The ‘deconstruction’ of the main part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is well underway. Since last autumn, it has been almost completely hidden by scaffolding; to a passerby, it might have looked as if the blocks were being built rather than being taken down. But now that any asbestos and all the fixtures and fittings have been removed, cranes are removing the concrete panels from the block nearest the Walworth Road. It’s an unspectacular demolition, and a quiet one. There won’t be a specific moment of explosive collapse; the 1974 structure will just be gone by the end of the year.
In May 2012, Adrian Glasspool, one of the last Heygate leaseholders, asked Southwark Council for a copy of the ‘financial viability assessment’ submitted by the developer, Lend Lease, when it made its planning application to redevelop the land the estate is on. The council refused his request twice. Glasspool complained to the Information Commissioner and the council sent him a version of the assessment – but it left out how Lend Lease had decided it could afford to provide only 25 per cent ‘affordable’ housing. Southwark has a target of 35 per cent in new developments (neither figure goes any way to replacing the actually affordable homes that have been lost). In July 2013, the Information Commissioner ruled that Southwark had to make the rest of the assessment public. The council appealed, with Lend Lease bearing part of its legal costs, and Fiona Colley, the councillor in charge of regeneration in Southwark, warned that developers might start refusing to work with councils if they had to release commercially sensitive information.
On Friday, Southwark lost its appeal. Mr Justice Warren's judgment is interesting for several reasons. He spells out that the definition of ‘viability’ is ‘not whether a scheme will break even; it includes within it a profit for the developer, often put at about 20 per cent’. He emphasises that 'there is no “breach of trust” when a public authority fulfils its statutory obligation' under the Freedom of Information Act or (as in this case) Environmental Information Regulations: 'Private sector partners and their consultants are aware of the legal limits.' He considers Lend Lease’s rights, under articles 1 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to the ‘peaceful enjoyment of its possessions’ and a 'private and family life' – but regards them as unthreatened. The Information Commissioner has already ruled in favour of disclosures to campaigners against developments in Earl’s Court and Greenwich; Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, said last year: ‘The implications for regeneration projects across the country are potentially enormous.’ Yesterday the council issued a press release: ‘We are broadly pleased with today's decision.’
But, depressingly, the judgment’s potted history of the area, and of public housing, accepts the tendentious story that the council and its planning department have been telling for years as a matter of unassailable fact. Glasspool might want ‘a very different kind of development’, the judge said, but ‘we do not think he would dissent from the proposition that something must be done. There is now no alternative to the present project, already seven years in the making.’
The most telling mistake is the reference to ‘the people who live there’. No former Heygate tenant or leaseholder has a hope of living on the site again. The 35 Percent campaign has produced a map showing where the former residents with secure tenancies are now. Former leaseholders have moved even further away. Fiona Colley said last year: ‘There is nothing I would like more than to publish’ the viability assessment ‘and show the world what a fantastic deal we negotiated for the people of Elephant & Castle.’ Southwark Council and Lend Lease have 28 days to show their sums.