development partner. As Steve Hilditch argues in his blog “City Villages or ghettoes for the rich”, creating a “city village of rich people replacing long-standing social tenants with virtually no new social housing is not my idea of progress and has no place in such a report”
Omissions are one thing, but Lord Adonis’ conviction that demolition is right for council tenants’ homes is undermined by a series of factual errors. He claims that no freeholds have transferred from local authority ownership under the “Right to Buy”. This is wrong. A tenant who buys a house rather than a flat gets the freehold. As a consequence, 39 such freeholds exist on the West Kensington estate alone, with hundreds if not thousands more across council estates in London.
More mistakes emerge in Lord Adonis’s praise for the Earl’s Court scheme: “The site assembly at Earls Court is itself a remarkable feat: partly existing White City council estates, partly large redundant Transport for London (TfL) train storage and repair facilities, and partly the site of the decommissioned Earls Court Exhibition Centre.” Wrong estates (White City is a couple of miles away, so it would indeed be a remarkable feat!); far from being redundant, the train storage and maintenance facilities are essential to the Underground network; and the Exhibition Centre was fully functioning until it was shut for the site to be converted to luxury housing by Capco! (This was much opposed by the events industry who are concerned about the serious shortage of events space in London). Lord Adonis’ claim that the Earl’s Court masterplan creates “a large new public park” repeats the developer’s misrepresentation of the pathway between tower blocks that is produced by decking over the West London Line.
Given everything we have learnt about the redevelopment of urban housing over many decades, it is surprising that this report should present a programme which would rely on being imposed from the top down, and that nowhere does it suggest residents should take the lead in determining what is beneficial for their community. The Labour administration in Hammersmith & Fulham has halted any further redevelopments and established a Residents Commission to examine whether stock transfer would be the best way to protect communities and social housing.
It does seem extraordinary that the IPPR report takes insufficient account of the storm of controversy that has swept London in response to the many council estate redevelopment schemes underway. It is strange that Lord Adonis should so uncritically champion the Earl’s Court scheme, given the billions of pounds profit the developer expects to makes from destroying peoples’ homes and jobs. It’s curious that a Labour Peer should side with a Conservative instigated development which a Labour Council is doing its utmost to get out of.