Last November, the Lambeth Council Planning Applications Committee (PAC) granted planning permission for the controversial Hondo-Enormo Tower, a 20-storey office building to be constructed on Pope Road in Brixton. In the three months since the go-ahead, I’ve struggled to think of more unpopular proposals for the borough. It is a devastating example of local authorities supporting another greenwashed housing development proposal that displaces local communities.
It is difficult to underestimate the number of issues which make this development problematic. In Brixton, sites are limited to a maximum of 15 storeys, to avoid affecting the character and appearance of Brixton’s Victorian Town Centre. The Tower is at least 30m taller than any other building in the area and will become Brixton’s major landmark. Its enormous shadow will reduce the availability of daylight to nearby flats. When it comes to mere optics, the Tower would be an office building constructed in an area in need of residential housing. The list is endless.
It is difficult to underestimate the number of issues which make this development problematic
The outcry against Hondo-Enormo has been enormous. Planning objections have come from, amongst others: Helen Hayes MP, Historic England, the Brixton Society, English Heritage, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Brixton Buzz, the Victorian Society, Save Nour, the Brixton Recreation Centre. The campaign was capped off by a petition signed by over 8000 people. The proposal was divisive even among planning committee members: Cllr Clair Wilcox, Chair of the PAC, had to cast the deciding vote, approving Hondo-Enormo, to break the 3-3 tie.
Watching the PAC meeting and slowly realising that the vote wouldn’t go the community’s way was agonisingly painful. Seeing councillors who I campaigned to elect endorse projects that will marginalise Black Londoners like myself is difficult to stomach. But this is not an isolated event: even in one-to-one conversations, these councillors always beam with pride when they boast of their plans for regenerating Lambeth. Their justification is always Lambeth’s desperate need to attract major investment through regeneration.
Seeing councillors who I campaigned to elect endorse projects that will marginalise Black Londoners like myself is difficult to stomach
While regeneration is first understood in terms of economic development, it is widely accepted – in light of the climate emergency – that it must also be ‘sustainable’. This characteristic of regeneration has been taken up by Lambeth Council, which sets out to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030. The fact that the built environment accounts for 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint is a reminder that councils’ ability to shape housing policy is paramount to avoiding complete climate breakdown. With regeneration at the centre of local authorities’ housing policy, understanding the interaction between housing policy, regeneration and climate is key to establishing whether Lambeth Council has a chance of meeting its carbon targets.
Regeneration isn’t new; but remains incredibly divisive. Local residents have long organised into anti-regeneration groups, like the 35% Campaign in Southwark, Friends of Central Hill, or Save Cressingham, leading to fierce battles with local authorities. Increasingly, these activist groups have looked towards the environmental cost of regeneration to highlight why their resistance is legitimate. In February 2021, Extinction Rebellion Lambeth called on borough residents to rush towards the Central Hill Estate to help prevent demolition teams from entering. In response, Councillor Matthew Bennett, Lambeth Council cabinet member for Investment, Planning, and New Homes, tweeted that the Central Hill Estate redevelopment would result in a ‘74% carbon reduction.’
Increasingly, these activist groups have looked towards the environmental cost of regeneration to highlight why their resistance is legitimate
While I do not doubt his sincerity, greenwashing to promote regeneration often makes for nebulous statements. As always, the operative term remains ‘embodied carbon'; which includes emissions released during manufacture, transport and construction of materials. This contrasts with operational carbon, which encompasses carbon emissions produced through running the building: lighting, heating, ventilation.
Embodied carbon can account for up to 50% of the whole carbon footprint of a building. Therefore, a new build running more efficiently than a demolished structure does not justify the demolition itself. Operational energy savings must be weighed against the embodied carbon of both the new structure and the demolished estate. When these considerations are made, the conclusion changes: ‘Demolition and rebuild emits a super amount of carbon dioxide, and even if you build super-efficient new homes it could take 30 years before you redress the balance. If we do take carbon targets seriously then refurbishment is an option which is much more likely to achieve those targets.’ – Chris Jofseh, Director at ARUP, during a London Assembly debate about the demolition proposals for the estate.
Lambeth Council cannot claim sustainability credentials until it begins to more carefully scrutinise the carbon flows around decisions. With regards to the Hondo Tower, developer Hondo Enterprises’ website, at the time of writing, mentions that the Enormo-Tower will be entirely powered by energy renewable sources; and will achieve BREEAM certification for sustainability. As you might expect, nothing is mentioned of embodied carbon. Its exclusion from the discussion indicates that the sustainability of the Hondo-Enormo Tower is a façade, a trojan horse used to help push through a proposal which will exacerbate gentrification in the area.
Lambeth Council cannot claim sustainability credentials until it begins to more carefully scrutinise the carbon flows around decisions
To take a broader lense on the situation, it is useful to remember past examples of gentrification of the area. Gentrification is the displacement of working communities and their replacement by wealthier ones. Its link to regeneration lies in the fact that urban renewal inevitably implies increases in property values, which encourages landlords to increase rents or sell property to more affluent buyers, both of which price out lower earners. In 2018, when Hondo Enterprises bought Brixton Market – where fishmongers, butchers, greengrocers, and artists all worked – rents were increased by factors of 300%, leading to countless evictions. Today, the market is filled with – as one former Brixton Market resident states – ‘wall to wall restaurants where meals can cost 40 quid a head.’ Brixton property prices have increased ten fold in the last 25 years, making the area increasingly unaffordable to its working class residents.
When councils take on the mantle of regeneration themselves, the reasoning and the outcome are the same. The regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate, just 2 miles from Pope Road, promises to meet 35% reduction in emissions required by the London Target Plan through introducing solar panels on unshaded roofs. Once again, this is a case where sustainability is weaponised to distract from the fact that redevelopment will halve the amount of social housing on the estate – from 2700 to 1300 – effectively kicking working communities out of the estate.
More specifically, gentrification via regeneration must also be understood in the context of British Imperialism, and its residual effect on immigration to the UK’s largest cities. Southwark’s population – where the Aylesbury Estate once stood – is close to 27% Black. Lambeth’s population – where the Hondo-Enormo Tower will stand – is 26% Black. In a country where Black people make up approximately 3% of the general population, these boroughs constitute some of the most nation’s most diverse neighbourhoods. However, the diversity of these communities is matched by their vulnerability to gentrification. In fact, communities of colour tend to have considerably lower rates of home ownership than White British communities in the UK – just 20% for Black Africans, or 40% Black Caribbeans – still much lower than the White British rate of 68%. Instead, the hundreds of thousands of Black people renting from the council or from private landlords are in inherently precarious positions; with local authorities deciding whether families can stay or go.
The hundreds of thousands of Black people renting from the council or from private landlords are in inherently precarious positions; with local authorities deciding whether families can stay or go
Brixton, seen by many as the epicentre of Black Britain – an area which saw community riots against Police abuse in the 1980s – also saw its Afro-Caribbean population decline by 9% between 2001 and 2012; whilst its overall population grew by 8% over that same period.
Therefore, if we are to boast of London’s multiculturalism, we must also accept that its diversity is eroding. While this is certainly a distressing thought, framing gentrification in the context of the climate crisis only adds insult to injury. While the Black community still stands as 13.3% of the city’s population, it also accounts for 15.3% for all Londoners exposed to nitrogen oxide levels in breach of EU regulations. As a result, displacement through gentrification constitutes a missed opportunity to tackle environmental racism. Naturally, this failure to consider include the Black community in environmental policymaking isn’t new. However, it does compromise the effectiveness of decent regeneration policies like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN), Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) or Lambeth Council’s broader Air Quality Action Plan.
Failure to consider include the Black community in environmental policymaking isn’t new. However, it does compromise the effectiveness of decent regeneration policies
Olive Morris was a Black community leader, active during the 1970s squatters’ rights campaign; a co-founder of the Organisation of African and Asian Descent, and a true hero in Brixton. After her passing in 1979 at the age of 27, Lambeth Council renamed its customer service centre in her honour. During the first national lockdown, Olive Morris House was demolished to make way for a new development of 74 homes (44 private, 30 affordable), which will include ‘photovoltaic panels, and an on-site Energy centre.’ The message conveyed by Olive Morris House is ominous: misplaced conceptions of sustainability helping to chip away at the borough’s Blackness.
Sustainability should make for healthier, more secure living through cleaner air, an end to fuel poverty and the provision of safe, durable homes. Instead, Hondo-Enormo, Olive Morris House, Central Hill, and countless others demonstrate that inaccurate claims of sustainability are being weaponised by councils and developers to fast track projects which, in reality, are neither sustainable nor supportive of residents.
More recent updates on this campaign can be found at: Save Nour - Fight The Tower Save Nour #FightTheTower (@save_nour)
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