Left and right – and the rest – join in a rare alliance to hammer Camden's estates strategy

‘Alien’ tower of unaffordable homes was bad deal, panel told

Monday, 21st March — By Richard Osley

council housing wendling walkaboutapril2021 Image 2021-04-12 at 23.32.40 (3)

Wendling is set to be demolished as part of the CIP

CAMDEN’S flagship regeneration policy has been given a battering by a panel of backbench councillors investigating whether it is working.

In a scathing report about the performance of the Community Investment Programme [CIP], a series of comments and recommendations suggested that the scheme was failing to meet its own targets for building new council homes.

The opposition Tories have been joined by rebellious Labour backbenchers, the Lib Dems and the Greens calling for a review over what should happen next.

The Town Hall leadership, however, is refusing to be thrown off course and criticised the research as being incomplete for not surveying the opinions of council tenants.

The CIP is now more than a decade old having been introduced in 2010 with the label of Camden’s “North Sea Oil strategy” – the idea that the council could tap into its land and property portfolio to lever in investment in new homes, estate upgrades, schools and community facilities.

Labour councilor Paul Tomlinson

Development deals have led to a series of estate regeneration projects, often winning architectural awards and plaudits for Passivhaus design.

But they have also triggered criticism for allowing developers to come in and seize part of a site for their own high-profit use, or for projects which sceptics say help ramp up property prices by including a large number of private homes in return for the provision of community services.

The CIP Scrutiny Panel’s work had been a source of tension within the ruling Labour group as some of its own councillors had helped engineer its creation and kickstart the investigation which led to the findings published this week.

The report’s 20 recommendations include a plea for Camden to concentrate on providing more “social rent homes”. When it was discussed by the resources scrutiny committee on Tuesday, councillors went as far as saying the project had “failed” in some areas.

Labour councillor Douglas Beattie, who is stepping down in May, said: “It’s shrouded in secrecy, mired in debt and looking at the report it seems to be failing even in its main basic aims of providing net new or additional social housing for Camden. I think that summary in itself is pretty damning.”

Labour councillor Ranjit Singh

Ranjit Singh, who is one of the Labour councillors who has been barred from standing again by his own party, said that they had heard from the One Housing Group during the research, and it said it had already “moved away from a developer-led approach and talked about the housing market volatility, management problems relating to the quality of new homes but importantly that the drive for profit maximisation was at the expense of affordable homes.”

He added: “I think that is one of the risks with CIP, which is replicated here. One Housing talked about a move back to a focus on being a social landlord rather than a commercial private housing developer.”

Somers Town councillor Paul Tomlinson, who was also deselected by the party after raising concerns about the skyscraper being built on open space in Somers Town under the CIP banner, also endorsed the report.

The Labour leadership has criticised CIP sceptics for not having alternative ideas and have suggested that tenants would be left living in overcrowded homes if nothing was done. Schemes like the new estate at Cherry Court are regularly lauded with chief whip Councillor Marcus Boyland often citing one tenant telling him that “all that is missing is a swimming pool”.

But this hasn’t stopped doubters from saying that more could be achieved, by giving away less and, in some cases, avoiding the disruption of demolition.

Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt

The scrutiny committee’s chair Conservative councillor Andrew Parkinson told the meeting that there needed to be a review of the priorities of the CIP “in collaboration with residents”.

He said: “The report concludes there should be much more transparency in relation to projects. We heard from residents, and from our experience, the projects have a huge impact on local communities: social impact, environmental impacts, impacts on displaced tenants. Underlying all of those is a sense of uncertainty about what is happening.”

He warned too that Camden needed to “reduce its exposure” when relying on future property sales.

Conservative councillor Andrew Parkinson

Lib Dem leader Luisa Porritt said she had been unhappy that people moved out of the England’s Lane hostel had nowhere in Camden to go when the building was closed by the council.

She said: “Ultimately if councils are going to be developers they should be there to disrupt the market and provide the homes that private developers are not doing… otherwise we are just replicating the problem that already exists.

“The CIP originally intended to deliver 3,000 new homes over a 15-year lifetime. On that basis that should have been 2025, and we are way off delivering the social homes for rent – so it really concerns me to find out that only 267 new council homes have been delivered.”

The Greens are not represented on the scrutiny committee but leader Sian Berry said: “I have had particular trouble getting data on true net gain or loss of social housing achieved by each project and the reason appears to be that very few truly new additional council homes have been achieved at all, while residents have lived with huge demolition projects.”

Labour councillor Alison Kelly had been part of the investigation but was critical of the final report, saying she did not agree with all of the recommendations. She described it as incomplete and said that it should be “noted” rather than endorsed.

“We were not able to sit there and work through the evidence and agree the recommendations so that they are absolutely spot-on,” she said.

‘Alien’ tower of unaffordable homes was bad deal, panel told

A DEAL which allowed profit-hungry developers to build a skyscraper on green space in Somers Town was criticised on Tuesday, as it was suggested Camden got the raw end of the bargain, writes Richard Osley.

As the pros and cons of the Community Investment Programme were dissected, councillors were told that the council may have ended up with “the most expensive one form of entry primary school in the country” when they largely used the money from the developers to rebuild Edith Neville.

Slaney Devlin, from the Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum, said the costs of the school project were higher than national benchmarks and that she “questioned the balance between the school spec, with the amount of social housing delivered and the loss of open space”.

Camden also secured a facelift for the Plot 10 play facility and some new housing but Ms Devlin said the “extreme” financial pressures of the school project meant the council then allowed in the developers to move into Purchese Street.

Anybody passing by can now see the towering ‘Grand Central Apartments’ taking shape in the form of the high rise block close to the Francis Crick Institute.

“The site was sold to Hong Kong based venture capitalists who are delivering a scheme that is alien to our neighbourhood,” Ms Devlin told the meeting.

How the new  tower in Somers Town is due to look

“Strategic oversight may have resulted in a cheaper school building, giving the council greater flexibility to deliver more social homes and more private homes that are a better fit for Somers Town.”

The need to repair or rebuild Edith Neville had been a long-standing issue and Labour councillors who are loyal to the CIP have suggested that, with a lack of direct government investment, they had little choice to look for other ways to bring in the money that was needed.

Ms Devlin said, however, that it was still not clear how much Camden had finally spent on the school rebuild.

“Working with the community and local councillors may have resulted in a scheme that we could have all signed up to,” she told the meeting, adding that there was “an urgent need for transparency to rebuild trust”.

Property companies marketing the skyscraper homes are now promoting a luxurious three-floor penthouse at levels 20 to 22 – including “full height winter gardens to each floor”.

The sales blurb boasts: “This is a rare opportunity to own one of the highest available penthouses in King’s Cross.

“The exclusive residence offers panoramic views over London and beyond.”

What the regen chief says

CAMDEN’S regeneration chief is set to reject the recommendations of the scrutiny investigation and last night (Wednesday) questioned why no council tenants had been interviewed before the report was produced.

He said the backbench councillors who had come up with the findings were lacking an alternative strategy.

The Labour leadership remains solidly behind the CIP and its continuation is expected to be a key part of an election manifesto launch on Sunday.

“We are always striving to do better and to push ourselves to build more council homes and community facilities, despite ever less funding,” said Labour cabinet councillor Danny Beales, who fronts the CIP for the council.

Councillor Danny Beales

“It is rather strange, but perhaps not unexpected, that the role of austerity and massive cuts has not been referenced by the Tory panel chair in his report. In fact, it’s not even mentioned once.”

He added: “After a year of investigating the council’s house building programme, and having the full resources of the council to do this, the panel members have not come up with a clear alternative strategy.

“The council is proud of its record, we have rebuilt and invested in all our schools – over £165m. We have delivered more than 500 new council homes, and every private home built pays directly for new council homes and community facilities.”

While Cllr Beales will provide a formal response to the report after it was endorsed on Tuesday, he said: “We don’t agree with the panel that rebuilding small, damp, overcrowded homes for families is not worth prioritising.

“It’s regrettable that the panel didn’t hear from any tenants in estates CIP is, or has previously, worked. Choosing not to speak to any estate residents or visit the schemes themselves is an odd decision to make when trying to understand the need for new council homes.”

He added: “It’s disrespectful to ignore the voice of working-class residents. Indicating we shouldn’t respect the overwhelming ballot results on the West Kentish Town and Wendling estates is wrong, and the council is clear we respect those residents’ votes, and will work to implement their decisions.

“Residents must be at the heart of what we do and how we respond to the housing crisis.”

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