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Protests grow against new council homes on green spaces in London

Protests are growing across London against plans to build thousands of new council homes on green spaces and existing estates.

Harriet Grant 

Local authorities need to build desperately needed homes for social rent but they are facing resistance on the streets and in the courts, as council residents fight the destruction of communal gardens in dense and polluted areas.

Weekly protests have been taking place in Peckham, south London, where on 11 August Southwark council began tearing down mature trees on Joycelyn Street Park.

As they did so, campaigners called out “shame on you”. The trees are being removed to make way for the major Flaxyard development, which will bring 120 new homes, 96 of them for council rent.

The area is officially a brownfield site, one of the council’s arguments for building homes on it. But walking through it looks and feels very much like a small park. The new homes that will replace it sit minutes from one of the borough’s most polluted roads.

Southwark council says it needs to build homes for thousands of families stuck in overcrowded accommodation or bed and breakfasts.

In June Southwark said it would look again at plans to build on a large play area in Bermondsey – but it is facing further opposition on multiple estates.

The Bells Garden estate in Peckham sits in a densely packed corner of south London, ringed by busy roads. The estate has large communal green spaces scattered with mature trees and play areas.

It is at the centre of a standoff over plans to build 97 new homes – 65 for council rent – taking part of the communal green and play spaces.

“These flats were built on top of terrace houses,” said Paul Wright, chair of the tenants and residents association. “And the green spaces were to compensate for the lack of gardens.”

“We have worked it out that given the increase in the number of people living here there is a loss of 40% of green space per head. And they want to swap a football cage used by many children and teenagers for a smaller one aimed at young kids.”

He added that local people felt they were not being listened to.

Local campaigner Janine Below blinks back tears as she walks through the estate. She believes that increasing the density by so many flats can only make the estate worse.

“We pick pears here, this estate has beautiful mature trees, but 37 of them are due to go. This is a working-class community and we need these spaces for our mental and physical health.”

The council says the site will be well provided for, with new play spaces and a “linear walkway” – as well as providing urgently needed homes. It has made a much-publicised promise to build 11,000 new homes for social rent by 2043.

Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for council homes and homelessness, said: “Southwark is in the grip of a housing crisis with over 15,000 households on the waiting list for a home. We carefully assess the local area when planning new developments, including proximity to the borough’s extensive network of over 215 parks and green spaces.”

However, Tanya Murat, a coordinator for Southwark Defend Council Housing and founder of a new group opposing building homes on green spaces – Yes to Fair Redevelopment, is unconvinced and is angry that she is being accused of standing in the way of new homes.

“I have lived and worked in this area since the 90s and have been part of campaigns over the years to get developers to put more social homes in privately built estates,” she said. “So for the council to then turn round and say we don’t care about the homeless is disgraceful. We are in a climate and a mental health emergency, we need more green spaces not less.”

In Kilburn, north London, 700 people have signed a petition against the scale of development planned for Kilburn Square, where Brent council is consulting on plans for an extra 180 council homes. The plans will involve the removal of mature trees, a playground, a football pitch and open green space.

Keith Anderson, chair of the Kilburn Village Residents Association, says the site faces becoming seriously overcrowded.

“They are looking at increasing the number of people living here by over 80% – without expanding the current site, losing green spaces and mature trees,” he said.

He stresses that campaigners do not oppose new council homes, just the burden being placed on existing tenants. “The council own this land so it is easier for them to build here than if they have to negotiate with private developers. But the wellbeing of the residents here matters. We have been collecting memories and stories from residents and people are really worried about losing their community space, where they played as children and they can watch their children play now.”

The campaign site warns that “development is raising the temperature in cities with the running of buildings adding to heat produced and increasing climate change.”

Brent council has said it is still consulting on the site.

Residents are taking their fight to the courts, with more than one council facing legal action. In January a high court judge permitted the eviction of climate protesters on a site in Islington, north London, where they were trying to stop the destruction of several mature trees. The site, Dixon Clark Court, will be home to a block of private homes which the council says will help fund 25 new social homes nearby.

On the Mais House in Sydenham, one of the highest points in London, Helen Kinsey and her neighbours are in a battle with Lewisham council over plans to build 110 new social homes on the estate, taking part of the communal green and removing 19 mature trees.

“We live in flats so we don’t have gardens,” said Kinsey. “This green space fosters community. Children get to play among the mature trees and we have birthday parties here and Easter egg hunts.”

Kinsey and her neighbours secured an unusual victory in May against Lewisham at the high court, where a judge overturned planning permission for the new homes, ruling that the council had hidden key information about conservation from its own planning officers.

However, within weeks of that verdict the planning committee passed it again, something Kinsey finds incomprehensible. “We are devastated. We are social tenants here as well as private renters and owners. So we know there is an urgent need for council housing, but we don’t agree with the scale they are proposing here.”

Like other local authorities, Lewisham council says it is pressing ahead with what are desperately needed homes for local families. Paul Bell, cabinet member for housing and planning, said the site would not take up the whole communal green area and that some flats would have new private gardens.

Boris Johnson faces disgruntlement from Tory councillors over planning and cuts

Boris Johnson is facing a rising tide of disgruntlement among his own party’s grassroots councillors, amid anger about a decade of cuts and the imposition of planning reforms, which will downgrade town halls’ control over local development. 

A new survey, seen by The Independent, found that more than half of Conservative councillors think their local authority has been treated unfairly financially by central government, and two-thirds think Whitehall undervalues the role of local government.

Just 15 per cent – little over one in seven – of Tory councillors back Mr Johnson’s planning reforms, compared to more than three-fifths (61 per cent) who oppose them.

The findings came in a survey by think tank Unlock Democracy of almost 500 councillors from across England, which found an overwhelming 88 per cent believed the power balance was skewed too much in favour of central government, to the detriment of municipalities, counties, districts and boroughs.

One Tory councillor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that central government “fundamentally dislikes and distrusts local government” and “considers it a necessary evil at best”.

Another complained about “interference and nanny-stating by the central government when they know nothing about local issues”.

And another said that London uses a “one-size fits all approach” and ignores the advice of local councillors.

Deep cuts in central funding for local councils under Conservative-led governments since 2010, coupled with restraints on increases in locally raised council tax, had led to a 17 per cent fall in cash available for services by 2019, even before the additional financial pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A total of 83 per cent of councillors questioned said their authority had been treated unfairly financially, with fewer than 10 per cent of Tory councillors saying that their financial settlements had been “very fair”.

Proposals for a radical revision of the planning system unveiled by the prime minster last year lit the blue touch-paper for an explosion of opposition from town halls across the country. Those proposals have been blamed for contributing to the Tories’ humiliating defeat in the “Blue Wall” seat of Chesham and Amersham, seized by the Liberal Democrats in a June by-election on a remarkable 30 per cent swing.

Mr Johnson has blasted the English planning system as “a relic” which ensures there are “nowhere near enough homes in the right places”.

His radical plans would sweep away core elements of the system, replacing them with a US-style model designed to accelerate and simplify the delivery of housing and infrastructure projects. But critics claim they risk sidelining local councils and clearing the way for poor-quality slum housing.

Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake told The Independent: “It doesn’t matter which party local councillors represent, their disgruntlement with central government is clear. 

“Their efforts to level up their communities are hampered by a lack of powers and insufficient funding. 

“This is why Unlock Democracy is campaigning for a new settlement between national and local government, which would stop the centralisation on steroids experienced in the last four decades and give local councils real powers and real independence.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We’re levelling up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from Westminster. Later this year we will publish a Levelling Up white paper, setting out how we will help further improve livelihoods.

“We’ve also increased English councils’ core spending power from £49 billion to £51.3 billion between 2020 and 2022.

“Our much-needed planning reforms will make sure there is more engagement and local democracy, and will simplify and modernise the system – making it quicker and more efficient.”

  • Unlock Democracy questioned 442 councillors on 2 July 2021.