An ambitious development scheme in inner West London may be opposed by most local residents who’d have their homes demolished but the former council leader who championed it did so with equal passion
As the police watchdog considers whether to investigate Boris Johnson’s policing deputy Stephen Greenhalgh over alleged illegal conduct by public officers of Hammersmith and Fulham council when he was its leader, it is instructive to consider the passion with which Greenhalgh supported the ambitious redevelopment scheme at the heart of the affair – the Earls Court project.
As regular readers will know, the project envisages the destruction of 760 homes on two adjoining housing estates against the wishes of the great majority of the people living there. This is despite Greenhalgh’s commitment to the scheme extending to appealing in person to some estate residents at their homes – the very homes that will be demolished if the scheme goes ahead.
Last year I heard from Diana Belshaw – chair of one of the estates’ tenants and residents’ associations and a fierce opponent of the scheme – about a visit she received at home from Greenhalgh in 2010, during the London borough and general election campaigns.
Diana described inviting the then H&F leader in in order to dispel any misconceptions he might have had about her lifestyle and education. She recalled his firm insistence that the “regeneration” of her dwelling – meaning its destruction and promised replacement somewhere nearby – would be of benefit to her. Diana told me that she became so enraged with the then council leader that she advanced upon him with a frying pan: “I wouldn’t have hit him with it,” she reassured me. “I just wanted to show him my anger, but he just didn’t seem to want to listen.”
I’ve now become acquainted with accounts by other residents of Greenhalgh coming to their homes and urging them to embrace the Earls Court project. These encounters seem to have taken place in the early months of last year, when many politicians and party activists were out door-knocking as part of the London mayoral election campaign and the consultation on the proposal to include the estates in the redevelopment area was also taking place.
The written consultation feedback of one housing association resident reads as follows:
Councillor Greenhalgh stood in my front room and promised us like-for-like [a replacement home equivalent to the one that would be knocked down], even said we should be treated the same as the council tenants, made a phone call to the head of the council right in front of me with his promises.
By “head of the council,” this resident almost certainly meant a very senior council officer. The resident went on to assert that the council was more interested in making money from the scheme than honouring the wishes of tenants. A fellow resident at the same address too used the feedback form to describe Greenhalgh as “stood in my house” promising a like-for-like replacement home, and went on to doubt the worth of his promise.
The two estates’ 760 homes include 171 leasehold or freehold properties. One of the leaseholders has related a visit to his dwelling by Greenhalgh and four colleagues early last year. In a recorded interview, which I have a copy of, he speaks of Greenhalgh, explaining to him the benefits to leaseholders of favouring the scheme, and setting out how replacements for their homes would be provided and offered to them.
The leaseholder describes explaining to Greenhalgh that in his view the scheme should not go ahead because, “it is not what the majority of people want, and I would like to go with the majority. No matter how much it benefits me, it is important that the majority decide.” He goes on to detail being angered by Greenhalgh’s attempts to persuade him to express enthusiasm for the scheme.
Greenhalgh’s eager advocacy of the Earls Court project has never been in doubt. He described it the Guardian last February as “the best deal in the history of redevelopment in London.” In 2009 he wrote to a now former chair of one the estates’ TRAs arguing that the potential benefits of redevelopment should be explored and asking him to work with him to assure residents that their interests would be “protected and enhanced.”
The the same year, in response to being attacked at the Labour Party conference, he wrote a detailed defence of H&F’s housing plans and its approach to the estates at Conservative Home (which is well worth a read). His signature appeared on a “council tenant guarantee” about the treatment of estate tenants should “regeneration proposals come forward.”
However, maybe his successor as H&F leader, Nick Botterill, has some misgivings about the council’s approach under Greenhalgh. In a letter distributed to residents of the estates in the past few days he acknowledges that “many more of you are opposed or have reservations,” about the planned demolition than are “looking forward to living in new homes.” He continues:
The council has not got everything right and I accept that at the beginning we got things wrong in the way we connected with local people. We did not explain ourselves properly and we did not always listen.
Greenhalgh’s communication skills are also a concern across town at City Hall, where Green Party assembly member Jenny Jones has filed a formal complaint about him in his role as head of the mayor’s office for policing and crime. She is unhappy at what she considers his extreme tardiness in answering her requests for information. At Left Foot Forward Jones describes Greenhalgh as “a blunder-prone deputy mayor, who has yet to master his brief.”
Meanwhile, as local blogger Chris Underwood has reported, the anti-demolition campaign has renewed its application for a judicial review of the consultation process in question following its rejection last week. And so the long war of Earls Court continues…