A London Assembly member has released the findings of an investigative report into questionable practices in estate-redevelopment ballots. As Saskia O’Hara argues, the report will lend weight to calls for a Resident Empowerment Fund to reduce the power imbalance between councils and developers on one hand and local people on the other.
Sian Berry’s new report on estate ballots, reported on in yesterday’s Guardian, is delicately framed and phrased. When read between the lines, however, it offers a significant indictment of the state of local democracy in London.
Based on research with estate residents, campaigners and scholars, the report highlights serious flaws with the process through which decisions are taken on estate redevelopment. The introduction of resident ballots in 2018 was supposed to ensure that any ‘regeneration’ scheme that involved the demolition of social homes had the backing of a majority of those affected.
Yet Berry’s investigation shows how, in practice, redevelopment ballots are frequently hijacked by vested interests. The report points to ‘biased consultation’, significant spending disparities between landlords promoting a yes vote and local anti-gentrification campaigners, and a ‘lack of clarity […] imped[ing] residents’ capacity to make informed choices’ when voting for or against demolition.
Most damningly, Berry finds that ‘residents’ voices are [often] minimised or erased when they are critical of redevelopment options and processes’.
PILC has been campaigning around this issue since December 2021, when a resident ballot on the Carpenters Estate in East London returned a yes vote in favour of the council’s plans to demolish almost 60% of the estate.
In January we wrote to Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for housing, Tom Copley, on behalf of Focus E15. The letter urged London’s government to take action to ensure a more level playing field in ballots on estate redevelopment.
We asked the mayor to cap local-authority spending on canvassing aimed specifically at persuading residents to assent to redevelopment proposals, and to introduce a Resident Empowerment Reserve Fund to ensure estate residents have access to money to run anti-redevelopment campaigns.
Although the Resident Empowerment Fund was voted through the London Assembly as an amendment to the 2022-2023 draft budget, Sadiq Khan subsequently rejected the amendment. The mayor came down staunchly in support of the current ballot procedures, claiming he ‘[did not] recognise the characterisation of estate residents being frequently left unaware or having little confidence in processes of communication’.
Sian Berry’s investigation shows just how urgent the need for a cap on council spending and a fund to empower local residents remains. The Assembly Member’s report calls for ‘strengthened oversight, clearer rules around campaigning and ballot conduct, and greater transparency and consistency regarding voter eligibility’.
But money talks loudest of all in the context of an intensely commodified housing market. As long as councils can vastly outspend anti-regeneration campaigns to secure the outcomes they want in ballots, the concerns of estate residents will come a distant second to the profit motives of developers.
Saskia O’Hara is part of an expanding team within PILC supporting and litigating on behalf of communities experiencing unjust gentrification. Please keep an eye on the blog for regular updates on this work.
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