The housing minister, Grant Shapps, has just finished consulting on a new set of rules, refining laws introduced in 2008, to give council tenants the right to take over the management of their estates and request that ownership ‘be transferred from the council to a local housing association’. ‘Nobody knows the needs of a neighbourhood better than the local community,’ Shapps says. ‘Now I want to see tenants use these powers to prove us right.’
One group of tenants who intend to take him at his word are the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, which belong to Tory-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Overlooked by Earls Court, the estates have 760 houses and flats close to tube stations, health centres, a market and other local amenities. There are five tower blocks but also plenty of low-rise flats and houses, many with gardens. On the face of it the estates are a big asset to the borough – homes with affordable rents and easy access to central London.
The council sees them differently. Stephen Greenhalgh, the former council leader who now works with Boris Johnson, has strong views about housing. In 2009 he was one of the authors of a pamphlet that called for an end to security of tenure for council tenants, raising council rents to market levels and removing rights from homeless people. Many of his proposals are now government policy.
Greenhalgh apparently told residents in 2009 that he only wanted ‘affluent people’ living on the estates. The council plans to demolish everything and has signed up with a private developer to build 7500 new flats, most of which will go on sale at prices well out of the reach of current residents.
Residents have been campaigning to take over the estates since 2009, when they publicly served a ‘notice to quit’ on the council. The council ignored the notice but has since been obliged to survey residents on the redevelopment plans. The majority of those who responded are opposed, though the council has done its best to spin the results the other way.
As long as the tenants and leaseholders stay firm, it will be a long and costly process to displace them. Meanwhile, if Shapps’s new regulations are made law, the residents will be able to bid to take over the estates, and the housing minister will have to adjudicate. If he means what he says, you’d think he’d have to decide in the tenants’ favour against the council.
Hammersmith and Fulham’s policies have been compared to the notorious practices in Westminster in the 1980s, when Shirley Porter cut the number of council houses in the borough through illegal sales. Residents of a pair of Westminster estates launched a campaign, using Tory legislation, to protect their homes from being sold. The resident-controlled housing association they set up, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, still owns the 640 properties. The architect of that campaign was Jonathan Rosenberg, now the lead campaigner for the residents of West Ken and Gibbs Green.