Estate Regeneration Ballots

Responding to mounting political and public pressure, Mayor Sadiq Khan in February called on councils and housing associations to ballot estate residents on large GLA-funded schemes involving demolition. The move was designed to ‘make sure people living on housing estates were “at the heart of any decisions from the outset” (FT).

A consultation document accompanying the Better Homes for Local People guidance proposed a ballot as a condition of GLA funding for schemes of 150 new homes or more and which involve the demolition of existing social homes. Residents must be satisfied on: right to return; leaseholder offer; engagement offer; and aims and objectives of regeneration. The vote would be a simple yes/no outcome, with the process overseen by an independent expert. The GLA has been consulting on how this should be delivered; proposed guidance is available here.

To gauge response and understand how the public sector can respond to the initiative’s risks and opportunities, FoL’s London Housing Network focused on balloting in its standing-room-only April session.

The LHN event was attended by 60 delegates from 16 local authorities, five housing associations, the GLA, London Assembly, community-led housing bodies and Citizens UK.

Early on, delegates were asked, “Who here agrees with the principle of a ballot?” The majority of hands went up. Despite this consensus, there were concerns about how the ballot would work in practice. Here are the highlights:

Who votes?

  • A critical question. Clearly existing residents must have a say, but what about the development’s future occupants? Under the proposed guidance, social tenant residents, resident leaseholders and residents on the housing needs register would be eligible. Further technical guidance is needed to clarify criteria for assigning votes to people on the housing waiting list. It was also suggested that boroughs should have the option of extending the vote to neighbouring residents and local commercial interests, who will also be affected.

Doing more with less

Ballots will demand more from authorities than current engagement processes. Councils will still need to engage and consult with residents, but they will also have to advocate for a ‘yes’ vote in an often charged atmosphere. Further, complex schemes can take up to 20 years to complete and need stakeholders to take a long-term view. Whether residents will consider the ‘greater good’ is also debated, as outlined in this OnLondon article. Given that council cuts continue to bite, it was suggested that the GLA could establish a funding pot to support increased outreach activity.

Offering clarity

The experience of many is that ‘the devil is in the detail’ when it comes to generating support for regeneration. Questions that matter to local people – such as what the floor plans look like and whether there is a garden – may not be answered before the ballot. The GLA proposed that at the time of the ballot, authorities should be able to offer design principles rather than detailed plans. Trust will be required for residents to vote ‘yes’.

Policy and market conditions also shift through the lifetime of most developments, potentially requiring changes; how will these be accounted for, communicated and responded to? There must be protections in place to ensure residents get what they voted for, as well as assurances for local authorities and housing associations that factors outside their control won’t cause later reprisals.

Addressing risks

  • Over-simplification: several delegates expressed concern that balloting would condense a complex process of many parts down to a single event. It was argued that residents should have a say at every phase of a project, while a ballot is a one-stop yes/no decision. There was consensus that conditions should be put in place to ensure engagement does not tail off after the vote.
  • Hijacking: There is also potential for votes to be ‘hijacked’ for political purposes. It was suggested that groups opposing estate regeneration could move from estate to estate, campaigning for a “no” vote regardless of the local context. Others suggested  the ballot actually counteracts third-party influence by giving the “silent majority” a direct vote. In the best-case scenario, increased trust in the estate regeneration process could see aggressive campaigning dissipate.
  • Divisions: ballots do have the potential to be divisive – the example of Brexit was cited by several delegates. Tensions could develop on estates and even within households where residents have opposing views. The idea was floated that requiring 70% “yes” rather than a simple majority could help build consensus.
  • Delivery: the most serious concern, voiced by many, was that ballots would significantly slow the delivery of affordable housing in the capital. It was suggested that balloting alone won’t work without a shift in the culture of engagement. In the current climate, there is a very real risk that “no” votes will carry on principle, or as an expression of wider anger, fear or disillusionment.

At its best, regeneration can deliver benefits, including more affordable housing,  community facilities and green space – but residents must be on board to achieve this. The task now is to develop a framework for the ballot that will support effective engagement; provide the right information for residents to make an informed decision; and build long-term trust between communities and local authorities.

Estate Regeneration Ballots was part of Future of London’s London Housing Network event series, which take place under Chatham House Rules. To get the full picture and join our next lively and candid debate, go to our London Housing Network webpage.

London Housing Network supports public-sector organisations in their efforts to meet ambitious and complex housing growth targets. LHN provides technical, policy and political insight, shares best practice and offers a pan-London forum.