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Backbenchers call for Camden’s ‘North Sea Oil’ property deals to be reviewed

Labour leadership rejects view that council is 'selling family silver' with CIP policy

20 December, 2018 — By Richard Osley

Labour scrutiny committee chairman Douglas Beattie

CAMDEN’S flagship policy of using its land and property to lever in cash during the ­austerity years is set to be put under review after concerns raised by backbench councillors about gambling on London’s shifting property market.

The Community Investment Programme (CIP) aims to secure funding for new homes and school improvements by reordering council-owned sites with the help of developers. Redevelopment projects on estates have created new social housing funded by expensive new private homes, a lucrative prospect until the market began to slow amid Brexit nerves.

While other local authorities do not have land to enact a similar strategy, Camden’s Labour Party chiefs have previously celebrated their use of what they called the borough’s “North Sea Oil” – a bank of money-making council-owned sites across the borough.

Among the projects, a skyscraper tower is planned for Somers Town to fund overdue upgrades to Edith Neville School, and the former council offices in West End Lane, West Hampstead, is being redeveloped for housing; both of which opened up battle fronts with neighbours who say oversized developments focused too heavily on the private side of the housing market are being dropped on their doorstep.

In the case of Somers Town, a new brochure explicitly spells out to prospective buyers that there is no social housing element included.

The CIP, meanwhile, has been toasted elsewhere for the new housing at Cherry Court in Gospel Oak where Labour councillors say tenants tell them that “the only thing missing is a ­swimming pool”.

Internal Labour ­criticisms of the scheme have only really been heard in passing behind closed doors until last week’s meeting of the cross-party Housing Scrutiny Committee which recommended that the CIP is placed under review. It was suggested that the scheme was too geared to the creation of private homes, and that its success could be hampered by slowing private sales.

The committee had heard from both residents in West Kentish Town, who want to see their homes refurbished in a similar manner to Cherry Court and opponents to the CIP from other parts of the borough.

Labour councillor Paul Tomlinson said: “It seems clear we need to have a new look at the CIP. We need more transparency in the process, more clear thinking and better communication. It appears that the budget for the Somers Town CIP has got out of hand. It is particularly regrettable that a 25-storey tower of luxury flats is planned for our area, which is in particular need of social housing. It is not at all what the Somers Town neighbourhood wanted or recommended. The tower when it is built will be a symbol of a time gone wrong, a leading example of ­gentrification.”

Labour councillor Paul Tomlinson

The more supportive Labour councillor, ­Alison Kelly, said the council could not press pause on upcoming projects such as the West Kentish Town estate, where residents complained of safety fears and deteriorating flats.

She said: “I’ve never worked with a group of residents who all wanted the same thing. Absolutely without fail they want the West Kentish Town Estate knocked down and redeveloped. Of one mind is really underplaying it, they want new homes, they want warm and comfortable homes, they want ­balconies. “We need to listen to their needs and deliver as quickly as possible. Visit the places [current homes] and see how absolutely ghastly they are.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, are questioning the fees paid for new units under the CIP, warning that the finances need more ­rigorous scrutiny, while Green Party councillor Sian Berry runs a ­dedicated website to analysing the CIP.

Sian Berry has a website devoted to analysing CIP’s performance

Although the committee did not take a vote, committee chairman Councillor Douglas Beattie asked for a “set piece event”, what he said would be a “completely robust review” of CIP’s performance. He said: “There should be within the structure of the council a review, because it’s such a major programme. It’s 15 years.”

He added: “On the one side we are hearing people are happy with the CIP, and that’s genuinely good to hear, but on the other side there are some concerns.”

Regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales said that decisions had been based on “extensive consultation”.

Labour cabinet member Danny Beales

He conceded that there were “trade-offs” with each scheme but insisted that the council is listening the voices of residents and those in need of somewhere to live amid shortages.

He said the slowing of the project’s private sales could be “directly related to the challenges of Brexit”, adding: “This isn’t just a Camden challenge, it’s a challenge for anybody building in Camden or anybody building anywhere in the country. I think people are ­waiting and watching. The advantage of our approach, directly doing it ourselves, is that we have a long-term view. We are here for the long-term and we do ride the bumps. There may be bumps in the future but we have that goal in mind to develop sites for the community.”

Cllr Beales said the CIP was “constantly evaluated” and went through the council’s established scrutiny procedures.

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