Pop Brixton hosted an open conference about housing and gentrification at the weekend. Residents, activists and academics came together for the conference – Another Lambeth is Possible – and debated Lambeth council’s estate regeneration programme alongside local representatives.
The regeneration programme is intended to create 1,000 new homes in the borough, partly by demolishing existing estates and building new higher-density homes. The estates prioritised for regeneration are Central Hill, Cressingham Gardens, Fenwick Estate, Knight’s Walk, South Lambeth and Westbury.
Councillor Matthew Bennett, cabinet member for housing, was greeted with hisses from the crowd, and the animosity was palpable throughout the conference, which took place just two days after a High Court found Lambeth Council had acted unlawfully in the way it had conducted a consultation exercise.
Councillor Bennett defended the council’s decision, saying councillors felt it would have been dishonest to include this option on the consultation when they had already deemed it financially unfeasible to simply leave the estate as it is.
Crowd members on Saturday shouted at Councillor Bennett demanding that he resign after the ruling, and asking how much the ruling had cost the council in legal fees.
The estate regeneration program began in 2014 to deal with a worsening housing crisis. Lambeth Council figures show over 20,000 people are on the social housing waiting list, 1,800 families are in temporary accommodation and 1,300 families live in severely overcrowded conditions.
Councillor Bennett said the council is forced to make controversial decisions by a double bind: the urgent need for new homes combined with significant cuts from central government.
Council figures show there has been a £150 million cut in Government funding, leaving a £56 million shortfall in monies for refurbishment.
Underneath the seemingly united front presented at the conference by estate residents who positioned themselves against the council, there are different strategies pursued by different tenants’ associations.
“We call ourselves YIMBYs,” said Mary Van de Water, of Knight’s Walk estate in Kennington. “‘Yes In My Back Yard, but not on top of my house!’”
Knight’s Walk estate residents won a compromise on infill of new homes despite the council initially pushing for demolition. The residents’ association had also pushed for listing of the estate, which is an example of ’70s brutalist architecture.
Ms Van de Water said the uncertainty over their homes had put a toll on all the residents of Knight’s Walk, many of which are elderly. “People haven’t been able to sleep, a couple of people have lost huge amounts of weight, and some are smoking more heavily,” she said. Many residents had lived there since the estate was first built, and some had previously lived on the same estate in Brixton. “So it’s really an established community,” said Ms Van de Water.
She defended the decision to compromise: “It’s not fair on politicians to ask them to do things that are not within their powers.”
“Matthew Bennett was yelled at over things which go back decades, actually,” said Ms Van de Water, emphasising that estates’ maintenance was, to her, the main problem. “But he has to be responsible, he’s an elected member.”
The conference also touched on the broader issue of gentrification, which many residents feel will be a consequence of estate regeneration. Professor Loretta Lees, an expert on gentrification and housing who sat on the panel, said: “It’s very difficult to fight gentrification, but there are alternatives.”
The media image of sink estates that somehow inevitably foster crime and violence still has a lot of traction, and this negative view of estates contributes to arguments for demolition, according to Geraldine Dening of Architects for Social Housing. Ms Dening has worked with Knight’s Walk residents to explore alternative architectural options for the estate.
Residents of Cressingham Gardens, Knight’s Walk and others defy the sink estate label, defending their estates as wholesome and tight-knit communities for whom demolition would signify not an improvement but a distinct deterioration of life chances.
Negotiations between the estates and the council are continuing, with the ruling on Cressingham prompting the beginning of a new consultation.