A Compulsory Purchase for London

by Helen Kearney

How can we use the language of compulsory purchase, not to confiscate land, but to reclaim the city?

First published: 28 March, 2014 | Category: 

The demolition of the Heygate Estate in South London is gathering pace now. After years of plans and ‘decanting’ of residents, the vast estate – condemned for so long - is finally coming down. The area of Elephant and Castle is being regenerated, and in a glossy post-regeneration landscape there is no room for a concrete megastructure like the Heygate. In order to clear the buildings of residents, the local authority, Southwark, used a legal tool called a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). The CPO is a power granted by the government to allow a local authority to purchase land or property without the consent of the landowner or tenant.

The language of regeneration pervades and proliferates. Practising urban planning in London, we create and we destroy using a language that is simultaneously exclusory and all-encompassing. When we speak of “regenerating” an area, there are underlying assumptions, mythologies wrapped within the word, which conjure specific images: decayed concrete sink estates harbouring drug-riddled criminals, seamlessly transformed into shining glass-ensconced buildings and green lawns expertly protected by privately appointed security guards. The regeneration lexicon itself has been co-opted by a particular economic system and set of social values.

But this is needless.

The language of planning, exactly the same words, can be used just as easily to express a different set of assumptions, to very different ends. We have seen this in past uses of the language of compulsory purchase to plan London’s urban environment, and we can use it now to suggest change for the future.

The CPO or equivalents have been used throughout London’s history and in each case its use in relation to housing mirrored the dominant ideologies and technological driving forces of the day. Housing was compulsorily purchased in the nineteenth century to allow for the ploughing up of parts of London for the building of the railways. After the 1888 formation of the London County Council, it responded to the dire need of London’s poor by replacing slum housing with new social housing, taking over slums through compulsory purchase. After the Second World War, the CPO was used for the rebuilding of parts of the city to a new modern standard, reflecting the ideals of the Welfare State. Large housing estates, shopping centres, community facilities and transport infrastructure were built, all linked to a rhetoric that advocated mobilizing the country’s resources for peace-time, with the aim of defeating the enemy of mass poverty. The degeneration of these ideals in the 1970s and 80s mirrored the decline in the very material of the housing estates, which - left unrepaired, unfunded, and increasingly socially segregated - crumbled. Concurrently as the conceptual foundations of the welfare state were knocked down, local authorities largely stopped building council houses.

The type of building that occurs in London today similarly reflects the society imposed by our current governing classes. The driving force is now the ultimate goal of private profit over public good. Anticipation of market forces steers decision-making without proper consideration of the needs of residents, of housing as a public service, and with scant concern for a wider London or UK context in which housing is now overpriced, and homelessness a shameful fact of life. Now, housing is not a human right but an investment that can be made in order to realize profit. Now, our city is host to buildings like One Hyde Park.

One Hyde Park

 

One Hyde Park is an obvious target; reviled by everyone in the city who cares about housing and urban building matters. Apparently unable even to appeal to exactly those for whom it was designed, it is a symbol for architectural bad taste, excessive wealth, and wasteful speculative building. But in addition to its symbolic presence, we must remember that it is also a very real thing. It is, simply, a set of homes. And as an actual physical edifice, it requires a decent urban planning response to attempt to correct some of the problems it embodies.

 

A regeneration proposal

These days, compulsory purchase is still used by local authorities – though to slightly different ends than its post-war employments. Today, CPOs are used to forcibly buy out residents – often of entire estates - because the area concerned has been earmarked as being in need of ‘regeneration’. The Heygate Estate is an emblematic example: a giant Brutalist concrete structure that stretches across a wide area behind the shopping centre at Elephant. Left to run down into a state of dereliction, it is now empty, boarded up, lit only by dull neon lights and patrolled by security guards. The proverbial “eyesore” sink estate, seemingly only good for use as the location for a dystopian film.

The Heygate Estate

 

In current regeneration practice, old concrete estates designed like the Heygate are agreed to be a failure and taken over through compulsory purchase. However, the reason for forcing out residents from these areas is not just because the architecture of the buildings is deemed to have failed. Rather, critically, the land that these buildings sit on is seen as potentially very valuable. Thus, when a CPO is used today, it is used to move people out so that their homes can be flattened, and the land subsequently rebuilt upon for profit by a private developer.

David Harvey sums this up concisely, discussing the problem on a global scale:

“who is moved and who is priced out? I don’t see eminent domain [compulsory purchase] being used on Park Avenue or in Mayfair. I see eminent domain being used in regard to vulnerable populations who are advantageously located. The land is considered high value and it should go to its highest and best uses, to become office spaces or high-rise condominiums instead of living spaces for ordinary folk. There is an inherent class bias in the way in which spaces in the city are allocated. Why should we accept a system where the people who move on are the most vulnerable and the people who stay wherever they like are the one-percenters?

[...]

The people who build and sustain a city should have a right to residency and to all the advantages they’ve spent their time building and sustaining: simple as that. The people who come into New York City at 6 o’clock in the morning to wake the city up, and who live on $30,000 a year, have a right to the city they’re waking up.”[1]

But how to reverse this situation? How to regain the right to the city for the people who sustain that city? Can the language of planning be used to assist us in such a task? Harvey himself provides inspiration: he references compulsory purchase for Park Avenue and Mayfair. Let us, then, propose the compulsory purchase of One Hyde Park, for the purposes of allowing for the regeneration of the area, and for the benefit of the people of London as a whole.

You can read an excerpt from my planning documentation for the compulsory purchase of One Hyde Park here; what follows is a summary. The document is the “Statement of Reasons”, one of the many documents that are produced for what is a lengthy process involving various stages of decision-making, committees and public consultations. It is useful for us because it summarises some of the key issues, including the justification for the proposed action. The CPO for One Hyde Park is extremely close to that of the Heygate. Almost the entire narrative and language used for the Heygate can be applied to One Hyde Park, and where differences do exist, these are largely minute specifics, such as geographical location, or the names of residents. To make this point clear, excerpts from the two CPO documents are presented side by side as a kind of parallel text, with the real Heygate CPO on the left side, and the One Hyde Park proposed CPO on the right. The reference numbers relate to the text of the full CPO document.

 

The Planning documents for the CPO: Heygate (top) and One Hyde Park (bottom)

The documents describe the buildings that are being compulsorily purchased, their geographic location, and summarise the type of activities that occur there (3). They then use this information to explain why the compulsory purchase is required.

A key concern expressed in the Statements is the importance of the geographic context of the estates (1.2). The Heygate Statement describes the planned regeneration of the whole Elephant and Castle area in the coming years. Demolition of the Heygate will mean that the regeneration plans for the area can go ahead, and if this occurs, according to the document, the whole of Elephant can be made more pleasant - busier, happier, more sustainable. Of course this all hangs on booting people out of the Heygate and knocking it down. The One Hyde Park Statement is identical: it too sits in an area earmarked for a projected regeneration programme that aims at providing a “sustainable neighbourhood that integrates with the surrounding area”: an anathema of the billionaires’ ghost town which it currently is.

The CPOs assert that the design of the buildings is one key reason for forced purchase (2.1-2.4). There are elements of the designs of both that can no longer be seen as appropriate for our time. The Heygate was designed to a now old-fashioned ideal of publicly owned housing, and its form reflects the theoretical and architectural concerns of its day. In contrast, One Hyde Park was not designed according to some now-discredited ideal, nor has it ever pretended this – its design was does not embody great theory or any rumination about life in the future. It is a kind of building without thought, perhaps even actively anti-thought. Its design has never been fashionable, but rather is trapped in a kind of perennial tastelessness. Its only design philosophy was to be as expensive as possible, in a world in which money and distribution of ‘value’ has little relationship with what anyone would describe as good design. Its style is there purely to say: “I have so much money I am no longer shackled to aesthetic judgement, to an understanding of form following function, or to simple good taste”. It’s a kind of Faberge egg of a building. So colossally wasteful that waste becomes its very purpose. Needless to say, the CPO can easily assert that the building’s design – like that of the Heygate – does not respond to ideas of what is good urban design.

One element of the design of both structures is highlighted: the relationship of the buildings to their street level is almost non-existent. Both were designed for a car-based world. The Heygate segregates pedestrians above, on bridges, from cars below on the streets. One Hyde Park, though, was not in fact designed for pedestrian approach at all: it segregates entirely those within from impoverished street dwellers. It was designed so that cars enter the building via the car park, and residents can go straight to their apartments via lifts. There is no need to relate to the street at all: complete alienation from London’s street life is guaranteed. This affects the building’s relationship with its urban environment, the area of Knightsbridge. Not allowing for pedestrian engagement, effectively cut off from the park behind, and imposing a strange lack of activity in its own vicinity, the buildings act to reduce the culture and street life of the area. This bears little relationship to the place of London – rather, it has the feel of a strange, almost prison-like compound outside of town, or in a completely different country altogether. Its lack of connection with the natural air and the weather of London implies it believes it is somewhere else. Or can certainly make-believe it is.

 

 

No clear relationship to the street

 

From design, to use: the inhabitants (and lack thereof) of the buildings are important considerations in justifying compulsory purchase (2.8, 2.9, 7.6). Both edifices suffer from being largely unoccupied. The Heygate has been cleared of residents. Continuously attacked as a building that was speculatively built and then struggled to find buyers, it is now claimed that the units at One Hyde Park are almost completely sold – though this does not mean that many people actually live there. Cycling through Hyde Park in the evening, glancing up at the buildings, it is noticeable how few flats are lit up. No life can be seen on its balconies at any time of the day. Its military-trained gatekeepers seem to be doing a good job at keeping people out, though I wonder how many people actually want to enter? Occasionally a lift can be seen moving up or down, but it is largely a desolate place. The land around the both the Heygate and One Hyde Park is empty, despite the fact that they are in areas otherwise bursting with people. But One Hyde Park was designed primarily for absentee tenants. It’s the sort of place where property owners have similar places in New York, in Hong Kong, in Dubai, and so on. There are also a number of owners who are not people- not individuals or families but corporations.

 

 

Both almost abandoned

 

The Statements make links between architectural design and the social context of the buildings’ inhabitants. They describe the employment record of the people living in the area, the level of crime and the types of crimes committed (7.23). The planners assert that housing and provision of services is linked directly to issues of employment and crime. If this is the case, is there a type of person, a type of employment, a form of criminal activity even, that is particularly targeted as the subject of regeneration? It is explained that one result of absenteeism at Heygate was its evolution into a haven for crime. Could One Hyde Park suffer from a similar problem, in a different form? Perhaps not crime according to some definitions, but rather a certain amount of behaviour that may be interpreted as skirting the law, or acting in a way that might, in some circles, be seen as morally dubious: the building’s tenants are, for example, notorious for tax evasion.

The CPO is not just employed to rid an area of something. Buying out the buildings allows for the development of something else, something better, in its place, as the documents outline (6). The development proposed in place of the current configuration of One Hyde Park is a set of council houses, a small gallery/ performance space for local residents, shops, a community centre, doctors surgery, a school, library, a couple of cafes and restaurants, space for a weekend farmer’s market, a church or mixed-denomination place of worship, outdoor space with benches, a pub. A community garden and allotment will be built between the site and Hyde Park. The place will have only a small car park, primarily for residents with reduced mobility and access difficulties, but it will have a large bike park. It will be busy with residents, enjoying the use of the park, and having easy access to their homes and to the rest of the city with the area’s good transport links. It is hoped that the inclusion of a range of residents to the area will bring not only much-needed life and diversity to the area, but also a slight change in its economy, which is currently based almost exclusively on luxury retail and overpriced yet stunningly average restaurants. Cheaper, more interesting shops and lower rates for restaurants and cafes will be introduced. Thus a largely desolate, absentee area will be filled with life.

Which brings us to the wider point that redevelopment will lead directly to improvements in the wider area, and even further, perhaps to have an impact on London as a whole (7.1-7.3, 7.21-7.26). The CPO for One Hyde Park makes this point, that the “step change required to secure a thriving and vibrant mixed inclusive community is dependent on the redevelopment…” As an area of London that is almost completely devoid of cultural street life, this could not come more urgently. The area has good public transport (though the streets are too often clogged with cars), is close to the great museums at Exhibition Road, and of course borders a beautiful park; it is brimming with potential. It is strange this great location is currently neglected, and the area remains something of a dead zone. A few well-timed changes could make a huge difference, and have a positive impact on London and its citizens: a key part of London regenerated. The redevelopment will be a start to solving London’s massive council housing shortfall, and in doing so will have a huge positive influence on the city.

And finally: just as One Hyde Park currently has a huge symbolic value that speaks of the vast inequality of wealth in our city, the redeveloped buildings will remain highly loaded with a new symbolism. One with a radically distinct meaning that embodies an attempt to bring housing back into the realm of the public good, and to recognise it as – fundamentally - the provision of a basic human right.

This article is part of NLP's series The Contemporary City

Helen Kearney is a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art and a project manager at the Barbican Arts Centre, London


[1] Harvey, David, Icon 111: Rebel Cities, Icon Magazine, see: http://www.iconeye.com/news/news/rebel-cities

 

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