Six steps to restore confidence in housing regeneration: What pragmatic but radical changes from a Labour government could make the difference

I have decided to devote some of my time to talk about the issues I care about and what I learnt from being a Councillor in West Hendon. This is the first in my series of blogs. This time on housing regeneration.

Regeneration of housing estates is a complex business.

Sometimes due to a number of factors many residents are in favour of wholesale regeneration, whilst at other times residents clearly are not. Sometimes regeneration becomes necessary precisely due to the actions or neglect of the local authority.

When I was first elected onto Barnet Council I experienced the closest thing in housing policy terms to a baptism of fire. Within months we had a Public Inquiry taking place into the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) of homes on the West Hendon Estate by Barnet Council, Barratt and Metropolitan Housing Association.

I very quickly became something of an expert on the regeneration of housing estates.

The West Hendon Estate in my mind remains the most outrageous of regeneration projects nationally. Barnet Council wilfully decided to dispose of a council estate without really getting any meaningful social or long term economic benefit from the disposal. It was so Shirley Porter-esqe you really wouldn’t have believed it was possible in the year 2014.

And the Barnet Labour Party learnt strong lessons from the experience. Witnessing the destruction of this community spurred on our decision to hold a Housing Commission which assessed the borough wide housing situation for all tenures and resulted in one of the most comprehensive micro housing reports produced — Home Truths for Barnet. We were ahead of the national Labour Party in our recommendations and many were adopted by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan as part of his draft Housing Strategy.

Working with BBC One we brought the story of the West Hendon Estate to national attention and contributed to the hour long documentary titled ‘The Estate Were In’, which followed residents living on the estate for a year of uncertainty.

Compulsory Purchase Orders & Public Inquiries

For the Public Inquiry, Barnet Council and their development partners had employed a barrister who specialises in regeneration. For the residents we had the heroic resident activist Jasmin Parsons, Dan Knowles who had been representing residents in negotiations over valuations (but taking part in CPO Public Inquiry's is not normally part of the role), a couple of residents and myself.

It became crystal clear to me that the odds are immediately stacked against the residents whose human rights (specifically Protocol 1, Article 1 of the Human Rights Act), are being infringed — CPO cases in their very nature are an acceptance that someone’s legal rights to property are being infringed. The argument that the local authority or council have to make is that the infringement of this human right is both proportionate and for the greater good.

In truth, prior to the West Hendon Estate Public Inquiry I had never stood before any kind of judge to give evidence, let alone prepare complex legal documentation regarding infringements of human rights. None of the residents involved had ever been part of anything like this before.

I knew that it was unlikely that we would win the case, but we had to give it a proper go. The residents elected myself and my colleagues to fight on their behalf and never was there a more important time to try and represent the residents involved.

We had a collection of about 200 families living on the West Hendon Estate who wanted to take part. People who were outraged that their homes were about to be demolished and their chances of being rehoused were limited at best. The majority of them were social tenants — and specifically non-secure tenants.

Now, widespread use of non-secure ‘temporary’ tenancies is a bit of a Barnet specific thing. For basically a decade now Barnet stopped handing out any meaningful secure tenancies — that did change last year but only as a result of intense pressure from the Labour Group on the council and following public scrutiny from the regeneration scandals.

In Barnet anyone placed into housing on any of the regeneration estates over the past ten years has been placed there on one of these non-secure tenancies. With no rights. Little prospect of future rehousing locally and told to wait in limbo until the estates they live on are demolished, before being moved away — most likely outside of London. Barnet Council has systematically used their regeneration estates as clearing houses, putting residents into what they call ‘temporary’ housing arrangements which often and have lasted ten years or longer.

Under the rules of regeneration in Barnet, non-secure residents have no rights.

To fix this basic inequality both in terms of human rights and access to justice, a Labour government should commit to changing CPO law to commit developers to pay the legal costs of residents fighting CPO Public Inquiries.

A Labour government should also commit to allow social tenants to take part in CPO Public Inquiries and add social value of social housing to the criteria in which these cases are judged according to the Planning Inspector.

This one tweak in access to justice would restore confidence to regeneration projects.

Ballots

When the regeneration of the West Hendon Estate was originally proposed, the development partners and Barnet Council ran a non-statutory ballot of residents to seek consent for the scheme. This was originally promised in 2001 by the outgoing Labour-Liberal Democrat administration running Barnet Council and was followed through by the incoming Conservative administration in 2003.

The Pledge from Barnet Council

Barnet Council published what they called ‘Our Pledge to you’ in advance of the ballot they were running.

There were nine pledges made to the residents of the West Hendon Estate — which at the time included secure and non-secure tenants, private renters and leaseholders who bought their homes under right to buy.

Residents took part in the ballot in 2002 and 75% voted in favour of the regeneration based upon the terms of the document.

However, as the years passed and we reached a decade later the development partners and Barnet Council had changed the scheme completely, reneging on most of the pledges and the specifics of the scheme were not recognisable from the original proposal which the ballot was about.

But the ballot was still used as evidence of consultation and approval of residents for the scheme. If the same ballot was run today on the terms of the current scheme, most residents would not vote in favour.

So Labour’s key headline policy on regeneration scheme ballots should be welcomed but it does not go nearly far enough. If ballots of residents are to have any meaning at all then they need to be statutory and any significant changes to any scheme need to be subject to a re-ballot of residents. I told Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan this when they visited West Hendon during the local election campaign to launch the policy on regeneration estate ballots.

£3 sale of the estate

Barnet Council disposed of the land at the West Hendon Estate for £3. Yes. £3. Barnet is not the only council that has done this.

In order for local authorities to dispose of assets at below market valuation they need to seek permission from the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government under section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.

In order to ensure no losses of social housing from regeneration estates, a Labour government should commit to refusing permission to dispose of land on regeneration housing estates below market value unless they can demonstrate that all of the social housing lost on the said estate is either being re-provided like-for-like on the new estate or elsewhere within the borough as part of a stock swap.

Health of those living on regeneration estates

In my final few months as a Councillor I started being approached from a number of young mums, all independent from one another. Each of the mums came to me complaining that their babies or toddlers had begun to experience serious respiratory problems, and in a couple of cases develop asthma at a younger age than the average. Older residents living in a previous phase experienced similar issues with coughs that wouldn’t go away. With one — when they moved into their new build away from the building site the issue slowly went away.

The only things these women had in common apart from being young mums is that they were living yards from the building site on the estate and were now into their third year of living up close to the impact of construction.

Everybody knows that construction and specifically the polluting particles emanating from construction can have serious health impacts. And when developers put in proposals to build schemes they are instructed to show how they mitigate against pollution associated with construction — in the case of West Hendon they do deploy spraying on construction materials to damp down dust, but this cannot stop any spread.

Regeneration schemes are rare and the law around construction seems to take little account of such projects. I have begun to believe that living on a regeneration site, for a sustained and long term period of time must have a serious impact on someone’s health and especially on the health of young children.

There have not been many studies done, and prior to losing I was in contact with a number of academic institutions to begin a project of monitoring the impact of the scheme in West Hendon but it was clear that residents were beginning to get ill.

All I know is that I, someone who owns my own home would not put up with living on a 10 year plus building site next door to my house and I would do everything in my power to protect myself and my family from the health impacts of such a scheme. Very limited work seems to take place to protect social tenants from this same impact.

A Labour Government should commit to commission research into the health impacts of living long term on a building site such as a regeneration estate and take any necessary action under public health powers to keep residents healthy — including making it statutory for developers to provide early moves to the most vulnerable, children and older residents who are more likely to experience health issues from dust.

The proposals to fix regeneration

All of these are easy changes focused on people affected to rebuild confidence in the processes of regeneration. Regeneration is necessary. Sometimes it is the only way financially to increase the supply of new housing and replenish existing housing stock to housing that is fit for the 21st century but it must be done delicately and with the existing residents always kept in focus. If we lose sight of the existing residents, there is little point in pursuing regeneration.

So my six headline suggestions are:

1. Access to a barrister or legal representation for leaseholders paid for by the party pursuing the CPO.

2. Bringing social tenants into the CPO process. CPO is about assessing the lawfulness of an infringement of a human right (property). Whilst social tenants do not own their own homes, they are their homes — and should be treated as such.

3. Block in statute any regeneration scheme that does not replace all social housing — developers will find a way to make it work, especially in the London property market.

4. Tightening up of laws around disposal of land below market value — demonstrate social and economic benefit in equal weighting — including no loss of social homes.

5. Health issues — living next to a building site long term can cause severe respiratory problems especially for children and I have seen it on the West Hendon estate. Vulnerable residents should be offered a move during the building works.

6. Ensure that the balloting of residents is fixed and any significant changes are subject to further consent via a reballot from existing residents affected.