Kingston has no choice if it wants to be proud of its housing
The Cambridge Estate is a mess. This is no reflection on the people who live there but we need to face the fact that generations of Councils and councillors have neglected to invest in the upkeep of the estate in a way that sought to improve the place Kingstonians live. The state of our social housing is a considerable failure of local government, not just in Kingston but right across the country.
It was not helped by the rush to develop supposedly “modern” estates for the growing postwar population after the baby boom of the 1960s. Like today, there was a growth in population and so was borne the landlord council.
However, the reality of what they developed cannot have been their intent — it rarely is in politics. Instead of modern bright estates we have been left with dark and gloomy corridors of crime and homes that are difficult and expensive to maintain and only a passing acquaintance with the notion of tackling climate change.
Once you accept that you do not want people living in these conditions then for any politician who believes they are elected to do things to improve people’s lives then doing nothing is not an option. There are siren voices that tell you that no change is an option, that you can just refurbish and it will be OK, but it won’t. The money available is only available for regeneration but even if we could afford a full refurbishment it will still lead to displacement from homes whilst the work is done and we may as well have regenerated. In 2015 the council examined 17 options, including refurbishment, of which only 3 or 4 of them were viable or desirable. Yes, the towers could have been preserved but when faced with those options the overriding view of both residents and councillors was that the flexibility of starting all over again was a once in a generation opportunity that needed to be grasped.
At the centre of all this must be people. The people I have felt most concerned for were those who don’t live on the estate but are stuck on our lengthening housing waiting list. Young, and not so young, Kingstonians whose dreams of living in their own home are as far away now as they probably were when they joined the list. I have never supported a ballot on the estate and it has proved to be an unnecessary distraction and set back the programme of regeneration for far too long. In the vacuum of leadership has grown fear and it has allowed those opposed to improving people’s lives to have disproportionate time to mount their attacks. Even now, I do not feel enough is being done to dispel the myths. Politicians are elected to make decisions and often they are difficult decisions that upset people. Politicians are also there to make a judgement formed through the development of policy by Council officers and other professionals whom the council employs to advise them. Voters elect politicians to make decisions and I just think a ballot is shirking that responsibility. If there must be a ballot all the people of the Borough who are affected by our lack of housing should be involved, not just current tenants but also those who are on the waiting list. That said, now the ballot has been called we must all work hard to ensure that there is a “yes” vote.
Is this the best scheme it could be? Given the financial clout of local authorities, it probably isn’t. I am not making a judgement on architectural quality because the team has been fortunate enough to secure some of the best architects for this type of work. I certainly think the deal could be better financially and find it astounding that the provision of so much private housing only builds so little social rent housing when the land is essentially “free”. Back in 2014 when the project started I had wanted the Council to be the developer themselves and not bring in a private sector partner and I regret we did not do that. The critical issue at that time was did we have the people in the Council capable of doing what we needed and the answer was “no”. I am very concerned that we have currently only seen growth of 100 new social rent homes. If the number of social rent homes had been the only criteria for regeneration then I hope even the Lib Dem administration would be recommending a “no” vote. However, all the other benefits of modern homes, both private affordable and social rent, new community facilities, and new public realm are for me enough to see this project progress.
I do not believe a “no” vote serves Kingston well, not least because there is no alternative to this. The Council simply does not have the money to undertake a refurbishment of the estate. Yes, I suppose the housing department could borrow money but given it is rents that would have to pay off that money it seems difficult to conceive residents would be pleased with that option; the same old and tired estate tarted up on the back of their rents.
I was born in Kingston and grew up alongside the estate (I never lived on it). There are many beautiful things in our Borough that are worth us straining every effort to preserve and beautify but the CRE is not one of them. It is now nearly five and a half years since the CRE regeneration project started and yet we are a long way from residents moving into high-quality homes. The time to do something is now upon us and I hope that the residents make a decision based on what they know is right, not whatever misinformation or disinformation is put about by those who would wish to impoverish our residents further.
We need a “yes” vote to prove Kingston cares about its residents and the time for that vote is upon us.