Friday 23 January 2015

West Hendon Public Inquiry hears comprehensive account of mistreatment of tenants

Paulette Singer, former community organiser on the West Hendon Estate, got a warm round of applause for this statement that she read out at the Public Inquiry yesterday evening:

1) I am writing this letter in objection to the Compulsory Purchase Order as the former Community Organiser on the West Hendon estate and ongoing supporter of the residents group ‘Our West Hendon’.

2) I spent a year and a half working on the West Hendon estate up until November 2014. My role, paid for by central government as part of the Community Organisers Programme was ‘building relationships in communities to activate people and create social and political change through collective action’.

3) Part of my work involved taking on volunteers from within the community whose role was to assist with the door-to-door listening process. In March last year a group of these residents formed ‘Our West Hendon’ in a attempt to both campaign about the perceived unfair treatment residents were experiencing through the regeneration process and also in order for them to have a support group in place to deal with individual housing cases. Along with several volunteers I listened to over 300 people across the estate and in the local area.

4) The repeated story as we moved across the estate was that the regeneration had meant a lack of investment and that the estate had been left to fall into disrepair. Moreover, the long awaited regeneration, which had promised such positive outcomes for the local community (in the original pledge) was not being well managed and was having adverse affects on people’s mental and physical wellbeing. The vast majority of residents, even those who felt strongly that the regeneration needed to go ahead, often said they knew nothing about their own future housing, said they had little information or consultation about the proposed regeneration and that they felt totally disenfranchised by the process.

5) It became apparent very early on that the main concerning factor for the vast majority of the tenants was the uncertainty and therefore the lack of security of their housing situation.

6) I was advised as I went and spoke to some of the longer standing residents that there had been a pledge which they had voted on, by a development partner that they had chosen back in 2002 and that since that time, the developer had changed as had the scope and details of the development with no explanation or further consultation.

7) A pledge is ‘A solemn promise or undertaking:

Or in Law

A thing that is given as security for the fulfillment of a contract or the payment of a debt and is liable to forfeiture in the event of failure
The reason I refer to the definition is that I believe that the failure to uphold the proposals in the pledge has been one of the main factors resulting in the breakdown in the trust and relationships between the residents and the partners. 
8) On the pledge Cllr Salinger stated ‘brand new replacement homes for the residents of the West Hendon estate’ and that, ‘our regeneration proposals will ensure high quality homes for all residents’. Furthermore, ‘We Guarantee that every council tenant and owner-occupier, living on the West Hendon estate and Ramsay close will be offered a new home in the new west Hendon’ and that the ‘Regeneration will take 10yrs starting in 2004’.  Fast forward to 2014, the proposed end date on this redevelopment plan, and not only has the demolition not even started, the building barely begun but the terms stated in the pledge have also largely been broken.

9) The pledge stated that the ‘park will be redesigned’ – the community believed that it would be maintaining York Memorial Park which not only provided much needed green space for the community, access to the Welsh Harp but also was a memorial park left in memory of those that died on York Way during the 2nd world war. NPPF ‘identifies that good design involves integrating development into the natural, built and historic environment, securing high quality design goes beyond aesthetic considerations’. The residents expected that the historical importance of their memorial park would be such a consideration, as would the SSSI nature of the Welsh Harp, which bears little mention in the ‘Statement of Reasons’. To call the existing estate ‘imposing’ and to replace it with high density high-rise is perverse. 5.28 of the Statement of Reasons only mentions ‘Tall buildings ranging from 8 to 20 storeys’.  Where does it mention the 32 story buildings? 5.24 states ‘that tall buildings should not affect their surroundings adversely in terms of microclimate, wind turbulence, overshadowing, noise reflective glare, aviation, navigation and telecommunication interference and should not impact on strategic views.’ The impact of the building work has already adversely affected bird migratory habits and the views currently enjoyed by the majority of the estate of the Welsh Harp will be eventually only be enjoyed by those in the waterside apartments.  People who travel to the Welsh Harp do so to enjoy the nature and beauty of the SSSI area but the developers believe there is a need for three 32-storey buildings to ‘create a focal point for the area’ (as stated in5.28). Those who are familiar with the Welsh Harp know only too well how out of place and ‘imposing’ such towers will be on the edge of the reservoir and indeed how devastating both their construction and existence will be on the wildlife.

10) A clear desire from many of the residents I listened to have been the need for a GP surgery or access to health care services on the estate. A strong concern that the closest surgeries were already struggling and would be overwhelmed by the proposed doubling of the community. Once again the pledge stated there would be ‘A new primary care resource centre’ another promise that has been broken.

11) When the pledge was written and the community voted they did so largely on the basis that they believed they were all going to be re-housed within the new development. They had every reason to believe this as it was also written into the pledge.  ‘Existing tenants will be offered a new home the same size or larger’. Instead, worryingly Freedom of Information requests done by residents have shown that on all regeneration estates across Barnet the number of secure tenants has decreased as the council have placed ‘temporary’ tenants in their stead thus reducing the level of council homes that the developer would have otherwise been obliged to replace. The council may argue that this is natural move on but the point remains that the development should be replacing at least the number of ‘affordable’ homes that existed when the development was originally proposed and the pledge was voted on. As directed by the London Plan and quoted in Barnet Statement of reasons ‘London Plan policy 3.14 aims to resist the loss of housing, including affordable housing’.

12) This move to lower the % of affordable housing on the estate, which has resulted in the loss of provision for the majority of the residents, was negotiated down by Barratts through their ‘commercially sensitive’ viability study.  The quota at this stage was reduced to 25% - 15% lower than Barnet’s own recommendations for ‘diverse communities and mixed tenure provision’.  This has resulted in a reduction from around 552 replacement council homes (the number of secure tenants back in 2002 down to only 250). 5:18 of Barnet Statement of reasons points out that this development ‘does not meet the target set Local Plan Policies CS4 and DM10 which set a borough-wide target of 40% housing provision to be affordable, or the mix of affordable housing as 60:40’.  Furthermore, given that Barnet Council has allowed developers to negotiate down ‘affordable’ quotas on all of its regeneration sites across the borough, in order for it to now come anywhere close to hitting the recommended rate of affordable homes as set out in the London plan, there is an even more urgent need for the West Hendon regen, given its size, to deliver at least the 40% affordable target. This consistent loss of ‘affordable’ homes across Barnet alongside public statements made by the head of housing Tom Davey and the head of the council Richard Cornelius show a total disregard of the need for Barnet to play its part in the London plans delivery of affordable housing and a deeply worrying open contempt of low income households (please see YouTube video of Tom Davey). 6.12 of Barnet Statement of Reasons states that ‘The delivery of Sub Phase 3a is supported by £5.5M social housing grant through the Affordable Homes Programme, as well as £6.8M Get Britain Building funding.’ This total of 12.3M of tax payers money is going to build 250 ‘affordable’ homes in replacement of an estate that in its current set up holds 540 (council tenants and leaseholders) ‘affordable’ homes.  How can this be justified? Who benefits and at who’s cost. A cost to the taxpayer of over 12.3M, a net loss of ‘affordable’ homes, displacement of over 80% of the community, systematic destruction of an established strong community? 7.6 of Statement of Reasons states ‘Government guidance on the use of compulsory purchase powers is provided in Circular 06/2004 which states that a compulsory purchase order should only be made where there is a compelling case in the public interest’

13) As someone who has spent a significant amount of time on the estate and with the community I can tell you that it is currently an incredibly diverse estate. Comprising of leaseholders, freeholders, private rented tenants, housing association tenants and council tenants.  5.15 of Barnet Statement of reasons ‘It emphasises the need to create a more balanced mix in all parts of London particularly in some neighbourhoods where social renting predominates.’  Once this development has been completed there will be a block of ‘affordable’ homes (on the least desirable portion of the estate) and the ‘waterside’ apartment blocks will be bought up by those on an income that affords them the luxury of buying into shared equity for a two bedroom flat that costs in excess of £430,000.  I, along with the residents along with anyone campaigning right now about fair access to ‘affordable’ housing in London struggle to see how this new breakdown of affordable to private housing constitutes either a diverse community or how it provides homes for the councils most in need, the families and individuals living in temporary accommodation across the borough, of which there are thousands.

14) The pledge also stated ‘Wherever possible homes will be built with a southerly orientation to benefit from natural sunlight and, where possible, views over the Welsh Harp’ yet now council tenants who are guaranteed homes on the estate (only 118 families), who up until now have enjoyed views over the Welsh Harp and York Memorial Park and the relative clean air that this affords them are being placed where the car park use to be on Perryfield gyratory system that runs through the estate, up against the A5 and above mechanic shops.  Between them, the Welsh Harp and the Sun will be four skyscrapers measuring 32 floors. The council describe the current estate as ‘imposing’ in design and scale yet plan to replace it with high-density high-rise builds. When a resident at one public meeting asked developers, ‘Why don’t you sell the flats on the car park and let us move into the flats facing the Welsh Harp’ they were told quite simple by Barratts and Metropolitan, the very same people that promised them their same views, ‘We wouldn’t be able to sell those ones ‘This rare example of candour about the development only served to confirm the residents worst fears of their needs and the promises that were made being secondary to the commercial interests of the partners…

16) Genuine democratic and transparent process has also been hindered by the fact that up until this year each Independent Tenant Advisers were paid for by the developers. Tenants have been all too aware of how this conflict of interest has rendered the ITA’s incapable of performing their role with the neutrality expected and have seen successive advisers leave.  This has meant a lack of consistency of support for residents throughout the process.

17) Furthermore, instead of helping residents to be involved in their community and the regeneration process by providing free access to their community centre, Barnet Homes under the orders of Barnet council removed tenants rights for free use of their own community facilities – without consultation or notice. During my time as Community Organiser on the estate I have had to use my limited funding to ensure that the hall could be booked so that residents had a space in which to meet and discuss the development.

18) Back in 2002 a decision was made by the council to place ‘temporary’ tenants on regeneration sites. This may have made sense at the time, the council may have truly believed the regenerations would be finished as planned and that the residents would be better placed in flats on regeneration estates then held in other less suitable emergency accommodation. However, upon realising that this wasn’t the case they continued to place people on the regeneration estates, holding them indefinitely on ‘temporary’ tenancies, often moving them from one regeneration estate to another with little consideration for the sometimes devastating impact this would have on peoples employment opportunities, health, on children’s education and on the communities in which these people embedded themselves.

19) ‘Temporary’ tenants have been treated like second class citizens and despite many being well respected core members of their community after having lived there, in some cases in excess of 10yrs, have been given no rights to remain on the estate.  There has been little attempt to engage with them or involve them in any of the consultation processes, despite the fact they formed the largest group on the estate (250).  Back in 2009 a promise was made by then head of the council Mike Freer to turn 118 ‘temporary tenancies’ into secure tenancies to acknowledge the impact that this was having on both the communities where people were being placed and the lives of those tenants but this promise was, like those in the pledge, also broken.

20) Despite the fact the pledge stated that ‘All council tenants’ would be housed on the estate, these tenants are in limbo, clearly not considered council tenants by their own landlords – the council.  Many say that when they were placed on the estate they were told that it was temporary and that they would be moved to secure accommodation, many more have told me they were given the false impression that they had secure housing on the estate. We are talking about families with children, disabled people, mentally vulnerable. Our West Hendon have had to, over the last few months, deal with distressed calls from sometimes suicidal tenants who were in fear of homelessness. Some having called Barnet Homes several times to try to get housing assessments completed.

21) Temporary tenants were advised that housing needs assessments would be completed latest by end of August 2014, before possession orders were received.  This would have meant that every tenant would have security about their situation and future housing before going through the incredibly stressful and frightening process of eviction hearings.  However, housing assessments were not completed which led to the court enforcing deferrals on eviction dates in order to push the council to complete assessments. To compound this housing officers advised several residents that there was no need to attend their eviction hearings, which were described to tenants as mere formality (there are recordings of this being stated by members of Barnet Homes).  This meant that many tenants did not attend their eviction hearings and were given eviction dates, without organised move on accommodation or housing needs assessments. The residents that were advised properly by Our West Hendon and a legal firm, and who attended their hearings had deferrals put in place and Barnet Homes have been ordered to not return until housing needs assessments have been completed. Unfortunately, this type of lack of due process is not an anomaly and only serves to illustrate the poor handling of the regeneration process.

22) Leaseholders who despite promises of having ‘their property purchased at full market value’ currently have no real guarantee of getting one of the new homes on the estate and despite independent surveyors valuing their properties are already being offered under half the valuation price for their existing homes.  Capita who are advising the council on the CPO rates have refused to explain how they have come to such deflated market value and indeed have said that this is private information – it appears that much of the reports that adversely affect the nature of the development are private information. When public land is involved, and public housing then surely there is a need for the information to also be made public?  In addition, leaseholders face hefty additional costs upon taking on these new properties of up to £2,500 a year in service charges. Effectively they will be moving from owning their own homes outright to owning half a home with large annual charges. Moreover, homeowners currently enjoying the views over the Welsh Harp in Franklin House are being offered over 20k less for their homes than the low rises yet in the new development the prices of the flats grow incrementally with the height. Facts such as these hopefully illustrate the unfairness and absurdity of the regeneration process.

23) Human rights suggest that there is a ‘fair balance, which has to be struck between the competing interests of those whose rights are affected and the community as a whole.’  In this instance it is the very community that the regeneration claims to be of benefit to that are being most adversely affected. 9.3 Article 1 of the First Protocol of the Convention states: “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interests and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law...” What we have witnessed and continue to witness on the West Hendon estate is in complete contravention of this article. Loss of an established community, loss of enjoyment of ones homes, loss of support and social networks, damage to both physical and mental wellbeing. If the proportion of affordable housing on the site matched Barnet’s own recommendations then the whole existing community could benefit from this redevelopment, instead it is at their cost. They have lived through years of planning blight, now they live on a permanent building site and as they watch the new homes being built they do so knowing they will be unlikely to be living in one of them.

24) I came to build relationships in communities to activate people and create social and political change through collective action. It appears that this ‘regeneration’ has had the exact opposite effect. It has marginalised, polarised and destroyed the fabric of the community with devastating affects on individuals, families and the wider communities social and economic wellbeing. The children of families moved from one regeneration estate to another, being forced to move from one school to another are suffering, as are the disabled people moved from pillar to post away from their health care providers, always having to start afresh. Indeed, many residents, due to their temporary nature on each regeneration estate have been largely denied their democratic right to vote, as their itinerant lifestyles do not lend themselves to voter registration.  What I have witnessed in my time working on the estate are the informal networks that make living on low incomes possible: the informal carers to those bedridden, the informal childcare that enables people to go out to work or to study. The neighbour dog walkers, the unsung informal housing support workers. I believe this community spirit is generally only still found on estates like West Hendon, it is that which has seen thousands of supporters sign a petition to fight against the displacement of this community and ask for more transparent and accountable regeneration processes.  It is that community spirit, missing in so many communities, which is part of the fabric of a strong society and it is that which is currently being torn apart.

25) Regeneration can and should be about working with existing communities, building on existing history, culture, natural landscapes and assets. Barnet have the opportunity to work with the developers to improve the lives of the local community and Barnet ratepayers but instead they appear to be working with the developers to the detriment of both.  When you weigh up the ‘public’ gains expected through this regeneration and stack them against the losses it becomes difficult for the layperson to not to conclude that there is something incredibly amiss. Regeneration in Barnet appears to be about the open political and ideological pursuit of replacing low-income households with high-income households (as they themselves have publicly admitted) – this certainly appears to be the only guaranteed outcome.


Jaine Lunn said...

Thank you for your very informative article, your honesty and integrity should be highly commended. I hope that all concerned will come to their senses and see the light. The pledges were just empty promises and we all know that promises are only comfort for fools. Barnet Council, Barratt Homes you should hang your heads in shame, how could you? Is there no-one out there, elected members, voted in by your constituents got any backbone? I wish you well Paulette in fighting your cause.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliantly-made case! And an unanswerable one I would think.
After this the decision of the inquiry and the ultimate decision of Pickles will tell us a lot about the integrity of both.
Good luck to you all.

Mike Hine

Anonymous said...

And the CPO of Brent Cross's Whitefield Estate follows shortly - the result of the 2008 Barnet corrupt planning permission.

Anonymous said...

And the CPO of Brent Cross's Whitefields Estate follows shortly - the result of Barnet's own corrupt planning permission from 2008, validated by itself.

Alison Hopkins said...

Don't get me started on Whitefields. The outright lies told to the poor wretched tenants are unspeakable. Promises made of fancy new homes, when we all know they'll get social cleansed. Barnet are still hell bent on the blasted dump, too.