Gentrification: going up in the world

Gentrification isn’t just about hipster cafes and flat whites. Done right, it can mean real regeneration of local communities. Kim Thomas reports.

The Haringey Development Vehicle was a public-private partnership that would create more than 6,000 homes and 20,000 jobs; it would transform a London borough burdened by poor housing, unemployment and high rates of deprivation.

Alternatively, in the words of the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty, it was “a scheme by the zombie Blairites running the north London borough to shove family homes, school buildings and libraries into a giant private fund worth £2bn”.

Residents, angry at the lack of consultation and the decision to transfer public land and assets to private developer Lendlease, formed the StopHDV protest campaign. This led to the resignation of council leader Claire Kober and a decision by the local authority to scrap it.

Gentrification is a touchy topic, especially in London, where affordable housing is scarce and poverty is rife, and where boroughs are coping with huge cuts to their budgets from central government.

Attempts to improve shopping districts and build new housing are often met with accusations of social cleansing.

Loretta Lees, professor of human geography at the University of Leicester, has described the demolition of council estates in inner London as “a visceral process of displacement”.

In London, it has been calculated that 237 housing estates have undergone or are about to undergo regeneration, which often means tearing down old housing stock and replacing it with unaffordable luxury homes.

In some boroughs, residents are being displaced outside London.

Former leaseholders of Southwark’s Heygate Estate have moved to Slough, Ilford and St Albans so the site could be redeveloped, according to the London Evening Standard, while the Guardian reported that Barnet Council offered homes in Essex and Luton to tenants of Sweets Way Estate.

Although the problem is particularly acute in London, grumblings about gentrification are not confined to the capital.

In Manchester, for example, some residents have been unhappy at the city’s destruction of treasured historic buildings to make way for office blocks and houses.

Is there any alternative?

Can local authorities carry out a regeneration programme that provides new, affordable houses, revitalises tired shopping centres and does not involve private partnerships or driving poorer residents out of the borough?

Barking & Dagenham Council, in east London, thinks it has an answer.

Darren Rodwell, the council’s leader, plans a £2bn investment programme that will create more than 50,000 new homes, as well as new shops and a three-screen cinema. He has spoken of a “mini Manhattan” skyline, full of skyscrapers.

What makes Barking & Dagenham’s plans different is that it is setting up its own company, Be First, to carry out the regeneration.

The plan is that rising land and property prices will enable Be First to turn a profit on its initial investment, which can then be put back into the community.

Rodwell points out that private developers can make a fast buck by buying up land then developing it, reaping a profit of millions of pounds.

He argues: why shouldn’t the council and its residents benefit instead?

“The shareholders, being the people of this borough, get that money back into services that allow us to support the most vulnerable.

“So I believe all we’re doing is taking what is already our asset and investing in our asset, which is the people and the place.”

The company, which has 400 hectares of land to develop, will build a mix of accommodation, rather than focusing on luxury flats.

Some of this will be privately rented accommodation that people earning £19,000 a year can afford.

Rodwell cites the borough’s famous Becontree estate, created after the First World War, which brought the social classes together, rather than segregating them: “You would have a plumber next door to a teacher next door to a doctor next door to a cleaner. That was not gentrification – that was called building a community.”

Another element of Becontree that he would like to emulate is the need for public, shared facilities: “When the Becontree estate was built 100 years ago, they understood that you needed to build not just homes but also a community.

“You’ve got your parks, you’ve got your schools, your playgrounds – everything that was needed.”

The beauty of the Be First model is that, by creating a private company to build rented accommodation, Barking & Dagenham can avoid the restrictions of right to buy.

That policy, in place since the 1980s, forces local authorities to sell council housing at a discount.

It was extended by the Housing & Planning Act 2016 to require local authorities to sell higher value council homes as they became vacant.

Could Barking’s model work elsewhere?

Options for councils

Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, admires what the council is doing, but notes that it has a key advantage over other London councils in that it is “pretty much the last part of London that has significant amounts of undeveloped land”.

In other areas, he says, accusations of social cleansing levelled against councils are unfair.

Councils, he says, are not gentrifying, but regenerating, “trying to create more housing, trying to bring dilapidated housing stock up to standard”.

He rejects arguments that councils “just want to move the poor people out, create nice middle-class enclaves that ordinary people can’t afford to live in and it’s all flat whites and avocados on toast”.

Given the fiscal constraints that councils are under, and the regulations limiting their power to build, borrow or invest, he says, their only option for getting houses built is to work with the private sector.

“Sticking with the status quo is not an option. Across London, we’ve had vast amounts of housing that is deteriorating very rapidly. A lot of it was built at the same time, in the 50s and 60s, and it’s all deteriorating at about the same time.

“People used to be outraged about this, saying councils were leaving people to rot in these crumbling estates. Well, OK, something has to be done, so what do you do?”

Similarly, he is unconvinced that social cleansing is happening on a large scale, and points to the lack of evidence about how many families have left London as the result of regeneration.

Neil McInroy, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) think-tank, believes that gentrification can be resisted.

Noting that it is a global phenomenon, he says the flow of international capital has become much faster.

“You’ve got unknown pension companies, investors, coming into parts of our cities, and the wealth and the value has been extracted,” he says.

“In the past, this was done because it became an attractive place to go – a local investor would invest and they were still doing something in a functional term with that space, a business or building properties for local people.”

He points out that, in the Georgian and Victorian eras, developers often 
paid attention to public space, citing the squares in Belgravia and Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh as examples of investment that “came with a high degree of civic duty and civic spiritedness”.

Contrast that with modern day development in London, he suggests: “If you go down to Canary Wharf or look at any development in central London, where is the public space? Where is the civic element of the built form?”

McInroy suggests some alternative approaches councils can take.

One, he says, is to encourage businesses to locate in places other than a central business district.

Another is to look at other forms of democratic or local ownership of space, protecting land and property for local business use, or putting affordable housing in that space.

CLES has worked on local wealth-building programmes with cities such as Birmingham and Preston, encouraging “anchor” institutions such as councils and housing bodies to commission and procure services locally rather than from organisations outside the area.

This help builds up wealth in the community.

Another initiative he would like to see is a land value tax to replace business rates so that, if there is an increase in land value, the council can raise taxes accordingly.

Currently, he argues, international investors are attracted by the idea of paying business rates on floor space while the value appreciates.

“If there’s a land value tax, that means they will have to pay a bit of the appreciation in value to the democratic coffers,” he says.

Much of the anger in Haringey and elsewhere has been the result of lack of consultation with local communities about development plans.

In Aberdeen, it was residents in the deprived Middlefield area who devised the £35m regeneration project, and who decided to demolish some houses to make way for open space, and to build new council homes and a new community facility and upgrade the play park.

The city centre, too, is undergoing development. Aberdeen, which is the lowest-funded council in Scotland, has had to find a way to regenerate a city that has for 40 years been heavily reliant on the oil and gas industries.

Council leader Jenny Laing says that, as that source of income slowly dries up, alternatives have to be found. Part of the solution, she says, is to create “a vibrant city centre, with a cultural vibe about it that would encourage people to come and live and work here in the future”.

The planned regeneration focuses on encouraging visitors to the city, which includes investing in a £30m refurbishment of the art gallery.

There are also plans to draw people to living permanently in the city centre, which has been made difficult by the number of buildings that are owned by private companies, some of them based overseas.

The buildings that are owned by the council, however, will be refurbished.

Laing says: “We have plans to market some sites as well that could bring some further residential accommodation into the city centre itself.”

Perhaps involving local people is the key to successful regeneration.

The Power to Change research institute aims to put power into the hands of communities so that they can, in the words of director Richard Harries, “take control of their own destiny and focus on the things that matter to them”.

While the Localism Act was intended to give local communities more control over housing decisions, in practice its impact has been limited.

Local authorities’ registers of assets of community value, required under the act, are in a mishmash of formats and often hidden away on council websites. Power to Change has worked with social enterprise mySociety to create a standardised asset of community values register, to make it easier for residents “to know what’s going on in their area and what they can do about it”.

If the type of discontent and anger generated by the Haringey Development Vehicle is to be avoided in future, then perhaps McInroy is right to argue that councils need to remember that they should be working in the interests of all their residents: “This is not about talking to the community, this is not about getting the community involved – this is a deeper existential question of what is local government for and who is it for.”

Going swimmingly

When Bramley Baths in Leeds [right] was under threat of closure, local people stepped in to save it.

The baths are now owned and managed by the community in the form of an industrial and provident society with charitable objectives.

It has gone from losing £250,000 a year in 2008 to making an annual surplus of £50,000, largely through good management, by encouraging local schools to use the pool for lessons, for example.

As a charitable organisation, Bramley Baths can apply for grants from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund that the council would not be able to access to repair the fabric of the building.

One reason for the baths’ success, says trustee Bill Graham, is that the council supports the arrangement.

Now four Leeds organisations have come together to form a new charity, Leeds Community Spaces, which will, they hope, take over underused council buildings and run them for the benefit of the community, offering services such as adult education classes and health and wellbeing groups.

The aim, says Graham, is that the buildings will become “alive and vibrant with community life”.

The charity will be able to apply for grant funding and, if it is successful, community projects will provide jobs, offering regeneration with a “double impact” of improved mental wellbeing and money being spent to benefit local people.