On 2 February, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced his support for a new approach to housing estate renewal. He proposes, subject to consultation, to give all residents of housing estates a vote on plans for their redevelopment. This would put existing residents’ views at the heart of the redevelopment process – but it could also frustrate the supply of social and affordable housing in London.
As a 2016 Centre for London report showed, there are good reasons why voters oppose local development, including concerns about design quality, what it will do to the social mix of an area and the pressure it will put on local infrastructure and services. Our planning system gives these local residents a very powerful influence in decisions about development, while the voices of non-locals who might stand to gain barely register.
True, the mayor is now proposing that estate tenants who have been on the council waiting list for new homes for more than a year will get a vote. But in that case, why not extend the vote to others who might benefit from the housing, jobs and other good things that estate renewal can bring? And what about Londoners from other areas who are feeling the effects of the housing shortage, often living in substandard, overcrowded and unstable homes in the private rented sector? Shouldn’t they get a say too?
The planning system gives local residents the power to block development but not to shape it
When new developments are planned, the treatment of tenants – social residents, leaseholders and private renters – can be pretty cavalier. An eye-opening 2016 BBC 4 documentary, The Estate We’re In, on the redevelopment of the West Hendon estate made painful viewing, with residents who’d lived on the estate for decades treated with extraordinary disregard.
Financial compensation offered to social tenants forced to move home as part of estate renewal is too low. And the accommodation choices offered to local residents have too often been unpalatable, such as having to choose between a smaller home in the neighbourhood or move out of London.
Giving local residents a vote would certainly concentrate the minds of London boroughs and commercial developers and, perhaps, ensure that the worst practices are behind us. But the real problem with Britain’s planning system is not that local residents have too much or too little say, it is that they are given the wrong sort of say – the power to block development but not to shape it.
Neighbourhood and community planners insist that where local residents are engaged early on and in a sustained and respectful way, they will support new development. And their understanding of a local area – its character and issues – will mean that development will be of a better quality as a result.
Let’s hope, then, that ballots work not simply to stop development but to create more fruitful terms of exchange between residents, developers and boroughs.
Ben Rogers is director of the Centre for London
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