Sunday, 29 June 2014

Anti-Social Landlords #2: the human cost of 'regeneration'

Will the Peasants Revolt in Chelsea Old Town Hall as the Council
'wishes to destroy local communities in favour of developers'?
Barely a week goes by in Kensington and Chelsea without some new alleged outrage being visited upon one or another group of residents.

There was indignation about the assignment of a lease of Council-owned Isaac Newton Centre to a prep school group that was considered to be little more than a Trojan horse for future residential development. This led to a petition of cc2,000 furious residents – considered middle-income in K&C but elsewhere they would be ‘rich’ – who stormed the Council Chamber in their hundreds and made their fury very public. Their complaints included a deliberately convoluted bidding process, and the Council selling out to the highest bidder, with no thought for parents who had set up a local school with many community benefits. A cross-party committee of Councillors agreed with residents that the process had lacked transparency and appeared unfair or even partial. Some parents threatened to stand against Tory incumbents in the elections. The Cabinet ‘listened but did not hear’, a recurrent theme these days.

No sooner was the election over than anti-social landlord Affinity Sutton accelerated their proposal to demolish and ‘regenerate’ Sutton Dwellings, a well-loved Edwardian estate off Fulham Road that, if properly maintained and updated, could last another 200 years. Local residents from all sides of the social spectrum, in a classic ‘old Chelsea’ manner, have rallied to the cause of saving the estate from the ‘voracious’ developers. Three even stood as Independents against the Council, attracting the support of many previous non-voters.

Now we hear that a long-time TfL plan to deliver the Chelsea/Hackney line (Crossrail 2) with a station at Dovehouse Street, has been challenged by the Council. TfL officers were forced to staff the exhibition that included the Council’s counter-proposal and they suffered verbal battering from residents, as the Council’s ingenious plan would flatten the perfectly sound Cremorne Estate and move residents as far away as possible – or so Council tenants believe.

'The lovely new Kings Rd Crossrail, with Westfield Mall,
it only lacks some riverside residential towers'
This would provide an ‘opportunity to regenerate’ that has caused heavy drooling among certain Cabinet Members and senior Property officers, with their eye on humungous financial gain.

As I once explained to the Leader of the Conservative Group, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘regeneration’ - a very much misused term within the Council as elsewhere.

Here is my definition:

Regeneration is an aim not a process. Development or redevelopment carried out with intelligence, good planning and reasonable expectations of profit can result in regeneration.

‘Regeneration’ implies an uplift of economic and social benefits and wellbeing for existing residents and businesses in the long term; means other than development can also achieve regeneration in its true sense.
True regeneration improves the physical without changing the soul
If development only achieves improvement in visual amenity, built form, additional residential or business units, but does not produce other long-term sustainable economic or social benefits, this is not regeneration.

Other outcomes – intended or unintended – such as displacement of long-term residents and local amenity businesses and services, is not regeneration. This is social cleansing, pure and simple.

When the Council or TMO in its typically cack-handed and insensitive way begins a CONsultation during the Christmas or summer holidays, or Ramadan, or without informing those affected in an open and transparent and thorough way, in good time for comment and while there is a genuine possibility of influencing the outcome, when the Council seems to be by-passing genuine input, residents become distrustful and angry.

This applies to beleaguered residents subject to an intrusive subterranean excavation by a next-door neighbour, just as it does to Council tenants whose homes are viewed as ‘regeneration opportunities’.

We need to ask, ‘who is this development for?’, ‘who will it actually benefit?’. Tenants? Home-owners? Neighbours? Business? Or the developer (who may be the Council)?

What do we actually care about in the borough? Does the Council care about the same things as its residents, who it is supposed to represent? Does the Council spend the Council taxpayers’ money on the projects, services and issues that the public cares about? A close review of the Annual Residents’ Survey suggests not.

Residents I speak to agree with me on this:

In the past year this Council has done its best to crush individuality and difference of opinion. In doing so, their reputation has been tarnished and they have lost the respect of thousands of residents of all income levels and all political persuasions.

I know this because I have been approached in the street by residents who said they voted Labour for the first time, because in K&C we as the Labour Group and as individual Councillors had stood up for them.

I am proud to stand up for those who feel like I do about preserving communities, and will fight for their right to continue their contribution to the glorious DNA cocktail of our neighbourhoods, now and in perpetuity.

That’s what is so special about Kensington and Chelsea, and it’s worth preserving.

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