Lambeth Council plans to demolish the Central Hill estate where I live with my dad in South London. Central Hill is one of six estates threatened with demolition. There are 456 homes on the estate and a long-established, close knit community. That will be lost during a regeneration programme that could take more than a decade to complete. Even then, there is no guarantee people could afford homes on the new site. Most people are against the plans, but feel ignored by the council. There are residents here who have lived on the estate since its completion in 1975.
Last month the residents of the estate held an open day, hosted by the Save Central Hill campaign group and Architects for Social Housing. Visitors learned about the history of the estate and the campaign to stop the Labour-led council’s demolition of people’s homes. People shared stories and discussed their encounters with the council. One resident said that the council would replace the existing low-rise maisonettes and flats on the estate with tower blocks measuring just under 30 metres high. Building regulations stipulate that buildings over 30 metres must be fitted with sprinklers. Some new tower blocks will be built on stilts, but the height of the stilts won’t be counted in the height of the building. As one resident says, if there was a fire and you were forced to jump out of the window to escape, the uncounted void – due to the stilts – will not reduce your fall.
The open day took place four days after the devastating Grenfell Tower fire. As I walked through the tightly knitted corridors of the estate, I heard worried voices: “Do we have any cladding like Grenfell’s? Can we get the council to install sprinklers in our flats?”
Campaign group Architects for Social Housing have spent two years working with residents in the Central Hill to design an alternative plan, showing the possibility of building more housing on the estate and refurbishing existing housing – without demolishing a single home. Lambeth Council instantly dismissed the proposal without further explanation.
Central Hill was designed in the 1960s by Rosemary Stjernstedt, who worked for the Lambeth Borough Architects headed up by Ted Hollamby. The houses on the Central Hill estate were built low, offering impressive views of London’s skyline. Every home was built with a garden or a spacious patio. Hollamby’s ethos was to put “people at the heart of his designs”. Trees and wildlife were left to flourish in communal areas.
Maybe we are not entitled to these views. Or the spacious flats, the greenery and the tranquillity. Lambeth Council’s ‘regeneration’ plan will see us kicked from our homes. The area will be given to those deemed worthy of the space: developers, investors and anyone rich enough to buy the replacement luxury flats (white businessmen, from the look of the images in Lambeth’s design leaflets).
‘Housing crisis’ is all over Lambeth’s leaflets for the project. A stream of leaflets is posted through my dad’s door. On its specially designed website the council writes: “We need these better homes for existing residents, and more new homes to help tackle Lambeth’s housing crisis.”
But what sort of housing crisis? Why is the solution knocking down spacious, well-built homes?
The council makes it sound like there aren’t enough houses in London for people to live in. But there are nearly 20,000 empty homes in the capital, worth about £9.4bn based on the average cost of a London home, which is £474,704. In Lambeth there are 756 empty homes and in the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, where Grenfell Tower still stands, there are 1,399 empty homes.
The official line is that this regeneration project will benefit us, the residents. We don’t believe this. Just under five per cent of residents on our estate support the demolition, a fact ignored by Lambeth Council. And regeneration is an expensive business. The council says it wants to build an additional 500 to 750 homes. Architects for Social Housing estimates that Lambeth Council could spend between £225-240,000 per flat. That’s between £100m and £120m to demolish and rebuild existing homes.
Residents say the council told them construction could last 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile, it is unclear where we will live. Or to use the council’s terminology, where we will be ‘decanted’ to. It’s highly unlikely that we will be able to return to the area at all, but if some do, they will be returning to a transformed area. Towering blocks of flats will replace Rosemary Stjernstedt’s vision. Approximately a fifth of residents are elderly and worry about losing their accessible maisonettes. In light of Grenfell everyone is fearful.
The strength and solidarity witnessed in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates the thriving survival of community in spite of daily attacks from central government and local councils.
Many living on Central Hill estate have been here since its completion in 1975, and at the open day referred to the destruction of the community, rather than just the physical estate. One resident said that on some days, it took her nearly an hour to get from one side of the estate to the other, because on her way she would bump into so many people she has built friendships with over the years. The strength of our communities are a threat to capitalism – and the desire to dismantle it by those in power is clear. There is a painted mural in the middle of the estate that the community had commissioned to read ‘Save Central Hill Community’. When Lambeth Council saw this, they ordered that it be repainted, and now it only reads ‘Community’.
Many living on the estate are suffering physically and emotionally from the prospect of having no home, as well as the continually changing “evolution of the promise” made to residents by Lambeth Council. The term ‘regeneration’ – spouted by developers, on council surveys and gentrifying businesses – refers to new growth after loss or breakage. Our communities aren’t broken, and where and who we live with are not without value.
Lambeth Council has set up Homes For Lambeth, a standalone property development company, to manage the demolition and rebuild of the six estates. When the new housing is built, Homes for Lambeth, rather than Lambeth Council, will be responsible for maintenance and managing tenancies. Homes for Lambeth is the glossy face of its £120m project with promises to increase housing capacity by nearly 45 per cent. But residents are wary. London councils have form in steamrolling through regeneration projects with little meaningful community consultation. The Heygate Estate regeneration in Elephant & Castle is the famous example: the number of social rented homes fell from 1,200 to 79. A one-bedroom flat will set you back £380,000. More rooms if you have a million-pounds to spare.
Some residents worry that the estate has been neglected and poorly managed by the council; the shabbier the estate is the easier it is to argue the case for regeneration. The council’s response to residents’ complaints has been to ignore them, and as Grenfell has shown, this is happening to social tenants across London.
Even so, the estate meets the Lambeth’s own housing standards. An internal survey found of residents revealed that the estate is structurally sound, and that refurbishment would cost around a tenth of the current plan to demolish and rebuild. Regeneration is political: rather than properly inspect the mould on my bedroom wall, or make sure all streetlamps work properly when I walk home at night, Lambeth Council will erase the failures they have chosen to ignore.
One Central Hill resident declared at the open day: “There is no such thing as the voiceless; there are only those who have their voices systematically and deliberately smothered by those with greater power.”
The evening of the open day, I walked into Crystal Palace and came across the graffiti artist Artful Dodger painting a mural of Grenfell on an empty wall. It was a warm night, and as groups of passers by sat down together and watched him paint, conversations about Grenfell leading to gentrification and our own areas. When finished, the mural read, Grenfell…How many more will follow? The Council painted over it the next day.
Visit www.savecentralhill.org.uk to find out more about the Save Central Hill campaign.
- Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi for Shine A Light at openDemocracy.
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