At the end of last year residents of Custom House, a housing estate in east London, voted to have it demolished. The decision was taken by a margin of merely seven votes. The hard-fought ballot was a “welcome success for the neighbourhood”, Newham Council said at the time. As the narrow margin suggests, however, many residents were less convinced.
The demolition forms part of a multibillion-pound “regeneration” scheme that was first announced in the early Noughties. So far, however, the site of the mooted project has shown signs of neglect rather than renewal. Residents of the estate – a mix of social tenants, leaseholders and private renters – have long struggled with the council to get mice-infested, asbestos-ridden and draughty homes fixed. Their community centre has closed and the community has hollowed out as neighbours have sold up or been moved out in anticipation of the long-awaited redevelopment.
One of the big selling points of the Custom House regeneration scheme was that residents would decide the future of their estate. Since 2018, as a condition of mayoral funding, any plans in the capital involving the demolition of 150 or more council homes must be put to residents for a vote. The policy, introduced by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, was intended to give residents “a decisive say” after a series of controversial demolitions. The catalyst was the destruction of Heygate estate in Southwark in 2014. Promised social housing never materialised and the estate has become a byword for how not to regenerate an area.
As regeneration proposals have dragged on over two decades, residents of Custom House have faced a stark choice: vote “yes” to knock down more than 80 per cent of the estate and build 600-700 new homes, improved shops and facilities; or vote “no” for nothing – no new homes and no investment. In other words, “no choice at all”, says Becky Turner, a community organiser with Peach, the resident-led People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House, which has campaigned for more than a decade for much-needed repairs and refurbishment of homes.
That “yes” or “no” choice does not tell the full story. With the council aiming for around half (309) of the proposed homes to be at London affordable rent – higher than current social rents – and the majority (666) planned as flats, for many low-income families the new development will be neither suitable nor affordable. The result is that they will be pushed out of the area.
Newham is already struggling to house the 34,000 people on its social homes waiting list, so residents have questioned why only 20 per cent of homes on the estate will be retained and retrofitted. They claim that many more are structurally sound and that demolition should only happen where necessary. Residents feel that safe buildings should be refurbished, not demolished.
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Custom House is one example of many. Over the past 25 years 161 housing estates have been demolished in London in the name of regeneration, according to a three-year study led by the urban geographer Loretta Lees. Her data shows that at least 131,000 people were forced to leave after demolitions, often moving outside London.
“The mantra that there is no alternative has become hegemonic,” says Lees, “despite huge social and environmental cost.” Out of the wreckage, less affordable housing has been built in the capital. Only 12,050 additional social-rented homes were built in London over the past ten years, while almost double this number (22,895) were demolished, according to the London Tenants Federation (LTF).
Khan had a target of building 116,000 affordable homes in London by 2023. However, the replacement of demolished social homes to rent with affordable homes, meaning up to 80 per cent of market rents, is unsustainable, according to housing charities such as Shelter. According to the LTF, this is “significantly contributing” to a deficit of social-rented homes, which increased from 61,000 to 163,000 between 2013 and 2017.
The Mayor’s support for a new approach to housing estate renewal was therefore hailed as a major victory for residents and campaigners. On the surface estate ballots appeared to put power into the hands of residents, giving them a say over their future. All but one of the ballots since the policy was enacted in 2018 so far have returned a “yes” vote for demolition. The sole no vote, at Juniper Crescent and Gilbeys Yard estate in north London in 2020, was then repeated, not without controversy, ultimately resulting in a vote for demolition.
Visualisation by Katharine Swindells.
Critics say that these results mask serious flaws in the decision-making process. An investigation led by Siân Berry, the Green Party London Assembly member, published last summer, describes local councils and housing associations spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on campaigns to ensure a “yes” result. Examples included “sweets, bouncy castles and so-called community fun days”, sandblasting “VOTE YES” into the pavement, and hiring PR companies to run “biased consultations”.
The result is “excessive” publicity for the yes campaign while any opposition or alternatives to demolition are muted. This is compounded, as Berry highlights, by a lack of clarity over who will be rehoused in the regenerated area and who will be forced to leave, let alone who gets to vote.
In the case of Custom House, where the outcome was close, the ballot proved contentious. As highlighted by Peach, a significant proportion of residents were excluded from voting. Among them were local shop keepers, private renters not on the housing register, temporary tenants who have lived at Custom House for less than a year, and people living in areas included in later phases of regeneration, all of whom will also be affected by the plans. There is no minimum turnout required for a vote.
Several residents reported having to chase the council to register or prove their eligibility to vote. Larisa Chayka, who has lived at Custom House for 20 years and is on the housing waiting list, received a letter saying she was not eligible. As a private renter, she faces eviction. After ten days and multiple phone-calls, just days before the voting closed, the error was corrected. Newham Council told Spotlight that all eligible residents were “written to so they could confirm our records, giving them the chance to prove their eligibility. All those who responded were assessed and all eligible residents sent ballot papers.”
In a laudable attempt to involve residents, Peach and the council established a resident-led steering group to “co-produce” the estate regeneration proposals. However, a serious breakdown in trust meant that many of the originally elected members resigned. Chayka, a member of the steering group and Peach, says that she felt unable to make meaningful changes to the plans. She recalled meetings in which the pictures, font sizes and layout of a booklet showcasing the proposals were discussed, but when she raised the fact that she would be evicted she was told that the detail of the plans couldn’t be changed.
According to Turner, the Custom House proposals are “pretty much word for word the same as” those for the Carpenters Estate in Stratford. “So, the question is, how has it been ‘co-produced’ with the residents?” Turner adds that “there is lots of evidence to suggest Newham Council have made key decisions separately from the residents and that this was not genuine co-production or partnership”.
Newham Council said that it had “put co-production with residents at the heart of its approach to developing its estate regeneration proposals”.
Estate Watch, a network of residents groups, reported that a further 122 London housing estates have been earmarked for demolition. Wider attempts to level the playing field in future ballots – including a cap on council spending on “yes” campaigns or a resident fund for expert advice and support – have been unsuccessful, however, beyond a few minor amendments. The latter idea was rejected by Khan last year, who claimed he did not recognise “the characterisation of estate residents being frequently left unaware or having little confidence in processes of communication”.
A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said that “while the GLA [Greater London Authority] is not involved in the conduct of ballots, we require both the developer and independent body to verify that they have held the ballot in line with our requirements, including by signing a compliance checklist, before awarding funding”.
With so much riding on the result of a demolition vote, says Berry, this checklist needs to be refreshed and the policy reviewed. “The complexity of all of this means it’s hard to get right first time”, she says. “Why not acknowledge that and have a review of a policy that’s now five years old?”