The Question Time session on housing and regeneration in the borough last night, hosted by residents of Cressingham Gardens and the Holy Trinity & St Matthias Church, was quite brilliant.
I think this is at least one of the things democracy looks like. On a panel chaired by Dave Hill (sitting in the centre above) from The Guardian were, from left to right, Jonathan Bartley of the Green Party, Michael Edwards from University College London, and Cllr Matthew Bennett (Gipsy Hill and cabinet member for housing) and on the other side of Hill, Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration, Cllr Marcia Cameron (of Cressingham Garden’s ward), and Dr Paul Watt from Birkbeck University of London.
You can follow the live blog from Single Aspect, with a lot more detail through the second half that I had to miss. I didn’t quite catch the first question from Judith as I was taking pictures, but it was a general one on housing and the council’s commitment to social housing.
It elicited some of the following facts from the panel. Apparently no one knows the facts better than Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing, the situation is that we collectively face in the borough:
- The waiting list for social housing has risen from 20,000 to 21,000
- There were 1500 homeless (I think families, but possibly individuals) in April, now up to 2000
- Over 1300 families known to the council are living in severely overcrowded conditions
It just gets worse every time I hear the statistics. So what are they doing? Bennett stated that their benchmark for regeneration schemes is that there is no reduction of social housing, only an increase. He mentioned a draft of regeneration principles on Lambeth’s website, but a google search doesn’t turn them up easily.
He mentioned the Somerleyton development of course, I applaud the fact that it will provide around 100 genuinely affordable flats, the only genuinely affordable flats now being proposed in the massive development of central Brixton. I have no idea where the other 900 he says that Labour hopes to build in the next five years are to come from.
Bartley from the Greens was quite vociferous in defense of the Cressingham Garden tenants. He noted that after going over the accounts, the number of units of social housing has dropped from 29,000 in 2006 to 24,000 today. Only 1000 of those have been lost through right to buy, the rest are gone through stock transfer, regeneration and demolition.
And then there was Cllr Marcia Cameron.
She was the only woman on the panel, and the only person who wasn’t white. I think a little more thought should have been taken on that, and I wanted to be supportive but she made it really hard. When asked why she supported the regeneration of Cressingham Garden she was open about having initiated it.
Her story is that tenants came to her saying the property was unlivable, so when funding became available for regeneration she saw it as an opportunity to put the estate forward. Tenants in the audience didn’t appreciate that at all, but she never dropped that line of argument. I don’t know how we can be thinking of the same estate.
Another question noted the number of vulnerable people living in social housing and asked how they were measuring the impact of regeneration. Dr Watt talked about the devastating impacts of regeneration, a long and drawn-out process proceeding over ten to twelve years, and people not knowing will happen to them and to their homes suffer sleepless nights, anxiety, worry that builds and steadily builds. Regeneration produces sickness.
Cllr Cameron made a slight miscalculation I think, trying to claim that leaseholders and social tenants were divided on the issue of preservation with social tenants being in favour of regeneration to obtain repairs.
Probably unaware of how many social tenants from Cressingham Gardens were actually in the audience she asked them to raise their hands almost as a challenge, and a whole lot of hands went up. Awkward. She clung to the line that how health was impacted when people live year after year in properties in disrepair.
The hall erupted then, laughter, anger, disbelief. Because Judith had already captured the generally shared sentiment of the audience earlier, when she replied that it was a bit duplicitous of the council not to mention who was responsible for repairs to social housing in the first place.
Cllr Bennett urged us to remember how stressed and anxious all those people on the waiting lists are, just like all those without homes. He seemed to imply a selfishness of the few wanting their homes to remain as they are.
This raised one of the key questions for me, what do Labour think they stand for? Do they really think these deals with developers to build more market rate housing is the only possible to maintain the social housing we already have, much less build new? How did they get into this box around their thinking?
I understand they are in a really hard place with the coalition in power and the drastic budget cuts, but surely this was the point a real opposition party would have put forward a different platform for dealing with the housing crisis.
I heard nothing of a real alternative, absolutely nothing, it’s private developers with their market rate housing (and their driving up of rents and land values across the borough) or nothing.
Cressingham Gardens residents understand this is a process of social cleansing, pushing working people further and further out of London. The picture below is from one of the Saturday marches to the town hall as part of the campaign to save their housing:
A concrete plan for building 100 units of social housing and a goal of 900 more over five years is better than nothing, but not so much different than nothing given the numbers that the Cllr Bennett himself rolled off: 21,000 people on waiting lists, 2000 without homes at all…what are they doing?
I almost felt sorry for them, as clearly there is no party line on actually building the housing we need.
Dr Watt kept saying over and over again, the regs governing regeneration are too loose, you never know what you will get as everything changes over the many years these projects drag on with changing councillors and development partners. But he is unaware of a single project able to actually provide more social housing than existed before it started. Generally, social housing is lost.
The Councillors had no real response to that, nor to the question from Bill about the larger context for this regeneration, either, which is the privatisation of land and rent, the drive to eradicate social housing. He made the point they had to choose where they stood on that, but they didn’t.
Nor could they take a position on whether they would unequivocally support the tenants of Cressingham Gardens if they chose Option 1, though that ‘yes or no’ question was put to them by Bartley and the audience. Option 1 is refurbishment, versus Option 4, partial demolition, the chart below shows the different levels of cost and debt:
This in spite of going on and on about process, workshops, tenant democracy. Ultimately it will come down to money and political will.
So the series of questions on transparency, promises made and then broken, advice for other tenants already in the middle of regeneration projects who need accountability for everything going wrong only highlighted what was lacking from the process…
I’ll end on the situation of another large constituency in the audience, residents and former residents of the so-called Short Life housing, cooperative housing that has cared for buildings that otherwise would have long ago have become totally derelict.
Promised by labour councillors that they would be supported in formalising their residencies, they have instead been involved in a long process of evictions, their housing being sold for millions.
When asked about the council’s lack of accountability to former promises made to cooperative tenants, Cllr Bennett claimed that they were not social housing, had never been social housing.
The response from the Lambeth United Housing Coop is that these tenants were on the list to receive social housing and believed they were in social housing when setting up the cooperatives. Their testimony was eloquent on the irrevocable loss caused by eviction, the damage to lives and to community that the council has inflicted — after promising them their support and praising their work in preserving housing.
I left early, just as Cllr Cameron was once more going on about the derelict conditions and the place was in uproar. It’s frustrating to see such complete lack of vision or understanding of the broader dynamics at work here. These are problems being faced across London as the academic panelists made crystal clear.
They also made clear that regeneration is not the answer, but very possibly part of the problem.
Ultimately the fight the tenants of Cressingham Gardens, the housing coops and other estates have taken up is about the right of regular people to remain in Lambeth.