Global: Dave Hill | Earls Court: mysteries of demolition phase one

Procedures for demolishing 760 homes and re-housing their residents as part of a controversial, Boris Johnson-backed redevelopment scheme in west London are raising many unanswered questions

For some weeks I’ve sought clarity about how David Cameron’s favourite council Hammersmith and Fulham (H&F) and its developer partner, the property giant Capital and Counties (Capco), intend to execute Phase One of the planned demolition of the homes of roughly 2000 people and provide them with the replacement dwellings it has promised. It’s all part of the controversial Earls Court Project, which also aspires to levelling the important Lillie Bridge London Underground maintenance depot and bulldozing the famous Earls Court exhibition centre.

The council, I believe, has made a patient effort to assist, but been unable to do so with everything – some of the details of the process, I detect, have yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, the globally-renowned public relations firm Edelman, which represents Capco in media affairs, has not provided any answers to my questions for the best part of a fortnight.

Consequently, some parts of the Phase One operation, so vital to the credibility of the scheme in the eyes of those it would affect most dramatically, remain opaque to me. Guided by the spirit of open journalism I shall therefore share the matters that still puzzle me and hope that their mysteries will unfold.

A booklet distributed by the council to residents in July contains information about “moving to a new home – what will happen and when.” Diagrams show that most of the 151 homes earmarked for bulldozing in Phase One stand right in the middle section of the West Kensington estate (one of two that Capco and the council want expunged, comprising 760 dwellings in all).

Why have these homes been designated first in line for the wrecking ball? Why not start only at the edges, thereby directly subjecting only one set of immediate neighbours to the dust, disruption and noise that demolition invariably produces? There might be some simple, logistical explanation for this. There might be an economic one arising from the fact that the patch of the estate selected contains the lowest density housing, making it quickest and easier to clear and redevelop. I’m in the dark. I would seek enlightenment from Capco – by way of Edelman, that is – but as things stand I wouldn’t receive a reply.

Back to the demolition diagrams. One of them shows the four Phase One “re-housing sites” which include part of the now former exhibition centre car park on Seagrave Road. It is intended that 200 out of a total of 808 homes will be replacements for those lost to demolition. These 200 “affordable” homes will be clumped together at the southern end of the site, separate from the other 608, which are for market sale. Why that separation?

The Evening Standard recently revealed that a new tower block near the Olympic Park in Newham was being marketed in Malaysia with the boast that it contained “no social housing”. Last week, Green Party AM Darren Johnson highlighted a development in Elephant and Castle where residents of its “affordable” homes and those of the more expensive rest would have separate entrances. Was the same sort of thinking applying here? No answer has been forthcoming.

Intriguingly, one section of the replacement homes part of the Seagrave Road site is shown as not being included in Phase One. It’s a rectangular block on the eastern side of the site and is marked “Phase Two, 2017”. Why has it been excluded from Phase One? Does the fact that it’s the part closest to the West London railway line, which carries trains between Willesden and Clapham Junctions, explain it? After all, it seems possible that someone offered a home in such a spot would, justifiably or not, find its proximity to train traffic off-putting. At risk of seeming cynical, the prospect of residents resisting the offer of a flat beside the tracks might be an incentive to exclude properties positioned there from the first re-housing phase. Call it good public relations, if you like. I asked Edelman about it. Silence.

The more I ponder the – undoubtedly unavoidable – complexities of Phase One and, indeed, the demolition and re-housing process as a whole, the more questions spring to mind. The 151 homes that would be knocked down in the whole of Phase One include, I’m told, 101 houses. Will the four small sites (and parts thereof), indeed the much larger re-development area as a whole, be able to accommodate that many? If not, what becomes of the council’s promise to supply what its cabinet member for housing Andrew Johnson has described as “like-for-like” replacements? I have heard reports of Phase One house-dwellers being invited to consider an upper floor maisonette at Seagrave Road as a replacement home. Would that be “like for like”?

Returning to the diagrams, is it OK that the boundary for Phase One demolition (marked in red) cuts right through a terrace of houses? Pondering the words of the information booklet, does “your rent will continue to be calculated in the same way it is now, for the new property,” means that rents will rise? Reflecting on concerns I have heard from residents, how extensive will the use of compulsory purchase orders be and will they, unusually, be applied to tenants as well as homeowners? Looking at the council’s obligation to compensate tenants financially – they are committed to the smallest sum the law allows – how might this affect any entitlement to benefits?

In its information booklet the council says it is “confident that residents are benefiting from one of the best deals ever negotiated compared to similar regeneration projects across the country.” Leaving aside for now the small matter that the deal was not negotiated with the residents’ official representatives – are opposed to the estates being knocked down – it remains to be seen if the council’s confidence is justified. I will endeavour to keep readers informed.

Further reading: my timeline of the Earls Court Project and an archive of my coverage of the scheme © 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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