The real cost of regeneration
The long read: When private developers move in, the first eviction is accountability – then tenants’ complaints procedures and safety. Zoe Williams reveals the truth about for-profit council estates
By 2004, Myatts Field North in Lambeth, south London, was a byword for what goes wrong on a housing estate. It had been poorly maintained; the interiors were shabby. Garages had become hazardous and were out of bounds; shared spaces were desolate and only teenagers and children used them, “engaged in nothing very positive”, according to a council report at the time. (There’s a book to be written about what a teenager would have to engage in to be found “positive” by someone from the council – writing code? Singing gospel? – but some other time.) So when Lambeth proposed a regeneration, demolishing and rebuilding 305 homes, refurbishing 172, residents voted in favour by a modest majority.
It took years to iron out the financing, but work began on the £150m regeneration in 2012. Since then, residents of the refurbished units have complained of bad design, faulty wiring, floods and power outages, damp, and poor workmanship. Fire hazards have been flagged but not investigated, belongings ruined and compensation not delivered, or delivered inadequately after incomprehensible delays. Safety and complaints procedures have been lamentable, helplines unresponsive, emergency helplines not always working. Some of the estate’s right-to-buy owners – theoretically the big winners in Margaret Thatcher’s great vision for social housing – have spent years trying to rearrange their mortgages for flats in the new development. One homeowner, working two jobs to service punishing new interest rates, dropped dead of a heart attack.
The residents of this mixed council and private estate have lived the past five years with the reality of outsourced housing provision. Their experience demonstrates what can happen when council property is turned over to a private contractor without sufficient oversight and accountability, when profit is prioritised over the welfare of tenants. The deficiency – the travesty, even – has been, above all, of democracy: the channels of communication that once existed between a social tenant and a local authority landlord have become labyrinthine, creating confusion not only over who to complain to, but also who is liable should anything go awry.
The original Myatts Field North estate, as seen in Uprooted, a documentary film about London’s housing crisis
The original Myatts Field North was a low-rise council estate built in the 1970s. When the council decided to regenerate in 2004, the necessity was obvious. Residents were promised that they would be protected by safeguards, and that they would have a say in the standard of services. The private firm contracted to undertake the refurbishment would be fined if they failed to meet those standards. In fact, this construct – the council on one side, enforcing the rights and wishes of the residents; the contractor on the other, kept honest by enforcement of standards – did not reflect the truth. The council and the contractor were effectively allies; complaints were bounced from one to the other and never landed. Residents became voiceless in a way that was perceptible, but, until a ceiling heating panel fell on their head as they were about to get into the bath, nobody could quite put their finger on.
What happened next shows what can result from a shotgun marriage between old and new, public and private: on one side, there is what the great architect of social housing Kate Macintosh once described as the “ostentatious parsimony” of council housing – the sense that whatever is provided socially should be stripped back to an absolute minimum. On the other side is a developer culture that has evolved through the financialisation of the housing market, with units sold as money lockers to investors who never intend to live in them. Put these two cultures together and they combine the worst of each. A high-handed council that thinks itself benevolent unites with a developer that sees its real customers as the investors, and residents as something else entirely.
The decline of Myatts Field North is a familiar tale, with equivalents across council housing stock. When Thatcher introduced rate capping – a ceiling on residential taxes – in 1984, local authority budgets for development and maintenance of housing stock were hit hard. This sparked bitter rows between local and central government. But underneath was a gradual process of decay: as Owen Hatherley, an architecture critic, told me, these estates steadily degenerated as the gap widened between “what councils expected their budgets to be when they were building them, and what council budgets actually were after 1984”. The schism between local and central government was so marked that by 1997, even a Labour government “didn’t trust the council to wash the dishes, let alone maintain housing,” Hatherley said.
In 2005, when Matthew Bennett, Lambeth’s cabinet member for planning, regeneration and jobs, was a councillor, all of Lambeth’s stock was a mess. He recalls “the shame of knocking on doors on council estates and people grabbing your hand and saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re here, you’ve got to do something.’”
The proposed deal for Myatts Field North was a private finance initiative (PFI). Under such deals, the local authority signs a contract with a private developer, which provides the upfront capital financing, and subsequent management of the asset. The public sector repays the developer in monthly instalments and, in residential developments, often with land and permission for private dwellings alongside the revamped social housing. At the time of the Myatts Field North deal, council borrowing was strictly limited, so for full-scale regeneration projects, PFI was all the rage: the first PFI deal ever made was by John Major in 1992, but Gordon Brown was its great proponent.
The plan for refurbishing and rebuilding a total of 477 homes in Myatts Field North would take place alongside a new, private development, which would eventually be called Oval Quarter, of 398 flats. The residents were promised that everyone would be rehomed, that everyone would move only once, and that owner-occupiers would get help to buy a home on the estate. In 2005, they voted in favour.
The next year, a figure was agreed for the government’s capital investment in the scheme – £114m – and in 2009 a preferred bidder was announced, the Regenter Myatts Field North Limited consortium – a joint venture between the global infrastructure giant John Laing Investments Ltd and Pinnacle Regeneration Group. The main subcontractors were Pinnacle PSG to manage estate and housing services, Rydon to oversee refurbishment and maintenance (they were also the contractors that refurbished Grenfell Tower, as well as the Chalcots estate in Camden, from which tenants have been evacuated), Higgins to build new housing, and E.ON to create a new communal heating system.
It was 2012 when the deal was finally signed, eight years after regeneration was first mooted. In that time, common areas and the general state of the properties had declined. The management at Regenter totted up how many kids their team had had since they first put the bid in: in the long years of deal-brokering, 15 babies had been born.
Oval Quarter, a new private housing development built alongside the refurbishment of Myatts Field North. Photograph: Alamy
“No one wants procurement to take as long as it does,” said Andrew Saunders, group finance and resources director at Pinnacle, or Regenter (“I can be both,” he says pleasantly). “It’s in everyone’s interest to make it go as quickly as possible. On any given day, in any given week, there’s a legitimate reason for the delay. Someone could have been on holiday. There would have been a planning process or two”.
Far more significant than “a planning process or two” was the coalition government’s value-for-money review, which started as soon as it came to power in 2010: PFI was examined on a general basis and found profligate, and individual projects had their budgets slashed. In 2011, Myatts Field North’s agreed funding was cut by £16.8m.
The head of Lambeth council, Lib Peck, can shed no light on these changes to the original deal. Peck said she had limited experience around Myatts Field at the beginning, and wasn’t involved with the PFI at the time. What we know is that, as a result of the £16.8m shortfall, Lambeth’s monthly repayments were hiked, and the repayment schedule was shortened from 30 to 25 years. To plug the gap left by that £16.8m cut, Lambeth ended up gifting land worth at least £8m to Regenter. The council also allowed Regenter to increase the number of private homes in the development from 398 to 503 (of which 146 would be “shared ownership”, a way of part-buying a flat you can’t afford outright, with a housing association). In return, Regenter would reduce its charges by £2.7m. Lambeth did get a share in the profit from sales of the new flats, but the details are commercially confidential.
Regenter duly adjusted their plans for Myatts Field North, to produce the same number of homes at a lower cost. Saunders is vague on what the reduced funding meant in terms of quality. “All I know is, there was a funding squeeze. The housing is what was first and foremost needed. Did they decide to have light bulbs that were £3.99 not £4.99? Possibly. Did they decide to use a different spec of paint, and each time you saved a few hundred quid? Possibly.”
These details matter – the wrong paint can be the difference between a fire stopping or spreading. After the Grenfell Tower fire, it was alleged that the cladding could have been fireproofed for an extra £2 per square metre, £5,000 in total. A more fundamental problem is a lack of oversight. In Myatts Field North, there was nothing to stop the local authority doing their own checks, but the contractor could – and was expected to – monitor themselves (Rydon was allowed to self-certify their own work, because they’re deemed reputable). With the new reduced specifications, work began in May 2012.
In the early years of the Blair government, PFI was condemned by a Treasury select committee as a way to mask state borrowing. As time went on, the opacity thickened: repayments from the council to the developer weren’t itemised, so it was impossible to tell whether they were servicing the debt or the maintenance contract. This remains the broad, systematic problem with PFI: that a hospital foundation trust, for instance, knows it’s going bankrupt but can’t see why.
A secondary complaint was cost, as can be deduced from any spreadsheet of government PFI deals, which are known among civil servants as “one for the price of two”. The upfront loan from the private sector was charged at much higher interest rates than government borrowing. The procurement cost the local authority close to £5m, between 2005 and 2012, much of which was spent on private sector consultants Deloitte LLP, Eversheds LLP and Gleeds Advisory Ltd. From Myatts Field North residents’ point of view, if it wasn’t clear where the money was going, the cost-cutting was plain to see. The build quality, the health and safety standards, and the response to complaints were all so poor that within a few months of the start of the build, they felt that the original promises were not being upheld.
The relationship between the state and the citizen, in social housing, is – at least in theory – one between equals. The state may be bureaucratic, but it’s accountable. It may sometimes be incompetent, but it is on your side. You all want the same thing: decent homes that people on modest incomes can afford. The private sector is motivated differently: by profit. The legal and procurement expertise between a local council and a global corporation are wildly unequal. Once the council is bound by a contract, it simply doesn’t have the technical muscle to press the case of a resident against a developer. Instead, the state changes its allegiance, and all the unresponsiveness and incompetence that would once have been just a melange of individual failing and operational understaffing becomes a tool in defending the corporation against the people to whom it should be accountable.
It’s a long, slow, subtle process, which persisted even past the gradual decline of PFI after 2010, when councils’ deals with developers started to be brokered by so-called tenants’ management organisations (corporate bodies created by residents, who elect their committees): a culture of the carefully built brick wall, public and private sectors bouncing responsibility between each other without a scintilla of interest in investigating the complaint to which they were failing to respond. Grenfell Tower is the most dramatic example: residents pointed out numerous fire risks in that building, but rather than investigating, Kensington and Chelsea rebutted them.
Residents’ experiences at Myatts Field North estate give an insight into how this culture evolves. Accountability seems to be non-existent. The developers give you flim-flam about lightbulbs and the local authority behaves as though you’re audacious even to ask. And on this specific question of £8m worth of free land? “Genuinely, I’ve never even heard that,” Saunders said. “Who knows what was traded for it? What did the council get back? They wouldn’t have just handed it over. They were happy with the package they got, and we were happy with the package we got, and that’s the transaction. You can pick off any element and it will sound outlandish, but who knows what that was exchanged for?” Well, someone must know. But it turns out that, in outsourcing, transparency is only skin deep. Headline figures are easy to come by, but the information you need to make a meaningful judgment on the quality of the agreement is buried in the landfill of commercial confidentiality.
By June 2012, the council was happy, Regenter was happy – but not all the residents who had signed up to stay at Myatts Field North were happy. The work was not up to the standard they had been promised. Petitions were signed, and public meetings were held, in which people came together to voice individual complaints. In late summer, residents embarked on a collaboration with the University of Leeds, with the aim, according to critical urban geographer Stuart Hodkinson, being to discover what the people’s experience of PFI had been. “All the literature at that point was narrowly focused on value for money,” Hodkinson wrote.
A demonstration against the demolition of social housing at Lambeth Town Hall in 2015. Photograph: Alamy
Hodkinson carried out a qualitative survey of 14 homes refurbished by Rydon that had been the subject of a huge number of complaints. Showers were fitted next to electric fans. A toilet was installed so close to a wall that you could only sit on it sideways. Some households went for days without electricity and weeks without cooking facilities. Cupboards were fitted with wrongly size doors. Tenants who complained reported that they were treated dismissively. One remembered the site supervisor saying to him, “It ain’t Chelsea, mate.” Regenter’s out-of-hours emergency line linked to the wrong database, so callout engineers weren’t available. The striking thing was how long problems could drag out: one family’s flat was flooded in January 2014, and repairs weren’t even scheduled till September. Two years later, their flat still hadn’t been fully repaired and redecorated. Even at the most straightforward level, the work wasn’t done to a decent standard.
When approached for comment, Rydon said that since the complaints were made, three years ago, attempts have been made to remedy the problems. They said the comments were not reflective of most of the residents, and that there was a good level of satisfaction among the residents now.
For tenants with more complicated requirements, the situation was worse. The Cifuentes family, one of whom used a wheelchair, was left without ramps, hoists or any means of escape in a fire, and without a lock on the front door. Repairs were so slow and haphazard that, at one point, the family had to move out for over a month, and the disabled member could only have his needs met by going into a respite unit – whereupon they were threatened with losing their carer’s allowance, their disability allowance and their car.
Rydon countered criticism with a residents survey of their own from 2014, citing 80% satisfaction with the cleanliness and quality of the work, rising to a massive 89% responding that they would recommend the estate as “a nice place to live”. Lambeth, likewise, were satisfied that they had conducted their own investigations, found a “busy, safe and efficient working site” and that “residents’ concerns have been carefully listened to”. All the parties to the contract were focused on whether its targets for satisfaction were being met; there was very little curiosity about what dissatisfaction, at the level of the individual, might look like.
At the annual general meeting of the residents’ association monitoring board and PFI monitoring board (MFN-RAMB) in July 2015, an elderly woman called Jean Richards arrived, late, uncomfortable in the summer heat. She was using a wheelchair and obviously in poor health, and described being moved the previous autumn into her refurbished flat, with her husband, before the building work was finished. He then died. “He had emphysema,” she said, “so he would have died anyway.” There was a meekness to her delivery, as if she were determined to be even-handed. “But being in all that dust didn’t help.”
In 2014, the residents’ association was contacted by a whistleblower from Rydon, in a letter that began: “I have never worked for such a bunch of cowboys in my career … I could write a book about their shortfalls.” The contact’s specific points were: that no fire assessments had been carried out in some blocks; that Rydon’s divisional manager had overruled its technical manager, who had called for more detailed risk-assessment; that the fire-stopping at floor level had not been carried out; that the communal emergency lighting had not been subjected to the proper test; that the procedure for testing smoke alarms was unclear.
There were countless other concerns, which Stuart Hodkinson reported to the Health and Safety Executive, as well as to senior officers and elected members of Lambeth and other London councils, the fire service, the gas, water and electricity boards – anyone he could think of. “The response was generally pathetic,” he says.
The Health and Safety Executive took six weeks to reply, then apologised for the “ridiculous amount of time it had taken to investigate”, but did offer two important revelations – that Regenter as the principal contractor did not have an efficient system for managing and monitoring the 14 sub-contractors on site when they visited; and that cuts to health-and-safety funding meant that their scope for investigating and enforcing standards was reduced. Hodkinson was told to contact the Trading Standards authority, but residents across different council housing regeneration schemes told him there was no point as “local authorities do not investigate themselves”.
It felt to Hodkinson as though he were shouting into a void, but that doesn’t mean nothing happened. Rydon contacted the University of Leeds, telling them that their lecturer’s work was bringing the university into disrepute, advising them to take their name off Hodkinson’s report. (The university investigated and found no substance to Rydon’s allegation.) Lambeth council, meanwhile, produced a response in which they exonerated both themselves and the contractor, in the strongest but vaguest possible terms: their independent investigations, they said, had turned up nothing “significant or untoward”.
Some of the new houses built as a part of the redevelopment of Myatts Field North. Photograph: Alamy
None of the report’s concerns were addressed, on the basis that “it was valuable as a source document about resident dissatisfaction but did not specifically match alleged breach of health and safety to the attendant legislation”, a weird but typical council response (painfully recognisable in the records of Kensington and Chelsea’s handling of concerns from the Grenfell residents). If the local authority couldn’t see anything that could be stuck on them, complaints held very little interest. The document goes on to say that the contractor had already “provided robust evidence of a cycle of continuous improvement”, with no details given. It then noted the “highly emotional language” of Hodkinson and the residents’ report and questioned its academic integrity. The striking absence in the response is any mention at a granular level of a single risk described. It does not appear from the response that any actual investigation of the alleged failings took place. Contacted by the Guardian, Rydon referred me to their original response, stating that Regenter and Pinnacle had contacted the council to “robustly refute” any evidence supplied by the authors. Lambeth stated that they had ongoing fire risk assessments at every block in Myatts Field North, as agreed with the London fire brigade.
On the subject of complaints, Andrew Saunders (of Regenter, or Pinnacle) was unruffled and un-pindownable. “The complaints that are handled perfectly never get mentioned, the ones that go wrong get very much mentioned. That is how it is.” OK, but specific complaints: weeks without hot water, then compensated months later, with minuscule amounts, for instance: “Well … if they say, ‘I’ve got no hot water’, that could be because there’s a leak in the pipe. Depending on whether that was within 12 months of the build, that will be Higgins. If it’s the boiler, that will be E.ON. You have to do your learning. We have people basically saying, ‘I’ve got no hot water, I’ve got no hot water.’ You go in, the system’s fine. It translates into the fact that, on a couple of occasions, tap downstairs, very hot water. Upstairs in the bath takes a little bit longer, and isn’t as hot. That is deliberate. That is building regulations. It’s so you don’t scald yourself.”
His answers take on a steady rhythm that after an hour is almost reassuring; if there was a problem, it was probably the council’s fault; if not the council, then some other company; more likely though, this problem didn’t occur. A resident said it occurred, but what do they know. Their water is perfectly hot. Only, it wasn’t hot at all. Hodkinson recently co-authored another report with residents and Fuel Poverty Action indicating that the hot water failures were linked to the centralised heating system E.ON and Rydon had installed on Regenter’s behalf – which failed 48 times in the first four years. (E.ON did not respond to requests for comment.)
On the local authority’s side, there is a different kind of evasiveness. A common refrain, when you mention the estate informally to people from Lambeth council, is: it used to be terrible, and now it looks great! Look at all that yellow-ey stone and the wide open boulevards. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like that?
Perhaps the worst experience was that of the right-to-buy owners whose homes would be demolished and rebuilt, of whom there were 58 when the deal was signed. The original promise was that refinancing on a new version of their flat would be a piece of cake: “I remember going to a meeting in 2012,” says Uzoamaka Okafor (Amaka, for short), the chair of the residents’ association, “where one of the homeowners said, ‘What if we can’t transfer our mortgage to the new place?’, and the woman from Pinnacle, the PSG manager, said that won’t be a problem. They were actually laughing at residents’ concerns.”
The problem was that when these owners did try to move their existing mortgages over to the new regenerated flats – a process called “porting” – they found it almost impossible. Lending rules had tightened since the mortgage frenzy that fed the 2008 financial crisis, and many people’s circumstances had changed, even if only to the extent that their wages had flatlined. By 2013, a year into the regeneration, one third of the homeowners could not sort out a mortgage. The right-to-buy residents say they had been promised that they would be able to stay on the estate, if they wanted to, no matter what – either by transferring their mortgage, entering a shared ownership scheme via a housing association, getting an equity loan from the council, or becoming a council tenant again. But one year into the deal, they say that promise evaporated. The Pinnacle PSG homeowner manager, Okafor recalls, “was saying to people: ‘You either port [transfer] or sell.’ What about all our options? Oh, Lambeth council don’t want to abide by those. Now it’s port or sell.”
Saunders is keen to lay this at the feet of the homeowners for being in dicey situations that the regeneration only served to expose: “They may not have told their mortgage provider that they didn’t have a job any more; they may not have told their provider that they’d taken a pay cut.”
The tragedy is that many of these mortgages, having been taken out in the 1990s, were a tiny proportion of the home’s value. Elizabeth Ackon was offered a three-bedroomed maisonette to replace the home that had been demolished in the redevelopment. She had taken out a mortgage of £87,000 on the old home, when she had a job, but she was now disabled and was no longer earning. She went to six separate lenders and they all declined to offer a mortgage on the replacement property. She had three dependent children. She had been advised that if she sold the maisonette quickly she would be able to take up a shared-ownership flat in the privately owned part of the estate, Oval Quarter. But when she applied, she was told she did not earn enough.
Okafor remembers the morning in August 2014 when Ackon was evicted by Regenter after trying in vain to resell her flat to Lambeth council and stay on as a tenant: “They had several policemen and bailiffs there, two housing managers and workmen, some of them were smirking.” Ackon had been living on the estate for 22 years, and her 16-year-old daughter was waiting for her GCSE results. Lambeth paid her well below market average for a three-bedroomed maisonette in the area, but it doesn’t seem to have been the council that made a profit. Lambeth sold the flat to Higgins for £240,000, who sold it on to a private buyer, Darren Burn, for £550,000.
Burn had been interested in the estate since he went to the launch day at the end of 2013. “I heard the best flats in the whole development had been pre-sold. But then, two months later, I saw this amazing three-bedroomed flat with a roof terrace. I was told it was intended for one of the council flat owners, but she didn’t want it. I thought, that’s weird, but I’m not going to turn down a three-bedroomed, two-floor flat with a roof terrace that was £550k. It was only after I moved in that I found out that it wasn’t that people didn’t want the flats, it was just that some of them couldn’t switch their mortgage over. My question is: why was I allowed to buy it when it could have gone to another family on Lambeth’s register?”
‘It’s like a posh prison’ …the refurbished Myatts Field North estate. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
After the residents’ association intervened, the council took some responsibility for finding the Ackons alternative accommodation. Elizabeth Ackon recalled they were offered temporary accommodation in nearby Brockley Rise. “There was blood on the mattress, blood on the radiator, loose wiring, smashed glass on the floor, it was almost £1,600 per month. I went to so many viewings, it’s like a different world. I’d been a homeowner. I’d opened my own front door. You just don’t realise what the private rented sector is like. My children were getting very stressed.” Ackon and her family are currently paying around £1,800 a month in rent to a private landlord. Their monthly mortgage bill had been less than £630 on Myatts Field North.
One resident had been living on the estate for 20 years, and did manage to transfer her mortgage: by putting her 27-year-old daughter on the mortgage. “What they [Lambeth] said was different to what they did,” her daughter recalls. “They said if they found a lender who wouldn’t lend it fully, they would match the difference. But they didn’t do that – you had to raise the full amount, and we knew people who got kicked out completely. The family - five children in total, the youngest 15, moved into a new flat in May 2015. The homeowner was working morning and evening shifts – at least 10 hours a day – to service the interest payments, which were high.
“Everyone could see she had lost a lot of weight, I knew she was stressed, but I didn’t think it would be to the extent of causing her death,” her daughter said.”I can’t say definitely that was the reason for her death. It was a heart attack.” She really didn’t want to talk about it; didn’t want her mother’s name to appear in this piece; didn’t want attention or sympathy, wasn’t looking for justice or reparation. She just wanted it never to have happened.
After that resident died, as a result of anxiety, overwork and the stress of meeting her mortgage repayments, the council held a minute’s silence for her. “They wouldn’t give her one minute while she was alive,” remarked Okafor.
The underlying story here is the profound disconnection between the residents and the housing providers, which is mirrored in the new-build stock. Anna Minton, an academic at the University of East London, was succinct. “Myatts Field North struck me as an alienating place to live. To be fair, anywhere that’s only just been built is arid and feels lifeless, and hasn’t got that sense of a place that’s been there for a long time. But the flats are just little boxes. They aren’t interesting in any way. If a first-year architecture student handed it in, it would be rejected.”
Higgins absolutely rejects this, citing “two prestigious design awards over the past three years – one, for best regeneration project (London Evening Standard new homes award, 2015) and one for best residential development in London (UK Property awards, 2014)”.
Part of the problem is the exchange value of housing – the way new developments are seen as “golden bricks”, in London mayor Sadiq Khan’s phrase. Houses are bought as investments, which increase in value much faster than gold. “Housing,” Minton concludes, “has become totally disconnected from what it’s used for, what it’s supposed to be. It’s floated off into those regions of financial markets. But this creates very real problems, because people have to live to in it and it’s shit.”
Darren Burn described the problems with his apartment, which was part of the new build: “Every time there’s a vibration in the frame of my flat, it reverberates straight on to my downstairs neighbour’s ceiling. For her, it’s like elephants walking around. It doesn’t affect me, the noise; it affects the tenant below me. I go out of my way to help, but our relationship will break down, I imagine. It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t.”
Higgins is adamant that, since the insulation meets the regulations, the problem must be somewhere else: “In the past, we have had a few cases of noise complaints, which we have attended to, and these have been identified as people moving into new accommodation and getting used to the new properties and different background noises.” Lambeth council, after two years of pressure from the residents’ association, undertook to find a solution for the social tenants, and were in the process of commissioning further insulation. The issue remains unresolved. By this point, the private developer of Oval Quarter had paid its owners, Pinnacle and Higgins, £10m each in dividends.
At the beginning of 2016, Okafor showed me her flat. We went upstairs to the roof garden she never uses. “It’s like living in Wembley Arena. You see this? What does it remind you of?” It reminded me of the Soviet-era barracks in the TV series Deutschland 83. “It’s like a posh prison,” Okafor said. “I can’t really breathe. Visitors, residents and their children have seen that couple having sex by the window. It’s like an Amsterdam show. I’m a very private person, and living in such close proximity really does affect me.”
When I spoke to Okafor recently, she said the estate looks better now it’s finished, and the parkland looks nice, but the residents still feel excluded from every process and decision.
A culture seems to have become the norm in Myatts Field North in which the council and the contractors saw their interests as completely aligned, their authority as unquestionable and unshakable, and their tenants as either inert beneficiaries or histrionic ingrates. The idea of civic engagement was lost; in its place, a union of faceless bureaucracy and corporate impunity. As the responsibility was passed from a democratic institution to the honeycomb of corporations, much of it simply bled out.
The project survived, the leaks got fixed, the small injustices rumbled on – most recently, a hike in service charges that none of the residents understand – and the large injustices sank into the past. Something serious happens to local democracy when it enters into a convoluted pact with a global corporation: accountability becomes monitoring, dialogue becomes communication becomes PR, representation turns adversarial, transparency stops short of real openness. The process is subtle and mercurial; the results, unless they explode into brutal catastrophe, recede into invisibility. Social housing is a game in which the tenants aren’t players but pawns; it is a kind of purgatory, where you are neither citizen nor consumer, caught in a limbo of impotence. The underlying truth is that if you don’t respect people as equals, or cannot conceive of them as co-creators of their own living conditions, the housing serves only the interests of those who profit from it.
Main image: Uzoamaka Okafor, chair of the residents’ association at Myatts Field North estate, photographed by David Levene for the Guardian
• This article was amended on 14 November 2017 to remove some personal information.