Empowered by the Big Society, tenants try to block £8bn redevelopment scheme

Empowered by the Big Society, tenants try to block £8bn redevelopment scheme

Fred and Joyce Podmore have lived on the West Kensington Estate in Fulham for thirty-nine years. To them, their home is not just bricks and mortar; it is where have they raised their three children, where they have grown old together, and where they had expected to live for the rest of their lives. However, at almost eighty-years old, the couple have lost their fight to stay in their home, along with hundreds of other tenants. Mr Podmore said he feels as if they are “lambs to the slaughter.”

EC Properties Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Capital and Counties Properties PLC (Capco) have submitted planning permission to Hammersmith and Fulham Council for an £8billion Earls Court Masterplan. On the 77-acre site, they are proposing to build 7,500 new homes, offices, 41 acres of open space and a new high street and ‘four villages’, modelled on cultural hubs in London. The project is thought to be the largest project of its type outside China and will take up to twenty-years to complete.

However the Masterplan entails the demolition the both the Earls Court exhibition and conference centres, and the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates. The West Kensington Estate has 604 properties and was built in 1972, is comprised of five tower blocks, low-rise flats, maisonettes and terraced houses. The nearby Gibbs Green estate, built in 1961, has 110 properties and is made up of 7-medium rise blocks. Despite CapCo having pledged to re-house the tenants of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates with alternative, modern housing, which will “meet the needs of those residents moving into them”, two-thirds of the residents say that they will not be forced out of their homes without a fight.

Encouraged by Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society, the residents want to take control of their estates, in order to prevent them from being demolished as part of the Earls Court redevelopment scheme. They face fierce opposition from their existing landowner, Hammersmith and Fulham Council, who see their land as a ideal opportunity for redevelopment, in the form of CapCo’s Masterplan.

Cameron’s Big Society envisages a social order in which power is taken away from politicians and given to the people. Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced plans last week, which will make it easier for tenants to take control of their local neighbourhood. The proposal includes a ‘Right to Transfer’, which would allow tenants to request the ownership of their neighbourhood to be transferred from a the council to a local housing association. Shapps has said, “it will no longer be acceptable for councils to dismiss tenant’s proposals for improvement out of hand.” If the plans are approved, the tenants of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates will have a significantly greater chance of controlling their homes.

The Conservative Government is encouraging people to take more power of their communities, and thus assume greater responsibility in society. In a speech unveiling the Big Society Mr Cameron said:

“We know that when you give people and communities more power over their lives, more power to come together and work together to make life better, great things happen.”

The proposed Earls Court project is likely to be the biggest test, to date, to Mr Cameron’s vision for Big Society. Jonathan Rosenberg, a housing activist, states that “local people are best at dealing with local problems, which shouldn’t involve knocking down places that people like to live in.” The Earls Court Masterplan presents a contradiction between the aims of the Tory-led Council and the vision of the Government’s Big Society. The former is supporting the redevelopment of the area, while the latter is fighting to save and take over their community. The West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates exemplify the spirit of localism put forward by the Government, but the residents feel that their aspirations are being quashed by the Council’s development agenda.

West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes, chaired by Shirley Wiggins, is the resident-controlled association that plans to take over the running and ownership of the estates. Determined to stop the demolition, they plan to use the so-far unused, Section 34a of the Housing Act 1985, which requires a local authority to co-operate with a formal notice from a tenant-led group to transfer stock ownership of council home. They hope to become their own landlords, as they believe the Council is solely driven by their desire to develop the area.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, Sally Taylor and Diana Belshaw, the Chairs of the West Kensington Estate and Gibbs Green Estate, respectively, argue that despite the Government promising to devolve power to communities, their aims are “being crushed by the heel of the local state.” Stephen Greenhalgh, the leader of the Conservative Council in Hammersmith and Fulham, asserts that when considering a transfer of stock to the residents, “regeneration schemes for the wider area” must be considered in the context of the proposed transfer.” The council has claimed that the regeneration is needed to bring forward substantial private investment, where there are “bigger costs and economic benefits to the community and local authority area as a whole.” However, Mrs Taylor deems the Masterplan as merely an “opportunity for the Council to make money.

“I think the Big Society is a great idea, but when money is involved, values disappear quickly”, she adds.

Furthermore, a response to a Freedom of Information request by Inside Housing, disclosed a letter from Councillor Greenhalgh to the Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark. Mr Greenhalgh asked that tests be applied before tenant-led transfers are approved in regeneration areas, arguing that “it is wrong to allow regulations on stock transfer to apply without wider benefit tests in these “Opportunity Areas.”

The Conservative Council, lead by Stephen Greenhalgh, have labelled the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates as an Opportunity Area, which refers to “the capital’s major reservoir of brownfield land with significant capacity to accommodate new housing, commercial and other developments.” The Council also states that the West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates suffers from a high number of long-term unemployment residents, has low levels of educational attainment and has higher crime and mortality rates in comparison to the rest of the borough.

The Council also asserts that the quality of housing on the estates is below standard; despite the millions of pounds of funding it has received through the New Deals for Communities. On the ConservativeHome blog, Greenhalgh describes the West Kensington Estate as “pretty shabby”, not “fit for purpose” and ascertains that its builders did “an appalling job” in the 1970s. In its Core Strategy Document, the Council argues:

“The area doesn’t fulfil our expectations of a decent neighbourhood; we think that redevelopment should be considered to establish mixed and balanced communities.”

Greenhalgh also insists that due to of a lack of Government resources, the demolition of the estates would be more cost effective because of the total costs of improvements and maintaining the stock would be too expensive, asking, “how can the Council afford to maintain and do all the work that is required?”

However, despite claims from the Council that re-housing the tenants will improve both their lives, and immensely benefit the wider community, the residents do not echo their judgements. Mrs Taylor describes the estate as “lovely”, and explains how the people who live there have invested their lives in their homes. She laments that the council does not value a community, in which she has lived within for twenty-five years, as a mixed and diverse neighbourhood. In fact, she argues, “they should be celebrating it as an ideal council estate.”

The West Kensington and Gibbs Green have lost their bid to block the proposed redevelopment, fighting for their futures and their homes. The Council are currently carrying out their second consultation period so it could be months before they make their final decision. As the first significant test of the Big Society, the Council and the residents should be prepared for long and bitter struggle.

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