Public Interest Law Centre

public law | human rights | legal action

7Aug 2023

Southwark community ask Michael Gove to stand by housing ambitions

7th August 2023|General|

Southwark community ask Michael Gove to stand by his housing ambitions and intervene on Lendlease’s battle to build a giant office block instead of housing.

‘Community Objectors of H1’ (‘COH1’) are intervening in a Planning Inquiry in which Lendlease are appealing the decision of Southwark council not to grant them planning permission on ‘Plot H1’ – the final plot of Elephant Park, a controversial redevelopment which stands on the former site of the Heygate estate. Although this site was originally identified for housing (as per the Outline Planning Permission), Lendlease are now battling to build an 18-storey office block instead of housing on a ‘standalone planning application’.

Further to Gove’s recent speech in which he talked of the “failure to turbocharge the redevelopment of inner city London” and of the government’s commitment to a “new era of regeneration, inner-city densification and housing delivery across England”, which would encourage housing in city centres and the “supply of beautiful, safe, decent homes”, COH1 have written to Gove asking him to ‘recover this appeal’. That is, personally determine the outcome. COH1 say this represents the perfect opportunity for the Secretary of State to demonstrate his commitment to these ideals in practice.

As it stands, compared with the position prior to demolition, the redevelopment of Elephant Park will result in a loss of 931 social rented homes. COH1 say this dramatic loss of housing is of country-wide importance, given the national housing emergency – in Southwark alone, over 14,000 are on the housing register.

Background

On 21 December 2022, Southwark council refused permission for Lendlease’s plans for the following reasons:

  1. The excessive height, massing and bulk of the application would cause harm to the character and appearance of Elephant Road, Elephant Park and Walworth Road; and
  2. That the proposal would cause unacceptable harm to the neighbouring amenity due to loss of daylight.
  3. The third reason related to the absence of a s.106 agreement – although this is likely to be resolved prior to the Inquiry commencing.

Lendlease are appealing this decision and reasoning, in a Planning Inquiry set to commence in September 2023.

COH1 have successfully secured Rule 6(6)2 status in this Inquiry (an interested party). They are a collective of local residents and campaigners living on and near Elephant Park. The group include the long established 35% Campaign and the Walworth Society.

As well as supporting the Southwark Council’s reasoning to reject the application, COH1 are raising the following points.

  1. The policy requirements and principles to build housing on estate redevelopment.
  2. That the provision of offices in this location is not a substantial benefit.
  3. That proposals fail to provide affordable workspace and/or retail space – which is a significant issue given the displacement of traders in the neighbouring and demolished Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

Jerry Flynn, spokesperson for COH1 states:
“Local people were baffled and shocked when they learnt that Lendlease were going to build a giant office block instead of housing on the final plot of Elephant Park. Southwark desperately needs housing, particularly affordable housing. Southwark Council made the right decision when they refused this application last October and we are looking to the Secretary of State to uphold that decision.”

Alexandra Goldenberg, solicitor at Public Interest Law Centre states:
“This is a matter of public significance. Lendlease’s planning application should be treated as an application for estate redevelopment on a former council estate and as such must follow the London Plan Policy 2021 and increase housing supply. In the midst of a housing crisis, they are seeking to circumvent these policies by overbuilding and have reneged on promises made through consultation with the local community.”


COH1 are represented by Public Interest Law Centre, supported by Southwark Law Centre. Instructed counsel is Charles Bishop of Landmark Chambers.

Photography: LASZLO ILYES

27Jul 2023

London Councils respond to PILC report

27th July 2023|General|

In September 2022 we released a report – ‘Abused twice’: the ‘gatekeeping’ of support for domestic abuse survivors in every London borough – exposing how domestic abuse survivors are often denied access to housing provision due to local authority ‘gatekeeping’. 

As a direct result of this report, London Councils, working alongside London’s Housing Directors, secured £20,000 for a project to ‘identify the principles and processes that would underpin an exemplar housing support service model to ensure that people with an eligibility for support receive the service they are entitled to’. The project was set up to ‘seek to address the findings of the recent report that identified examples of failures in how London local authority housing services were responding to domestic abuse survivors approaching the councils for support.’

Aicha Penrith (Principal Policy & Project Officer, Housing & Planning, London Councils) explained that this project will look at the initial stages of triaging people in need of emergency support. The intended outputs of the triage project include: a series of practical tools to assist local authorities delivering frontline services; a standardised triage script for local authority staff providing first contact with homelessness services; and a rough sleeping risk assessment tool to help housing specialists recognise when someone is homeless. 

Set to run from March to July 2023, the report states that at the end of the project a self-assessment framework would be implemented to allow both London (and non-London) authorities to measure performance of homelessness and housing options services – using best practice from the project. With the intention of enabling benchmarking and helping move from a process-driven service to a person-centred approach. 

London Councils’ report and subsequent project are a sign of real progress. The interviews, evidence and law that we presented in Abused Twice has forced London Housing Directors to sit down and acknowledge the housing problems faced by so many survivors. Examining the endemic failure of London councils to provide emergency accommodation is an urgent priority – and it is great that London Councils and London Housing Directors have begun the process of reviewing their systems. It is also encouraging to see that a broad range of London local authorities are involved in the project – and will hopefully begin a process of necessary change.

However, we are concerned that this grant will not be enough to resolve the wider, more entrenched issues relating to housing in England. As we argue in Abused Twice, the problem of local-authority ‘gatekeeping’ of support for survivors has worsened over the last decade as a consequence of austerity and a chronic shortage of social housing. The enormity of the problem now requires a response of similar magnitude.

Under Sections 188 and 193 of the Housing Act 1996, domestic abuse survivors have the legal right to access emergency housing and longer-term safe and secure accommodation. Despite this, local authorities continue to claim that their failure to abide by the law is due to a lack of resources. These, quite frankly, are excuses. Local authorities must abide by the law – which means granting survivors their statutory right to housing support.

While we appreciate that London Councils and London’s Housing Directors are taking our findings from Abused Twice on board, we question why local authorities do not undertake joint campaigns for decent funding from Central Government to enable them to house people safely and securely. In this vein, we are encouraged by the joint letter to Housing Secretary Michael Gove, signed by London Deputy Mayor for Housing Tom Copley and the London Housing Panel, urging the Government to provide long-term investment into social rented housing as local authorities cannot solve the housing crisis alone.

We look forward to the findings of the London Councils pilot project, and hope this marks the beginning of tangible change.

Our Report – Abused Twice

‘Gatekeeping’ can be defined as the placing of bureaucratic or other obstacles in the way of those seeking statutory support. In other words, when somebody tries to access support a gate is effectively put in their way. In domestic abuse cases this might be: demanding that survivors submit police evidence, or that incidents of abuse have occurred recently. Unless they provide this evidence the survivor is prevented from receiving housing support. With years of experience working within this area, we can confidently report that this type of gatekeeping is unfortunately systemic across London. 

To fully emphasise just how endemic gatekeeping can be, we published Abused Twice. We took a witness statement from a domestic abuse survivor or frontline advocate from each of the 32 London boroughs. In every statement, the same kinds of obstacles arise when survivors seek housing support from local authorities. This is not a coincidence. Instead, we found this to be a deeply-rooted, chronic problem.

Out of the survivors who participated in our report, one third were not accommodated in emergency accommodation; three quarters reported experiencing delays with their application for housing support, with some waiting for months or even years for an outcome of their applications; and two thirds were accommodated in unsuitable accommodation, including housing that was overcrowded, located in unsafe areas or far from support networks. 

Advocacy from an Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) or a lawyer is often required for a survivor to have any chance of accessing housing; over a quarter of the participants required the intervention of a lawyer to get their local authority to provide housing support.

The real-life consequences of this ‘gatekeeping’ can be extremely grave. As documented in the report, this includes:

  • Survivors being forced to remain in dangerous properties or return to the perpetrator of abuse;  
  • Street homelessness—one of our participants was forced to sleep in a friend’s car, another on a park bench – who then the next day tried to take her life;  
  • Survivors having no choice but to occupy unsuitable or unaffordable accommodation;
  • Survivors are being moved away from support networks; and 
  • Survivors being retraumatised leading to a deterioration in their mental health. 

The impact of local authority gatekeeping in domestic abuse cases can be the difference between life and death, safety and danger, housing and street homelessness. As one survivor put it, this makes survivors feel like they have been abused twice.  

30Jun 2023

High Court grants permission for Judicial Review in Aylesbury Estate case

30th June 2023|General, Housing, Judicial review|

Permission has been granted on the papers by Lang J to bring a judicial review of the decision of the London Borough of Southwark to approve a “non-material amendment” under s.96A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. PILC represents the Claimant, Ms Aysen Dennis, a local resident and campaigner whose home is due to be demolished under Notting Hill Gensis’ scheme to regenerate the estate.

The amendment was made to a phased, outline planning permission concerning the Aylesbury Estate in London. The amendment in question was to insert the word “severable” into the description of development of the outline scheme.

The Claimant argues that it was irrational to conclude that the change to the outline planning permission was non-material, in light of the judgment of the Supreme Court in Hillside Parks Ltd v Snowdonia National Park Authority [2022] UKSC 30 (“Hillside”).

The claim will likely deal with the implications of Hillside for “drop in” planning permissions and the amendment of large outline schemes more generally. In particular, the Court is expected to give guidance on whether a phasing plan and/or the outline nature of the scheme means that it is necessarily “severable”, as discussed in Hillside.

Although technical in nature, this challenge is important for local communities across the country fighting to hold developers, who have diverted from historical plans and promises to residents in ‘regeneration’ schemes, to account.  It is also a significant example of those affected by demolition and gentrification having agency over the planning process to further their campaigns against displacement and loss of council/social rent housing.

Further details on the case can be found here.

Ms Dennis’ legal team is:  

Alexandra Goldenberg and Saskia O’Hara of the Public Interest Law Centre.

Alex Shattock of Landmark Chambers. 

Photography: Luisa Le Voguer Couyet

30Jun 2023

Campaigners fighting to save Folkestone (‘Grace Hill’) library celebrate “significant step forward”

30th June 2023|General|

Campaigners fighting to save the Folkestone (‘Grace Hill’) library celebrate a “significant step forward” as Kent County Council promise a consultation and face-to-face meeting on the library’s future.

In response to a legal letter sent by PILC on behalf of campaigners regarding the closure of Folkestone (‘Grace Hill’) library (read about it here) Kent County Council (KCC) have stated:

“KCC is willing to work with the Claimant and the local community on exploring the short, medium and long term arrangements for the library service. KCC has been exploring a range of options for temporary service provision and is in a position to discuss these now with the Claimant and the local community in an effort to co-design and minimise the impact of the current temporary closure.”

The offer of this meeting is being hailed as a partial victory in efforts to secure the library’s future, as is the disclosure of information on decision making which led to the closure and the promise of consulting with the community on future plans.  

Jon O’Connor, a member of Save Our Library campaign, states:

“PILC as our legal advisers with assistance from Anthony Vaughan of  Doughty Street Chambers, set out clearly and in a formal way the core concerns of the Save Our Library campaign: a lack of transparency, the risk of increasing inequality, the moral case for community engagement in decision making.

The response from KCC has – in their own words – involved a refreshing ‘candour’.  They have provided detail on the financial background in place of more generic figures circulating previously; the decision making context and the recognition of community concerns is made explicit  for the first time.

Overall the exchange has produced clarity on how this situation has evolved and where the responsibilities lie.  It is also possible for the first time to see a glimmer of possibility that we can find a way forward by engaging in a more constructive dialogue.

This is a very significant step forward: I very much welcome this offer (to meet with KCC) and look forward to a meaningful discussion  – as a first step towards remedying the situation with and for our local community. I am indebted to PILC and Anthony Vaughan for their support and understanding of the issues.”

Please keep an eye on our blog for updates.

Photography: Save Our Library campaign

14Jun 2023

Save Folkestone (Grace Hill) Library!

14th June 2023|General|

Public Interest Law Centre is representing a member of the Folkestone community battling to save the Grade II listed Folkestone (Grace Hill) library.  A letter threatening legal action has been sent to Kent County Council (‘KCC’) who closed the library in December 2022 on account of repair issues – it has remained closed ever since.

This letter questions the decision on 23 March 2023 not to fund repair works and reopen the library, a much needed and valued community asset. It also argues that KCC have  failed to follow Key Decision making policy, including non-disclosure of material information in relation to the decision of 23 March. Indeed, the KCC have failed to adequately consult with relevant stakeholders regarding the closure of the library; failed to comply with its Public Sector Equality Duty; and mismanaged this Grade II listed building resulting in disrepair and high refurbishment costs which may have been avoidable.

The letter calls for the library to be reopened and refurbished, and for all related documentation to be disclosed to the public.

Background

In 1879, the Folkestone Free library was established as a result of the Public Libraries Act 1850. This Act gave local authorities the power to establish free public libraries, in a move which is recognised as the first legislative step in the provision for universal free access to information and literature. Grace Hill library was officially opened for the public in its current location in 1888.

Grace Hill library is a vital public asset for the community in Folkestone Central, as well as Folkestone East and Folkestone Harbour which is a highly deprived area, across the Folkestone & Hythe district, 15.5% of children live in absolute low income families.

When open, the library had disabled access, computers for public use with access to the internet, an online catalogue, a children’s library, a local studies collection and exhibition space. A long-standing community hub, it has recently acted as a lifeline for those experiencing fuel poverty during the cost-of-living crisis, as one of the only warm free spaces available in the local area.

Jon O’Connor, a community activist and Grace Hill Library user says:

“I grew up in poverty, I had only a couple of books to my name, although my father was actually a writer himself. Spending four decades in education, I have met countless families facing enormous challenges, always determined that their children should enjoy better lives – with books, reading, research being crucial. To allow Grace Hill Library – this valuable resource and historic symbol of local opportunity – to decline in such a way as to disadvantage our community and future generations is both heartless and incompetent. That is unacceptable. To renege on the clear public responsibility for provision, failing to offer a single meeting or discussion about how this disaster unfolded and how we might work together to remedy the problems is a tale of pompous obfuscation of truly Dickensian proportions. That in my view is untenable and unforgivable.

“The Save Our Library community group have come together from all political backgrounds and none, from families to historians to social workers, performers, local businesses have pressed patiently for information, for direct explanation and for truthfulness.

“We have won the public debate, with almost 3,000 signatures on a petition to think again; with local councillors increasingly expressing disbelief at the poor communication and poor levels of public service. We have secured the support of local businesses, celebrities, media interest and increasingly attention at national and even international level for our questions to be answered.

“In response, the authority has slowly trickle-fed partial disclosure; we have had the most senior politicians expressing their support but also urging us to be patient, to trust the local authority and to let them do their job of working out a solution. Nothing seems less likely. Look at the track record and evidence of this beautiful library left to rack and ruin. 

“This has clear ramifications for the schools estate, care homes, buildings across Kent: in fact, it is potentially a major scandal. In the face of such reticence to get real, to deal with the issues, sadly it seems that this step towards legal action is unavoidable.”

Please keep an eye on the PILC website for updates. Find more information on the Save Folkestone Library campaign here.

Photography: Save Our Library campaign

6Mar 2023

PILC speaks to Save Brownswell Green campaigner Becky Weston

6th March 2023|Case Q&A, General, Gentrification, Housing|

‘Save Brownswell Green’ campaign

In the wake of the Gentrification Project launch, we speak to Becky Weston, a former PILC client and campaigner from Save Brownswell Green in Barnet who successfully stopped plans of the demolition of her home and loss of community greenspace on her estate. We asked Becky what advice she would give to anyone who is in a similar position.

Becky, when you learned about plans to infill on the green space what action did you take?

I immediately got in touch with my local community. I created leaflets about my concerns with the proposed regeneration, and put them through doors of those who would be affected. I got a lot of feedback – 99% of those I spoke to didn’t know about the regeneration. I quickly set up a WhatsApp group and registered a community interest group via email. A lot of people in the community became involved across all 3 sites which made up the ‘Grange Estate redevelopment.’  We became the ‘Save Brownswell Green‘ campaign. 

We collectively researched registering the threatened greenspace as a community asset, and tried to collate other local information we thought was relevant, such as information from council meetings. We attended council meetings, and held campaign meetings in our homes. We started an online petition which got well over 1,000 signatures. We also contacted local media to make them aware of what was happening and put pressure on the council. We also reached out to the Public Interest Law Centre to see if we could launch a legal challenge. This was via a community resident on our collective WhatsApp group.

https://twitter.com/BrownswellGreen/status/1511606666919350273

What propelled you to take this action?

I think everyone was angry – we literally didn’t know anything (about the plans) until I received an email from the housing office saying they were demolishing my home and two others (as well as infilling on the greenspace on the estate).

Myself and the other two residents didn’t want to lose our homes – so we had a slightly different agenda of both keeping our houses and saving the greenspace. But we focused on the greenspace issue, to get as much resident opposition to the plans as possible.

We were also spurred on by the council being deceitful from start to finish. From the amount of floors the proposed buildings would have to the level of engagement and consultation they said they had completed, the council lied.

What was useful about instructing PILC on the case?

They wrote letters to the council, when they were reluctant to reply to residents. They got us information and the council were forced to listen to our arguments. They explained to us clearly what our options and rights were. They talked to us with respect.

They came to the estate and saw the issues with their own eyes, two or three times. I think face-to-face is important as you can only do so much over email and phone. So we appreciated this. They advised us on a lot of things, but did not tell us what to do or overpower us with legal information. If we asked a question, they always tried to find the answer for us.

What would you say to any other residents across London and beyond in a similar situation?

Talk to your community. Don’t be afraid to put a leaflet through the door and put a phone number on it!

Engage with people and don’t think you can fight the battle alone. This is time-consuming and a long-drawn out process. I’d go to bed dreaming about parking spaces! 

Get a team together and understand what you’re fighting for. Set-up a WhatsApp group and email.  Work together and understand that everybody is fighting for the same thing.

Get in touch with local councillors via email to ask them to fight alongside the community and come to meetings, etc. 

Get in touch with a law centre/firm early on. We got in touch with PILC at quite an early stage in our campaign. This was useful as discussions with PILC allowed us to focus on the information we needed to collate and what key issues we should campaign on at an early stage of redevelopment plans.