Lime Legal

Degeneration game

Published 08 September 2023

Regeneration is meant to be about community empowerment. Try telling that to residents of one south London estate. Brook Hewett and Bill Rashleigh report. Photographs by Andrea Testoni.

The Ferrier estate in Greenwich, South London, is a desolate place. The sprawling 1970s estate is a wasteland of derelict homes plagued by vermin. There are nearly 1,000 empty properties, some boarded up, others with windows ripped out and toilets smashed to make them uninhabitable.

Seven-year hitch: The first of the new homes on the Ferrier won’t be ready until 2010–11. By that time some former residents will have been waiting seven years to move back.

Remaining residents feel ignored and left behind. One resident told ROOF: ‘My flat was full of flies that were traced to a sealed-up flat on the floor above me. The fridge-freezer had just been switched off, not emptied, and the remains of someone’s breakfast were still on the table.’

The whole estate looks in dire need of regeneration. But this is misleading: the damage is the result of regeneration. None of these problems existed until Greenwich council began working on its ‘Kidbrooke vision’ for regenerating the estate nine years ago.

Instead of breathing new life into the area, the billion-pound regeneration has led to the destruction of the local community and the exclusion of former residents from the planned new homes. It has seen battle lines drawn up between tenants and the local council over allegations that a deprived community has been deceived and deliberately dispersed as the council attempts to ramp up land values on a prime site.

Gary Bonavia, whose family lives in a four-bedroom house flanked on both sides by a row of boarded-up properties, told ROOF: ‘This used to be a nice community but families have been torn apart and people scattered throughout the borough. The regeneration has been done very aggressively and it’s a shabby way to treat people who are already underprivileged.’

Nick Russell (middle image) is a community worker at a small church on the Ferrier estate. Most of the tenant community has now been dispersed around the borough and he and his family are some of the few residents left on the run-down estate. Some of the empty homes have been boarded-up, others have just had the windows ripped out (top image) and have become breeding grounds for vermin. While the tenant community is being broken- up, homeowners are stuck on the estate. Unable to buy elsewhere because the council refuses to offer market value for their home, the Bonavias (bottom image) are now the only family left in their row.

It’s a far cry from the pledges made in July’s government White Paper – Communities in Control – that ‘we want tenants to have more choice over where they live.’ Prime minister Gordon Brown stated in his foreword that his government wanted to give people a greater say and ensure that ‘their voices are heard and that their views will make a difference’.

But for Nick Russell, a Ferrier resident and community worker at a small church on the estate, control is the last thing that residents have been offered.

‘What is happening at the Ferrier estate is the very antithesis of local community empowerment and must serve as an urgent warning to all resident communities facing regeneration,’ he says.

‘Almost all of us are being removed from the area and excluded from the opportunity to be re-housed in the new homes. We are being treated like an inconvenient community, standing in the way of higher land values to subsidise the scheme.’

New for old

Greenwich council first started publicly touting ‘new homes for old’ for the community and working on the regeneration of the Ferrier Estate in 1999.

The plan involved knocking down the 1,906 existing homes in phases and replacing them with 4,398 new homes – 2,490 for private sale, 1,358 for rent and 550 for shared ownership.

Tenants were assured they would have a full role in the regeneration. They were even asked what windows they wanted in their new homes during ‘design your own home’ sessions hosted by the council.

‘We were made to feel that we could influence the design in an individual way,’ says one Ferrier resident. ‘There was never any suggestion that we would get anything other than new replacement homes.’

Further assurances were received from the council in late 2012, when cabinet councillor Peter Challis wrote to the Ferrier residents’ action group (FRAG) saying: ‘Anyone who lives on the Ferrier estate who wishes to remain living in the masterplan area will be able to do so as a result of the redevelopment.’

‘This is the antithesis of community empowerment and must serve as an urgent warning to all residents facing regeneration’

But residents believe that this pledge was a cynical attempt to enlist their support for the regeneration scheme and that the council never had any intention of honouring its promises to re-house them in the regenerated site.

They cite an appendix to a Greenwich council document, published in 2000 but not discussed with residents. The document stated: ‘There is little doubt that the Ferrier estate has stigmatised the area‚ Whilst a rolling programme of piecemeal development seems sensible to facilitate the logistics of decanting a large number of tenants, it simply will not generate the values needed. We believe that a complete demolition of the Ferrier estate and a new comprehensive quality scheme is essential to remove the stigma of the current estate and its effect on land values.’

The document has incensed residents. ‘The linking of our community with lower property valuations is an example of how the council has stigmatised our community,’ says Nick Russell. ‘We are proud of our multicultural community and deeply resent the council view.’

It has reinforced opinion among Ferrier residents that the council has not been straight about its plans. ‘On the face of it, you could accuse the council of incompetence and inefficiency,’ says Gerry McWilliams, a homeowner on the estate. But when you consider that their real agenda seems to be to maximise land values by demolishing Ferrier and dispersing the community, then things seem different. In many ways, what appears to be inefficiency and incompetence is actually bloody competent.’

Nick Raynsford, longstanding Labour MP for Greenwich, dismisses claims of double-dealing and says it’s mismanagement rather than Machiavellian politics. ‘People are clearly upset and they are looking for an explanation. But as with most cases in England more often than not it is a cock-up rather than a conspiracy.’

But residents are unconvinced. ‘They may well be incompetent but the evidence is that the council has a plan,’ says Nick Russell. ‘This is a very attractive development proposition and the council wants a different community. They want a prestigious development with improved social statistics. That way it looks as if they’ve met targets for tackling deprivation, for which they receive single regeneration budget grants.’

Tony Archer: ‘Most of the people have been moved off. It’s very sad compared to how it used to be’

Councillor Peter Brooks, deputy leader of Greenwich council, admits that the demographic of the community will probably change after the regeneration.

‘Kidbrooke could be a key place to live and work in London so I suspect that a different type of person will want to move in,’ he told ROOF.

‘I do understand that communities have been torn apart and I think that’s the part of it that you regret. But what I am trying to do is form a new community. I see it as a fantastic opportunity for people who live around Kidbrooke and on an estate that is going nowhere. It is unfortunate that we have had to move people to do this. I wouldn’t like it I suppose if I lived here.’

Divisive decant

Cock-up or conspiracy, half the community has already been scattered as tenants are decanted, and all but 200 tenant households will have been dispersed by the time the first phase is complete.

Since the decant started in 2014, the estate has been emptied at the rate of roughly four households a week. Tenants have been re-housed throughout the borough and families broken up with little thought of the repercussions.

Councillor Peter Brooks says: ‘We’ve not made anyone move somewhere they don’t want to go.’ But the reality, from the tenants’ point of view, appears different.

One young mother had to give up work because her children’s main carer – their grandmother – was moved off the estate. In another case, an elderly woman with cancer was left on the estate while her daughter, who lived over the road, was moved to Eltham. The daughter had young children, so crossing the borough to care for her mother became almost impossible. It took a year of haranguing from FRAG before the council relented and moved the daughter back on to the estate. The family was eventually housed together a couple of months before the mother’s death.

In November 2012 councillor Peter Challis wrote to FRAG saying: ‘Greenwich council recognises that there are established communities and social networks‚ As part of the redevelopment the council intends, as a policy objective, to promote social cohesion and minimise the disruption of these communities.’

The failure of this policy objective has further soured relations between residents and the council. ‘They’ve got away with this because they are dealing with a deprived community that isn’t clued up about the legalities and is used to being pushed around,’ says Nick Russell. ‘If the council had tried this in the adjoining affluent suburb of Blackheath, it would have been served with a dozen legal cases before it could have blinked.’

Councillor Peter Brooks admits that there have been problems, but says they are due to the scale of the project. ‘If you’re going to decant nearly 2,000 properties, there simply isn’t anywhere to put that number of people straight into. Yes, there has been a lot of scattering of the community. But there’s not much in reality that we can do about that, other than offer them the opportunity to come back.’

However, residents have been refused a legally enforceable right to return to one of the new homes. When they are re-housed, removal costs are paid on a strict one-way basis only – ‘a single ticket off the estate with no guarantee of help to come back,’ says Nick Russell.

Some tenants whose homes were in the first phase of the regeneration have been re-housed on the semi-derelict estate. Tony Archer, 64, has lived on the Ferrier since the early 1970s. He and his wife were moved into a run-down flat surrounded by derelict properties. Because he was re-housed on the Ferrier, his compensation cheque for home displacement was cancelled. ‘It was acting like Scrooge. The night before Christmas we had a letter through the door saying we weren’t entitled to the money.’

He has renovated his new home and it is immaculate inside. But outside the front door it’s a depressing picture. ‘Most of the people have been moved off and it’s very sad compared to how it used be. It used to take me 15 minutes just to walk down the path to the shop [about 200 metres] because you’d meet so many people that you knew. Now it’s desolate.’

Homeowners in revolt

For the 174 homeowners on the Ferrier, the regeneration has led to a long-running feud with the council.

The council has a statutory obligation to buy back properties at market value and help those who can’t find alternative accommodation.

Regeneration on the hoof: ‘We’ve had to make it up as we’ve gone,’ a councillor told ROOF. No surprise to residents who say the council is out of its depth

But in July 2014 it offered one Ferrier homeowner £85,000 for a four-bedroom house with a front and back garden. The previous year the owner had been quoted £130,000 in a private valuation.

Councillor Peter Brooks admits that mistakes have been made in the way the council has dealt with homeowners. The valuations were so low, he says, because the council significantly underestimated the number of owners that would need to be bought out. ‘We heard of some people buying their house on their credit card and paying 33.5 per cent interest, which is ludicrous, because they thought they were going to make some money,’ he says.

The council is offering owners an advance payment of 90 per cent of the open market value – with the balance to be paid once the Lands Tribunal has determined the final value.

So far 60 owners have taken this offer and moved on. But this only helps the younger owners, says Gerry McWilliams. ‘The rest of us are too old to get a mortgage and you couldn’t afford to buy anything with what the council are offering. A caravan would cost more.’

The resentment many owners feel towards the council has bubbled over into a refusal to move. Many are now digging in for a long fight.

‘They’re going to have to take me away in a box because I’m not going anywhere’, says Kathleen Courtnell, who is in her 60s and has lived on the Ferrier for more than 30 years. ‘What they are trying to do is robbery. We can’t get a mortgage. I’m in remission from cancer. Give me the cancer back any time rather than all this stress.’

Meanwhile the estate is being dismantled around the Courtnells’ and the adjoining derelict properties have become a haven for drug dealers. ‘My eldest son walks around here at one in the morning to make sure we’re safe. The only sound you ever hear round here now is the police siren. Even the parrot does it he’s heard it so many times,’ she says.

As well as financial offers, the council has also floated the idea of an introductory tenancy, under which owners can sell to the council but remain in their home as a tenant, paying £108 a week.

‘The only sound you ever hear round here now is the police siren. Even the parrot does it he’s heard it so many times’

However, given the strength of anti-council feeling, homeowners don’t relish the prospect of becoming its tenants.

‘There’s no security of tenure as an introductory tenant,’ one homeowner told ROOF. ‘I could be the freeholder of a four-bed house one day, do a deal with the council, then be told that they want possession and I’m being moved into the top floor of a tower block’.

At least there has been dialogue between owners and the council. For private tenants on the Ferrier, the message has been crystal clear: get out. According to the Land Compensation Act 1973, private tenants should receive home loss payment. Instead they have been given their marching orders without any compensation, even though one tenant on the estate has been renting her flat for eight years.

Cash crisis

For some residents, the problems are rooted in the council’s desire to hand regeneration to the private sector and rely on cross-subsidy profit from the sale of private homes to fund the social housing.

The approach relies on a vibrant private sector being willing to pay high prices for the flats to provide the cross-subsidy. But, given the squeeze in credit, reduction in mortgage availability, and slow-down in the buy-to-let market, there is a real risk that the developers will not be able to shift the new flats. This would have a serious knock-on effect on the delivery of the social rented homes, says Nick Russell.

‘The way things are going there won’t be enough profit generated to build all the replacement social housing,’ he says. ‘So much for catering to the needs of the council’s waiting lists and homeless households.’

But councillor Peter Brooks insists that the project ‘goes ahead come what may’.

The first of the new homes on the regenerated Ferrier are scheduled to be ready in 2010–11. Most of these 420 homes will be for private sale or for key workers. Only 150 will be affordable homes for rent. By that time hundreds of families will have been displaced by the regeneration. Some will have been waiting seven years for their new home and moving back to the estate after such a long time is not practical, says Russell. ‘If you’ve been living in a replacement home somewhere else in the borough for that long then you’ll be settled, your kids will be in new schools. It’s a permanent decanting.’

Meanwhile signs have been pasted all over the estate reminding the remaining residents to take part in a consultation on the planning application. For many, the notion that the council still wants to hear their views is a joke. When asked what they thought, many residents told ROOF that the council was ‘out of its depth’.

Councillor Brooks does not deny there have been problems: ‘No one had done anything on this size before,’ he says. ‘There was no textbook to go by so we’ve had to make it up as we’ve gone and take each decision as it comes along.’

The tragedy is that the Ferrier regeneration provided a golden opportunity to breathe new life into a run-down estate and meet government ambitions for involving communities in projects that affect them.

‘If they had involved us in a meaningful way then this project could have been finished by now,’ says Ferrier resident Azara Issufu.

Instead, the scheme has dragged on for nearly a decade, split up an established community, displaced hundreds of families and left many homes empty in a borough with 12,178 households on its housing waiting list – the fourth highest figure in outer London. So much for community empowerment. As Nick Russell says: ‘Where is the community empowerment if that community is to be removed?’