Save the Central Hill estate

Lambeth Council are planning to “regenerate” the Central Hill estate at the top of Gipsy Hill. This could mean anything from a nice refurb to full demolition.

We joined residents at an open meeting on Saturday, where a lot of them heard about the plans for the first time.

The council has been secretly discussing plans to regenerate the estate with the Chair of the Tenants and Residents Association since at least November 2013, while keeping other members of the TRA and the wider community in the dark. The council finally ran some very vague public workshops a year later (in November 2014), and delivered leaflets with a little more information at the start of this year.

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But the residents have learned more about the possible plans by talking to residents of other estates like Cressingham Gardens (more on them later).

The Green Party believes that major changes to housing estates should be community-led, taking account of the wide range of social and environmental considerations. Lambeth is failing in much the same way as Bromley and the GLA failed with Crystal Palace Park – imposing “solutions” on a community with only the pretence of involvement and consultation.

The right way to do estate renewal

The London Assembly Housing Committee recently published a major piece of research into estate regeneration across London. The committee was chaired by Green Party politician Darren Johnson.

The report notes that the usual way of assessing these schemes fails to properly account for wellbeing and social aspects. They found that “the detriment to residents’ physical and mental health over the often lengthy duration of regeneration schemes [is] unlikely to be effectively evaluated and their significance may be under-estimated”. This was already clear at the meeting on Saturday – the stress and anxiety caused by this opaque and dishonest process can be hugely damaging.

The committee also looked at environmental issues. For example, demolishing homes wastes all the materials in those homes, and the carbon emissions it took to make them. So the committee said the “embodied carbon” should be accounted for, which often tips strongly in favour of refurbishment rather than demolition and rebuild. Just imagine all the materials wasted if this is torn down:

central-hill

As well as strongly criticising past regeneration schemes, the committee tried to make a positive contribution, and – with the endorsement of Green, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem members – laid out principles and recommendations for councils to follow. These include:

  • Putting energy into early and comprehensive engagement with residents
  • Holding an independent ballot of residents on any final decision to demolish an estate
  • Creating a steering group of residents and securing the enthusiasm of community leaders and influencers.

We’d like to see Lambeth Council and Cllr Matthew Bennett, the cabinet member for housing, publicly commit to following the full recommendations of that report. Bennett is also one of the local councillors for the Gipsy Hill ward which the Central Hill estate sits in.

Honouring their promises

We’d also like to see Lambeth Council and Cllr Bennett honour promises made in their estate regeneration strategy, agreed back in 2012.

Cllr Bennett should go back to the core principle of the strategy:

“Residents would be at the heart of any regeneration proposals”.

Here are a number of other promises made, which Cllr Bennett should return to and honour:

“It is imperative that the Council develops this programme with the residents and that they own the objectives of the programme.”

To date, the objectives are being decided by the council, without any meaningful involvement for the residents. If the residents decide, after following a thorough process, that they want the objectives to include refurbishment of their homes, will Lambeth Council allow them to “own” that objective?

“The Council would also consider coproducing formal guidance where significant estate renewal schemes are proposed.”

This means that residents would work in partnership with council officers to determine the scope of the regeneration – which buildings should be refurbished, what open space could be improved, and so on. Coproduction is in contrast to consultation, where the work is all done by officers and residents are on the outside, feeding in where they can. This hasn’t been put on the table, but it should now be offered to the residents.

“Residents will be given the necessary support so they can develop the skills to work effectively with consultants in producing regeneration proposals for their neighbourhoods… this will involve visits to regeneration estates elsewhere in the borough and in London, as well as training and other opportunities”.

This pledge is crucial. I was struck by how well informed many of the residents at the open meeting already were. But if they are to own the objectives and coproduce the formal guidance, they really need support and training to become much more skilled.

“The Council will provide support, advice and guidance as well as resources to properly investigate all of the regeneration and renewal options.”

This pledge goes beyond training and skills, also offering the resources of the council to develop different options. So if the residents decided they wanted to explore an option involving refurbishment financed by infill, the council should put some money behind working that idea up.

“The Council will also support the residents in engaging with key local stakeholders and residents in the wider area.”

So far they have done this off their own bat, with the help of local groups including us and the Transition Town. How about a bit of help, Cllr Bennett?

“For each project a structure will be agreed with the residents as to how information is shared and how decisions are made.”

Lambeth Council officers and Cllr Bennett should host a big workshop for all the residents to work out how they would like this to work. What information would they like? Rather than leaving residents to submit lots of Freedom of Information requests, a well facilitated workshop could help residents draw up a list of information they want now, and a process to request more as the process rumbles on.

Part of a pattern?

Reading through that original strategy, and reading Cllr Bennett’s tweets, you might have reason for optimism for this large, well-located estate.

estate-map

Probably the real reason for concern for Central Hill is the experience of residents at the Cressingham Gardens estate in Tulse Hill. There, residents have been systematically sidelined, obstructed and ignored, as Lambeth Council carry out a sham consultation process and ignore the clear preference of residents to see their homes refurbished.

Cressingham residents have exposed flaws in the council’s financial modes, showing that a refurbishment option could be better value for money in the long term. But their work was ignored by Lambeth Labour’s cabinet. The council even tried to block their freedom of information requests, and refused to let them take copies of key documents away from meetings.

Just as with Central Hill, years of neglect and poor maintenance are used as an excuse to knock down the homes. Cressingham residents pay far more in rent than they get back in maintenance and services, while Lambeth levies by far the highest management costs of any inner London council. Their estate boasts high quality architecture and a strong sense of community, just as with much of Central Hill, but is denigrated by the council as a crime-ridden failure.

If their experience is anything to go by, Lambeth Council want to “regenerate” Central Hill because it has a prime location and can help bail out decades of mismanaged housing finances.

Across London, council housing is demolished for far worse reasons. Local Green Party member and the party’s housing spokesperson, Tom Chance, talked about this wider picture at the March for Homes in January:

Tom has also been involved, along with Lambeth Green Party, in supporting and advising the Cressingham Gardens residents.

Help save Central Hill

Time is now very short. Having kept everyone in the dark, Lambeth Council now expect to make a decision by June.

As Lambeth is almost a one-party council (with just a lone Green and a few Tories to hold them in check), fighting for the rights of the residents will be an uphill struggle. That’s why we want to back them to the hilt.

Our Parliamentary candidate Rashid Nix spoke to the meeting about his experiences fighting evictions on his own estate, the Loughborough Park estate owned by the Guinness Trust:

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By the way, that photo makes the room look empty, but there are over 100 people out of shot. Rashid was joined by Green Party housing spokesperson and local, Tom Chance, who is offering advice and support.

There are lots of ways that you can help the Central Hill residents, for example:

  • Offer advice if you know about housing law, architecture, community consultation, community organising or anything else you think might help
  • Attend meetings and protests to show your solidarity
  • Publicise their campaign to friends, family and neighbours

You could also join the Facebook group and follow them on Twitter. Get in touch with them to offer your time and skills.

The watercolour at the top of this post, by the way, is by local resident Lizzy Stewart.