Global: Dave Hill | Earls Court: impressions of assent

Backers of the controversial Earls Court redevelopment project have gone to striking lengths to control and limited media attention

When assessing a redevelopment plan described by its champions as a “visionary project” of a type to “lift the UK out of recession” and create “thousands of new homes and jobs” in “the biggest new project in the capital since Stratford was transformed by the Olympics” it is important to stay calm. After all, there may be other ways of looking at the Earls Court Project – ways that its champions would prefer you not to be acquainted with.

The same applies when those champions inform you and, of course, the media that the enterprise is being borne on sweet zephyrs of goodwill from those we might expect to find it troubling. “All our residents can look forward to a new era of prosperity and opportunity,” the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham (H&F) proclaims. “The council will be there to help every step of the way.” This sounds comforting. But what of those who consider the council to, in fact, be stepping all over them?

The longer I’ve documented the Earls Court Project – a regeneration scheme like no other in London, and all the more instructive for it – the more enthralling have become the efforts its backers to prevent opposition to the enterprise being known about or getting out of hand.

Some of the clearest evidence for this emerged from documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, relating to one of a series of gatherings of the landowners involved with the scheme, Hammersmith and Fulham council (H&F), Capital and Counties (Capco) and Transport for London.

A report to the “landowners board” meeting of July 17 last year described a “communications strategy” devoted to ensuring that planning applications were approved and supporting a “political strategy” of which a “key part” was “keeping the debate local” rather than seeing it “escalate to a national or even a London level.”

It noted that recent BBC coverage had centred on differences of opinion between groups of residents “rather than on Capco or the other landowners” and said the readiness of these groups to take their cases to the media had had the “beneficial side-effect of making the argument resident v resident rather than resident v developer or resident v council.”

This insight into the effort and sophistication devoted to controlling and monitoring coverage of the Earls Court Project tells us a lot, in my view, about the attitude of those concerned to the people whose best interests they claim to have most at heart. It suggests anxiety about the scale of opposition that might be triggered should the story get around.

And there are further dimensions to this “media strategy”. Unable to work with the two estates’ residents’ and tenants’ associations (TRAs) over the plans to demolish the estates – each has claimed the other is to blame – the council engaged instead with a “steering group” of residents more receptive to its plans.

This group was not elected and, judging its list of email contacts, has never enjoyed great support. Nevertheless its existence has been useful to the council and Capco in pursuing their media strategy. Press releases have quoted long-term resident Maureen Way praising the scheme in her capacity as chairwoman of the group, which has become a limited company.

The steering group has proved helpful with challenging media coverage deemed unhelpful. An article I wrote in March last year about the overwhelming rejection of the demolition plan by the large percentage of residents responding to the council’s consultation drew a complaint from the council and also a request from the steering group for a right of reply.

This was granted and a response duly published under Way’s name, though the relevant Guardian department was not informed at the time of a financial relationship between the group and the council.

As Inside Housing had revealed, the council had given the group £38,000, most of it covering the cost of legal advice received for its role in drafting contracts that estate tenants and home-owners will be required to sign in order to qualify for the council’s compensation package – which includes the offer of a replacement home. Some of the remainder was spent on producing a newsletter for residents. This information was later added to Way’s Guardian article in a footnote.

Recently, the steering group has sent out another newsletter – a professionally-produced, four-page document on glossy paper – and launched a website bearing the message “yes to our future.” Edelman, the public relations firm retained by Capco, has told me that neither it nor Capco have assisted the group with its recent communications activities.

The council says its financial assistance to the group has now reached a total of around £100,000, almost all of it for continuing legal advice about residents’ contracts. The group itself has not taken up my offers to publish an interview with its members or report answers to various questions I have asked it about how the website and newsletter were produced and paid for.

That, of course, is their privilege. The group believes it is helping residents to secure the best possible terms in their dealings with the council and sees the Earls Court Project as a boon for the area’s future. Maureen Way is described even by a resident actively opposed to the scheme as “a very nice lady” and my informal contacts with her do not contradict that view.

However, the objection to the steering group opponents of demolition have is that it enables the council and its allies to further foster an impression that residents of the estates are more enthusiastic about the scheme and more actively involved in shaping it than is really the case. The outcome of the council’s formal consultation of residents produced a resounding rejection of its plans from a huge level of responses. Other local groups and interested parties have submitted a wide range of concerns. Can H&F honestly say it is working with the wishes of its residents rather than simply straining to give that impression?

Of course, both sides of the debate are seeking to control the media agenda. The difference is that the forces of Capco and H&F, backed by Boris Johnson are vastly greater than those of the TRAs and the wider Save Earls Court campaign. That said, David is resourceful and hasn’t bowed before Goliath. Edelman public affairs managing director Chris Rumfitt was among those who received a petition in the spring, delivered personally in lively circumstances.

Saturday’s I Love Earls Court day received coverage from the BBC and ITV as well as me. Perhaps the debate isn’t going to stay so local after all. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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