Last Tuesday, June 9, Central Hill residents packed into the Lunham Road Day Centre for a fiery meeting with representatives of Lambeth Council – an encounter which turned out to be far more revealing than its organisers had intended. The building had to be scoured for extra seating as more than 150 residents welcomed observers from other threatened estates and interested groups like Architects for Social Housing (ASH). Lambeth’s narrow agenda called for the election of eight residents to a ‘Steering Group’, ostensibly to feed ideas into the decision-making process. In the event, this agenda was swept away on a tide of resident frustration.
Even before elections could begin, residents noticed the council’s requirement that tenants and leaseholders vote separately, so dividing them in a way which failed to reflect their sense of unity; the feeling that our homes and vibrant, established community are equally precious to all. This divisive stipulation was duly challenged and resident representatives were appointed on behalf of everyone. With the agenda now expanded, questions were raised about the misuse of statistics in council literature on Central Hill; the attempt to paint our beautiful but neglected estate as a dangerous and crime-ridden urban jungle, when nothing could be further from the truth; the apparent toothlessness of a ‘Steering Group’ which will have no formal influence and could easily end up as a talking shop – a distraction. Boos greeted news that Labour Councillor Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for housing, would be chairing the Group, despite earlier assurances that there would be an independent chair (as per a proposal supported by our MP, Helen Hayes).
Indeed, during a previous meeting on the similarly-threatened Knight’s Walk estate in Kennington, Councillor Bennett admitted that to him, the word ‘regeneration’ means demolition and ‘building to a high density in order to address the housing crisis’. Such unimaginative and destructive ‘solutions’ to London’s housing problem would of course be funded by private sale of the resulting new-build flats: if recent history means anything, many would go to overseas and buy-to-let investors, so changing the character of an area and disfiguring its community – not to mention destroying some distinguished public architecture. This ‘economic cleansing’ of London has become one of the issues of our time, and affects all who live in and love our city.
Throughout the Lunham Road meeting, Lambeth’s Regeneration Team manager, Lucia Deere, repeatedly told us ‘no decisions have been made,’ insisting that we would have to wait until September in order to know the council’s intentions for Central Hill (and four other threatened estates). Curious, then, that as the hall was emptying afterwards, she looked one resident in the eye and promised him angrily that ‘We are definitely building here, I can promise you that.’
So it would appear that, despite two hours’ protestation to the contrary, decisions on the future of the Central Hill Estate have been made. Or is it simply that some decisions are more made than others? And Lambeth’s Labour Councillors wonder why trust in them runs low. Having lost Scotland to the SNP, they now seem Hell-bent on repeating the process in London. Whatever else the next six months may be, they are unlikely to be dull.
Author: Andrew Smith, Central Hill resident