Estate demolition: it’s not a good deal, it’s not a done deal
Southwark Greens are taking a keen interest in the Aylesbury estate inquiry which opened today (Tuesday 9 January). The inquiry will hear evidence about whether Southwark Council should be allowed to make compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) for flats on the Aylesbury Estate, ‘for the purpose of redevelopment and regeneration’. The Inspector will report back to the Secretary of State - Sajid Javid of the recently renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
That sounds very dry. It’s not - although it is wrapped up in a lot of legal process and acronyms. Over the next 14 days, we’ll hear statements from residents and former residents, council officers, experts on housing. We’ll hear about daylight, green space, demolition versus refurbishment. The inquiry raises that most urgent question: who does the city belong to?
The inquiry is open to the public – you just need to sign in at the reception at the Southwark Council office, 160 Tooley Street. All the documents submitted in evidence can be consulted online and in a library at Tooley Street too.
Eleanor, Phil, Ignas and Liba from Southwark Green Party went along on the first morning to support local housing campaigners from the 35% Campaign and the Aylesbury Leaseholders Action Group. Here are some notes from the first session.
First of all, a note on terminology. The inquiry documents refer to ‘leaseholders’ – these are mainly people who exercised their ‘Right to Buy’ the council homes they lived in. One leaseholder, Beverley Robinson, was quoted in the inquiry as saying that she bought her home in 2005 because she liked the views and she wanted to remain in a thriving community with a strong Black and ethnic minority community. At the time, no decision had been taken to demolish the estate. Following Anna Minton’s lead, we'll refer to these people as ‘homeowners’ – because we want to focus on people and their homes, not legal conditions.
Opening the inquiry, planning Inspector Martin Whitehead identified the main issues as he sees them, following a pre-inquiry meeting with the two parties:
- whether the CPO proposal meets requirements for space, light, tenure etc
- whether it meets requirements for social housing
- the effect on local community
- the compensation offered to homeowners and their right to remain in the area
- the viability of the scheme
- compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and Section 149 of the Equalities Act 2010
- the process of offers and negotiation
- alternative options for the blocks, including refurbishment
He asked for those in the audience to remain quiet, whether they supported or disagreed with what they heard. (This did not suppress a cry of ‘Poppycock!’ from the back of the room later in the morning, but the atmosphere was generally very attentive.)
On the first morning, the two sides gave a summary of the issues and the witnesses they would be calling. First to speak was Melissa Murphy, the counsel for Southwark Council. She stated that the Aylesbury buildings were of ‘unsafe and unattractive design’ and reiterated the view that the Compulsory Purchase Order complied with the Aylesbury Area Action Plan (2010). She said that the reasonableness of the financial offer made to leaseholders was the responsibility not of the council but of the Lands Chamber (this body was previously unknown to your correspondent, who has just had to look it up). Southwark said each of the leaseholders had received three separate housing offers and had been offered mediation (we will hear more about the emptiness of these claims later). The council stated that questions of ‘viability’ are irrelevant, because Notting Hill are ‘obliged to deliver’ the scheme. (This seems a rather extraordinary statement, since so many developers in Southwark have been allowed to wriggle out of their ‘obligations’ as ‘circumstances change’.) And the council flatly said there were no alternatives to demolishing the blocks: ‘regeneration cannot be achieved by other means’.
Right to buy – but no right to remain
Mr Jacobs, jointly representing the Aylesbury Leaseholders Action Group and the 35% Campaign, said that the inquiry was important not just for those immediately affected, but also for some 250 leaseholders who will be affected in the next phases of the Aylesbury regeneration. He said that Southwark Council accepts that the estate was allowed to become run down over many years as only ‘limited and necessary works’ were carried out. This brought down the value of the properties. So one homeowner was offered just £225,000 for her flat, when an equivalent flat in ‘Phase A’ of the new buildings would cost £602,000. The policy of ‘like for like’, in place from 2002 and a cornerstone of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan, was withdrawn by the council in 2010. So homeowners have no chance of buying an equivalent home in the same area. And when the council offers a shared ownership flat, it rules out passing on the flat to children, or letting it out - things homeowners would normally expect to be able to do.
A poor deal for Southwark
In wider discussion about the proposals for the Aylesbury, we heard from Mr Jacobs that Southwark’s Planning Officer had acknowledged that the quality of light in the new flats will be much poorer than in existing flats: one in five rooms will not receive adequate sunlight. He mentioned the refurbishment option worked on by architecture firm Levitt Bernstein, and the successful refurbishment of similar blocks elsewhere such as the Six Acres Estate in Islington. Evidence will be given about the cost of refurbishment, which compares very favourably with demolition and rebuild.
Green Party housing policy reflects the research that shows that refurbishment is almost always preferable to demolition, because there is a huge investment of energy and materials in buildings. When making decisions about the future of buildings that need renovation, we must consider all the carbon used in extracting and transporting building materials, in running construction equipment, in disposing of materials etc etc.
We heard that while the Aylesbury Area Action Plan called for all new homes to be ‘tenure blind’ (i.e. you can’t tell from the outside whether they are rented or privately owned), ten of the new blocks will be single tenure; the two with views overlooking Burgess Park will be entirely private. Southwark Council seems to have played fast and loose with the Area Action Plan, claiming to be compliant with it, while ignoring inconvenient aspects.
In the days ahead, witnesses will speak about many topics including the loss of affordable housing; breaches of the London Plan; the net loss of urban green space; refurbishment as an option; and why the current scheme is simply not a good deal for the council. If it’s not a good deal for any Southwark residents, why should it be treated as a ‘done deal’ by the council?
We will be watching closely. Drop us a line with your thoughts – and do say hello if you are attending.