Balloting residents about plans to redevelop their homes sounds a good idea but is fraught with problems

Julia park

To vote or not to vote? That is the question the London mayor is asking in a consultation launched at the beginning of February. Billed as a “ground-breaking” move, Khan is proposing that where plans for large-scale estate regeneration involve the demolition of homes owned by a social landlord, “eligible residents” should be given a yes/no vote.

It’s not a new idea. Many of us have been involved in resident ballots over a number of years, but these have been at the discretion of the client. Khan first indicated his support for ballots in his 2016 draft guide to estate regeneration. The final version of Better Homes for Local People – the Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration was published this month after a consultation that generated more than 2,000 replies (though only a handful from architects). It’s now clear that Khan plans to link a ballot to funding, requiring “evidence of a positive vote in a resident ballot” before a grant is awarded.

At face value, a mandatory ballot sounds open and democratic. But if we’ve learnt anything from the EU referendum, it’s that a simple yes/no question is no guarantee of an unequivocal answer or a smooth road ahead. Unless the offer itself and the consequences of both options are set out in a thorough, straightforward and unbiased way, a binary choice risks deepening division rather than providing a clear consensus. No doubt the mayoral team is well aware of this and it’s sensible to consult again before making the final decision.

I’m uncomfortable that by linking it to funding, the implication seems to be that if you can afford to demolish and rebuild without a grant, you won’t need the residents’ endorsement. And in any vote surely the scale of the majority makes a difference? A close result should mean that more thought (possibly a re-run at a later stage) is necessary.

For many years now, the “preferred option” in an estate regeneration project has been largely dictated by viability. This is sometimes a try-on, but often a genuine problem. Knock it Down or Do it Up: The Challenge of Estate Regeneration, a report produced by the London Assembly three years ago, revealed what was happening in terms of tenure.

If we’ve learnt anything from the EU referendum, it’s that a simple yes/no question is no guarantee of an unequivocal answer or a smooth road ahead

Based on the hypothesis that all planning permissions granted between 2004 and 2014 would come to fruition, the GLA’s own analysis of planning data indicated that the number of social and affordable rented homes would reduce by a fifth (30,000 would be replaced by just under 24,000), while the number of market homes would increase from 3,000 to more than 36,000.

The assembly noted that, “The doubling of density that was typically felt to be necessary to make estate regeneration viable arose mainly from the addition of more than 10 times as many open market homes planned or built within those same estates. Accusations of systematic gentrification are not surprising.

Better Homes for Local People demands no net loss of affordable housing. Another mayoral policy requires 50% of dwellings on sites in public ownership (including where stock has been transferred to a housing association) to be affordable. Welcome re-balancing in principle, but often difficult in reality, particularly when a large number of leaseholders are involved because of Right to Buy (RTB); another divisive issue.

This time I’m torn between understanding that people want to buy the home they’ve come to love, and believing that social housing should be retained in perpetuity for those who really need it. The discounts feel too high and we know that a large proportion of homes sold under RTB end up in the hands of private landlords. It then often goes almost full circle; poorly maintained homes end up being let to people who ought to have had direct access to properly managed social housing.

The implication seems to be that if you can afford to demolish and rebuild without a grant, you won’t need the residents’ endorsement

So far, Khan has staunchly defended RTB but I wonder whether he really understands the extent to which it can hamper regeneration? The cost of buying out individual leaseholders can be prohibitive; the negotiations, a major factor in delay. Absent landlords can be very difficult to track down. On balance, I’d like to see an end to RTB but at the very least, the GLA should consider a moratorium on RTB once an estate is earmarked for regeneration to prevent predatory private landlords or developers from doing opportunist deals with vulnerable residents.

With any vote, timing is everything. Estate regeneration should always consider a range of options but a “take it or leave it” question can’t be asked until only one option remains. In most cases a huge amount of time and money will have been spent by then, and a great deal of consultation should have taken place – enough for the development team to understand how residents and neighbours feel.

That may be Khan’s underlying goal. Knowing that a ballot is going to be required is a clever way to ensure that residents are fully involved and on-side. But it could still be risky. The consultation suggests that the ballot should take place before a developer partner is appointed and the guidance is quite vague about how much detail to provide. The risk of a wrong question is probably even greater than the risk of a wrong answer. Given that estate generation typically takes years to get off the ground, and a decade or more to complete, even basic parameters, such as the number of homes proposed, may change significantly over time. Should a developer be held to the result of a vote that might have been held 10 years earlier? But what’s the point if not? And who knows what’s around the corner for funding; building projects don’t fit neatly within parliamentary election cycles.

On balance, I think the government was right to duck the issue of a mandatory ballot in its own Estate Regeneration National Strategy, published within days of the GLA’s version. The “activity map” in the government’s suite of documents flags the need to “demonstrate support” at key stages. It doesn’t explain what this means in practice but ballots are mentioned along with other techniques.

The section on “resident engagement and protection” suggests that, “Estate residents and the wider community should have the opportunity to have a say at the milestone stages where there are choices to be made, such as at option appraisal, masterplanning, procurement and design stages”. This is more flexible and more realistic than the single, one-off, yes/no vote, which leaves you nowhere to turn if it all goes pear-shaped.

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