Sadek: A commercial and moral victory in Earls Court

COMMENT The long-running saga around Earls Court, W14, (see previous blogs ad nauseam, but notably 17 September 2012) has taken a dramatic new turn this week.

Steve Cowan, leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, has written to the residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green housing estates to tell them that the council is planning to wrest back control of the estates once a new masterplan from Capital & Counties has been approved (a detail from the original scheme is pictured above). No details of the new masterplan are included in Cowan’s 6 November letter, which says: “There are many steps before finalising this agreement”. But it also states that if the new masterplan secures planning permission “we would see the two estates return to council control”.

Future ownership aside, CapCo has signalled to the council that it will nonetheless propose a comprehensive redevelopment of the estates with its fresh masterplan.

This is nothing short of a major victory for the community. The residents of the two estates have been waging a campaign in opposition to the redevelopment of their homes for nine years.

Jonathan Rosenberg, seasoned community organiser (he was among those who saw off Shirley Porter from Westminster, back in the day), issued the following statement from the residents’ organisations. “At £18bn, the Earls Court scheme is the most valuable on-site urban redevelopment in the world outside of China. For nine long years, residents have been fighting to save their homes and preserve their community. Our campaign has been through some very dark times. But right now there is a tremendous wave of excitement sweeping across the estates.”

CapCo certainly did not fight shy of this long-running battle with local residents over its plans. Even though the residents’ opposition had to be declared as a commercial risk in various of the company’s annual reports. Famously, Section 34A of the Housing Act was invoked by the residents, things got very complicated legally, and various appeals and letters to the secretary of state flew around.

Whitehall civil servants have been watching nervously from the sidelines for many years. And the mood music around the CapCo case cannot have been helped greatly when Lord Heseltine established the HMG estates regeneration initiative for David Cameron in 2016, famously decreeing that, as a matter of principle, “nothing will be imposed, communities will propose”.

But I don’t imagine for one moment that this change of heart marks a Road to Damascus-type conversion of CapCo to the cause of community-led regeneration. No, it was the structural weakening in London’s luxury housing market that surely provided the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In February, CapCo revealed the scheme had shed a fifth of its value in a year thanks to “adverse conditions in the London residential market”. The scheme was valued at £1.1bn at the end of 2016, down 20% from its £1.4bn valuation a year earlier. So CapCo is to be applauded for pursuing this most sensible resolution.

The interesting thing to watch now is whether the two estates return to council control, or whether they migrate to some sort of community-owned structure such as a community interest company. One resident (“Linda from Aisgill Avenue”) commented: “I’m very happy for CapCo to be out of the deal, but the right to transfer is still my dream. You’re not really safe unless you have resident control.” And, after the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster, there just has to be more appetite for the community taking charge of its own destiny.

CapCo has declined to comment thus far, merely saying it is “in ongoing conversations to explore options for an enhanced masterplan for Earls Court” and that “existing contracts and arrangements remain in place”. But it is clear that this is absolutely the right solution, both commercially and morally.

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