When faced with a proposed regeneration, the sheer scale of what you may have to deal with, can be daunting for residents. The following text is intended as a quick guide to what you need to think about. It covers technical information, expertise, legal processes, and general practicalities for coping with your local authority.
A broad variety of skills are required to deal with regeneration. Going through the process equips you with many of these skills, but there is nothing like accessing or developing expert knowledge, so don’t be afraid to approach people. You’ll be surprised how many people are happy to lend their expertise to a good cause. For the@savecressingham campaign we were very lucky to assemble the following from the local area and beyond:
- People respected in the community: You need well liked individuals who people can easily relate and speak to. This is important as residents need to act as a group.
- Financial: Someone who can understand the complexities of local authority accounting, including financial viability assessments.
- Legal: The legal system is confusing, so find someone to help navigate it.
- Surveyor: A local resident (quantity surveyor) helped us contest Lambeth’s estimates for refurbishment.
- Architect: A firm or individual able to creatively think of alternative solutions, and/or contest local authority proposals.
- Tenants and Homeowners: Each group has specialist knowledge which can benefit the other.
- IT: Find someone who can create a website on wordpress or a similar technology and can show people how to use google docs and drop box.
- Data: Someone who can work with data is very important. They need to understand how data is structured so that you can ask searching questions of data-sets held by a local authority.
- Journalist/writer: Any help with getting information into local and wider media is a massive help.
- Social media: If you don’t already, connect with others facing the same issues ASAP. On twitter these accounts are a good start: @savecressingham @DemolitionsLdn @southwarknotes @archiworkers @savecentralhill @ASH_housing @35percent.
It takes time to decipher how a Local Authority makes its decisions, and council constitutions do differ. So try and get advice or support from the local area. Broadly speaking (in Lambeth):
- A council cabinet is made up of senior elected councillors, and holds meetings to vote on decisions (though decisions are frequently agreed well before a cabinet meeting).
- Council officers (employees) produce reports which are presented to cabinet.
- Ward councillors and local MPs are supposed to represent residents views to the council, though they often set party-political matters over representing their constituents.
- The cabinet votes on the recommendations contained in the reports they receive from officers, i.e. to demolish an estate or not.
- Residents and other interested people can apply to speak for a short time at the meetings. However, speaking time will not necessarily be granted.
- A ward councillor can submit questions to a scrutiny committee. The scrutiny committee has the power to send a decision back to the cabinet for review, with recommendations on how to address specific concerns. Many, however, do not.
A judicial review (JR) can be instigated within 3 months of the original cabinet decision. The JR can quash or nullify the decision. The key thing to understand about a judicial review is that council officers have a statutory obligation to consult with residents directly affected by regeneration (the statutory obligation is often fulfilled with council officers stage-managing the consultation process toward generating a result in favour of council proposals). If officers misrepresent the consultation to cabinet by not presenting key information, then that can be grounds for a JR. It is not enough for council officers to argue in court that cabinet had been verbally informed. The officer report or other written information should set out all detail, otherwise officers can be said to have mislead cabinet, potentially leading to a finding of unlawful decision-making.
A ground for JR can also relate to the way information is presented to consultees during the consultation, and whether the decision-making keeps to the format of the consultation as set out by the council.
RIGHT TO MANAGE (RTM) / RIGHT TO TRANSFER (RTT)
Cressingham Gardens residents exercised both these rights before any decision was made to demolish. This puts Cressingham in a legally grey area as legislation states that preventing regeneration should not be the reason for pursuing the RTM or RTT transfer process. These rights are aimed at improving things like repairs and maintenance. Equally, local authority regeneration plans should not get in the way of RTM/RTT. Both RTM and RTT ensure that tenants have an independently managed vote on future management of an estate. This kind of vote can be argued to express residents’ views more clearly and directly than council consultation reports, which often use methods (such as multiple choice answers to questions, rather than written answers) that leave resident opinion open to misrepresentation.
DATA & CONSULTATION
Don’t trust ANY data/statement provided by a local authority or a developer (if different) within a consultation process. Double check it by requesting the source data that enables that authority to make a statement. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as ‘raw data’ as it’s always been pre-cooked, so review how it has been amassed. As an example:
- Ward councillors and council officers informed some Cressingham Gardens residents that the estate was “sliding down the hill” and had major structural issues. This statement proved to be incorrect because we requested all estate surveys and none said there were major structural issues or the sort of subsidence that would cause an entire estate to slide down a hill.
- High repair and maintenance costs are sometimes cited as the catalyst for demolition, when analysis of the actual costs can reveal a different picture. Homeowners who pay service charges will have access to repairs data that tenants don’t, so go through all historic service charge bills and double check repairs have been completed, done to a high standard, or have been reasonably charged.
- After requesting data on regeneration criteria across the six Lambeth estates put into regeneration, Cressingham residents uncovered a very different story to what the council were telling. As an example, Lambeth Council’s costings for bringing homes on Cressingham up to the “Lambeth Homes Standard” made elementary accounting mistakes that arguably doubled the real cost, and missed conveying that other estates had received more spending to reach the LHS than homes on Cressingham were projected to cost.
- Residents of Cressingham contested £127,000 worth of repairs over a two year period which puts into question the information that informed Lambeth’s argument that the estate is too expensive to repair.
- Use FOI requests (www.whatdotheyknow.com) to ask questions. Council officers can be slow to respond or actively block access to information requested through conventional routes. We found that FOIs keep a clear record of questions asked, and force an Authority to respond. Ignore council officers who say that FOIs are wasting their time, or the local authority’s money. You have a legal right to ask questions and get them promptly answered, and if there’s a valid financial reason for not answering, the local authority is obliged to detail the reason for you.
- Every citizen has a right to audit local authority accounts once a year. It provides another means of accessing data. See: www.thepeoplesaudit.info
- On Cressingham, with the help of local design and construction professionals such as architects and a quantity surveyor, we put together a costed alternative plan to demolition. Do download the .pdf and steal ideas!: www.cressinghampeoplesplan.org.uk
- Be aware that consultation, even when facilitated by supposedly-independent advisors hired by your local authority, is often aiming at a predetermined result, and will be stage-managed to achieve that result.
Local authorities often attempt to divide secure tenants, temporary tenants, homeowners, private renters, and non-resident homeowners into separate groups, in order to make the job of convincing residents to buy into their narrative, that much easier. So get organised and:
- Avoid splits, as each group is able to offer valuable insights into the other, and local authorities have a history of using “divide and conquer” tactics to progress tricky regeneration projects.
- Request from the local authority that the same information is sent to all residents to avoid misinformation or misrepresentations being sent to different groups. Always follow up on this, and cross-check the information. It takes a few minutes, and can sometimes turn up errors and deliberate omissions.
- Notify residents in the area surrounding a regeneration estate of any development, as it’s a chance to bring in expertise and support. Also, adjacent streets could well become part of a regeneration, or suffer from years of construction traffic and pollution. Local businesses may also be affected, as regeneration often means gentrification too, and shops serving local needs will lose part of their customer base.
- Build a strong tenants and residents association ASAP, and make sure it doesn’t get hijacked by individuals who are in the pocket of the Local Authority - i.e. devise a plan for isolating someone who goes rogue (and there WILL be at least one over the course of any regeneration, often someone who has made a side-deal with the LA), as you don’t have a Human Resources department to deal with such issues.
- Create a facebook page and twitter account. I suggest naming the campaign @saveNAMEofYOURestate as lots of housing campaigns now use that naming system. It makes it easier for others to identity the issue you are engaged with and connect with your cause.
- Respect and be grateful for ANY contribution made by residents, be it two minutes of time, or years of effort. It is very easy to start blaming people for not getting involved, so it is much better to create a positive environment, and realise that the half hour per week contribution someone makes, may well be them giving up valuable family time for your cause. It is also worth bearing in mind that some people who do not contribute, may have perfectly reasonable reasons for not doing so. The greatest of which is often fear of what a vindictive local authority might do.
Build an archive of all communications with your local authority as it will be vital for contesting decisions, or later legal processes. The amount of documentation this generates can be huge, so I recommend that:
- On every piece of paper you receive from your local authority, or from parties associated with them, write the date you received it.
- Try where possible to keep a timeline of all consultation events/workshops/notifications/press announcements, and keep it up to date.
- Collect cabinet reports, local authority statements made on websites, and anything to do with the consultation process. The content of documents often gets changed after initial/draft publication, so do also keep versions of documents. .
- Label each digital document (image, .pdf etc) in date order so it’s easy to retrieve later i.e “2016.11.04.nameofdocument.pdf” or “YYMMDD_nameofdocument.pdf”.
- Get some double-walled cardboard boxes (aka “document boxes”), and keep paper documentation/hard copies in them, as a “back-up” for electronic files, where possible.
Learn to use the following tools as these are invaluable to collaboratively respond to consultation or work towards Judicial review:
- Google docs - it was used to write The Peoples Plan.
- Dropbox - helps with managing and sharing large volumes of documents within a group.