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Demolition or disrepair: the choice facing residents on one London estate

Hundreds in Custom House are being asked to vote on whether their homes should be knocked down. It’s a catch-22

May Robson
22 November 2022, 2.00pm

PEACH members meeting with Darren Levy, head of housing at Newham Council

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PEACH

The pile of papers next to Nina* slides from the sofa as she searches for a single page – a letter from Newham Council informing her of a life-altering vote. The ballot offers two options: ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the demolition of her home.

Should ‘yes’ win the day, 80% of her estate will go under the wrecking ball. Out of the rubble, the council promises, will bloom 600 to 700 properties and improved local shops and facilities. While half will be “genuinely affordable” homes, residents fear that only a few of them will be able to live there.

London’s newly minted Elizabeth Line has confirmed Custom House, where Nina lives, as a stretch of prime real estate in London’s East End, falling within an “arc of opportunity” for regeneration that sweeps across Stratford, Canning Town and the Royal Docks.

When the multibillion-pound scheme was first announced in the early noughties, the residents, although sceptical, hoped the community would benefit. Today, Custom House station’s modern exterior clashes with the tired-looking high street, boarded-up shops and empty homes – a stark reminder that 22 years after regeneration was first proposed, the “brighter, better future” is yet to arrive.

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As two decades of regeneration proposals have dragged on, the condemned area has suffered from a lack of investment. Residents are left in limbo with deteriorating conditions. They complain their homes are riddled with mice. That ceilings and floors removed due to asbestos were not properly replaced, leaving dust and debris falling into their children’s bedrooms. That draughty buildings make heating costs high as cold weather looms.

They no longer recognise the faces of their neighbours; many have left, sold up or been ‘decanted’ (moved out) in anticipation of redevelopment. Meanwhile, empty homes are increasingly used as temporary accommodation for homeless families as the council struggles to house the 34,000 people on its social homes waiting list.

Among them, Nina is a full-time carer for her 19-year-old son, who has autism. She moved to the area in May 2021, her fourth relocation in three years. She doesn’t want to move again. “It’s affecting me because I don’t know my next step,” Nina says, gesturing to the council letter. “Temporary accommodation – that’s my issue.”

Those that remain are desperate for better housing conditions, a community centre, and affordable shops they can walk to. Even more than this, they want an end to uncertainty that will allow them to build a life – they want permanent homes and social rents.

I want this regeneration to happen and the area to be improved. But why should I have to lose my home?

Larisa Chayka

In this context, the council’s plans, “co-produced with residents” to deliver homes that “residents locally can afford”, can be considered laudable. What the neighbourhood fears is not regeneration itself, but the possibility that the process of knocking down and rebuilding will see their existing community pushed out – private tenants evicted, homeowners and temporary tenants priced out, and decanted council tenants waiting years to return.

They feel the promised regeneration makeover, although a tantalising prospect, boils down to a catch-22: vote ‘yes’ for benefits they fear will be enjoyed by a new, richer community, or vote ‘no’ for unlivable decline and decay with no new homes built.

“I want this regeneration to happen and the area to be improved,” says Larisa Chayka, who has lived in Custom House for two decades. “But why should I have to lose my home?”

Is demolition the only option?

The dilemma is, by now, familiar in housing estates across the UK. In London alone, at least 161 ‘failed’ estates have been torn down since 1997. Today, a further 122 face the same fate, according to Estate Watch.

Depending on who you ask, such schemes are either the solution to London’s housing crisis or one of its causes. Local councils have blind faith in private partnerships focused on high-density building to provide much needed homes. For critics, the displacement of estate residents make this hard to believe. Estate Watch reports that around 55,000 households containing 131,000 people have been, or are being, forced to move in the last 25 years, sometimes well beyond the capital.

The construction boom sparked by the 2012 Olympic Games has seen house and rental prices soar in Newham, a borough characterised by poverty and deprivation. Research by Paul Watt – urban geographer and author of ‘Estate Regeneration and Its Discontents’ (2021) – argues that flattening and redeveloping housing estates within the “arc of opportunity” has exacerbated rather than alleviated the issue.

In 1981, 40% of all Newham households were council tenants; by 2011, this had decreased to just 18%, while the private rental sector had more than doubled to 34%. By 2016, Newham had the highest number of households in temporary accommodation in London, and the highest number relocated out of the borough in London.

One of the big selling points on the regeneration in Custom House is that the residents will decide their own futures. This process is murkier than the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ options facing Nina might suggest. Questions of social equitability are mired in the mechanisms of local democracy.

In what was supposed to be a major victory for residents and campaigners, since 2018 London estate regeneration schemes involving demolition have been required to ballot residents if they want any mayoral funding. To campaigners' surprise, however, all but one of the 21 ballots so far have returned a ‘yes’ vote – and, in every case, that has been for wide-scale demolition.

According to an investigation by the Green Party’s Sian Berry, the way ballots are working on the ground would breach the rules of democratic elections, placing the process under much scrutiny and distrust.

PEACH members in 2020 celebrating their win in getting Newham Council to agree to transfer MEARS tenants to council tenancies and implement a 60% rent reduction

PEACH members in 2020 celebrating their win in getting Newham Council to agree to transfer MEARS tenants to council tenancies and implement a 60% rent reduction

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PEACH

One of the recurring issues when it comes to residents’ ballots is the framing of demolition or nothing. But is demolition the only way?

For more than a decade, residents have campaigned with much success under the banner of People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH) to address the multitude of issues they face.

In 2020, they won a hard-fought campaign for the transfer of hundreds of temporary tenants managed by the notorious private landlord Mears into council management at 60% lower social rents. Last year, a petition saw the council agree to invest in much needed repair and refurbishment of homes. Where the state of disrepair is used to justify demolition, these actions show there are often viable alternatives.

“There’s nothing wrong with my property,” says Mary*, an ex-Mears temporary tenant whose maisonette will be knocked down. “Why can’t they retrofit it and put us back? They just want to build flats.”

Who gets to vote?

With so much riding on the ballot result, the question of exactly who gets to vote is contentious. In Custom House, the council has split the regeneration into phases. A total of 210 tenants living in (or with the right to return to) a part of the estate labelled ‘phase one’ are eligible to vote in this ballot. While the regeneration is sold as “resident-led”, PEACH has raised concerns that a significant proportion of residents are excluded and there is no minimum turnout required for a decision to go ahead.

Many residents have moved out of the ‘phase one’ area, while private and temporary tenants in the area cannot vote unless they have been on the housing register for one year – which excludes many long-term residents in the area. PEACH are campaigning for all residents across all regeneration phases to vote in every phase, as the decision includes the future of their high street and will set a precedent for later phases of the regeneration.

Another key issue has been voter registration. Initially, Chayka was not on the ballot list and was asked to send evidence to prove her eligibility – despite having lived in the phase one area for 20 years and being on the housing register. As a renter from a private landlord to whom the council has no housing obligation, she faces eviction.

After she contacted the council, the error was corrected and she was given a vote with just days to go. But the onus placed on residents to prove their eligibility raises concerns that others may have slipped through the cracks.

Rehoused or forced to leave?

The divisions between those who can vote and those who can’t are mirrored by the different housing offers that the council is making to different types of tenants. While pitched as a simple choice between two options, the 24-page proposal published last month is opaque. To many residents, it is unclear whether the project would see them rehoused in the regenerated area, or forced to leave their community permanently.

Secure council tenants will be rehoused. But the council won’t commit to ringfencing a set number of social homes on the estate, saying it is “dependent on the number of existing council tenants and those with the right to return who may want to continue to live on the estate”.

With the regeneration set to take ten years, in which time displaced tenants will have to set up new lives elsewhere, there is a question mark over how many will end up coming back. Nor would the council confirm how many social homes are on the site at present.

Some on the estate own their homes, or have been placed there in ‘temporary accommodation’ (which can last for years) while they work their way up the housing list. These groups face uncertain futures, making an informed decision difficult.

Jenny Clark, a freehold homeowner, is promised full market value for her demolished house plus a 10% home loss payment if the scheme goes ahead. “I want an affordable, equivalent home in the area I’ve lived for 70 years that’s near my family,” she says. But the council acknowledges that new homes are “likely to cost more” than her existing one, and there are no houses being built, only 32 maisonettes and 692 flats.

An aerial view of the Custom House estate in Newham, with Cundy Park to the south and Freemantle Road to the west

An aerial view of the Custom House estate in Newham, with Cundy Park to the south and Freemasons Road to the west

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Google

Temporary tenants are guaranteed a secure tenancy in the regenerated area. However, this will be priced at London Affordable Rent, rather than the current social rents won by PEACH in 2020.

In a 2020 press release, Newham’s mayor Rokhsana Fiaz proposed that ex-Mears temporary tenants who “have lived in the area for five years or more will receive the right to return to a social home in the new regeneration scheme at social rent levels”. Yet now, the plan is less generous: temporary tenants will be paying higher rent than they are currently paying, and a higher rent than the existing secure council tenants.

“Now the rents are going to be high. We all know that London Affordable Rent is not a fixed thing,” says Mary, involved in the PEACH campaign and a Custom House resident for a decade, who feels betrayed by the council’s U-turn on the promise of social rents. “This community, we built it, and now they want to push us out.”

Custom House residents want a better choice than what is on the ballot – one that considers other possibilities for improvement without dismantling the existing community. While a ‘yes’ vote is shrouded in uncertainty – and likely to remain that way as the UK freefalls into recession and construction costs soar – for Mary a ‘no’ is clear.

“It’s not ‘no’ to regeneration or a secure home,” she says. “It means they can fix the plan and bring it back to us. We can fight for something we know is suitable for us because we live here.”

A council spokesperson said: “The masterplan and landlord offer reflect the ambitions for all people living in the neighbourhood at Custom House. The proposals seek to optimise the opportunity to provide new homes and to provide a great new high street, whilst ensuring residents are also able to benefit from a new health centre on Freemasons Road, alongside a nursery by Cundy Park and improved public spaces for residents to enjoy.”

They also referred to the retrofit programme that comes as part of the proposed scheme, meaning 20% of homes would be refurbished rather than knocked down – though their residents would still have to move out.

“Our approach to the Custom House regeneration, and in delivering much needed homes which residents locally can afford, also ensures that we take action in the face of the climate emergency through building new homes sustainably and restoring existing homes where it can be done through an ambitious retrofit programme which has been introduced in response to feedback from residents,” said the spokesperson.

*Some names have been changed

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