please accept this letter as an objection to planning application PA/15/2554 for the refurbishment of Balfron Tower.
It is not that we are in itself opposed to the refurbishment of Balfron, in fact we wish it had happened thirty years ago when it was first mooted, or any one of the number of times since.
The problem is that instead of refurbishing the flats and maisonettes for Balfron’s tenants, Poplar Harca is refurbishing them for private buyers of which no doubt many will be investors who will either leave them empty or rent them out at rates that are unaffordable to most people.
Not only is this a breach of the promise Harca made to refurbish tenants’ homes if they voted for stock transfer in 2007 and then allow them to return, it is a betrayal of the highest order. If they had known Harca was going to kick them out shortly after they would have surely voted to keep the council as their landlord.
Harca would no doubt say that the former social tenants all left voluntarily but testimony shows that tenants felt they did not have an option – that their removal was a fait accomplis, while others were ‘seduced’ by the £4,700 buy-off, of which tenants are on record as saying they were not told that accepting it meant they lost their right-to-return.
Poplar Harca claim they cannot afford for social tenants to return given the estimated £20m cost of the refurbishment, but what has happened to the slice of the £45m they were given to refurbish the East India Estates which should have been for Balfron, and all the rent that has been paid since 2007?
And if money is so tight why did Harca swap the rent-paying social tenants for property guardians who pay them no more than a peppercorn rate, why have they voided so many flats so they can’t be rented out, and why are they paying leaseholders up to £1,500 a month since January 2014 to keep their properties empty – how many millions have been lost through this strategy to keep social tenants out of the block?
No matter, the cost of refurbishing the 146 homes comes to around £140,000 each – £20m in total. Harca says it’s not cost effective keeping them as social homes yet Barking and Dagenham Council has just spent £45m on a block of identical size. That makes refurbing Balfron and keeping it social a bargain.
But am I getting ahead of myself? The planning application makes no mention of the change of use from social housing to private sale and Harca has made no public announcement of its intention to do so. This is indicative of the sly approach Harca has taken all along: making false promises to tenants before transfer, bribing or bullying them into leaving, and failing to be open and honest about its intentions.
Throughout Harca has claimed it had taken no decision on the building’s future, yet we now know from a confidential 2012 report by the HCA that a privatised sell-off was their intention all along.
As you will know Tower Hamlets needs more truly affordable housing not less and this is what granting permission in the application’s current form will lead to. Harca will claim they can put the profit from selling off the flats to better use, but it will simply be used to pay back some of the £260m debt that its accrued under the guidance of its HSBC and property developing executives and the homes will be lost forever as we are seeing in other Harca developments.
On both Aberfeldy and Leopold estates it claims it is building new homes, but they are primarily for private sale. The number of ‘affordable’ homes it builds is less than the number of social homes it demolished. Harca is acting more like a private developer than a social housing provider.
Tower Hamlets Council should refuse to be complicit in the privatisation of social homes. Sure, allow them to build private homes for sale in and around the estates, but don’t ever let a development – or refurbishment – see a loss of social homes. If Balfron is privatised the Brownfield Estate will see a net loss of 99-social homes according to a recent academic study.
For this reason the application in its current form should be refused unless Harca agrees to keep it 50% social, which should not include any intermediate rated homes as these can in no way be considered social housing. The profit from the 50% sold would easily pay for the rest to be refurbished.
Tower Hamlets Renters