The Regeneration Game

The Mayor of London wants the UK capital to be a sanctuary from intolerance and cruelty in an increasingly fragmented world. But rampant regeneration means that soon the city will offer refuge to no-one.

Words Matt Ponsford
Illustration Aleksandar Savić

Victoria Briden can open the front door of her two-bed at on the tenth floor of the Taplow building in South London, and look on the city spread out below in endless constellations of lights. She points north to the Thames through midwinter fog. There, at the top of the thin silhouette of the Shard, a silver beam shines skyward, and bulbs twinkle along the Victoria Embankment.

This view is one reason Briden knows her days here are numbered. After a gruelling fight spanning almost two decades, the government-backed “regeneration” industry — which has extracted tens of billions of pounds from London’s housing crisis — is close to acquiring her home by force.

The Aylesbury Estate, cluster of housing blocks that surrounds her home is already partly emptied. There are plans in place for a £1.5 billion development — the brainchild of Southwark Council, in partnership with Barratt Homes and the Notting Hill Trust housing association — that will demolish and replace the estate, provided the council can get residents out.

This morning, a letter arrived in Briden’s mailbox from a London court saying her local community had halted the capital’s regeneration machine in its tracks — for now.

“London is Open,” Sadiq Khan’s new tagline for the city, is crafted to sound like a positive riposte to the insular and cruel politics currently garnering support across Europe. Launched in July, in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Khan announced that London will remain a sanctuary for its multicultural population and foreign nationals, one million of whom already live here. Horizons will remain in nite and discrimination will not be tolerated.

But London’s hyper-inflated housing market means that, for most, entry to the capital is already barred. Rents here now top £1,800 a month and lax laws allow private landlords to crank them higher with little notice. Those that do get in learn quickly that London’s eagerness to welcome capital trumps its desire to welcome people, and guarantees that life will remain on a knife edge from here on.

A new set of guidelines, drawn up by the Labour mayor last autumn and currently undergoing a three-month public consultation, attempt to provide protection for Londoners like Briden who have built communities on public housing estates across the city, dozens of which are in the grips of urban renewal. The guidelines place high requirements on London’s cash-strapped boroughs, demanding that they consult existing residents throughout regeneration projects and guarantee that new developments will contain as many homes at below-market social rent as the ones they replace.

“London’s eagerness to welcome capital trumps its desire to welcome people, and guarantees that life will remain on a knife edge.”

Yet Khan’s pledges to defend the right of estate residents to remain in their communities, made on the election trail last spring, have already begun to seem transparent. Loretta Lees, professor of human geography at the University of Leicester and a leading expert on the Aylesbury’s regeneration, says that Khan has reneged on a crucial promise — specifically, the one that gave estate residents a vote that could definitively veto demolition.

Built in the 1960s and ’70s, The Aylesbury Estate was Europe’s largest public housing project, with 2,700 homes. By 2005 tabloid newspapers called it “Hell’s waiting room” for its supposed squalor and crime. Residents say its portrayal as a “sink estate” was always journalistic fiction, masking a good home and supportive community, albeit one that suffered neglect.

Briden runs quickly through her 16-year fight to keep her apartment: from Tony Blair’s impromptu speech, delivered here on the estate after winning the 1997 election — complete with promises to invest in the UK’s “forgotten people” — to Southwark Council’s first attempt to turn over the property to private management in 2000, and subsequent efforts (with no vote offered) to demolish the whole thing.

The Labour Party-run council argues that complete rebuilding is the only way to confront London’s chronic housing shortage, that the development will bring jobs and provide new affordable homes. They freely admit the new homes will cost more than those awaiting bulldozing.

More than 200 residents who own their homes have been offered equity in the new apartments, but only three have taken this offer. Most were offered less than £200,000 for their houses, while similar flats nearby cost more than double. For years, public interest arguments for estate clearances have largely been successful in overcoming the rights of individual residents to remain in their property, forcing them to sell their homes to the council by Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO).

But the letter received by Briden said that a court had backed the UK Secretary of State’s decision, made last September, to block the council’s CPO for the homes of eight of Briden’s neighbours — a huge setback for the council that surprised even optimistic rebels. The council is now appealing to have the decision reviewed in the UK’s high court.

Never forget: each regeneration project is a direct battle of attrition between Londoners and council, says Jerry Flynn, a campaigner with the 35% Campaign for affordable housing, and a friend of Briden. Flynn says he learned hard lessons as a resident of the Aylesbury’s neighbour, the Heygate estate, which was bulldozed in 2011, displacing the majority of residents to the peripheries of London and beyond.

It’s one thing, he says, to subject residents to asymmetric legal battles where the council and new owners line up together — backed up by famous QCs and countless millions of pounds behind them — against some of the city’s poorest residents. But outside the courtroom, things are worse. At the Aylesbury, residents who have fought eviction have complained of broken lifts, days without gas or electricity, finding stairwells suddenly bricked up, and new security fences erected around their tower blocks.

In 2015 one resident, Beverley Robinson, stopped receiving mail; she soon discovered her postcode had been deleted from the UK’s central database of addresses. Then her bank account froze and maintenance men couldn’t find her home. For months she was wiped clean off the map.

Flynn points out that a significant proportion of residents facing eviction are members of the last generation of migrants, arriving in the mid-to-late 20th century, to be promised economic opportunity and a safe home in London. Residents hope we could soon be seeing a new era, backed by Khan, where they would be integrally involved in shaping regeneration.

They want the Mayor to make good on a pledge that demolition should be a means of last resort, only to be used when residents’ preferred options of refurbishment or “in-filling” houses have been ruled out.

Briden doesn’t fear the bulldozers, saying that when it comes her time to face them, she would still accept demolition. She’d prefer to stay but would have no issue with moving out of her home, on the condition that the council built her a replacement at she could afford. What does bother her is Southwark Council’s inability to talk straight about what brought the developers here — the location, the park on her doorstep, the view.

She wants them to admit that in a changing, growing London the land below her feet has become very valuable, and developers can make a lot of money by getting residents out and building homes for a new class of people.

In a special paper, London’s Housing Crisis and its Activisms, published last year, senior London urbanism professors Paul Watt and Anna Minton filter Londoners’ experiences of the housing crisis. They range from the mild to the life-threatening, depending where one stands in relation to the hierarchical configurations of class, race and to some extent gender, with generation also playing a role.

In the townhouses of middle class city squares it is felt in hiked payments for ‘mortgage slave’ homeowners, following property price jumps of 518 percent since 1996. It’s worse in damp, dangerous and overcrowded flats — and London’s now-notorious make-shift “beds in sheds” — where private landlords gouge students and families for outsize shares of their incomes while offering no long-term security.

In this mix, estate residents are among the most precarious. Yet all those fighting less brutal battles for shelter have reasons to look to the estates, and have a stake in both the resistance of residents like Briden and the strength of Khan’s guidelines.

Faced with a housing crisis and a state that proposes no solutions, all Londoners have so far been ill-prepared. The city has lagged far behind the kind of complex, well-informed resistance built up over decades in cities like New York. But veterans of the estates regeneration battles are leading in making up the gap.

“The people who are getting involved in trying to fight this are really the everyday people who did not have the skills and the savvy that the council have,” says Lees. “But they’ve slowly developed them, and they’ve got other people on board to help them — it’s a real David and Goliath story.”

In the battle to create a “right to the city” — a catch-all for the right to a secure and dignified life and a voice in how it changes — estate residents are winning the first victories. The eight Aylesbury leaseholders have forced a decision that raises the weight given to residents’ expectations that they will be able to remain in their community. While this falls short of an anything like a “right to a community,” it will clearly be a significant factor in future CPO decisions, say lawyers Herbert Smith Freehils.

“The end result of regeneration can no longer be the rapid destruction of social housing, and “London is Open” cannot continue to exclude those increasingly priced out of the market.”

Across the capital, estate demolitions continue. On the same day that Aylesbury leaseholders received their stay of execution, residents of Cressingham Gardens, a leafy estate in neighbouring borough Lambeth, learned their homes would be demolished.

A report last year by the London Assembly Housing Committee found that in the 50 estates subjected to regeneration in the past decade, the total number of homes has almost doubled to 60,000, but there has been a net loss of some 8,300 homes rented at below-market social rates. As an estate resident, each regeneration is a direct threat.

The end result of regeneration can no longer be the rapid destruction of social housing, and “London is Open” cannot continue to exclude those increasingly priced out of the market. While guidelines will not reverse the legislation and funding cuts that prevent councils building housing themselves, they can end decades-long process of “state-led gentrification” by which councils have willingly been agents of destruction.

In the short term, Khan can send a clear message that London’s housing problems have not been caused by immigration, but by the UK’s labyrinthine housing laws that empower developers at the people’s expense. With his guidelines, he can begin the longer process of changing this system and make it ready to welcome the next generation of Londoners.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s fourth issue: Power.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency.




Issue four of Weapons of Reason dives into a topic as old as humanity itself: Power. Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All design agency in London.

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