London must engage with communities to win back trust

Tuesday 15 October 2019

London Mayor Sadiq Khan recently pledged to step up his regime of building ‘genuinely’ affordable homes for the capital and urged developers to up their game in getting the most out of community expertise and knowledge.

But to get there the development industry must learn to speak the same ‘language’ as that used by communities, do some ‘active listening’ and aim to regain their trust by creating homes and places rather than units.

Those were some of the key points to emerge from Homes for Londoners, a day-long event at the Crystal in the Royal Docks, run by the Mayor of London and New London Architecture and designed to debate key issues in housing.

‘We face in London, in my view, a housing crisis’, said Khan, adding that this may cause the capital’s global city status to suffer. ‘For too long, communities have had developments done to them, rather than developments done with them’. 

Khan refused to declare any manifesto commitments but said that his ‘direction of travel’ on affordable housing would remain, noting that when he became Mayor there was not a single penny in the budget to build affordable homes to rent. Last year the city began building more council homes in any year since 1985, with 14,000 affordable homes last year, 17,000 the target this, and new definitions on what affordable are replacing ‘dodgy’ ones of before. ‘Term two will be about building on those foundations’ said Khan, and working to ‘accelerate’ provision – developers nervous about private market issues should view this as an opportunity, while modern methods of manufacture may help address any shortage of materials following a no-deal Brexit. But Khan stressed that developers must consult with residents through ballots if they want to regenerate an estate and get money from City Hall – and realise that better consultation with communities results in better end-products. ‘Londoners aren’t stupid – many of the solutions are out there’.

Deputy Mayor James Murray had earlier kicked off proceedings by declaring that trust was a crucial component in moving forward with the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) vision for creating enough good quality housing. ‘We need to work really hard to earn that trust’, he said. ‘At City Hall we get it… Working hard to earn Londoners’ trust is not an optional extra’. Giving people power through ballots is one answer, but there are no cheat-sheets or short-cuts to the hard work of proper consultation. 

Regeneration, though, is a ‘toxic’ word in community that makes people go on the defensive, suggested Adrian Hodgson, trustee of Custom House & Canning Town Community Renewal Project. ‘No-one is actually having a conversation’, he said, stressing the need for a common ‘language’ and real, up-front engagement on schemes that residents could buy into. This could also have the knock-on effect of saving money on expensive lawyer’s bills and conflict. ‘The trust is the biggest thing’.


The GLA’s Debbie Jackson said that we will have failed if we simply build units rather than thinking of the way people want to live in a session on Quality for life, Quality of life. Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz said the authority is working hard to do the ‘exacting’ heavy lifting required to try and heal the ‘utter breakdown of trust’ that occurred at the Carpenters’ Estate. And dRMM’s Sadie Morgan outlined how her new Quality of Life Foundation aims to develop principles for investors and developers over the next year, resulting in a mark for them to use and celebrate best practice, but which will also be tested by community vote. But for Karakusevic Carson’s Paul Karakusevic in the same session, housing is ‘not being taken seriously as a national subject’, with 10 housing ministers in 10 years and a downward spiral in investment. ‘There needs to be a re-evaluation of what we’re doing and how’, he said. ‘Residents shouldn’t be used just to get planning’. The most beautiful processes, he added, had been those where the residents had been involved from day one, and where they felt they had power. ‘People embrace change when they see that “new” can be “good”’. At the end of the day, said L&Q’s Fayann Simpson, it’s about people. ‘We’re not numbers living in units. Community is not just about the homes but the environment it sits in’.

Perhaps, though, the cross-subsidy system to deliver affordable housing is not the most appropriate. Lord Richard Best, chair of the Affordable Housing Commission, said it was a “hopeless” model. ‘It will collapse if the market fails. £11bn would deliver the social housing we need’. The planning system, moreover, has become a ‘complicated way of collecting tax’, according to the London School of Economics’ Tony Travers in the same session. 

There are new ways to bring people into decisions, said Camden Council leader Georgia Gould, but trust had been broken because too often we are building the wrong kinds of homes. Brent Council has even employed George the Poet to explain how residents can have a say in the future of the St Raphael’s estate, said Network Housing Group CEO Helen Evans. But it was key to have an authentic voice. ‘We need to be open and transparent’, she said, rather than use too much ‘spinning’. Over in Kingston, said its director of growth Nazeya Hussain, one of the moves was to target the young and get them more pro-actively engaged, as at the Cambridge Road Estate regeneration project. ‘We talk about design advocates – we need more engagement advocates’. The young could also be better utilised through My Place, an idea put forward by Clare Richards of ft’work and now being piloted, where they could be paid to collect information and views about their localities.

After many more roundtables, tours and speed presentations on issues such as homelessness and intensification, in a final summary session, Raji Hunjan, chair of the Mayor’s London Housing Panel said moves to allay the housing crisis was ‘not about a rush to meet targets’ but taking time to engage, and that the industry needs to create ‘safe spaces where we admit to what we don’t know’. James Murray’s version was to urge the built environment profession to speak the same language as communities and ‘take themselves out of their comfort zone’ by talking to different groups in order to learn from each other. 

L&Q’s Fayann Simpson said open, honest and transparent engagement at an early stage was the key to winning back trust. But at least, said YIMBY’s John Myers, ‘there’s incredible and inspiring harmony around the message that we have to work with communities to deliver the kinds of housing that London needs’. The way we deliver housing doesn’t always deliver homes, reflected Dinah Roake, RUSS Community Land Trust, but to do so perhaps all parties should employ more ‘active listening’. ‘If we work with each other, valuing that everybody has a contribution to make, we will get better solutions’, she said. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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