Demolish and Gentrify: The London Model Moves West
by Tom Youngman
19 January 2018
From the centre of Bath, all routes lead upward. Follow the road, then the street, then a little tree-shaded alley south, up and up, and you get to Foxhill Estate.
Keith has lived at Foxhill for 30 years. “My house and my garden are south-facing. There’s sun in my garden from dawn until dusk. My mum’s just next door, my son’s on the same street. My nephew has a flat here and my mother-in-law is in Foxhill too.”
Nola counts her years in Foxhill by her daughter’s birthdays. “We moved here when Jeanie turned two and she’s 23 now, so we’ve been here 21 years. Foxhill was a great place for her to grow up. She’s grown up confident.”
Foxhill is to be demolished. Up to 542 homes lost, 2000 people evicted. 60% of Foxhill homes are social-rented. The rest of the houses were sold to their residents under right-to-buy.
The estate is owned by housing association Curo, and it’s Curo that now wants to knock it down. Curo are currently building 700 ‘exclusive’ homes on a decommissioned Ministry of Defence site across the road – now on sale for between £320k and £610k. Having created a more upmarket neighbourhood next door, ‘Mulberry Park’, Curo now sees an opportunity to profit from its own tenants’ homes.
The demolition was whisked through planning by Bath & North East Somerset Council last July. The negative impact of the development was clear in the planning application: residents won’t get like-for-like replacement of their homes, there will be “a net loss of 204 affordable homes” and “a net loss of approximately 100 houses for social rent.”
Councillors gave demolition the go-ahead citing the need for “significant investment in a deprived area”, to give the area “an opportunity to regenerate”. But residents like Nola blame Curo for there being a need to regenerate in the first place. “They’ve let Foxhill run down and they’ve put people through such heartache.”
Keith sees things the same way. “They’ve let the estate go to wreck and ruin. I think this has been the plan all along – to let it run down and pull all the houses down. And I’m not talking just the last couple of years, I mean they’ve planned this long term.”
This story will be familiar to Londoners. Councillors and housing associations have joined forces to bulldoze social-rented neighbourhoods and replace them with luxury, mostly market-rent housing across Greater London, from Sweets Way in Barnet to the Heygate Estate in Southwark. A business model has been perfected in London that combines old-school neglect and stigmatisation of the poor and their neighbourhoods with the sheer scale possible when you get backing from the state.
Now house prices have peaked in London – developers have pushed prices so high there is no-one left who can afford the prices they’re demanding – investors are looking further afield for the next-best profit opportunities. The current frontier is the south west.
Victor da Cunha is the man bringing this business model from London to Bath. He left his director role at housing association East Thames – infamous for evicting young single mothers from the the Focus E15 Hostel in Newham – to become chief executive of housing association Somer in April 2011.
Da Cunha was quick to give Somer a more aggressive, commercial footing, getting agreement from Bath & North East Somerset Council to restructure in September 2012. Tenant representatives were axed from the board, the council’s role in the housing association’s governance was eliminated, Somer was rebranded Curo and a for-profit subsidiary was founded, Curo Enterprises.
“I stay with my grandparents at Foxhill a lot, so when I heard about the plans to demolish the estate I got involved straight away,” says Jake, 13. “Foxhill needs improving, it got neglected. What Foxhill needs is an oomph. I think if we campaign hard enough we can get it back that oomph.”
Foxhill residents have started their own residents’ association, hosted film screenings, printed posters and t-shirts and organised protests at council meetings at Bath’s Guildhall. The latest battle is for a judicial review of the council’s decision to grant planning permission. Foxhill Residents’ Association has just reached their first target on a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of that judicial review.
“The campaign has grown and grown,” says Nola. “The thing that has been most inspiring has been how people have become empowered. One of my neighbours started out terrified, sending me anonymous messages about how scared she was about being moved away to share with others. She had a difficult upbringing and her house here was her refuge and bolthole.”
“Now she’s joined the residents’ association, she’s putting herself forward more and more and she’s really grown in confidence. She’s doing radio interviews, writing articles for local magazines. That’s the best thing about the campaign, seeing how people have been empowered.”
Curo’s plan is for Foxhill to end up like the Heygate Estate – in rubble. But the neighbours of Foxhill are using the threat to reunite and mobilise the community. By the time they’ve seen off Curo’s threat, Foxhill will be standing taller than ever.
You can follow the campaign to stop the demolition here. You can support their crowdfunder for a judicial review here.