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What compulsory resident ballots mean for the future of estate regeneration

Posted 05/03/2018

by James Bompas

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As featured in Planning on 01/03/2018.

Giving locals a greater say in estate regeneration has become Labour Party policy, but what challenges will it present? Mark Wilding reports.

On 27 September 2017, Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage at his party’s annual conference in Brighton. Emboldened by his unexpectedly strong election performance just a few months earlier, the Labour leader gave a radical speech with a strong socialist message. He was scathing about the recent history of estate redevelopment. “Regeneration is a much abused word,” he said. “Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing.” Under Labour, he promised, “councils will have to win a ballot of existing tenants and leaseholders before any redevelopment scheme can take place”.

That promise is now policy – in the capital, at least. At the beginning of February, London mayor Sadiq Khan published his guidance on estate regeneration. The document marked a significant change in direction from Khan. In December 2016 he had urged “caution around using ballots” that could “risk turning a complex set of issues … into a simple ‘yes/no’ decision”. Now he has promised “a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved” in estate regeneration schemes.
Paul Hackett, chair of the G15 group of housing associations, reserves detailed judgement on the proposed policy, but acknowledges that it would have a “significant effect” on the group’s members. Others believe Khan may have been correct with his initial assessment. Christine Whitehead, professor of housing at LSE London, says: “The issue with a ballot is: what are you going to ask them? ‘Are we going to have regeneration or not’? Or ‘what type of regeneration’? Or ‘are we happy to have private sector development within the social sector’? These are all quite complicated questions and a ballot tends to be quite simple.”

Any estate regeneration project involving the demolition of social or affordable homes, and the construction of 150 homes or more, will need to win a majority vote in favour from residents to secure Greater London Authority (GLA) funding. Conditions attached to that funding will allow the GLA to take back its money if a scheme changes and “a landlord’s offer deviates materially from that agreed in a ballot”. Ballots will not be required where demolition already has full or outline permission, where the GLA has already committed funding or where ballots have already taken place.

The policy means the delivery of thousands of homes will now be reliant on the outcome of resident ballots. The GLA estimates that at any one time there are around 25 estate regeneration schemes underway that rely on its funding. The draft London Plan describes the regeneration of the city’s estates as “critical to meeting its housing needs”. Almost half of the capital’s 30 housing zones – areas designated by the GLA to bring accelerated housing development to areas with high growth potential – contain at least one estate regeneration scheme.

It is not just an issue in the capital. In March 2017, the government announced funding for 105 estate regeneration schemes across the country; only 12 of them were in London. Should Labour come to power at the next election, the debate playing out over the introduction of ballots in the capital will almost certainly be replicated nationwide.

The uncertainty around the impact of Khan’s policy stems from the fact that there are few precedents for balloting residents on regeneration schemes. Westminster City Council has employed ballots on several projects in the past, with mixed results. In 2011, 58 per cent of residents voted against a plan to redevelop the 417-home Brunel estate. In 2013, residents at the Ebury Bridge estate in Westminster voted in favour of regeneration, only for the council to announce last year that the plans were no longer viable. The city council recently said it had stopped resident ballots on estate regeneration projects after deciding they were “not the most effective method” of engaging local people. In an ironic twist of timing, the announcement came just days before Khan unveiled his new policy.

However, there are other instances in which ballots have shown community support for proposed changes in planning or housing management that have gone on to be implemented. The large-scale voluntary transfer of homes from councils to housing associations can only take place once residents have voted in favour of the process, and there are numerous examples where this has successfully taken place. Then, of course, there are ballots on plan-making matters. Nicky Linihan, housing convenor at the Planning Officers Society, which represents local authority planners, says that if you look at neighbourhood plans in general, “a number of them involve allocating sites for development, they are subject to a referendum and a lot of those referendums have been successful”.

Khan’s consultation paper states that ballots should “provide the opportunity to strengthen support for estate regeneration schemes” by allowing residents to help shape proposals. Bob McCurry, director at consultancy Barton Willmore, says: “There’s a definite opportunity there for residents to have a real input on the number of homes, the tenure mix and social infrastructure, and design principles.” McCurry says this could provide more certainty for developers if ballots are held at an early stage of the process.
However, securing positive votes from residents will almost certainly involve some tough discussions about what is possible. McCurry adds: “Councils will have quite a challenge here in explaining to people the viability issues and deliverability issues and mechanisms of bringing forward projects of this scale.” Should that not be possible, McCurry says scheme promoters may attempt to work around the GLA’s funding caveats. “There will perhaps be local authorities thinking ‘what can we do that doesn’t involve demolition?’” he says. “Are we going to see more refurbishments or infilling?”

Even in cases where residents vote in favour of regeneration, developers could face additional challenges further down the line. Ian Anderson, chief executive at consultancy Iceni Projects, says: “If you’re going to have a referendum really early, how do you provide the community with confidence?” Large regeneration projects often require changes between phases, which could, he says, make early promises impossible to fulfil. Under the ballot proposals, any changes will require residents to vote again. “How do you avoid going round in circles?” asks Anderson.

Challenges such as these raise the prospect that resident ballots could put major projects at risk. The GLA knows this, and the current consultation paper states that “a policy requiring positive ballots means some estate regeneration schemes may not go ahead”. That seems to be the price of giving residents a greater say. The question is: how many homes will Khan, or a future Labour government, be willing to pay?

Previous estate regeneration ballot results

YES: Ebury Bridge, Westminster City Council, May 2013 Residents of Ebury Bridge voted in favour of regeneration plans involving demolition. The “yes” vote secured 78.4 per cent from a 59.6 per cent turnout. However, nearly five years on, work is yet to start on the project. The council says it is keeping options open and plans could include refurbishment or building new homes.

NO: Brunel estate, Westminster City Council, May 2011 Plans to redevelop the Brunel estate were scrapped after tenants voted to reject the planned scheme. The project was subsequently removed from Westminster’s housing renewal strategy, which identified five neighbourhoods as priorities for regeneration.

YES: Excalibur estate, London Borough of Lewisham, July 2010 Lewisham Council commissioned an independent ballot of residents at the Excalibur estate to assess support for a scheme involving demolition of their homes. Residents voted in favour by 56.2 per cent from a turnout of 90.2 per cent. Planning permission was subsequently secured and a first phase was completed at the end of 2017.