The Tenants’ Choice

Bob Trafford describes how two groups of residents beat the developers and embraced community ownership.

Since 2009, the spectre of redevelopment has loomed over the residents of Hammersmith's West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. A sprawling £18 billion project, on the nearby site of the recently demolished Earls Court Exhibition Centre, originally left the estates' 760 homes, built between 1961 and 1974, untouched, but the local council saw an opportunity for regeneration. With no desire to leave, however, and no clear plan for what they'd be offered instead, residents on the two estates organised, found a voice, and pushed back.

After eight years of grassroots resistance, it's beginning to look like London's largest redevelopment could be derailed by community action. Today, residents are attempting to use Housing Act legislation to force their local council to give up the land to a Community Land Trust (CLT) — a tenant-controlled housing association which would own their homes, and the land they stand on. As homeownership hits a thirty-year low, supporters of CLTs claim the model improves the wellbeing of residents, and could encourage the kind of housing solution that appeals to both the left and right of British politics: financially independent of the state, and radically affordable as well.

If it happens, the creation of a CLT in West Kensington will be the final chapter in a remarkable and curiously circular story which began three miles north, and thirty years earlier, on an unassuming council estate overlooking the ancient Harrow Road. It's the story of a group of community activists who pioneered community ownership in London, and it begins with a corrupt local council led by the perma-tanned heiress to the Tesco supermarket empire.

At the heart of both stories is Jonathan Rosenberg, a community organiser whose experience informs and directs the efforts of the residents of West Kensington today. A warm and jovial figure, knowledgeable but uncompromising, today he chairs the community-led housing association Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH).

The heiress was Dame Shirley Porter, daughter of millionaire grocer Sir Jack Cohen. Her riches, as much as her enthusiastic pursuit of Thatcherite policy, had made her a rising star among the Conservatives of 1970s London. But by the middle of the 1980s, that was set to change.

Porter, at that time leader of Westminster City Council, had just come within a hundred votes of losing the borough in the 1986 council elections. She had one eye on retirement, but with Labour closing the gap in what had been a safe Tory seat, she would have to win another election, and comfortably, before she could walk away.

Westminster began to sell off council homes in marginal wards across the borough, and push homeless families into unsafe properties in Labour strongholds. The logic: social housing and homelessness creates Labour voters, while private home-ownership breeds Tories. Export the poor, import homeowners, and Porter believed she could deliver her party the borough once again.

She called the vision "Building Stable Communities", but it was gerrymandering by another name. Peter Bradley, a former MP and a Labour councillor in the borough, later called it "the most cynical and callous conspiracy of political corruption in this country in the modern age."

Rogue State

As the plan took shape, trouble was brewing on the Elgin and Walterton estates, in the safe Labour ward of Harrow Road. By the 1980s, the area was in disrepair, the infamous centre of a resurgent squatting movement. When the news leaked in 1985 that the council were making secret plans to sell off the estates for redevelopment, the community's response was immediate, and fierce. Hundreds of tenants flooded a council meeting. Protests occurred at every Housing Committee meeting for the next three years.

"We had some great fun in that campaign," remembers Rosenberg. "We got the names and addresses of every single member of council staff, and we sent them a postcard. We put posters up all over the estates." A copy of the poster hangs in his home office. The image is a bowler-hatted City speculator with excavator jaws, and the wry comment: "We are a little worried about our landlord."

By 1988, scandal was beginning to sniff at the heels of Porter and her project. In his excellent book Nothing Like a Dame, Andrew Hoskin describes Westminster in the lead-up to the 1990 elections as "a municipal rogue state". Against this chaotic backdrop, the newly-formed WECH took control of their former council estates.

The Housing Act legislation they employed to do so had been intended by Thatcher to introduce free market competition to social housing — instead, it presented a route to community control. The 1996 Housing Act repealed the legislation, known as Tenant's Choice, before it could be used again in the same way.

Porter concluded that the only way to halt the transfer of land from council to community — which would have cost Westminster a substantial dowry — was to undermine WECH's application, made to the Housing Corporation, to take ownership of their estates. The financial basis of the application was in part built on the claim that two high-rise towers on the estate were unfit for habitation, and would require extensive renovation. Demonstrate that these were habitable, Porter reasoned, and the figures would need to be revised — WECH would be back to square one.

A hundred and twelve homeless families were hastily moved into the towers, which the council knew to be riddled with asbestos (see photo below). In his 1994 report into the affair, Westminster's own investigator described this episode as "the worst act ever committed by a local authority."

It was the dark night before the dawn. Two years later, as scandal engulfed the Porter administration, WECH took control of 921 homes, and Westminster coughed up £22m for their repair. The towers were razed, a portion of the estates sold, and 20 years later, with Rosenberg as its chair, WECH presides over a property portfolio worth £250m.

A Guiding Hand

Years later, in 2009, this story led Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith, to introduce Rosenberg to the struggle for the West Kensington estates, where Slaughter had once been a ward councillor.

"In its way," says Slaughter, "it's the story of housing in London over the last twenty years." He remembers the community organisers who took the fight to the Porter administration as "probably the most talented group never to run a local authority", and those years at war with a Tory council made Rosenberg the perfect candidate to be a guiding hand for a new and growing insurgency.

Just as in Westminster twenty years before, Tory councillors in Hammersmith & Fulham made plans, in secret, to sell off the West Kensington estates. Their ideologue leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, pushed an agenda which Slaughter remembers as "a blueprint for removing social housing." In Westminster, they had called it "Building Stable Communities." Two decades later, Greenhalgh called it "Decent Neighbourhoods".

The means were the same: sell off council homes and push low-income families out of the borough. "Greenhalgh's view was: if you can't afford your own homes, you need to sort yourself out." In terms of people relocated, Slaughter remembers, "Porter was in the hundreds, but in Hammersmith it was in the thousands, and the driving force was Greenhalgh." In a 2009 Conservative Home article, Greenhalgh openly declared his concern over his party's electoral prospects in "target marginals which have far higher levels of social housing".

Just as they had done years before in Westminster, a Tory council was about to severely underestimate the residents of two estates. And Rosenberg, again, was pulling the strings. Sally Taylor and Diane Belshaw have been joint heads of the West Kensington & Gibbs Green residents' association since 2009. "They wanted us to look like social work textbook," says Belshaw of the Greenhalgh administration. "Unmarried mums, teenage pregnancies..."

"They went round the estate," remembers Taylor, "and took photos of overflowing bins, dripping taps, pipes that had burst, so they could tell the developers that we live in a ghetto. I got him to admit it. The developers never wanted the estate-" "But he offered us up," chimes Belshaw. For Taylor, it was "typical Tory" behaviour: "They've read the textbook, they've not even been here, never met anyone here. They said we had an above average crime rate on Gibbs Green, which we could disprove using their own statistics! 'I am not communicating with that faction', he said." Belshaw interrupts with a chuckle: "He ran when I chased him though, didn't he?" Relations between the two camps hit bottom in 2010, when Belshaw chased Greenhalgh out of her flat with a frying pan.

The fight began to swing in the residents' favour in 2014, when Labour unexpectedly won in that year's council elections. Like Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham had been considered impregnable, a flagship Tory council. "Nobody saw that coming," admits Belshaw. "Greenhalgh was on his phone, crying." A victory for Labour in London's mayoral election further tipped the balance, while controversy dogged the Earls Court developers. Last year, with renewed confidence, the residents' association set out its alternative vision for their estates - with the WECH model as their guide.

Ninety-Seven Percent Satisfied

The years since 1992 have upheld Rosenberg's belief that community ownership was a dream worth fighting for. It's all summed up in what he calls "the 97 percent stuff": a collection of research which puts the numbers to his claims. Ninety-four percent of WECH residents feel secure in their homes. 91 percent say they feel proud of their homes. 52 percent say they feel 'very strongly' that they belong to their neighbourhood, compared to 38 percent nationwide. And the jewel in the crown: 97 percent of residents claim to be satisfied with the service their landlord provides. "People here feel like they're part of a family," says Rosenberg. "People feel a very deep sense of security, and that, psychologically, is a major thing. In most housing associations, the people who make the decisions don't actually live in the properties - that's the point."

Rosenberg believes community ownership is, in psychological terms, just an expansion of private home-ownership. "We live in the property, it's our thing, and we're making decisions that affect us. We take much more care over where we're living and the quality of what we're providing. If only that could be explained to the Tories, they might encourage more of it." Figures are hard to come by, but there are at least 8,000 homes across the country following, in varying degrees, the "community-owned, resident-controlled" model that WECH champions.

Dr Benjamin Fell, a psychologist at Oxford University, sees many benefits in the CLT model. "There's a sense of control and agency in your environment, and that can only be a good thing. It's agency at two levels: at the personal level, you have an actual stake in the community, and at the community level, there's a sense of active management of your local area." These benefits are reflected in the WECH data. "When you can't predict what's about to happen, that's anxiety," says Dr Fell. "And constant anxiety is linked to chronic stress. The CLT model means a reduction in threat and uncertainty."

But Luke Murphy, at the Institute for Public Policy Research, sees a major obstacle to the spread of CLTs. As long as people see property as their nest egg, Murphy believes, the benefits of community ownership won't overcome the problem that a CLT property doesn't hold any capital value for a tenant. "That will appeal less to traditional homeowners."

"Ideally we wouldn't have a system where there's so much capital appreciation [in housing], and people would invest in more effective pension products," says Murphy. "But we now have a system whereby people see their house as their pension pot. And it's not just a right-leaning position -— people are just desperate to get on the housing ladder."

For how much longer? Earlier this year, a white paper saw the Government break with the "home-owning democracy" dream, a pillar of Cameron-era Conservative policy, with communities secretary Sajid Javid admitting that the housing market is "broken". With the future of housing up for grabs, proponents of community ownership sense an opening.

Last year, the Scottish government set aside millions to support community land purchases — Community Land Scotland (CLS) represents the rapidly growing body of communities looking to take advantage of that support. Its members control over half a million acres of Scottish land. Linsay Chalmers, the CLS's Development Manager, says "For us, the fact that they work on a local level is their main strength. Up here, there's funding for them to buy land, a whole support structure. The core of community land ownership is that it's locally owned and democratically controlled. If it gets too big you would start to lose that connection."

Like WECH, CLS is able to draw upon statistics to support their work. In a 2015 survey of two Scottish CLTs, not only did residents feel more satisfied with their local area and more influential in its future than the national average, but substantially more trusting of one another too.

Rosenberg is bullish about the prospects of the community ownership model. He points to Phoenix Community Housing in south London, which manages over 6,000 properties — "as big as many large housing associations.".There are further reasons to feel confident. In the March 2016 Budget, George Osborne pledged £60m to encourage community land ownership. With the struggles of private renters now in the political spotlight, the stage is set for the community ownership movement to go mainstream.

 

Bob Trafford is a London-based freelance investigative journalist with an interest in housing issues and the refugee crisis.
bobtrafford[AT]gmail.com 

The Tenants' Choice
This article originally appeared as 'The Tenants' Choice' in The Land Issue 21