I first heard of the Carpenters Estate when I saw an elderly grandmother break down in tears as she talked about how she was being forced out of her home. The 84-year-old, who owns her own home, has lived on the estate for more than 40 years and has no desire to leave.
While British leaders mouth enthusiasm for democracy overseas, property and land use in the UK shows a distinctly undemocratic trend. The Carpenters Estate, on the edge of the Olympic Park in east London, is the subject of a battle between local residents and Newham Council, which plans to demolish the estate where hundreds of residents still live. Newham, which is in discussions with University College London, hopes to replace the estate with a new campus for UCL.
A coalition of articulate residents, along with students and academics from UCL, are protesting against the plans, highlighting the irony of demolishing homes at a time of national housing crisis. Newham, which faces a particularly acute housing shortage, hit the headlines earlier this year after it emerged that the council had asked a housing association in Stoke-on-Trent to house hundreds of tenants on its housing waiting list.
To the south in Southwark, another London borough facing a housing shortage, 1,100 homes lie empty on the vast Heygate Estate. Adrian Glasspool, who also owns his own home, is the last remaining resident.
He points out how the estate, which had been earmarked for refurbishment until 2002, was described in a council report as having a very low crime rate and a large number of elderly residents who were very attached to the place. Now, some of his neighbours have had to leave, against their will.
What these planning battles have in common with contentious developments, from superstores to airport expansion, is the perception local communities have of being “at war” with a local government that is supposed to represent them. Allegations of underhand tactics and dirty tricks subverting democratic processes abound.
Like tax avoidance, in general the activities of certain councils, developers and lobbyists aren’t actually illegal, although there have been planning meetings elsewhere packed with actors, and fake letter-writing campaigns from non-existent supporters of controversial schemes.
But while not illegal, there is no doubt that any such behaviour undermines the spirit if not the letter of the law, as the public interest remains the justification for the planning system. Local communities often complain that the precise nature of potential development is not always clear. In Bristol the administrators of a comedy club put in an application for change of use, to retail. After permission was granted, Tesco stepped in. A Tesco Express opened on the site at Stokes Croft to protests from hundreds of people, which culminated in a night of rioting.
Another common feature of development battles are consultation processes that are dismissed as “a sham” by local communities. Consultation is a statutory requirement for councils and developers to which huge resources are devoted, with the rhetoric of community participation at the centre of every development brief.
But time and again residents claim that consultations are carried out in name only, with “roadshows” and “exhibitions” by lobbying companies replacing public meetings. “You turn up, they tell you what they want to do, you go and they call that consultation. They don’t have any more dialogue with us,” says Joe Alexander, a spokesperson for Carp, the residents group campaigning against the demolition of the Carpenters Estate.
Meanwhile “astro-turfing”, which is the setting up by lobbying companies of apparently grassroots groups in favour of development, is a practice used by some development supporters. The practice gained notoriety in the 1990s when American lobbyists for the tobacco industry set up front groups to defend smokers’ rights. According to one lobbyist engaged in battles over development in the UK, astro-turfing “goes on all the time”.
While still in opposition the Conservatives published their “Open Source Planning” green paper, which promised to restore democratic and local control over the planning system. This document, which fed into the Localism Bill, stressed the need for developers to involve local communities in “collaborative design”. Building on Conservative thinking about localism and “open source planning”, the coalition agreement pledged to instigate “a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people”, in order to promote “democratic engagement”.
Instead what we are witnessing is the abject failure of democracy at local level.
Anna Minton’s forthcoming report on lobbying and failures in local democracy will be published by SpinWatch. She is the author of ‘Ground Control’ (Penguin, £9.99) and is the 1851 Royal Commission Fellow in the Built Environment