Lambeth is a borough on the up and Matthew Bennett, a Councillor since 2010 and Cabinet member holding several briefs centred on planning, housing and regeneration since 2014, is bullish on the area’s future and the opportunities it holds.
“We’re in Central London, we’ve got excellent transport connections, we’ve got a young and very diverse population, it’s an exciting place that people want to come to live and work in.” Indeed, Lambeth is home to the biggest proportion of working-age adults in the CAZ area, providing an excellent pool of local talent for investors to draw on. The concentration of major cultural institutions in the borough – including the Southbank Centre, BFI Southbank and National Theatre – is also a major draw for visitors from across the world. That has meant that the borough has been able to secure significant benefits for residents across a number of major regeneration schemes led by the private sector, particularly in the form of affordable housing and workspace, as well as new jobs.
Pointing to the wider Vauxhall Nine Elms and Waterloo areas especially – where millions of square feet of residential and commercial space are in the pipeline – he says that the Council has been able to leverage investment to help deliver thousands of new affordable homes and jobs. He was particularly keen to underline Lambeth’s role as a pioneer in “demonstrating that we can secure affordable workspace and make sure that when people see these new buildings go up, it’s not just a glass tower that feels inaccessible” and that new commercial development “can provide space for charities and local enterprises” and is “embedded in the local community”. Bennett is especially proud that the borough is leading the charge when it comes to creating jobs locally: its International House affordable workspace facility in Brixton was the UK’s first Living Wage Building.
The pandemic has proved challenging for Lambeth and its communities, as in all boroughs, but with a newly approved Local Plan and CIL charging schedule, which was briefly held back from submission to factor in the impact of Covid on market uncertainty, Bennett sees Lambeth in “in a very strong position to go out and say ‘look, the environment in Lambeth continues to be strong, the demand for homes is as strong as it’s ever been’”.
He is also pragmatic about what the Council needs to do to spark recovery: “The only way we are going to resolve the homelessness crisis is by having more homes and the only way we’re going to bring back the unemployment rate is by having more jobs … we’re very confident and proud in Lambeth about being pro- Good Growth, pro-inclusive growth, in favour of new homes and new commercial space”.
Bennett acknowledges that “we’re not the City of London” and that the borough’s office districts have perhaps been viewed as “slightly more peripheral” in the past. But now, he argues, changing working patterns – accelerated by the pandemic – mean that this is actually “a huge strength for us” as borne out by office schemes and other workspace being brought forward in places like Brixton or even Streatham, “because there’s a huge number of people living out in Zones 3 and 4 and see commuting there as much better”.
He believes “London [as a whole] will always survive and will bounce back” and that “what you’ll see in Lambeth in the coming years is still an administration that is clear about the challenges of climate change and which holds people to high standards, but will never shy away from the fact that we need more homes, we need more investment and we need to make that work for our local communities”.
As for his message to the sector: “What I’ve always said, in relation to any kind of development whatsoever, is that you have to listen very carefully to the quiet voices that you often don’t hear. As councillors, we hear those voices: we go out knocking on people’s doors on the estates and talk to people who don’t come to public meetings, we speak to people at our surgeries who sometimes come carrying their bags with them because they’re homeless, people who are not on Twitter, who are not campaigning, who don’t have friends at a newspaper they can call up. We’ve got to be better at balancing the debate and listening out for those quiet voices.”
He continues: “There is huge need and demand for more homes, more office space and more opportunity in London and all too often, the debate is dominated by those who speak from a position – frankly – of real privilege, who are quite happy where they are. And that’s legitimate, it’s their view and they’re entitled to it. But as politicians and people who want to get things done, we’ve got to get better at listening to and amplifying the quiet voices in London”.
Bennett acknowledges that it has often been difficult to address community concerns about the negative impacts, whether real or perceived, of development. This is particularly where “securely housed” local residents oppose changes in their area, whereas “the people who will benefit most – who might be homeless, or might be on our waiting list, or looking for a job – could live anywhere and don’t know that those new homes are going to exist”.
He does however believe that the benefits of even the most complex schemes can be effectively communicated and delivered, through early and close engagement between developer, council and local community. Bennett cites cases such as those of Mount Anvil’s Keybridge House scheme, which helped provide an extension to Wyvil Primary School and separately, Berkeley’s Oval Gasworks project, which offered 35% affordable housing as part of a comprehensive masterplan. Projects where the developer proved willing to “sit around the same table” with the council from an early stage, meaning they were ultimately “able to come to planning committee with a scheme which was policy compliant – and there you go, delivered.”
Bennett also underlines that public-private collaboration has been especially key to bringing forward infrastructure enabling large-scale regeneration and growth – with the Council having actively supported the newly-opened Northern Line Extension, through Nine Elms to Battersea Power Station.
Along with new homes and jobs, sustainability is another key issue for the borough. Bennett underlined that Lambeth was the first London Borough to declare a climate emergency and has “set high standards” for developers. He pointed to the redevelopment of the old Costa Coffee roastery site into a new office building as an “exemplar” in this regard and “possibly the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly building of its kind in the country”. The Council itself is set on “leading by example” in this area, having committed to reducing its own carbon footprint to zero by 2030.
Some developers can be less visionary, he asserts: “What worries me is when people come in and look as if they haven’t done their research” making the mistake of “just thinking that this is a plot of land in London that we want to build on, without having thought of what Lambeth wants and our local context.” Developments need to reflect an understanding of the importance placed by the council on providing accommodation for almost 3,000 homeless households; on affordable housing more generally; on providing affordable workspace that fosters an inclusive local economy; and on high environmental standards.
Bennett is adamant that private development needs to play its part in the provision of those much-needed affordable homes. “If someone says it’s difficult to provide affordable housing, we’ve got plenty of evidence to show it’s actually doable – so that never goes down well”, he says, adding that when told a scheme can only deliver 10% or 15% affordable housing, “my heart sinks, because we are going to get you to 35%, or 50%, we just are, because our planning committee is not going to accept what you are saying and I’m not going to accept it either.”
Acknowledging that Lambeth sets a high bar for developers, he asserts that these expectations have in no way dented investment interest in the borough: “Look at HB Reavis’ Waterloo One scheme, which is about to come out of the ground, or Landsec’s acquisition of Oval Works – the industry is clearly voting with its investment in Lambeth, as a key destination”.
Bennett also underlined that the borough has been keen to “strike off on its own” to directly tackle Lambeth’s “two housing crises” – council homes in need of refurbishment and the shortage of affordable housing. At the centre of this effort is its own not-for-profit affordable housebuilding company, Homes for Lambeth (HFL), which primarily refurbishes and develops council housing, as well as some homes for sale, with profits from the latter “reinvested back into social and affordable housing”.
He described the experience of seeing the delivery of 65 new council homes at the Westbury Estate in Clapham as something which had “seemed impossible” as recently as 2014. But now, he said, with about 4,500 homes in HFL’s pipeline, councillors can confidently speak to residents on their social housing waiting lists or in overcrowded housing, “look them in the eye and say: we are delivering for you.”
Beyond housing, the borough is also directly leading on the regeneration of key town centres, including Brixton, where council is working in partnership with local stakeholders and communities to bring forward more commercial space, on its own land.
The council has invested heavily in community consultation, both pre- and during planning. The pandemic necessitated a greater focus on digital methods, but Bennett was pleased to note that “we actually have far higher levels of engagement online than we had just asking people to come to a community centre of an evening or weekend,” adding that going online “has made for more inclusive consultation” and has allowed “more people to tell their stories”.
And that’s no doubt where those quiet voices will be able to stand out.
This interview was conducted by London Communications Agency on behalf of the London Property Alliance as part of its curation of the monthly Central London Planning & Politics newsletter.