A mile north of Brixton, a 1970s-built council estate is being redeveloped into a fashionable new quarter. Under pressure from rising rents, service charges and energy bills, the residents face an impenetrable maze of corporate jargon when they try to hold the private developers accountable. But the strong community has not given up their resistance.
“Was Lambeth council ‘bettering our lives’ when they extended the district heating with E.ON from 25 years to 40 years without consultation? When residents see extremely high and estimated bills on a monthly basis? Smart meters that are not smart and cannot take a meter reading? …How many times have we asked: what is the plan of getting water to residents, especially the vulnerable? They claim they have a plan, but when the time comes, they do nothing. Leave us stranded, unable to flush the toilet, make a drink or take vital medication.”
Resident activist Tina Anderson’s words resonate with her audience when she speaks at the AGM of Myatts Field North’s resident association. As part of the estate’s regeneration programme, they have had a combined heat and power plant and district heating installed. But the residents complain this has left them much worse off than the previous communal heating system, with E.ON sending estimated bills that are too high, then not answering their customer service line when residents try to complain in time to avoid a £10 charge for late payment.
Ruth London from the group Fuel Poverty Action explains that the government is trying to roll out district heating. This could bring bills and carbon emissions down if planned on a national level, but instead “they are offering subsidies to private companies and local authorities to run their own schemes. A lot of the local authorities don’t have the know-how themselves and think it’s more efficient to hand it over to somebody. Some councils monitor things very closely to make sure tenants aren’t ripped off, but some like Lambeth just basically sell their tenants to private companies and lock them into these contracts that can be 80 years.”
From Regeneration to Degeneration.
Fuel Poverty Action is currently looking for a lawyer to find a way to challenge these contracts where residents are made to carry the risk neither the companies nor the government want to take on. It was through the issue of energy I first came across the estate’s struggle, when Switched On London launched their campaign for a public energy company there. But as I’ve visited the community during the last few months, it has become clear that water cuts and fuel poverty are only one part of what has gone wrong with the regeneration programme of this Lambeth estate. Anderson continues:
“Is it bettering our lives when there is a constant smell of refuse, missed collections, pot bins not cleaned? It is having a detrimental impact on our lives as we have to deal with the fly and mice infestations. Is it better that for the last two years shops within a one-mile radius have sold out of fly sprays and fly traps? Summer is upon us, and the flies and the mice are returning, not to mention the family of foxes that are thriving. Maybe those are the lives that are being bettered.”
This determined woman is one of the key activists on the estate. But many others have similar stories to tell. The £150 million regeneration programme that was branded as improving a problem-ridden estate has in many residents’ eyes resulted in anything but improvements. “The standard of living is not good,” says Junior Vassell. He is full-time carer for his elderly mother. “Sometimes the family that live above my mum sound like they’re a herd of elephants, and my mum’s ill! It’s not their fault, the noise transfer is dreadful.”
Vassell’s mother has several impairments, the main one being dementia. He and his mother are “very unsettled and very unhappy”. They moved into a new property in December 2013, with the contractors agreement that they would make the necessary adaptations to accommodate his mother’s needs. These changes were not carried out until early 2015. “In the end I said if they didn’t deal with the complaint by a certain date, I would sue them. That’s what made them do all the work.”
Vassell and his mother ended up with a 17-page complaint. “It’s still outstanding at the moment, because the whole complaints procedure went to the council and their responses seemed in collusion with [estate management company] Pinnacle’s, which I wasn’t happy with. So I sent it to Lambeth housing officers. They say they’re inundated with so many complaints that they can’t do it for at least a year, so the earliest they’ll look at it is December coming.”
“My concern with all that was, if my mum didn’t have me, what would have happened to her?” he says. Unfortunately Vassell’s mother’s case doesn’t seem an exception. Another resident active in the residents’ association says people have had to sleep on the floor when moving into new properties, not suitable for those unable to turn themselves who need a special bed. Jeanne, who doesn’t want to give her full name, tells me of a woman who had to crawl to her bedroom every night because the stair lift was not working. She has since passed away. In Tina Anderson’s words, deaths on the estate now count in double figures: “Deteriorating physical and mental health, how much of this is a result of the regeneration I cannot help but wonder.” Jeanne says: “Personally, my health has suffered but not as much as some others’. I know someone who had to go to the doctor and get sleeping pills because of the noise.”
When I call Jeanne, she says she had just been thinking she preferred her old flat. It was overlooking a park, whereas now the windows open to a junction. “It’s dirty now, I’m always cleaning. I can’t keep the windows open and the flat is much smaller. They promised cupboards but they have not been delivered in two years.” She has lived on the estate for 25 years. “There has not been any improvement for me.”
The regeneration of Myatts Field North – or Oval Quarter, as it is being rebranded to attract private residents – started in 2012. The estate, about a mile from Brixton, had been built in the 70s and is home to a strong and diverse community. When I sit in meetings where residents discuss their experiences of the regeneration project, views are mixed. Many mention that it has brought some good, but hardly enough to justify the increased rents, energy bills and service charges.
“There were problems on the estate, like on any inner London estate”, Anderson tells me, saying some people were happy to move away. But others had no alternative. When the regeneration started, many leaseholders who could not remortgage due to stricter regulation in the wake of the financial crisis had to move out. Some became homeless. The regeneration is delivered by a consortium called Regenter Myatts Field North Limited, a private finance initiative project (PFI).
Private Finance, Public Risk.
PFI schemes, launched in the early 90s, are ways of outsourcing building infrastructure such as housing, hospitals, schools and prisons from the state to private companies. The company – usually a consortium – provides the initial capital for the project. The public body that has ordered the project is then tied to a regular, usually monthly, payment for the length of the contract. In the case of Myatts Field, it’s 25 years, but contracts often extend to 50 or 60 years. Public sector bodies have been encouraged to engage in PFI projects through a central government subsidy that covers part of the cost.
In this arrangement, only the service payments appear in public accounts, which enables the total debt for the investment to be kept off-balance-sheet. This makes PFI highly lucrative in a political environment that demonises public sector indebtedness, hiding the true cost of projects that are often poor value for money. According to academic researchers Stuart Hodgkinson and Chris Essen, the UK public sector is currently committed to at least £305.3bn in public spending between 1990 and 2050 in 725 different PFI schemes. But as Hodkinson and Essen write in their 2015 paper, “judging PFI on its own merits misses its real purpose as a neoliberal technology designed to ‘subordinate state activities to the logic of the market, but in a way that would also stimulate the accumulation of capital’.” PFI therefore is an important mechanism for opening up new opportunities for capital to invest and speculate. Their research into the Myatts Field North redevelopment details how the council – and the tenants – ended up getting less and less for the deal.
In 2004, the government accepted Lambeth council’s plans for the PFI redevelopment, anagreeing to provide £114.6 million in PFI credits over 30 years to cover the capital investment. The council was to use rent income from the properties to pay for the management and maintenance of the consortium. But in order to buy back council homes that had been sold to tenants to demolish and replace them, Lambeth faced a £14m gap. To bridge this, it aimed to sell land for 187 private one and two bedroom flats. When the consortium Regenter won the bid for the development in 2009, they guaranteed a minimum of £8 million for a 125-year lease, plus a share of profits from the sale of the flats. In return, Lambeth doubled the amount of private developments to 398. Regenter also agreed to build 105 new social rented homes through a housing association.
When the coalition government of 2010 came into power, they launched a review into the “value for money” PFI schemes were providing. They reduced the subsidy for Lambeth by £16m, who had to agree to get less from the private developers. This meant no more £8 million for the land – which in Hodkinson and Essen’s words “appears to be gifted to Regenter” – in return for a £2.7m reduction in the cost of the contract. The number of private homes was increased again, to 503: this included more “affordable” shared ownership homes but the scrapping of the plans to build social rented accommodation.
“I don’t think councils are equipped with negotiating these contracts, because the developers are running circles around them. It’s all about money, and forget people”, reflects Anderson. When I ask her how the development has changed the community, she says:
“We had a lot of free community-based events, we all used to come out in the summer. The kids used to be able to play out, we didn’t need to worry about them. Now, if a child makes too much noise playing normally, the private residents complain about them. It’s like we’re not supposed to be here. One lady said ‘when are the social housing tenants going?’ “
Myatts Field North is a model example of poor value for money: when I step into the community centre on a June afternoon, a wall of hot air greets me. Someone behind me gasps, lamenting the heat, and we’re told by a woman taking registration that there is no air conditioning. The building reportedly cost £1.7m, but sound blocks in the ceiling are already hanging off. I escape to interview residents outside as soon as the residents association meeting, film screening and talks are over, but I am still left with a headache for the rest of the day. How the residents can keep dancing in the space is beyond me – perhaps it is the community spirit demolition tractors have not managed to tear down.
Where does the buck stop?
The involvement of several PFI companies also brings with it problems of accountability. As listed on Lambeth council website, the delivery partners of the investor, operator and developer Regenter are: Pinnacle, responsible for housing and estate management; Rydon, doing repairs and maintenance. refurbishment; Higgins construction and E.ON that provides the energy. “No one seems to be held to account about anything”, says Vassell. For him, the regeneration works, but the process through which it has been delivered has been “absolutely shocking.”
“It’s this contractor, that contractor… Poor communication, total disregard for the tenants and their circumstances. With better management the regeneration would have been so much better. Do things right. They’ve known from when they started to build that there have been issues with noise, the pot bins and stuff like that. Yet they’ve just continued to build, further and further, and with no improvements. And each time it passes building regulations, but the living experience is not what they make it out to be.”
I witnessed this myself when I attended a residents’ association PFI Monitoring Board meeting in May. The response from companies to residents’ grievances was shocking. When E.ON representatives were challenged by residents saying they have received the the £10 charge for late payment even before the original bills have come through, they assured the company is “committed to rigorous standards”, “committed to documenting practices” and always make contact before levying the charge. That this is not the residents’ experience remained unresolved, as does the issue of estimated bills: a resident claimed they have not used their heating so bills can’t be based on previous usage. E.ON said they couldn’t comment on individual cases.
When told people cannot afford to wait on the phone, E.ON representatives said they had “taken steps to acknowledge” the waiting times. They admit the “emergency service just wasn’t good enough”, but they are now working with the developers. Jeanne later tells me she had to buy a hands-free phone to be able to get on with other tasks while waiting for E.ON to pick up.
Whether the issue was grass in the park, waste collection, noise transfer or residents saying they had received eviction threats to speed up housing benefit claims, the council and the different companies present kept passing the ball back and forth between them. They were either unaware of the cases, had made steps to improve them or could not comment on individual cases. Anderson later tells me she has now learned to collate all evidence because otherwise instances that she complains about have simply not happened. She has saved all communications with the companies and council and has photos of an asbestos van parked next to her flat in case she gets ill in several years’ time.
The resident activist says she has also been threatened with legal action and being moved, possibly because of speaking out. But she wants to keep fighting. “I might not be able to stop what’s going on at Myatts Field North but I’d hate this to happen to somebody else.” With a government unwilling to regulate the energy sector and hundreds of PFI schemes rolled out across the country, residents of MFN are unlikely to be the only ones trampled by profit-thirsty companies. But their willingness to speak out can act as an inspiration to other communities hit by the housing crisis – or any crisis of capitalism.
Photo: Fanny Malinen