My New Article for Novara Media: The Achilles Street Estate in New Cross Needs Refurbishment Not A Ballot for Demolition

23.10.19

Posters on the Achilles Street estate in New Cross urging residents to vote no in the ballot regarding the proposed demolition of their homes by Lewisham Council (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Many thanks to Novara Media for publishing my article Refurbishment Is the Dirty Word We Should Be Using, Just Look at the Achilles Street Estate, about the contentious — and, to date, little-discussed — system of ballots for council estates facing destruction, with specific reference to the ballot that has just started on the Achilles Street estate in New Cross and that runs through to November 11. 

I hope you have time to read it, and that you’ll share it if you find it informative.

Ballots preceding any proposed estate demolition were introduced by Jeremy Corbyn, as the Labour Party leader, two years ago, and were made part of GLA policy by London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, last summer. Corbyn’s intention was clearly to allow residents the opportunity to challenge otherwise high-handed decisions taken by councils with only the most cursory nods to ‘consultation.’

In reality, however, because the ballots take place at the very start of the process, councils are free to make all manner of grand-sounding promises that they won’t necessarily be able to keep, and are also able to fund expensive campaigns, involving consultations, door-knocking and the production of lavish booklets laying out their promises, so that the entire process is a distinctly un-level playing field, with residents opposed to the plans having little or no resources of their own, with no funding provided for them, and with no objective outside advice provided by the council.

Achilles Street contains 87 homes, and associated shops and businesses, and the council in question — Lewisham Council — wants to replace them with around 450 new properties, of which half (225) will be for private sale. As noted above, the council is making all kinds of lavish promises to residents about the deals they will get in the new development, but crucially none of these promises are legally binding. 

As I explained when I posted a link to the article on Facebook last night, “The ballot also excludes the shops and businesses on New Cross Road, and both non-resident landlords and their tenants, and it also doesn’t include an option for the refurbishment of the estate, even though that is what many residents would like. In addition, it’s important also to consider that demolition — as opposed to refurbishment — is environmentally ruinous, something that councils like Lewisham, which declared a climate emergency earlier this year, shouldn’t even be contemplating.”

I added, “The council insists that there is no money for refurbishment, and they have a point to the extent that neither central government nor the GLA has made any funding available for the refurbishment of estates rather than their demolition. This is an oversight that urgently needs addressing, but, looked at another way, residents have paid millions in rent to the council, which has spent very little in return on repairs and maintenance, and is now using its neglect of the estate as a reason for its destruction, even though it is their own fault.”

I’m hoping that my article will contribute to a debate on the ballot system, and will also help to exert pressure for necessary changes in policy — finding ways to fund refurbishment rather than demolition and ‘regeneration’, which Architects for Social Housing have been advocating for many years, and which architects finally seem to be waking up, at least nominally, as part of the current trend for environmental awakening, and, if ballots are to go ahead, for steps to be taken to make them more balanced. 

Ballot votes to date

Since the ballots were introduced, there have been six votes, all of which have ended up with residents voting for regeneration, but all have, in general, received very little media scrutiny. To the best of my knowledge, only Dave Hill, formerly of the Guardian, has kept track of them all on the OnLondon website — and they are also listed on the GLA’s website. As with Achilles Street, none of them involved an option for refurbishment.

The first decision, announced last November, involved Westhorpe Gardens and Mills Grove Estate in Hendon, where the council is Barnet, but the landlord is the housing association Metropolitan Thames Valley. There are 102 homes on the estate, with proposals for 250 new homes, including replacement homes for all existing tenants and leaseholders. As Metropolitan explained, “66% of residents voted, with 75% voting in favour.” I was also interested to discover that not a single property on the estate is owned by a leaseholder, which no doubt made it an attractive option for re-development.

The local newspaper reported that the main dissent came from neighbours, who complained that “the new buildings would be too tall and warned of the potential for traffic problems.” The newspaper further pointed out that “the current blocks of flats on the estate are only three storeys high, and most of the surrounding buildings are low-rise, suburban homes.”

Emily Benedek, a neighbour, told the council’s planning committee: “In my opinion, granting permission for seven-storey blocks will open a Pandora’s Box that will provide justification for other residential blocks, with a significant increase in height, regardless of their location. The size and siting of the proposed buildings would result in a loss of privacy, loss of outlook and have an overbearing impact on neighbouring occupiers. We are not opposed to redevelopment on the site per se, but the scale, height, mass, bulk and over-intensive use of the site is inappropriate.”

In December, it was announced that residents of Ealing Council’s 264-home High Lane estate in Hanwell had voted for ’regeneration’, with 57% of residents taking part, and 90% of those voting yes to the demolition of their homes, which strikes me as a shockingly low turnout, and certainly not sufficient to justify the council’s claim that residents had “overwhelmingly backed council plans to rebuild their neighbourhood.”

I was also interested to note that negotiations regarding the compulsory purchase of leaseholders’ homes are currently ongoing. Sawyer Fielding, Compulsory Purchase Surveyors, note on their website that the flats on the estate were built using a “large concrete panel system in the 1970s”, and that, as a result, “the value of many properties on the estate [is] restricted”, with values that “are lower than more traditionally built properties in the area.”

They add, “Unfortunately for our clients, this means finding alternative suitable accommodation will prove to be more difficult, due to the affordability gap. The importance of our being able to negotiate well to protect homeowners is therefore particularly important. Some of the settlements we’ve heard about have been worryingly low and below our opinions of Market Value. We are now representing several leaseholders on the Estate and would be happy to represent more.”

In February, the residents of Brookhill Close, a small estate in Greenwich, run by Hyde Housing Association, also voted in favour of re-development. The Housing Association Magazine noted that, “Of the 99 eligible voters, 87% voted, with 86% in favour of regeneration.” As the magazine also explained, “Hyde is planning to demolish 80 homes, replacing them with 272 new flats and houses, as well as improving the layout of the estate. There will be 76 social rented homes for existing residents and London Affordable Rent homes for new tenants. There will also be 64 homes for shared ownership and a further 132 for private sale, which will help fund regeneration.”

The results of two more ballots, at Geoffrey Close, York Close and Canterbury Close, on Lilford Road in Lambeth, and at Pike Close in Bromley, were announced in December 2018, and in April this year. Both are run by the housing association Riverside. 

In Lambeth, on a turnout of 87%, 67% of voters said they supported Riverside’s proposals for the re-development of 135 homes. I pass these blocks on my bike regularly, and I cannot understand any practical rationale for their destruction. They are solid, post-war blocks, and they appear also to have been adequately maintained, but Riverside claim that they have “become increasingly expensive to maintain”, although it strikes me that a more compelling reason may be that the proposed replacement “will include around 260 homes for sale.”

In Bromley, where there are 92 homes (all rented), the Bromley Times noted that there was a “turnout of just under 90 per cent with 82pc voting in favour of Riverside’s proposals” — for a new development of 218 homes “with a target of 50pc classed as affordable.”

All is well, you might think, but in fact I have been contacted by a tenant with a long history of dealing with Riverside, who has told me that they think that residents “were the victims of confusing or wrong information beforehand”, and that. on both estates, “some of those who balloted ‘yes’ are now beginning to realise that all was not as it was presented beforehand.”

In May the last of the six ballots took place at Douglas Bader Park estate in Colindale, where the council is Brent, and the landlord is the Home Group, who explain on their website how the estate comprises mass-produced “‘Wimpey No-Fines’ constructions built by Pellings Property in the 1970s”, which, they claim, are “severely outdated”, and involve “poor stock condition.” Turnout was “over 90%, with over 75% voting in favour of the proposals” to provide “over 650 new homes”, to replace the estate’s 271 existing homes.

Time will tell if Lewisham Council’s plans for Achilles Street are also successful, but what a review of the other ballots reveals to me is that what they all have is common is they are all relatively small estates, making resident management easier, and they all —predictably — involve a noticeable increase in the density of homes in the proposed new developments, which will not necessarily make life any better for residents, as well as containing ample provision for private homes for sale, which seems, in every case, to be the driver of re-development rather than primary concern for the existing residents.

What also seems clear, sometimes reading between the lines, is that not all the promises made to residents will necessarily come true, just as campaigners are warning with Achilles Street, where residents at least still have the opportunity to say no to the council’s plans.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, linking to – and discussing – my new article for Novara Media, about fundamental problems with a ballot taking place in New Cross for residents of the Achilles Street estate, regarding a proposal by Lewisham Council to demolish their homes as part of a new housing development.

    The main problems are that demolition is environmentally ruinous, and, instead, the estate should be refurbished, but, shamefully, no money is being made available for it by either central government or the GLA.

    Also included in my article: an analysis of the six ballots that have already taken place in London, which have all ended up with residents voting for the demolition of their homes. As I conclude, “what they all have is common is they are all relatively small estates, making resident management easier, and they all —predictably — involve a noticeable increase in the density of homes in the proposed new developments, which will not necessarily make life any better for residents, as well as containing ample provision for private homes for sale, which seems, in every case, to be the driver of re-development rather than primary concern for the existing residents.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Paul Astles wrote:

    Absolutely true. Austerity has cynically targeted Labour boroughs. Lewisham Labour hasn’t treated it’s tenants well but we mustn’t let the tories off the hook

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Paul. The Tories, of course, bear a huge responsibility for the current state of affairs through cuts to social housing funding as a result their dreadful austerity programme, but on the ground Labour councils have been thoroughly inadequate in challenging it, in large part because the programme of estate demolitions and efforts to ‘gentrify’ social housing actually began under Tony Blair. What’s needed is for Labour councils to be run by genuinely left-wing politicians.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Pam Arnold wrote:

    Labour is also to blame as you say .. indefensible

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, this is top-down New Labour/Blairite complicity in social cleansing, Pam, and noticeably different from what left-wing members of the Party want.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Pam Arnold wrote:

    I hope there are demos, this is wicked, a comunity devastated for private greed, affordable is not for those on less than 30 grand a year so these tenants will be thrown onto the garbage heap, probably in Birmingham, disgusting

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s the variables that are so infuriating, Pam. Due to pressure from tenants and leaseholders and housing campaigners, the situation has improved significantly from when the Heygate Estate was demolished and its residents scattered to the four winds, but councils are still making promises they can’t guarantee that they’ll keep, and are also still engaged in fundamentally underhand behaviour, individually offering tenants new housing elsewhere, even before the ‘regeneration’ has begun, and with the absolute certainty that they’ll carry on doing this if they win the ballot and their plans proceed, replacing these tenants either with nothing -boarded-up flats – or, more probably, with temporary tenants who won’t have any rights, and won’t be offered homes in the new development. Over the long years a ‘regeneration’ project takes, this will only erode the sense of community on the estate, and as I’ve seen elsewhere in London – at Thamesmead, for example – all this does is create a tangible atmosphere of abandonment that isn’t healthy for anyone.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Judith Bridges wrote:

    Now that’s an interesting and crucial issue.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Judith. I’m glad you appreciate it.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Judith Bridges wrote:

    oh I do, Andy, and never made the connection.

    So cheaper for councils to work with developers to knock down Council housing, and get developers to build new council housing, affordable housing and market rent.

    BUT ecologically! Sociologically!

    We are bringing kids up in high density housing.

    And of course one of their schemes is to do the ‘starve people out effect’ by not doing repairs and running down places.

    The last money that was really put in was when Labour put that money in for everyone to have decent bathrooms and kitchens.

    Bizarrely on the Love Lane estate by Spurs – they were planning to pull the homes down, and at same time were putting double glazing in from a grant.

    I started my teaching in Hackney in early 80s.

    There were some new blocks , built in the 70s that everyone aspired to live in. Low rise.

    I went on a recent canal trip – many were empty or really run down. Because by canal is prime land, and they want to pull the blocks down.

    How can that be ecologically good.

    Concrete is in the top 10 industries for CO2

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your understanding of what’s going on, Judith. Councils definitely need to be confronted about their enthusiasm for replacing well-designed estates with new housing of much greater density, because it’s apparent to anyone who isn’t blinded by the supposed charms of newness that these new developments are actually less community-oriented – the flats are smaller, and more isolated, towers cut off light and create wind canyons, and play spaces are invariably horrible – cold and permanently cast in shadow.

    But it’s on the environmental costs that councils cannot pretend to have any justification for their proposals. Demolitions are, to be blunt, environmentally ruinous, and shouldn’t be contemplated when alternatives exist – and refurbishment is the great alternative that everyone’s refusal to talk about – the government, the GLA and councils themselves – needs to be challenged.

    There is, I’m glad to note, some acceptance in the architectural community that things need to change. Rowan Moore recently wrote an article challenging them to make substantial changes, which is worth reading: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/aug/31/architecture-to-counteract-climate-change-ilford-market-cork-house-barangaroo-mycelium

    However, in discussions with fellow housing and environmental activists, it seems pretty clear that Architects Declare, who Moore cites admiringly, are the architectural world’s equivalent of councils declaring “climate emergencies” – empty gestures to make it appear that they are doing something when they’re not.

    Of more interest, I think, is the recently formed Architects Climate Action Network. Their opening statements don’t mention refurbishment over demolition, but I would expect them to take it on board: https://www.architectscan.org/home

    And this is a good initiative recently launched by the Architects Journal – RetroFirst: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/story.aspx?storyCode=10044359

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Bill Jefferies wrote:

    They’re not offering secure tenancies. It should be rejected for that alone.
    With secure tenancies relatives who live in the property have the right to inherit it. I imagine all they’re offering here is some discount for the duration of the tenancy. As such its a diminution of tenants rights. I should say the council are utterly duplicitous on all this. We’ve been campaigning against a tower block at Silver Rd, they promised to listen, but their fine words meant nothing in the end. I don’t believe any promises they make.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bill. Yes, I think you’re right about secure tenancies. There will be a diminution of existing tenants’ rights, as you say, and existing tenants are required to trust that the council will honour its promise to provide them with new homes at existing rent levels for the duration of their tenancies, even though nothing legally binding has been presented to them. That doesn’t sound watertight enough to me to justify voting for such a leap in the dark. And leaseholders, too, are in a very grey area, required to trust that some sort of part ownership deal (with the rest of the costs of their considerably more expensive new homes essentially frozen by the council) will replicate what they currently have.
    All of the above involves far too much trust when the council refuses to provide anyone with a legally-binding contract.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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