Churchill Councillors speak up for Churchill Gardens Estate at Council meeting

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Councillors Murad Gassanly and Jason Thomas made their maiden speeches on Wednesday 9th July at the first Council meeting of the new Council. In their speeches they spoke up for the residents of the Churchill Gardens Estate and the future of the estate.

Councillor Murad Gassanly said;

“I would like to open by stating that the Churchill Gardens is the best estate in England. It stands as a testament to the progressive vision of the post-war generation, which sought to build a new more just and equal Britain out of the ruins of WWII. Our grand buildings, our gardens and green spaces, our youth centres and residents’ halls, and various landmarks are a source of great pride for all residents, young and old.

My predecessor Andrew Havery had remarked to me once that it is a great privilege to represent Churchill ward and Churchill Gardens residents. Andrew deserves much praise for his hard work over the past 8 years as a local councillor, often under challenging circumstances.
I speak as a resident of the Estate when I say that for all our diversity we are united in our love and appreciation of our home. There are few communities better prepared and organised to defend their interests than us. It is no accident that Churchill ward has the highest election turnout rates in Westminster – people here are active citizens. This confidence, sense of independence and the fighting spirit are hard not to notice.

Yesterday, for example, we celebrated victory in our community campaign to save the Lupus Street Crown Post Office from closure. Thousands of residents took part, signing petitions, attending meetings, writing letters and so on. This strength of popular opposition played the decisive role in Post Office decision to keep the branch open.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the Council’s plans for developing parts of the estate had come under intense public scrutiny. As local community campaigners and now as Labour councillors we are first to acknowledge the need for improvement where it is required and are first to call for more investment into the estate. However, as the rest of the community, we too share deep concerns about the project and this motion is intended to address some of these concerns.

Churchill Gardens community is already organising – a steering group had been set up and a first residents’ public meeting was held on 3 July at Churchill Hall. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Council’s own consultation process, currently led by a private contractor. As councillors committed to local democracy and civic participation, we will work to support residents in these initiatives and are here today to present what is ultimately a very mild version of their demands.

It is essential to recognise the true character of this local campaign. It represents a wide cross-section of the community. Private landlords and members of the Lessees Association are at the heart, if not the forefront, of the campaign and have been most vocal about the need to conserve the area in line with English Heritage standards and the Council’s own rules on conservation.

The tightly-knit and highly integrated nature of Churchill Gardens means that all residents, regardless of their ethnic, religious, cultural and social backgrounds live under conditions of high interdependency. Any development project is likely to affect one and all – council tenants, private renters, buy-to-let landlords, live-in lessees, parents of local school-children, local business owners and so on. It is no wonder that the whole community is being mobilised.

Of particular concern is a potential threat of loss of local school playgrounds. There is already a general shortage of open play areas for children. From the point of view of parents and school teachers the loss of playgrounds at Lupus Street and Sussex Street is nonsensical. There is a widespread opposition to this and a petition is being organised by the parents. We should be expanding and improving our playgrounds, not building them over.

Preserving and protecting scarce public assets in the face of growing demand for them should be the guiding principle for any regeneration project. Social-rent sheltered accommodation for old age pensioners is one example of the vital role these public assets play, in terms of quality of life and social security. We have a rapidly ageing population on the Churchill Gardens estate. Many of these residents have lived here their entire lives. Prioritising social sheltered accommodation should be at the heart of any regeneration plan.

We also have a growing problem of overcrowding, especially since the abolition of the Family Quota scheme. Given that the estate is already a socially mixed community with over 50% of households already in private ownership, expanding provision of various types of social and affordable housing should be another priority for the project.
Importantly, the project should prioritise the interests of local people and residents already in the community. Ultimately they are the KEY stakeholders in this process. For the Council’s plans to have any democratic legitimacy they need to be endorsed through an expression of popular will. For this reason we are calling for a formal commitment from the Council to hold a local referendum to approve or reject any final plan put as a proposal for Churchill Gardens regeneration.

I and my fellow Churchill ward councillors have discussed this and other issues with the Officers and other stakeholders. We recognise the need for consensus building and a need for cross-party cooperation. Compromises will need to be made and this motion is designed to serve as a first step towards building this much-needed consensus. This is merely a beginning of a conversation and is intended to send a clear signal to the residents of Churchill Gardens that the Council acknowledges their concerns and is prepared to work with them to develop a common vision for this great estate.”

Councillor Jason Williams said;

“Churchill Gardens is a unique community within the heart of our great city – a part of the Abercrombie plan to rebuild London after the war it was a model of public housing which continues to interest and inspire town planners to this day.

In recent years there has been negative publicity about the estate, casting Churchill Gardens as dangerous and riven with gangs. This could not be further from the reality on the ground.

Residents are justly proud of the estate and the sense of community spirit which has been built up over a number of decades. A large number of families have grown up on the estate for a number of generations and the estate has provided a welcoming home for a large number of new residents from across Westminster and the world.
Whilst proud of their past the residents look to the future and the development of their estate, their community.

We are concerned that residents are fully consulted and involved in any consultation to redevelop areas in Churchill Gardens and that any consultation should be transparent and fair starting with a blank sheet rather than a preconceived plan.

During the recent election campaign we heard Residents’ concerns about the proposed regeneration of their estate – concern that there wasn’t a genuine meaningful consultation but one where plans for the dismantling of the community had already been agreed and would be implemented by a council who didn’t listen to local people.
An example of this was the seeming sudden decision to include Maitland House in the project and the decision to demolish the building in a scheme which would bring in private housing.

At a recent public meeting residents in turn expressed their shock at how these developments appeared to be the beginning of a plan to dismantle the estate and to put in place luxury flats at the expense of existing social housing.

Residents were further concerned to hear that the original tender for the architects contained a direct reference to the inclusion of Maitland House, rather than the earlier implication that it spontaneously came up as a result of the regeneration workshops.

The tender also lists the stakeholders of the project as:

· Adult Services
· Childrens Services
· Housing
· Corporate Property

We maintain that the key stakeholders are the residents of the estate.
There is much to do in the estate to make life better for local people; ranging from the redevelopment of Churchill Square into a more user friendly public space to improving the general landscaping of the estate to the standard it previously enjoyed.
None of this is achieved by the current way the council has gone about with its consultation.

For a genuine consultation requires a blank sheet and community engagement. The feeling is that decisions have already been taken on the relocation of Darwin House, the removal of the school playground and the development of the area around the Balmoral Castle – a building the council has left vacant since 2006 costing over £200,000 to pay for the scaffolding bill.

We don’t want local people priced out of the community; we want to support our local community to thrive which is why we have continued to campaign hard against the proposed closure of the Lupus Street Post Office – a vital part of the community and local shops.
The residents of Churchill Gardens estate are greatly concerned at conduct of the consultation process and the seeming hidden agenda behind it.

They support their estate and the continuation of its current mix of lessees and social housing, they are forming a campaign to fight for their community and for the continuation of social housing at the heart of our city. This is a campaign we, as their Councillors fully support and will continue to stand together them until it is won.”

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