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Responding to the Save Cressingham Gardens campaign

Earlier this week Chuka Umunna wrote an article about the future of the Cressingham Gardens estate, to which the ‘Save Cressingham’ campaign has responded with an open latter. This letter makes a series of claims, both about facts and about motivations of the council, which I felt needed to be addressed.

The debate over the future of Cressingham Gardens is a passionate one, and rightly so, because we are talking about peoples’ homes. In the context of the housing crisis that’s gripping London, nobody can deny the strength of feeling here but this debate should be based on facts.

In particular the charge that has been levelled by those opposed to rebuilding Cressingham has been that the council is engaging in social cleansing. Not only is this deeply inappropriate (not least given the number of Lambeth residents who moved to this country to escape persecution elsewhere in the world) but also because no council tenants will have to leave the estate and as a Labour council we are increasing, not diminishing, the amount of social housing.

I’d be the first to admit that the process of engagement and consultation on Cressingham has fallen far short and agree with what Chuka has said about the failures in how this has been handled. Going forward, Chuka has set out his view of what needs to happen. I’ve always been clear that when rebuilding any estate, including Cressingham, we must ensure that:

1)      Council tenants are able to stay living on the estate in a home which meets their needs and is built to the Lambeth Housing Standard.

2)      Resident homeowners (rather than private landlords) are not forced out of the area and are given fair options to stay living on the estate in a new home.

3)      We increase the number of genuinely affordable homes for council to help house some of the 21,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list – part of Labour’s pledge for 1000 extra council homes in Lambeth over the next four years.

I’ve tried to respond to the claims made in the ‘Save Cressingham’ open letter in turn:

“Lambeth’s housing stock is poorly maintained. Cressingham Gardens’ condition is neither unique nor expensive to repair, in fact cheaper than many other Lambeth estates.”

Social housing across the UK was poorly maintained for decades, with estates being run down and left near derelict after 18 years of Tory government. It was a nationwide problem needing a nationwide solution – that’s why the last Labour government set up a national Decent Homes Programme, to allow councils to bid for funding to bring their homes up to the Decent Homes Standard. It’s why we’re now investing hundreds of millions to refurbish council homes across Lambeth as part of our Lambeth Housing Standard works.

And the condition of many homes on Cressingham Gardens is unique.  There are design flaws with the roofs that typify the low-rise nature of the estate – years of water seeping into the walls have caused damp and disrepair that can’t be addressed quickly or cheaply.

“Budget cuts don’t affect housing”

It’s a fact that Lambeth’s  Tory-Lib Dem administration from 2002 to 2006 refused to bid to central government for money for local estates, including Cressingham.  It’s also a fact that in 2010 the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government cut Lambeth’s grant for Decent Homes from £250m to £100m – a 60% reduction in available funds. It’s wrong to say that budget cuts don’t affect housing.

Lambeth now has one of the largest investment programmes in social housing refurbishment anywhere in the country, because we’re committed to improving our housing stock.  This is largely paid for by borrowing over thirty years against the future rental income from council homes and has helped us bring thousands of homes up to the Lambeth Housing Standard

“Refurbishment causes less stress & disruption than demolition”

It’s not true to say that major works on the estate wouldn’t cause significant stress and disruption. Building surveys have shown that correcting the design flaws would mean removing the existing roofs and installing temporary covers to allow the plaster to dry out properly before new roofs can be built. Residents would need to move out during that time and then move back to the estate once refurbishment was complete.

When it comes to rebuilding Cressingham we’ve given a commitment that as few people as possible should be disrupted with as many people as possible just making one move: from their existing home into a new home on the estate, without the need to move away.

“It is not going to be council housing”

Like many councils across London, Lambeth is looking at establishing a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ or SPV to build homes in the borough. This would be a fully council-owned company to help us  build more homes and access funding that we otherwise can’t as a local authority.  While we’ve had a Tory Mayor and a coalition government who have seemed hell bent on attacking social housing in this country, we as a Labour council, are not prepared to sit back and leave housebuilding to private developers who aren’t building social housing,

Homes built by the council through an SPV would be lifetime homes, with succession rights for tenants, let at social council rent levels. To all intents and purposes they will be council homes. The only difference is that by being built through the SPV, these homes will be exempted from the Right to Buy and be available to be used for social housing in perpetuity. This isn’t, as the Save Cressingham campaign alleges, about privatising or destroying social housing: but about using the powers that we have as a council to invest in new social housing in Lambeth so that we keep our borough mixed and diverse.

For homeowners living on the estate the council has brought forward a range of options to enable them to stay on the estate in a new home without having to pay anything extra, even if the new homes are worth more.

“Refurbishment is more viable than rebuilding”

Again, this is a false claim. Refurbishment needs to be paid for from the council’s Housing Revenue Account. This is the account where we have already borrowed, over thirty years, to the borrowing limit imposed by the government in order to invest in our social housing stock..

On the most optimistic costing the council would need to spend £9.4 million to refurbish Cressingham Gardens. This is almost three times what the budget would allow – meaning that work would have to be cancelled on estates where it is affordable in order to spend extra on Cressingham.

There simply isn’t the money to refurbish the estate, whereas by rebuilding the estate and building through an SPV the council can access finance from elsewhere that would allow everyone on the estate to be rehoused in a home which meets their needs and which can increase the amount of genuinely affordable social housing on the estate for local families.

 - Cllr Matthew Bennett

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