We Had To Get More Organised: One Campaigner’s Journey Through Regeneration

Southwark is a hotbed of campaigns and seasoned campaigners. If they took on the guise of a royal court then Jerry Flynn, who co-ordinates the 35% Campaign, would have strong claims to the throne.

Southwark’s regeneration efforts over the last decade or so have been much documented, not least by Jerry and his band of dedicated activists. Planning policy itself is a rather opaque business, as are the agreements between local authorities and their ‘regeneration partners’. Southwark is currently working with Lend Lease – an Australian outfit that made a profit of $618.6m last year alone.

One of Lend Lease’s flagship developments in the borough is the controversial redevelopment of the Heygate estate at the Elephant and Castle. It is the same development that first spurred Jerry and his colleagues to establish their campaign.

They initially met at a planning committee meeting that was considering applications for the early housing sites. The meeting lasted from 7pm to 2am – dedication on the part of council officers and those objecting to plans clear for all to see – and saw every application agreed despite the various objections that were made.

Jerry continues the story: “There were enough people who were sufficiently dissatisfied with Southwark council to get together. We needed to get a little bit more organised – there was no point in waiting for planning committee meetings to happen.”

As a result they set up a group called the Elephant Amenity Network in 2008 in response to the Heygate estate regeneration and their dissatisfaction with how it was progressing (particularly in regards to how the rehousing of residents was going). The group is founded on three basic principles: open planning, benefits of regeneration for all, and 50% affordable housing in any development.

“We built up quite a campaign. Much of the opposition was around the lack of affordable housing, the very generous car parking concession that Lend Lease was given, and environmental issues particularly around the loss of mature trees.”

How exactly did Lend Lease get away with building less affordable housing than was required by policy?

So were you successful?

“We managed to put on a ‘good show’ – we got the planning application publicised, managed to publicise the low level of affordable housing and the number of trees being removed. We didn’t manage to get the application rejected which was our main aim, although we did realise that the likelihood of that happening was pretty low.”

A modern day David VS Goliath story for Southwark perhaps?

After the disappointment of their inability to achieve the main aim of their campaign you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jerry and his cohort of activists would disband – downbeat and downhearted.

This was not to be the case.

“After the Lend Lease application we decided to continue our efforts, although our concerns broadened and narrowed at the same time. We started to focus beyond the Elephant and Castle but were mainly concerned with affordable housing.

“The nature of these campaigns is very intensive and there are ebbs and flows – people come and go. Those of us who were still involved drew on what we knew and started to delve a bit deeper at affordable.

“We started asking ourselves ‘how exactly did Lend Lease get away with building less affordable housing than was required by policy?’ Which led us on to looking at viability assessments.

These assessments are a mechanism that developers use to calculate how much profit a particular development is set to make. Each new development is afforded a certain level of profit for the developer for it to be deemed ‘viable’ or worthwhile for them to invest in.

Developers often use the argument that high levels of affordable housing eat into prospective profits and make developments unviable. There is ambiguity about the way that viability is calculated and presented to the council, which leaves it open to the criticism that it is a system that  can be manipulated by developers.

Viability Assessments need a whole blog post of their own so watch this space!

I think they are just outgunned – not just in Southwark but across London

So why 35%?

Southwark’s affordable housing policy leads us neatly onto the origins of the campaign name. According to the New Southwark Plan, planning permission will be granted for developments that have at least 35% affordable housing. At least 70% of this is for social rent and up to 30% is for intermediate use i.e. homes for sale and rent provided at a cost above social rent, but below market levels.

A decent commitment taken at face value? Jerry isn’t so sure.

“We believe that the London Borough of Southwark has a dysfunctional affordable housing policy – it’s a good policy but it never gets implemented – take Skipton House for example. Even when it is supposedly getting affordable housing through the planning process – the actual delivery is falling short for various reasons.”

Southwark council is keen to defend their housing policy, especially in regards to their commitment to any project containing a minimum of 35% affordable housing.

Cllr Mark Williams, cabinet member for regeneration and new homes, said: “Proposed developments are robustly examined for their viability with a wide range of factors taken into account, decisions are taken by an independent, cross-party planning committee and the council’s planners negotiate with developers from the beginning, prior to any decision being taken, to make the council’s requirements very clear.”

So is it fair to say that a lot of Southwark politicians seem to buy into regeneration and not consider the impact on residents?

Jerry believes that housing policy is rooted in top-down local government: “Most councillors are very good at tackling local issues but they have no say over bigger policy issues. That was something we learnt pretty quickly. With the Heygate campaign we naturally approached our local councillors – they didn’t really know what was going on and they were fully supportive of the regeneration despite residents’ objections.”

Jerry has had a long relationship with Southwark council, its elected representatives, and the officers who are tasked with implementing policy.

“When I started out doing this I started with one member of the TRA called Helen O’Brien who was a stalwart of the Tenants and Residents Association (TRA) but knew what was going on. She was a lifelong member of the labour party, who is in her 70s now, and she used to work locally in a school. She was very informed and she could see how badly things had gone wrong on the Heygate despite the fact that the TRA up to 2007 had supported the plans.

“The two of us would write letters to Southwark News exposing it all and very naively believed that if we got a letter in the paper then that would be it. We were really excited to get a letter published in Southwark News. All it seemed to achieve at the time was to provoke a response from Simon Hughes and that was as good as it got. It just rolls on.

“I’ve never met a council officer who hasn’t been really hard working or didn’t think that what they were doing was for the best of local people. They are simply bound by policies that they have to follow.

 “When they are up against the Lend Leases and Savilles of the world – they are aggressive and can resort to legal action. The officers have got a difficult job and I think they are just outgunned – not just in Southwark but across London.”

Southwark is building more new affordable homes than almost any other borough in London

Regeneration across London is a contentious subject, with some arguing as to its necessity. Does regeneration not have its benefits?

“We are not objecting for the sake of it, I think that reasoned objections to very big plans could lead them to being better. It’s not just to be a naysayer; it is to subject these very complicated significant plans to some sort of scepticism.

“The regeneration industry is just that – an industry. A circle of true-believers who are disinclined to examine their own assumptions about the process.“

Cllr Williams disagrees. He said: “The 35% campaign has often challenged the council’s decisions, as local groups are encouraged to do, but their conclusions sometimes overlook the fact that Southwark is not only investing millions in its current housing stock but also building more new affordable homes than almost any other borough in London.

“Our council is on target to deliver the first 1,500 of its 11,000 new council homes by 2018 and last year we approved almost 2,000 affordable homes as well as creating thousands of jobs. Southwark is exceeding its 35% target overall.”

So have Southwark learned the lessons of the Heygate or will it forever be the Albatross around its neck?

Jerry believes that they now have the opportunity to show that they have.

“They have a pledge to build 11,000 new council homes and they are also going to have a new opportunity area in the Old Kent Road. It is going to take in council estates – leaving the option to develop existing council estates. I guess that will be a test. They have said that they are not going to large scale redevelopments but small scale projects are still significant.

“The introduction of the Housing Act will muddy the water and it will be interesting to see how Southwark responds to that – it has said that it is hostile to this. Proof of the pudding will be in the eating – how will leaseholders be treated, how will they be compensated, how will unsecure tenancies work?”

We’ve got a huge majority so must be doing something right

One question always springs to mind when questioning housing and planning activists – Is campaigning against regeneration like Sisyphus’ punishment? Are you fighting a losing battle or can we hope that Southwark learns?

“I think we have to. The battle is very one-sided. When I think back to when we first started speaking to people we had to explain what different types of affordable housing there were, that it was a problem.

“I think that more people at that time were taking the promises that had been made by Southwark and other boroughs at face value and I think that we have certainly made progress there – there is more of a cynical attitude to promises around affordable housing.

“To the ordinary man or women in the street I think there is now at least a notion that “affordable housing” that is being built isn’t really affordable and all the different campaigns can take some credit for that although it has taken years to get that far.

“There is still this big hurdle – campaigning doesn’t seem to be producing any sort of political consequences. Southwark Labour’s last line of defence is often that they have won an election – we’ve got a huge majority so must be doing something right.

Jerry was keen to point out the success of the campaign’s blog – an invaluable resource for anyone on the hunt for information about regeneration in Southwark.

“We’ve got our blog – we are now experienced enough to know that when we blog on an issue that might be the end of it but occasionally things do get picked up. Low number of social rented homes got picked up and that’s out there now – people know about it. Sometimes things that we think are equally jaw-dropping don’t. I can’t explain it.

“For example, Lend Lease, or their legal advisors, were able to put a clause into the Heygate regeneration agreement that if they sold the agreement to someone else in their family of companies Southwark won’t get any overage. The silence on the lack of overage has been deafening.

“Southwark were also being advised on the deal by the lead counsel for Lend Lease back in Australia. We thought that was quite remarkable as well.”

Southwark have consistently stated that a huge benefit to their agreement with Lend Lease, in relation to the Heygate Estate, is that they would receive 50% of any profits, or ‘overage’, that the developers make over their estimations used in the viability assessment. It seems that this might seem too good to be true after all…

Jerry does reserve some credit for Southwark council though.

“One thing I will say is that Southwark had a housing commission from which the recommendation for 11,000 new council houses came out of. I thought that it could be a cover for stock transfer. It turned out not to be. Southwark said they were going to keep their council housing and build more. So the promise is good but it needs delivering.”

Southwark council is the UK’s biggest social landlord with 40,000 council estate properties, most of which are council tenancies.

 “It’s a huge job to manage and on the face of it they are going to continue. We will be looking to see if council estates will be on the new brownfield register in Southwark – and what Sadiq Khan’s ideas are for estate regeneration.”

Jerry is also broadly positive about Southwark’s new policy of publishing viability assessments, particularly the executive summary which he says is useful.

“We feel that it is valuable info that we are glad to see. The earlier the better as it allows time to be properly consulted as profit levels are highlighted. However, the full viability assessment is only published a week before a planning decision is made.”

I want to get involved!

So to those of you who have managed to make it this far through the blog and have had your curiosity piqued, then how do people get involved with the campaign?

Jerry tells us! – “Get in touch – we’re always happy to meet and speak with people. We are trying to build up the capacity of the team. There is lot of work involved in scrutinising planning applications and we want to get more people involved in that but it is quite tie consuming – not everybody wants to sit down at a computer and pore over planning documents all day!”

“We still meet every month and we need to have wider discussions about what we want from regeneration, what we want from the positive side of regeneration. We don’t just want to focus on the negative side and we do attend consultation meetings.”

These meeting take on the 3rd Tuesday every month as Crossway Church so why not head on down if you want to find out more? More details here.

The key to any thriving democracy is that those with the power to make decisions need to be held to account. Jerry and the 35% campaign are certainly keeping Southwark council’s planning department on their toes. Will they pay attention?

For more information about regeneration in Southwark, or for details to get in touch with Jerry, visit the campaign website here.

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