A big win but too many loopholes for residents faced by estate demolition

The Mayor of London has at last published his final estate ballots policy. Many estate residents will now have the right to a ballot when the demolition of their homes is being considered. This is a hard-won victory for residents and grassroots campaigners after Sadiq Khan’s first draft ‘best practice’ guidance for estates came out against ballots in 2016.

In the final policy, it’s good to see that 16 year olds – in households that meet the Mayor’s eligibility criteria – will be able to vote, and that an independent body will be required to conduct the ballots. I urged the Mayor to make both these changes in my response to his consultation on the details of ballot processes this year.

But I am concerned that private renters still get a raw deal from the Mayor’s policy. He excludes residents from voting if they rent privately from leaseholders or are registered homeless unless they have been on the local authority housing register for a year. The Mayor should look again at this part of the policy – all estate residents should be allowed to vote on the future of their homes.

I am also concerned that people who live in smaller estates or blocks won’t get a ballot unless 150 homes or more are planned to be built in place of their demolished homes. It seems wrong to set a limit based on builds rather than demolitions and a threshold of 150 homes is too high. I worry that developers will be incentivised to plan smaller schemes – below the 150 homes threshold – in order to avoid having a ballot and the Mayor needs to keep a close eye on the number of 149-home schemes that start to be proposed.

It was good to see the Mayor applying the new policy last week by insisting on a ballot before he will fund the new proposals for the Ebury Bridge and Church Street developments in Westminster. These schemes were changed after a ballot by the council under its previous policy of giving residents a say, and the residents are demanding a vote on the new scheme. I am also pleased that City Hall will be able to claw back funding if it turns out that developers have tried to cheat residents out of a ballot by artificially breaking up a scheme into smaller chunks.

However, we have waited far too long for this policy, and several very controversial demolition schemes are still set to go ahead with no ballots thanks to the delay. Estates like Fenwick, Cressingham Gardens, Knights Walk and other estates in Lambeth, Ham Close in Richmond and the Aylesbury in Southwark already got funding ahead of the new policy being announced, so will be exempt unless their councils carry out ballots voluntarily.

As I revealed in March, Sadiq signed off funding for dozens of other schemes in secret in the time between his consultation closing in March 2017 and publishing the final guidance in February 2018 – with 16 schemes signed off in the final three months.

The Mayor also promised me at the March MQT not to sign any new funding agreements without ballots but, since then, Becontree Heath in Barking, and Jupiter, Latham and Westland Courts in Ealing have been granted *planning permission*, which we now find will also exempt these estates from ballots, even if funding wasn’t signed off in February and is still to be agreed.

This is yet another loophole, with even more residents now finding they have been let down by the Mayor. In total, around 12,000 homes have slipped through the net of this new policy by being given funding or planning while this policy was being developed. It’s too many and I’ll be supporting residents across London who feel their council has been let off the hook by the Mayor.

I’ll also be writing to the Mayor and tabling questions for September MQT asking him about these loopholes and about the resources he is going to put into enforcing the policy and how he will handle complaints if residents suspect the policy is not being applied properly.

I am also asking the Mayor to use his planning powers, not just funding conditions, to make sure residents have their say. He accepts that ballots for funding decisions is good practice, so he must also insist on ballots for planning decisions too.

In his new London Plan, ballots could be required and their results given significant weight in planning decisions. I’ve asked him to do this in my response to the draft London Plan and new amendments to the proposed policies are due soon. I hope the Mayor will listen and stand by his words when he launched the policy: that he is “determined to use his funding and planning powers to their fullest extent to protect social housing.”