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NEWS ANALYSIS

Will ballots for London’s estates help rebuild trust in regeneration?

Central hill
  • 5 Comments

Architects have often found themselves caught between residents and development teams when trust breaks down on estate regeneration projects. London’s new ballot policy will tip the balance of power in residents’ favour, Ella Jessel reports

‘Architects must work with residents in order to gain their trust,’ Nicola Curtis says from her kitchen on the Central Hill Estate, a 1960s low-rise estate built into a steep slope in south London’s Upper Norwood.

After a six-year battle to stop Lambeth Council demolishing hers and the other 449 homes on the estate, Curtis’s patience with design teams, outline studies and consultations is wearing thin. 

But London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new estate regeneration ballots, brought in last month, could offer a way forward for this and other schemes in the capital. ‘If residents have had a ballot,’ Curtis says, ‘[architects] are going to have a much better relationship with residents and end up with better designs.’

From 18 July, schemes in London that require the demolition of 150 or more council homes (like that at Central Hill in Lambeth) have for the first time required a ‘yes’ vote from residents in order to receive mayoral funding.

Haringey Council’s axing last month of its controversial and widely unpopular housing deal with Lendlease underlines the importance of getting estate regeneration right. The launch of the mayor’s ballot process suggests a change of direction for estate regeneration in the capital that tips the balance of power in residents’ favour.

But will these local referenda create Brexit-style division, or present local authorities and, by extension architects, with a more meaningful form of community engagement? 

The ballot policy was first announced by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last year. Khan subsequently introduced them in London after 88 per cent of respondents to a City Hall consultation backed the move. 

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Central Hill Estate in Lambeth

Central Hill

But ballots have their detractors. Critics say complex regeneration schemes cannot be reduced to a yes/no poll; that ballots can be swayed by outside influences; and that pre-procurement is too early a stage for them to take place. Developers have also argued that they present an extra hurdle in the way of housebuilding.

Estate residents, on the other hand, have hit out at the major ‘loopholes’ in the proposal, including how delays to the policy’s implementation mean a large number of contentious schemes will not get the chance for a long fought-for veto.

Attrition of trust

Prominent architects in the public housing sector have echoed residents’ concerns that the way major estate regeneration projects have proceeded in recent years has resulted in a breakdown in trust.

Kate Macintosh, well-known for her design of 1960s social housing schemes, including the listed Dawson Heights in Dulwich, is backing the ballots. She says: ‘If [regeneration] is well and honestly handled it should result in only the least well-loved and less successful estates coming down. But it is difficult to ensure that outcomes are not distorted by years of neglect of maintenance and promises of something shiny and new.’

Jo McCafferty, of Levitt Bernstein Architects, says the introduction of ballots will allow residents to have a greater voice. She says: ‘There has been a rapid attrition of trust in the benefits of regeneration from a resident’s point of view over the past five to 10 years. Ballots should help recalibrate this relationship between community and landowner or developer and empower residents to set the agenda for development.’

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Cressingham Gardens

Cressingham Gardens

Timing

While architects have broadly welcomed the new policy, they have also raised concerns that the vote will take place before a ‘development partner’ is procured, ‘and/or prior to finalising the precise specification of works’. Most feel this is far too early.

Brendan Kilpatrick, who leads PRP’s London studio, supports ballots but says the mayor’s policy is weak on timing. He says: ‘I can see situations where a successful ballot has occurred on the basis of outline proposals being achieved, which then changes after a procurement of a development partner.’

Other architects with regeneration experience warn about the dangers of ballots becoming a proxy for wider housing debates. Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Andy Beharrell says that, while voting on proposals could provide ‘valuable feedback’ if well conducted, it could also be ‘hijacked by special interest groups, which might not represent the views of the majority: those who want to resist change tend to have louder voices than those who desire change, or at least accept it.’

Sanctum ephemeral by mark aitken tunnel 1

Sanctum ephemeral by mark aitken tunnel 1

Sanctum Ephemeral by Mark Aitken at Cressingham Gardens

Roland Karthaus, of Matter Architecture, says a stock transfer ballot that took place while he was working on the Clapham Park Estate regeneration in Lambeth in 2005 became ‘a focus for national movements against the loss of council housing’.  

He adds: ‘Regardless of the pros and cons of these wider arguments, it created local tensions and divisions.’ 

But other architects disagree. ‘When local authorities say “interest groups or political activists” they usually mean a group of concerned residents who do not want their house to be demolished,’ says Pablo Sendra, an architect and lecturer at The Bartlett, adding that, when genuine co-design is implemented, local authorities stand a better chance of having a positive ballot returned. 

Political tensions

The effectiveness of ballots will be tested over the coming months as a series of major schemes move forward in an already politically charged environment.

Khan provoked fury from Conservative-run Westminster Council by immediately applying his new policy to its Ebury Bridge and Church Walk regeneration schemes, withdrawing £23.5 million in funding unless the council holds a second ballot on its revised proposals. 

But, while some estates have had GLA cash clawed back, critics such as Green Party London Assembly member Sian Berry have accused Khan of ‘rushing through’ funding agreement on 34 estates, involving demolition of 9,000 homes,  since the initial consultation closed in March 2017. 

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Khan has insisted he is ‘encouraging’ all landlords to hold ballots, whether or not the funding condition requires it. In Kingston, the newly elected council cabinet has announced plans to voluntarily hold a binding residents’ ballot for its 2,000-home Cambridge Road scheme.  

Funding for the regeneration of Cressingham Gardens, near Brockwell Park in Lambeth, was signed off in December 2017, but residents say plans are at an early stage and they should still get a vote. They argue that Labour Party divisions have cost them a say on the future of their homes. 

‘We’re in the crossfire of the Labour Party civil war,’ says leaseholder Gerlinde Gniewosz. ‘On the one side, they want ballots; but here in Lambeth they don’t. Sadiq is trying to look like he is following the party line but on the other hand approving [GLA] funding through the system.’ The mayor’s ballot is ‘not worth the paper it’s written on,’ she adds. ‘It’s a joke. Why is he funding the demolition of a community when he knows it has no community support?’ 

Communications breakdown 

The sensitivity of estate regeneration projects poses huge challenges for architects, who often find themselves caught in the middle of sometimes long-running conflicts between landlords and residents.

Roland Karthaus was commissioned by the council to undertake a co-design process with residents on the Cressingham Estate and spent, he says, ‘a great deal of energy’ exploring its complex conditions. ‘Costs and viability were difficult to agree at such an early stage and the lack of sound information meant collaborative design wasn’t achievable in the end,’ he says.

There was controversy, too, on Central Hill after architect PRP, appointed to draw up options for the redevelopment of the estate in 2014, tweeted a photograph of a walkway, asking: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway?’

Lambeth estates campaigner Joanne Parkes says the incident was interpreted by residents as a suggestion that the estate was unsafe and that it ‘reinforced a really tired narrative that doesn’t reflect people’s lives’.

PRP’s Brendan Kirkpatrick says he can not comment on the incident, nor on Central Hill, but adds that there has been strong resident representation on the panel that chose the successful design team. Parkes says architects can regain trust by simply refusing, on principle, to work on estate regeneration projects where residents have been denied a ballot. Gniewosz adds that a good start would be to improve communication and, like the original Cressingham architect Ted Hollamby, ‘think about how people live their lives’. 

‘People come home with the shopping; they don’t want to carry it up a big stairwell. So we have small sets of steps, and kitchens situated next to the front door so you can dump the bags. That’s the level of thinking that went into the design,’ she says.

Architects often visit Cressingham and Central Hill to examine their buildings as interesting examples of 1960s social housing. Gniewosz went to a second-year students’ presentation exploring design ideas for the Cresingham site. 

‘All the students said they had gone in thinking about demolition – but then they got to speak to the people on the estate and all their projects radically changed,’ she recalls.

 

Profile: Cressingham Gardens 

  • Not eligible for ballot
  • Existing homes on estate: 306
  • Proposed homes: 464 +
  • Development management team: Mott MacDonald

Cressingham gardens

Cressingham gardens

Cressingham Gardens, a low-rise 1960s estate that runs along the edge of Brockwell Park in Tulse Hill, has faced demolition since 2012. Designed by Lambeth’s director of architecture Ted Hollamby, the estate comprises 306 homes interspersed around a series of connected walkways.

The estate still has a striking amount of green space, plenty of trees, well-tended patios and grassy expanses that blend seamlessly into the neighbouring park. But residents, well-used to visitors sizing up their communal gardens, rush to point out that their estate ‘meets density targets’ and is home to over 1,000 people. 

Architect Roger Bicknell, 78, designed the estate’s sunken rotunda, a nursery described by The Architectural Review in 1979 as having ‘fairground overtones of merry-go-rounds and bandstands’. Bicknell recalls the council moving people out of overcrowded properties in Brixton to new social housing in the 1960s. Back then, the estate’s ‘gentleness’ and its spaciousness were its strengths. 

Today however, the drive to ease pressure on Lambeth’s 28,000-strong waiting list means its openness works against it. The costs of refurbishment are too high, the council says, and is pushing forward with plans to demolish all 306 homes, and rebuild with a further 252 homes.

Residents argue all that is needed is proper maintenance and new roofs but, despite two judicial reviews and a six-year fight, the council is forging ahead with its plans. With GLA cash signed off in December 2017, calls for a ballot on the demolition of the estate have fallen on deaf ears. 

 

Profile: Central Hill

  • Eligible for ballot
  • Existing homes on estate: 450 
  • Proposed homes: 960 + 
  • Development management team: Mace

Central hill estate

Central hill estate

Central Hill, a meandering bus-ride from Cressingham Gardens up to Gipsy Hill, is another Hollamby-era estate built dramatically into a steeply sloping site near the former Crystal Palace.

Designed by architect and town planner Rosemary Stjernstedt, it was described by Historic England as an early exploration of Le Corbusier’s ‘hill town’ concept in England. It, too, is facing demolition. 

But Central Hill has not yet received GLA funding, meaning the council will have to hold a ballot if it wants mayoral cash to rebuild the estate.

Optimism, however, is thin on the ground among residents, who say the estate is already emptying out. Nicola Curtis lives in one of the top tiers of stepped blocks, her balcony overlooking the tree-covered Gipsy Hill with views of the City of London in the distance. 

‘I’ve got three empties around me. I saw another two tenants with the moving vans go this morning. It adds to our misery and makes us want to leave quicker,’ she says.

The once secure community now feels more transient, says Curtis, a feeling compounded by the council’s decision to fill void properties with homeless households on short-notice lets. As for the ballot, Curtis said she thinks Lambeth will eventually hold one, but only when it’s already too late. 

‘At this rate we’re down to 360 original residents. If they get rid of another 100 in a year, they pretty much know they’ll win,’ she says.

A Lambeth spokesperson said it was considering how to respond best to the mayor’s new ballot rules ‘where a decision to rebuild the estate has already been made’.

Photography by Anthony Coleman, Mark Aitken and Ella Jessel

  • 5 Comments

Readers' comments (5)

  • Don't let's deceive ourselves: this is not about architectural merit and even less about the well-being of estate residents: These people are sitting on real estate gold mines - just look at the settings; on the edge of beautiful parks and overlooking the City of London. How great must be the temptation to maximise investment opportunities (and hence council revenue) by rebuilding these estates at double density and reserve the best locations for private luxury apartments with gorgeous views. The home market may have dried up a bit due to Brexit, but we're told that e.g. Saudi investors still consider London an attractive proposition. I know what I'm talking about, I live on the edge of the Vauxhall, Nine Elms & Battersea Opportunity Area, aka Nine Elms on the Southbank.

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  • The one thing that would/could save them is a community buy-out, but they would need some financial backing from the mayor.

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  • Clare Richards

    When blogging for the LFA last year I visited Cressingham Gardens. Mark Aitken's wonderful photos of some of his neighbours (see the one above) was an act of solidarity in support of his fellow residents as they confronted Lambeth's determination to pull down their well-designed estate and inevitably displace their community. They had done everything in their power, including commissioning their own design and density study, to defend their homes. Don't be misled. The assurances - that residents will be rehoused and that owner-occupiers can buy back in - provide no protection against the destruction of successful communities like this one. Inevitably social rents will be higher in the new development and become unaffordable, while the sums offered to flat-owners will not meet the cost of its replacement. Despite some of the drawbacks I say bring on the ballots. Self-determination is a basic human right and human need; there is a proven correlation between the control people feel they have over their lives and their physical and mental well-being. Established communities must be given a say in their future and we must do all in our power to prevent their careless destruction. Why? Just cross the road from Cressingham Gardens into the Tulse Hill Estate and you will see a very different picture. Here gang violence has instilled fear into the residents (https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/981059/london-news-tulse-hill-stabbing-leander-road-london-knife-crime-met-police). We destroy thriving communities at our peril.

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  • If anyone would like to understand what is happening at Central Hill estate, what the financial, social and environmental costs of its demolition and redevelopment will be for both residents and the council, and what design alternatives to demolition have been developed up to feasibility study stage by us, Architects for Social Housing published a book-length study in April that you can access here:

    https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/central-hill-a-case-study-in-estate-regeneration/

    Anyone interested in reading a breakdown of the numerous failures in the London Mayor's policy on Resident Ballots for Estate Regeneration Projects, which has not been written to empower residents but to manufacture their consent, can read about them here:

    https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/manufacturing-consent-gla-capital-funding-guide-section-8-resident-ballots-for-estate-regeneration-projects/

    And if you want current examples, rather than future speculations, about how this and other GLA policy is funding estate demolition you can read about it in detail here:

    https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/imayor-the-ideology-of-gla-housing-policy-and-the-new-policy-we-need-on-estate-regeneration-2/

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • ASH's design alternative to demolition found room for an additional 242 dwellings through infill and roof extensions without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single resident, increasing the estate's current capacity from 476 homes to 718. This was costed by Robert Martell & Partners at £45 million for construction. With external works and services, professional fees, a 10% contingency sum, and £18.5 million for the refurbishment of the existing stock (a figure provided by Lambeth council) the entire scheme was costed at £84 million, of which £6.5 million has already been provided under the Decent Homes Standard.

    We've been looking at the proposals for the redevelopment of Central Hill estate by PRP. Even though its predicated on the demotion of 456 council homes, the redevelopment costs have been withheld as 'commercially confidential', since Homes for Lambeth, despite being owned by the council, is a private company, and the new estate will be run as a housing association, and therefore not subject to FOI requests.

    However, given the information we have from the Feasibility Report by Airey Miller, the decant costs (compensation for leaseholders, home loss and move payments) on Central Hill are £25.65 million. The demolition costs, which have been silently omitted from the council's estimates, we estimate at £22.8 million. And the reconstruction of the 456 demolished homes alone is £152 million. That's a total cost of over £200 million, two-and-a-half times the cost of the ASH scheme, just to replace what's already there.

    However, to meet the equivalent number of homes in the ASH scheme (718 dwellings) will cost £288.5 million, more than three-and-a-half times the cost of the ASH scheme.

    To meet these astronomical costs, however, the council will have to increase the density of the existing estate by at least 300 percent. The PRP proposal we've seen that is closest to this is for 1,530 dwellings, which will cost in total £558.5 million.

    To produce sufficient profit for the developer, the tenure breakdown for this PRP proposal is as follows:

    320 properties for London Affordable Rent (which in Lambeth in 2017 was £159/week for a 2-bedroom, an increase on the social rent of £135/week for the equivalent)

    100 target rent (nearly double social rent ay £213/week for a 2-bedroom)

    109 shared ownership (which requires a 25% deposit on a £476,000 property, plus £820 month rent)

    246 market rent (£480/week for a 2-bedroom)

    765 market sale (a 2-bedroom property currently estimated at £476,000)

    All of which will be subjected to increased and uncapped service charges by the housing association.

    As anyone can see, this development will do nothing to address the borough's need to build housing its constituents can afford to rent or buy, or reduce its housing waiting list for council homes, which like every other London council it repeatedly sites as the reason for its estate regeneration (sic) programme. They will, however, produce considerable profits for the scheme's private development partners.

    By contrast, in addition to the refurbished existing homes, of which 340 are for social rent and 136 leasehold, the ASH scheme proposes an additional 120 new build for social rent, 60 for market rent and 62 for market sale. The PRP schemes are assessed on a 60 year financial model, but we estimate we can recoup the costs on our scheme in a little over 10 years.

    So how did Lambeth council reject our proposal as 'financially unfeasible', when there proposal is seven times the cost of ours?

    Well, among the discrepancies between the feasibility studies for the PRP proposals and that for the ASH proposal are the following:

    On the ASH scheme there was a 40% social rent requirement on new builds, not the whole of the estate (for which we provide 64% social rent); while on the PRP schemes there was between 27-40% affordable on the whole of the new development.

    On the ASH scheme 0% of the new builds were capitalised for market sale; while on the PRP schemes 44-54% of the new builds are for market sale.

    On the ASH scheme, capitalisation was estimated at 35% (social) and 68% (private) rents; while on PRP, capitalisation is at 47% (affordable) and 75% (private) rents.

    On ASH, capitalisation was on the 242 new build rents only, but not on the 340 existing rents; while on PRP, capitalisation is on all new build rents.

    On ASH, the cost of the scheme was estimated at £100.6 million over its £84 million estimate by our independent QS; while on PRP, the cost of the schemes omits the £22.8 million cost of demolition.

    On the ASH scheme, there is full disclosure of the financial estimates by quantity surveyors Robert Martell & Partners; while on the PRP schemes, financial estimates by Airey Miller for cost of construction, professional fees, Section 106 agreements, marketing and letting fees, developer profits, inflation and loan interest withheld by Lambeth Council as ‘commercially confidential’.

    For this and no doubt other acts of legerdemain, Airey Miller was awarded the role of Strategic, Commercial and Technical Advisor to Lambeth council's major Estate Regeneration Programme on a five-year, £6 million plus contract.

    The financial facts are that, if an estate regeneration scheme begins by demolishing the existing estate - which is policy for Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, the GLA and the Government - the cost of demolition, compensation and rebuild is so great that the resulting redevelopment must overwhelmingly be for properties for private sale, with zero homes for social rent, increased rental charges for existing council tenants, and hugely increased costs and reduced tenancy rights for leaseholders.

    Should any of this be of interest to the investigative journalists at the AJ, feel free to contact us at info@architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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