BALLOT BIAS: ‘Democracy’ used to destroy people’s homes

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“I don’t believe it was a true vote,” says Agnes Thomas, an east Londoner who has lived on the Carpenters Estate in east London for 52 years. 

Thomas (above) criticises the ‘Yes’/No’ estate demolition and ‘regeneration’ ballot held by Newham Council in December 2021.

Thomas, who voted ‘No’ to the estate’s demolition, says the ballot was biased and divisive. “Many of the people who voted ‘Yes’ don’t know anything about the estate,” explains Thomas, who gave birth to her youngest son on the ninth floor of the estate’s 22-storey tower block. “These are people that Newham moved in to give them temporary accommodation.”

Adeel Nauyeck, another Carpenters resident, who voted ‘Yes’, admits the ballot has split the close-knit estate and “many people do not want to say how they feel”.

 

Genuine

Newham Council’s elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz (Labour) claims a 73% ‘Yes’ vote gives a mandate to its scheme to demolish the 23-acre Carpenter Estate’s 700 homes. Fiaz defends the “integrity” of Newham/Populo’s “open and transparent” ballot, saying Newham has followed the Mayor of London’s Good Guide to Estate Regeneration.

The ballot was held as the Newham/Populo Living scheme seeks taxpayer-funded public subsidy from the Greater London Authority. The council and its housing company seek to demolish the 1960s-built Carpenters and build a new 2,000-home redevelopment with 50% of those units offered at what it calls ‘social rent’.

In 2018 London Mayor Sadiq Khan introduced ballots for estate regeneration schemes seeking public  subsidies where council or social housing would be demolished. Khan promised such ballots would give existing estate residents a ‘democratic referendum’ where they could express “genuine support” for such schemes if they so wished.

 

Fun Day

Residents like Agnes Thomas and Focus E15 housing campaigners say Mayor Khan’s promise is now broken. They say that, prior to the Carpenters ballot, Newham Council and its housing company Populo Living reportedly spent £350,000 of public money to nakedly canvas for a ‘Yes’ vote – amounting to £750 spent per household.

Residents saw posters with vote ‘Yes’ placed all over the estate, says Saskia O’Hara, a paralegal, and Focus E15 campaigner.

“Daily, we saw canvassers with a script that said ‘sell the vote for ‘Yes’ in one minute, thirty seconds, and five seconds,” recalls O’Hara. “We saw a children’s ‘Fun Day’ held on the day after the ballot was due to commence.”

This use of public money should be audited and published, says O’Hara. Newham Council reportedly disputes spending this money in ways that would not be permitted in a general or local election.

Beyond dispute is the fact that residents and campaigners against the scheme received no such public funds to advise residents to vote ‘No’ and put across an alternative community view that the estate should be saved but refurbished.

“It’s not a level playing field,” says O’Hara. “Residents on the estate are saying it – and residents on the Love Lane Estate in Tottenham are also saying it about their ballot.”

 

Fought

“This tight knit community has fought very hard to keep their homes,” says O’Hara. She explains how Newham Council has for 20 years tried via various schemes to demolish the estate, including a £1 billion student campus.

Capital property market interests have been keen to incorporate the 23-acre estate into London’s booming prime residential real estate market; especially as the land sits next to the Olympic Park, Stratford Westfield shopping ‘city’, and just short hops to London’s banking and finance centres at Canary Wharf and the City of London.

 

Mothers 

Centred on the Carpenters Estate, the Focus E15 campaign began in 2013 when a group of young mothers were served eviction notices by East Thames Housing Association after Newham Council cut its funding to the Focus E15 hostel for young homeless people.

Newham said it could not help the mothers due to housing benefit cuts and a lack of affordable housing in London. Council politicians and officers advised the mothers to accept private rented accommodation as far away as Manchester, Hastings and Birmingham if they wanted rehousing.

In 2014, the Focus E15 mothers and fellow campaigners occupied a disused block of flats on the nearly empty Carpenters Estate. They sought to draw attention to the fact that people are being forced out of London due to a lack of affordable housing while thousands of social housing units – that could be refurbished – sit empty.

 

Thriving

Newham’s elected politicians and appointed council officers constantly mantra they have a ‘moral duty’ to build as many new homes as possible for the 27,000 people on its housing waiting list.

Ballots are pre-condition for councils and developers to net millions from the Greater London Authority to subsidise their higher-density regeneration schemes that favour new private homes over genuinely affordable public housing. ‘The GLA and local authority ballots are a cover, using voting and the notion of democracy for ultimately destroying council homes,’ states Focus E15.

Long-term residents, like Agnes Thomas, know that other schemes across London always result in existing residents losing their homes and being forced out of their neighbourhood, a process that destroys their communities and shreds their social ties.

Specifically, Thomas accuses Newham Council of “selling us out” and “ruining people’s lives”.

This was a thriving, family estate,” recalls Thomas. “We just want to live on an estate where everybody knows everybody, and where we can live happily.”

 

Agnes Thomas was interviewed by Helen Drew and Saskia O’Hara by Samantha Simmonds for the BBC Politics London show transmitted on Sunday 23 January 2022. 

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© London Housing Review 2022

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