Bouncy castles and free pizza can help skew votes on housing estate demolitions, say campaigners who want tougher rules to prevent landlords from gaining an unfair advantage.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent on tactics ranging from family fun days to repeated door-to-door canvassing by landlords determined to persuade social housing tenants to approve multi-million pound redevelopments of a manner that would violate standard democratic election rules, activists warn.
All but one of the 21 such polls held in London since becoming a mayoral funding requirement in 2018 have resulted in a ‘yes’ vote to demolish or rebuild, according to the member’s analysis. Green Party assembly in London Siân Berry – who is calling on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to toughen the rules.
City Hall has defended holding yes/no votes, saying councils should be commended for spending time and money working with residents to produce programs that benefit communities and have popular support.
But Berry said “providing free food and drink to voters during Democratic election periods is strictly prohibited under the ‘treatment’ rules.”
Those rules don’t apply to tenant votes, but “such inducements are not part of a healthy democratic process,” she said.
She also pointed to disparities in spending, advertising and inconsistencies in voter registration. She was not suggesting that all polling results misrepresented residents’ wishes, but that many “are wary of the politics of the poll.”
Last month, consultants working on a plan to persuade tenants of the Juniper Crescent estate in Camden to vote for demolition texted residents to “come down for a slice [of pizza] and some drinks.
A campaign launch featured “lots of delicious food and drink and creative kid-friendly activities”. Landlord One Housing said it held events to encourage residents to “share their priorities and aspirations” and followed the Greater London Authority’s guidelines on ballots.
Last year Newham Council spent £4,400 on a ‘community fun day’ at the Carpenters estate in Stratford before tenants voted to tear it down, and £224,000 on a team of resident engagement consultants . One resident, Joyce, told Berry she felt “stalked.”
“I had [the regeneration officials] come to my house three times, three times a week, three of them,” she said.
The “fun day” included free pizza, ice cream, “loaded fries”, balloons and a clown, according to Saskia O’Hara of the Public Interest Law Centre, which represents an affected tenant. It took place near the community center which had “vote yes” posters on it.
“Money spent shouldn’t be allowed in a vote,” O’Hara said. “GLA guidelines need to be changed to ensure true democracy in these polls. These are people’s houses.
Jacob Secker, tenant of the Broadwater Farm estate in Haringey – where the demolition of more than 200 homes and replacement with council housing was voted in March – said: ‘We have never spent so much money on sweets, castles inflatables and so on. -called Community Fun Days. It is not a consultation. »
He said they “covered him with signs [around the estate] which said “vote yes” in all languages”.
Peray Ahmet, leader of Haringey Council, said any suggestion a bouncy castle could sway local people on such a critical issue was “absurd”, adding that community entertainment days were taking place ahead of voting time.
“The trust we have built with residents means they are now actively working with us on an improvement program to shape the future of Broadwater Farm,” he said.
At least 100 estates in London are being regenerated, meaning they may have to go through ballots to secure funding for new housing from City Hall.
Tom Copley, the London Assembly’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, defended the events, which “help local authorities engage proactively with residents in a relaxed and open setting”.
He said there had been too many examples of residents being completely ignored in property redevelopment.
“It is unfortunate that the Assemblyman is critical of a requirement that puts residents at the heart of plans, promotes transparency and aims to get residents on board from the start,” he said.
Newham Council has been approached for comment.