Bungs for demolition won’t help estate residents under threat

Demolition Woodberry Down
Demolition Woodberry Down
Nico Hogg via Flickr

Sadiq Khan came to power last year full of pledges aimed at people trying to stop the demolition of social housing and protect their estates from dodgy regeneration projects.

However, the broken promises on housing are starting to pile up for our new Mayor. I’ve highlighted here how he’s failed to abolish Boris Johnson’s dodgy definition of ‘affordable’, his draft Good Practice Guide to estate regeneration denied residents the final say they were expecting, and now I’ve found that he is also giving grants that incentivise the demolition of homes and overseeing a continued net loss of council homes across the city.

My predecessor Darren Johnson looked at estate regeneration projects with planning permission across London in 2016, and found a net loss of more than 7,000 social homes in these plans – a shockingly high figure. Since then, some of the plans shown in Darren’s report have been completed and have resulted since then in the net loss of nearly 900 council homes on the ground across London.

And there are many more to come. I’ve been analysing the current London Development Database – a record of all the live planning permissions in London – and what I’ve uncovered is alarming. Between Sadiq Khan coming to power in May 2016 and October 2017, planning decisions across London have already allowed for the demolition of 1,483 existing social housing units. Developments coming in their place only provide 1,029 new social homes, so permission has been granted for a net loss of more than 450 homes in total.

But it’s not just in planning where the Mayor is failing. He’s actually paying for some of these losses too. He’s admitted to me recently that he is continuing Boris Johnson’s policy of giving affordable housing grants to new homes that are just replacing ones being knocked down, which is both an incentive to demolish and a roadblock to sensible alternatives.

A Freedom of Information response sent to me in July confirmed that with the last of Boris Johnson’s government money for housing, he gave grants worth more than £5 million for 177 replacements for demolished homes in London, including schemes with an overall net loss of social housing. Now he’s started to announce plans for his new housing grants programme that totals £3.15 billion, it is vital for Londoners to know if he will still be subsidising demolition.

I tried to tackle Sadiq about this in written questions and in a frustrating Mayor’s Question Time (MQT) in August. Though he said at MQT that the £1.7 billion in new grants he’d agreed were all for ‘new’ homes he would not say the crucial word ‘net’ or confirm that replacements for demolished homes weren’t in the plans.

I was right to be suspicious about this. I chased this up in writing, and the Mayor has now confirmed that his funded housing targets “are gross, in line with Government reporting requirements,” so being a net new home is not a requirement for funding, and some grants will still be given to demolished homes.

There isn’t any information yet on how many demolitions will be in the £1.7 billion of grants he has so far allocated to councils and housing associations, but I will keep pressing for these details as the grants are given out to projects.

On principle, I find it staggering that there aren’t any safeguards in place, and that all this money could potentially gain us much less in terms of new homes at council rents than we are being promised in the spin released by the Mayor.

I’ve highlighted this problem in my full response to the Mayor’s Housing Strategy.

This issue is important not only because subsiding and incentivising demolition is a waste of public money, but also because it has consequences for the many groups out there putting together their own ‘people’s plans’ for their estates.

When options for estates are being drawn up, money for replacement homes will clearly help to favour plans involving demolition, which should be made to compete on a level playing field with less destructive plans. There are no grants from the housing fund for refurbishment, so a council looking at an estate has a genuine incentive with these grants to go for the most dramatic option and not to look carefully at how homes could be improved by refurbishment instead.

So what is this all about. Why isn’t he stopping the destruction of homes and communities as he promised. What is at the heart of the Mayor’s thinking on demolition?

I genuinely don’t think he is the kind of patrician, patronising politician who blithely assumes the people displaced from estates can be exported to other or cheap new sprawl in the way ‘let them eat Green Belt’ advocates seem to think. Sadiq grew up on a council estate and I believe he does value our inner London mixed communities.

But he’s going to have to get to grips with this in a way he just hasn’t so far. Announcing big numbers and targets is all very well but forgetting to check the difference between gross and net, and leaving in loopholes that mean we don’t necessarily get any new homes, just won’t do.

London can’t afford for him to fail at this and I hope he will read my submission to his Housing Strategy response and get this right in time to save more of our communities from the wrecking ball.

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