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TENANTS HISTORIES AND STRUGGLES

Derrick Chung
West Hendon Regeneration
London Borough of Barnet

Development plans for my estate go under the name of West Hendon Regeneration. For many of us who live here though, the plans are more like a 'legal scam' designed to privatise public homes and to introduce a modern day 'bunny' capital of Europe, producing an over-developed and over-populated area of 10-20 storey blocks of flats and penthouses that the existing tenants, leaseholders and freeholders will not be able to afford.

West Hendon estate, comprising of 680 one-bedroom flats, two-bedroom maisonettes and three-bedroom council houses was built in the late 1960's, replacing previous Victorian and Edwardian terraces that had been bombed during the second World War.

It sits on 10.5 acres of land, has a children's play area, plenty of green space for young people to kick a football around on and a community centre.

Current residents are predominantly a mix of council tenants and leaseholders. There are also a few freeholders and some housing association tenants.

The estate is situated between the A5 Edgware Road to the east and York Park, a sailing base and the Brent Reservoir, or the Welsh Harp, to the west. The reservoir, which has just celebrated its 175 year anniversary, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); a valuable wild life habitat for breeding water birds and rare birds (250 different types have been recorded there at present), butterflies, bats, dragonflies, newts and more.

The reservoir was originally constructed as a dam across the River Brent, between 1833 and 1835, in the area between Old Kingsbury Church and the Edgware Road and was known then as the Kingsbury Reservoir.

It became known as the Welsh Harp, after the name of a popular pub on the Edgware Road. It became a focal point for Victorian naturalists as the only large expanse of open water close to London. In 1948 the Olympics' rowing competition was held here. The surrounding grounds also played host to bank holiday fairs and sporting activities, including shooting, greyhound and horse racing, fishing, ice-skating, cricket and boxing.

The failures of successive governments to properly invest in maintaining council homes, has without doubt, left West Hendon Estate showing signs of neglect.

The local neighbourhood has suffered from the gradual disappearance of local high street shops such as butchers, bakers, banks, and those selling shoes and household appliances. The British Legion and the ex-Servicemen's clubs have also disappeared. This all represents the gradual erosion of the local community, leaving us with little more than green-grocers, convenience stores, newsagents, off-licenses and fast food outlets.

Instead of attempting to engage the existing community in developing regeneration plans to meet our needs though, something which would have been welcomed, from the start we were presented with a fait accompli that many community members feel is, on all levels, contrary to our needs.

'Regeneration' proposals were first introduced in 1999/2000 under a former London Borough of Barnet Labour Party administration. The plans which remain to the present, having been retained by subsequent local Conservative administrations, are for the exiting 680 homes of the West Hendon estate to be demolished and 2171 new homes to be constructed.

It is planned that almost 1,500 of the homes will be for sale. They are to include £225,000 one-bedroom flats, £300,000 two-bedroom flats and £1 - £1.5 million penthouses, presumably with 'exclusive views' of the precious Welsh Harp as the selling point; seemingly too good for the existing council tenants.

Existing council tenants who want to stay here, would be expected to become housing association tenants with less security and higher rents than we have with the council - certainly in the future, if not immediately.

To make matters worse, some of the 680 replacement so called 'affordable homes' are to be intermediate or shared-ownership homes, resulting we fear, in an overall loss of social-rented (council and / or housing association) homes.

Other proposals for the area include improvements to the gyratory system with through traffic to be confined to the A5, and to the junctions, to ease congestion. A new 'urban square' linking the Broadway with new residential streets, a new community centre (to replace one that is to be demolished) and a new GPs surgery are also proposed.

We are not aware that any studies have been carried out into the need for additional nursery or school places. Local residents already complain that it is difficult to get local children into existing nurseries and that local schools are currently full. It's hard to believe they will be able to accommodate children from an additional 1,500 new homes.

Of course we are pleased that a new GPs surgery is planned, but as yet we don't know if this is simply to replace the existing one or whether it will result in us getting more doctors. There is currently a shortage of doctors in the area with queues already extending outside the door of the existing surgery. We also have a shortage of dentists. We are worried that the existing anti-natal clinic may not be retained.

Soon after the Labour council set out their plans in 1999/2000, they carried out a 'test of opinion' about their proposals; in our view, an 'ultimatum', rather than genuine consultation.

The council publicly proclaimed that 75% of residents were in favour of their plans, but failed to mention that this was actually 75% of the 34% who responded.

At the same time, our Residents Association carried out a petition which was signed by residents of almost 400 flats of the estate.

The petition contained comments and demands that there should be: full involvement of residents in the development of the regeneration proposals and in decision-making; proper provision of information to all residents; no stock transfer of our homes (to a housing association); no over-development; no over population; no smaller homes; no high-rise blocks of flats; and, if the aim was for a mixed tenure development, then none of the blocks should be exclusively for wealthy residents.

The council rapidly went ahead with the establishment of a partnership with Bellhouse Joseph developers. Bellhouse Joseph was then replaced by Metropolitan Housing Association (later Metropolitan Housing Trust) and Lovells. After a period of time, Lovells pulled out and things went quiet; in fact for several years. Barratt Homes finally joined the partnership about six years ago. How many of these 'partnerships' were formal has, like many thing relating to the regeneration scheme, never been very clear.

After Barratt Homes joined the partnership, the council, with help from tenants, employed a team of 'Independent Tenants Advisors' (ITA) or 'tenants friends to assist'. Unfortunately though, as many others who have ever been involved in similar regeneration and / or stock-transfer scheme will know, the friendship of these organisations tends to extend little further than to those who pay their wages.

We've had two different companies involved as Independent Tenants Advisors to date. Our Residents Association had reason to openly challenge the work practises of the first and perhaps as a result of concerns that we raised, their contract was not renewed. The second has been around for around four years, but with very little contact made either way between them and our Residents Association.

Since 2005, the tools of the regeneration and stock-transfer trade have been liberally applied on the West Hendon estate. Money not usually made available to communities who live on council housing estates has been found for an array of community 'fun' days, sports events, children's parties, 'healthy living' events and open days to show case what is planned for us.

Many of us instinctively distrust being handed complimentary treats, fearing that the ultimate price to be paid will be our long-term mass exodus into the unknown.

Overall we feel there has been a distinct lack of openness around the details of the proposals, with the catch-all 'commercial confidentiality' too often used as an excuse for lack of transparency.

Our Residents Association has recently put in a Freedom of Information request to find out exactly how much money has been spent on the 'tenants friends', the various community activities and so called 'consultation' sessions.

We feel that none of this has not really been about supporting our community's needs, but rather designed to provide 'evidence' of tenants intimate engagement and support for the proposals (something that actually doesn't exist).

The 'tenants friend' set up a Resident Regeneration Group (RRG), which initially attracted the involvement of several residents, but this has been reduced, with only a few remaining.

A pledge was made to residents by the partnership early on in the scheme. The pledge was that we would have 'brand new homes in West Hendon and our rights would be protected; rents and service charges would be affordable; we would have a choice of landlords and help to decide how first class services are provided; we would have a choice of where we would move to; we would be compensated for any loss in moving; we would have only have one move and we would have a real say in the regeneration.'

Later, at the start of the recession, Cllr Anthony Finn, responsible for regeneration and housing told us at a meeting in our community centre that the plans were not viable. We saw this as an effectively reneging on the pledge.

Over the years our Residents Association has lobbied and argued with the politicians, including our current MP Matthew Offord and the previous one, Andrew Dismore; housing ministers; local councillors and housing scrutiny and planning committee members. We have put our case to council officials, including its chief executives and to officers of the Greater London Authority and Government.

We have asked questions at meetings from the local to the national level. We have demonstrated outside the Town Hall, raised concerns with the London Mayor; previous and past, and even taken our petition to 10 Downing Street.

Almost twelve years of this is, of course, very tiring, but for the most part members of our community have stayed together, particularly through our Residents Association and we make sure that we do just keep turning up in places where we think our voice may be heard.

We have made many friends along the way. Our Residents Association has, over the years, joined or linked with other tenant and community groups, including our local Community Forum and Community Team of individual citizens and youth providers; the Federation of Residents Associations Barnet; London Tenants Federation and its member borough-wide tenants' federations and organisations.

We have also been able to forge some links with conservation groups, who like us, have interests in and concerns about the future of the Welsh Harp. Together we raised concerns that the plans to build so close to the edge of the Welsh Harp, could produce noise pollution and overshadowing, and result in plants dying out and / or wildlife leaving.

As a result some alterations have been made to the proposed heights and locations of the buildings. But we will have to wait until the planning application is made, to find out to what extent they have taken notice of our comments and concerns and what necessary steps we might be able to take in order to take our concerns further.

The context for development of the plans are rather different now than they were 12 years ago - including the economy and national and regional policies. The recession and its impact on housing construction in London led the Homes and Communities Agency to allocate funds to 'kick start' initial parts of the regeneration scheme that the partnership had gained planning permission for in 2008.

43 'affordable' homes and 149 market homes have been started. In many of the schemes that received similar kick start funding, more 'social rented' (generally housing association homes) were built than were first included in planning applications.

It was certainly not clear in the original planning applications whether the intention was for all these homes to be social-rented. The term 'affordable' was used, which could have meant part rent / part buy homes. So we may have ended up with more social-rented homes than was originally intended, at least in this early stage.

The draft replacement London Plan sets out targets for family housing and space standards that may impact on future planning applications, which our residents association will scrutinise carefully.

In addition, after a ten-year tussle, Barnet Homes (the council's Arms Length Management Organisation), finally decided to spend money on carrying out some 'decent homes work' to our homes - something we had assumed would not occur when the plans are for demolition.

Windows on the estate facing the Welsh Harp have been renewed, although those facing the A5 are currently on hold. Electrical renewal works have been carried out and some of communal areas have been redecorated and had new flooring.

All this has led us to question whether, contrary to what we have been told over the last twelve years, there is actually any need to demolish our homes. Many residents are happy in their existing homes, just want their homes brought up to a decent standard by the council and for Barratt Homes and Metropolitan Housing Trust to disappear.

Our Resident Association is continuing to campaign for this and for any regeneration to be determined by our needs, not those of future wealthier residents, the market or developers intent on increasing their housing stock and profits.

In addition we are still trying to extract, from various sources, responses to outstanding questions. These include:

  • How many other housing associations or private landlords are to be involved in the area?
  • Why would the Homes and Communities Agency give £1.3 million public funds, and Barnet Council give £3.6 million, as well as the land for homes to stand on, to Barratt Homes, for Metropolitan Housing Association to own new homes, rather than the council build the homes themselves? This particularly when the council will be entering into an agreement with Metropolitan Housing Trust to provide homes for those of us who currently live in council homes on the site.
  • Isn't the justification that government will not let councils have funds directly now out of date, and shouldn't there be a duty in the current economic circumstances, to prove a best financial deal in both the short and long-term?
  • Will we or shouldn't we, be entitled to a ballot around the council transferring our homes to a housing association? Even the previous MP Andrew Dismore as a result of pressure from our Residents Association carried out his own survey on this to find out what residents view were on stock transfer. Of course his survey produced the same result as our previous petition.
  • Why has the council been reluctant to share its stock condition survey with us?
  • When the partnership reneged on its 'pledge' to residents, why, should any of us think that any package with a 'regeneration' label on it contains anything but long-term damage, rather than benefit, to our community?

My struggle here has led to my favourite comment being that policy makers should have the pleasure of first hand experience before putting any member of our community there.

© 2011 Derrick Chung & London Tenants Federation, unless otherwise indicated.

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