Fun days and free pizza may skew London tenants’ ballots, say Greens | Housing
Bouncy castles and free pizza may be helping skew votes on housing estate demolitions, according to activists who want stricter rules to stop landlords gaining an unfair advantage.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent on tactics ranging from family fun days to repeated door-to-door canvassing by landlords determined to persuade social housing tenants to approve multimillion pound redevelopments in a way that would breach the rules of standard democratic elections, campaigners warn.
All but one of the 21 such ballots held in London since they became a requirement of mayoral funding in 2018 have resulted in a “yes” to demolition or rebuilding, according to analysis by the Green party London assembly member Siân Berry – who is calling on the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to toughen up the rules.
City Hall has defended the conduct of yes/no ballots, saying councils should be praised for spending time and money working with residents to produce schemes that benefit communities and have popular support.
But Berry said that “providing free food and drink to voters during democratic election periods is strictly prohibited under ‘treating’ rules”.
These rules do not apply to tenants’ ballots, but “such incentives are not part of a healthy democratic process”, she said.
She also highlighted disparities in spending, publicity and inconsistencies in registering voters. She was not suggesting all ballot results misrepresented residents’ wishes, but that many “mistrust the ballot policy”.
Last month, consultants working on a scheme to persuade tenants at the Juniper Crescent estate in Camden to vote for demolition texted residents to “come down for a slice [of pizza] and some drinks”.
A campaign launch offered “lots of delicious food and drinks and child-friendly creative activities”. The landlord, One Housing, said it ran events to encourage residents to “share their priorities and aspirations” and that it followed Greater London Authority guidance on ballots.
Last year, Newham council spent £4,400 on a “community fun day” at Carpenters estate in Stratford before tenants voted to demolish it, and £224,000 on a team of resident engagement consultants. One resident, Joyce, told Berry she felt “hounded”.
“I had [the regeneration officials] come to my house three times, three times a week, three of them,” she said.
The “fun day” featured free pizza, ice-cream, “loaded fries”, balloons and a clown, according to Saskia O’Hara at the Public Interest Law Centre, which has been representing an affected tenant. It took place by the community hub which had “vote yes” posters on it.
“The money being spent shouldn’t be allowed in a vote,” O’Hara said. “The GLA guidelines need to be changed to ensure there is real democracy in these ballots. These are people’s homes.”
Jacob Secker, a tenant at the Broadwater Farm estate in Haringey – where demolition of more than 200 homes and replacement with council housing was voted through in March – said: “We’ve never had so much money spent on sweets, bouncy castles and so-called community fun days. This is not a consultation.”
He said they “laid it on thick with placards [around the estate] that said ‘vote yes’ in every different language”.
Peray Ahmet, leader of Haringey council, said any suggestion a bouncy castle could influence local people on such a critical issue was “nonsense”, adding that community fun days ran before the ballot period.
“The trust we’ve built with residents means that they’re now actively working with us on an improvement programme to shape the future of Broadwater Farm,” he said.
At least 100 estates in London are in the process of regeneration, which means they may have to undergo ballots to secure funding for new housing from City Hall.
Tom Copley, the London assembly deputy mayor for housing, defended the events, which “help local authorities engage proactively with residents in a relaxed and open setting”.
He said that there had been too many examples of residents being completely ignored in estate redevelopment.
“It is unfortunate that the assembly member is criticising a requirement that puts residents at the heart of plans, promotes transparency and aims to bring residents onboard from an early stage,” he said.
Newham council has been approached for comment.