When people are asked to vote to demolish their homes, you have to ask if this is true democracy | Francisco Garcia

London housing estate residents must now be balloted on redevelopment plans. But in practice, the process is wanting

Twenty-nine-year-old Chris Codjoe has lived in New Cross pretty much his entire life. This patch of south-east London has been his home for as long as he can remember and it always will be, at least while it remains feasible. Although, as it stands, no one can tell him how long that’s going to be.

Codjoe lives in the same spacious two-up-two-down maisonette that he and his younger brother were raised in by their parents: a solid monument to a different, sturdier era of London housebuilding. The living room french doors opened out to a balcony with artificial grass, with a front and centre view of the Saturday morning hubbub on the strip below.

In November 2019, residents a mix of social tenants and private ownerson his estate and the surrounding Achilles Street area just off New Cross Road were balloted on its future. The vote organised by Lewisham council offered a binary choice. Yes to the full demolition of the 87 homes and 15 business premises in the area, to be replaced by 450 new high-density units (with “up to” 150 new council homes). Or no, to maintain things as they were, on an estate where residents have long complained of persistently ignored requests for even the most basic repairs and upkeep.

The result was a resounding victory for demolition, with more than 70% of those who voted in favour of the plans. So far, so apparently straightforward. But the headline figures barely represent what was a fractious process that local housing campaigners have characterised as deeply flawed.

From July 2018, any developer looking to secure mayoral funding for “estate regeneration” schemes involving the demolition of existing affordable homes has had to put its plan to residents in a legally binding vote.

The introduction of ballots came as a victory of sorts after years of deeply controversial demolitions across the city, often steamrollered into reality with little to no input from the people who actually called the estates home. Since 1997, 161 supposedly “failed estates” have been torn down in every corner of the capital, with a further 122 staring at the same fate today, according to Estate Watch. Over the same 25-year period, about 55,000 families have been displaced, often having to move far away from a city where council-housing waiting lists and private rents continue to reach record highs.

The Love Lane housing estate in Tottenham, north London.
‘The idea behind demolition ballots was to grant a semblance of control to residents.’ The Love Lane estate in north London, whose residents voted for redevelopment in 2021. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

The idea behind demolition ballots was to grant a semblance of control to residents. It’s a laudable idea, though reality has proved rather messier than expected. There have been questions about a relentless focus on demolition. Why, as in the case of Achilles Street, do structurally sound homes need to be razed to the ground in the first place, to the exclusion of all other alternatives? And why was there no option for refurbishment or other far less expensive and disruptive options?

Then there have been issues with the process of campaigning and consultations before the vote. Last summer, the Green party London assembly member Siân Berry published a report four years after their introduction, and it contained some startling analysis. Of the 21 ballots held in London since 2018, all but one have returned yes votes.

Berry’s report found that the estates’ landlords – local councils or housing associations – and their corporate consultants have handed out food and drink and hosted “community fun days” in an attempt to woo residents, alongside “excessive” publicity for yes campaigns. The issue, as Berry and other campaigners have stressed, lies in the unequal playing field occasioned by the disparity between campaign spending, as well as sharp inconsistencies in who actually gets a say at the ballot box.

In the case of Achilles Street, not everyone was able to have their say – a democratic deficit that has cropped up in demolition ballots across London. The businesses in the area were excluded from the vote, despite its obvious impact on their livelihoods.

In early December, I spoke with Marco, the young owner of a launderette a few doors down from Codjoe’s maisonette. It isn’t easy being stuck in limbo, he explained. “I can’t really invest in the business, as I don’t know if we’re going to be here in a year or two’s time. That’s the annoying part. I’ve contacted the council, but [it doesn’t] answer. We don’t know where we are.” A Lewisham council spokesperson said that “extensive engagement was carried out with businesses who would be affected by the estate’s redevelopment and we will continue to work closely with these businesses as the redevelopment progresses.”

Three years on, the expected demolition date and future housing options remain unclear for the residents. With no firm promises on the amount of genuinely affordable housing, it’s unclear how the rebuilt Achilles Street will address the desperate need in a borough where more than 10,000 people are languishing on the council-housing waiting list. Local scepticism directed at the new plans is justified by Lewisham council’s distinctly iffy recent record on social housing; however, the council has said that “the project will deliver a significant net increase in the number of social homes on the estate, helping families on our housing waiting list.”

Estate demolition ballots were supposed to reintroduce some kind of agency and control to thousands of social housing residents across London; a welcome and more than overdue development after years of arrogant dismissal by local authorities and developers across the city. Instead, it has so far often seemed as though they have added little more than a shiny democratic gloss to the same old outcomes.

  • Francisco Garcia is a London-based writer and journalist


Francisco Garcia

The GuardianTramp

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