To ballot or not to ballot

Originally posted at Inside Housing on February 7.

Tenants get a vote if their landlord wants to transfer the ownership of their homes, so why not when their homes are going to be knocked down around them?

I’ve long believed that tenant ballots should be compulsory under major regeneration proposals even though the idea is not as simple as some people make out and is not going to fix current problems on its own.

Why? London mayor Sadiq Khan says he will require ballots on proposals where demolition is involved and which have Greater London Authority funding.

He has changed his mind since draft guidance last year argued that surveys and meetings should be held as proposals evolve ‘so that a “real time” assessment of the acceptability of what is being proposed is enabled’.

The draft said ballots and votes ‘can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people at different ways over many years into a simple “yes/no” decision at a single point in time’.

After a unanimous vote in favour of ballots by the London Assembly, the final version says that: ‘I want the good practice and principles in this guide to be applied on all estate regeneration schemes across London. Where demolition is involved, I intend to use my planning powers, and a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved, to help ensure this is the case.’

This is part of a wider shift in opinion within the Labour party signalled by Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech last year and symbolised by what’s been happening in Haringey, with the intervention by the National Executive Committee, resignation of council leader Claire Kober and likely cancellation of the controversial Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) after the local elections.

But it’s not just about that: it is no longer politically or morally sustainable to regard council estates as brownfield regeneration opportunities while denying a voice to the people who live on them.

Promoters can say all they like about ‘meaningful engagement’ and ‘full consultation’ with tenants but that will not cut it unless tenants also have the power to say no to bad proposals.

That’s exactly how it worked with stock transfer, where tenants voted on proposals put forward by local authorities and housing associations and decided for themselves whether they wanted to go ahead.

Not as simple? Let’s start with the proposition in my opening paragraph: tenants do get a vote in a stock transfer from a local authority to a housing association but transfers of ownership between associations are a different matter.

What about the arguments put forward by those who have doubts about ballots? The G15 group of the largest housing associations is concerned about a ‘significant effect’ on regeneration plans.

Conservative-led Westminster City Council used to require ballots but has changed its mind, with leader Nickie Aiken citing concerns about low turnout and the fact that votes ‘represent a moment in time only’ when regeneration is a long and complex process.

Labour mayor of Hackney Philip Glanville says residents must have a meaningful say and councils should consider how to introduce ballots into the process in a constructive way.

But he points out that with no central government funding available ‘local authorities like Hackney are forced to build homes for sale to subsidise the genuinely affordable homes we need. Sadly, right now if we don’t accept that principle, we don’t build any homes.’

He concludes: ‘What ballots shouldn’t be is a referendum of whether we build new homes at all – everyone worth their salt agrees with that. And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that a binary yes/no vote can be more complicated than it seems.’

There are all valid points but for me they point to the importance of engagement and consultation with residents in addition to rather than instead of ballots.

A more fundamental difficulty, and one I can’t see an easy way to resolve, is the one signalled by my use of ‘residents’ in the previous paragraph.

Who should have the right to vote in the ballots? Tenants, obviously, but the mayor’s guidance calls for ‘resident ballots’.

When it comes to regeneration plans that involve demolition, many of the most controversial issues involve leaseholders, including the terms of compulsory purchase.

The regeneration may boost property values to such an extent that even when the leaseholders do have a right to return, this may only be possible as shared equity owners or shared owners. If that does not sound fair, giving them full ownership would effectively hand them another right to buy discount.

And what about other people living on estates – either private tenants or families placed in temporary accommodation on those scheduled for demolition?

Some on the Left argue that private tenants should get the vote rather than their buy-to-let landlords but it’s hard to see that withstanding a legal challenge.

Promoters of regeneration argue that there are other stakeholders in the regeneration process whose needs should be taken into account.

Families on the waiting list, or homeless people stuck in temporary accommodation or bed and breakfast, will be affected by decisions about whether to build new homes or not but would have no vote in a ballot.

It’s a strong argument but it’s one that is undermined by schemes that prioritise affordable homes rather than the social rented ones that low-income households could actually afford to rent.

So what happens next? It’s important to note that the mayor’s change of heart on ballots only applies to schemes with Greater London Authority funding – other than that, the guidance says that he will use his planning powers to insist that that there is no net loss of affordable housing.

If the political tide seems to have turned against the sort of large-scale, unaccountable regeneration that has taken place in the past, the financial pressures on local authorities and the desperate need for new homes are not going to go away.

For Claire Kober, the HDV represents ‘the only viable option which builds new homes, replaces obviously inadequate estates, creates new jobs, and safeguards the future of the Council within a sensible timeframe’.

But with hindsight the scheme was too big and too complex to generate trust among tenants – and that was even before the council chose the developer at the heart of the Heygate controversy as its partner.

Ballots are not a perfect solution and they are not enough on their own but tenants of estates like West Kensington and Gibbs Green must have the right to say no to bad schemes.

The result may well be that some regeneration schemes do not go ahead – up to a third of ballots said no to stock transfer – but that is a reason to come up with better schemes, not deny tenants a vote.

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