Which cup is it under? Can you find the 3.4 MILLION pounds?!

On March 9 2015, the people of Cressingham Gardens were wowed by a conjuror who made £3.4m appear and disappear in a flash, simply by moving the cups super fast.

Their memories were also stirred: they’d seen this classic bit of street trickery in early 2013, when the exact same sum had vanished once before.

This left the audience both impressed by the deftness of the moves but they were also a bit irritated. If they could point to the right cup, they might just pocket the millions.

Or at least they wanted returned some of the millions the council had funnelled away from the estate over decades: Cressingham tenants pay £1.2 million in rents each year, in exchange for between just £200k and £360k of repairs.

The people remembered that in a letter from Lambeth council way back on 2 September 2012, there was a £3.4m allocation available to refurbish to the Government’s Decent Homes Standard and the Lambeth Housing Standard (LHS):

“As part of its investment programme in its homes across the borough, the Council can allocate £3.4 million to Cressingham Gardens. While substantial, this is still not enough to bring the estate up to a good standard of repair and we want to make some of the difficult decisions about what happens next with you.”

These folks felt it was a cruel thing to say when they’d been asking for decent living conditions for years. The message sounded like: “You poor lot, you can have the money to make your lives better, but actually you can’t because you need it too much. We’ll probably have to knock down your homes!”

The estate dwellers decided to find out what was behind this harsh judgment. They asked questions like: “How did you calculate the £3.4m?” and: “Have you done a structural survey to find out what the issues are and what the repairs will really cost?”

They discovered most of the quoted sum was the cost of replacing the roofs (still the originals from the 70’s), and the remaining £1.2m was for things like new kitchens, bathrooms, and rewiring the electrics.

But this was based on an out-of-date stock condition database and there were clues, such as there being only 14 of 214 tenants in need of a new bathroom, that it would turn out to be a massive underestimate. Other Lambeth estates that the council decided to refurbish would get detailed assessments and likely much higher allocations.

The residents received advice that they should make sure the £3.4m allocation was being held for Cressingham, which was supposedly still officially in line for the repairs in around year four of the scheduled programme of LHS works.

When they asked then regeneration manager Neil Vokes for reassurance, he decreed it was ‘never an allocation’.

The Conjuror, Hieronymous Bosch
The Conjuror, Hieronymous Bosch

Residents felt confused and dubbed it:  “The case of the missing millions“. Their then ward councillor, the late Ruth Ling, tried to follow it up with the management.

Sue Foster OBE, executive director for housing, sent this reply on 8 April 2013, confirming Vokes’ message:

“Therefore, the £3.4m has never been an allocated budget for the estate but is an initial cost estimate of works required to bring properties up to Standard. Now that we know more about the problems with the roofs, the drains and potential subsidence, we now assume that cost to be far higher.”

Foster explained that the Cressingham sum, along with all the other estate estimates based on the Asset Management Database, added up to £500 million.

She admitted:

“It’s important to stress that the database is based on information from sample surveys and is used for planning purposes only. Therefore, more detailed surveys of specific estates would be required prior to any works.

“In the case of Cressingham Gardens, the Asset Management Database indicated that £3.4m was needed to deliver the Lambeth Housing Standard programme and attached is a note provided to the TRA in November 2012 which explains how this figure is broken down. One of the key discussion points for Cressingham Gardens is that following more detailed analysis of the estate, this figure of £3.4m significantly underestimates the amount of work which is required to the properties.”

Residents were curious about the “detailed analysis” and sent a further question asking how Foster had formed a view about the extent of the extra work, when at that time there had been no estate-wide survey. They also asked ward councillor Marcia Cameron to help. No explanation was forthcoming.

In the intervening years, Cressingham residents have beheld with awe Lambeth’s super-sized LHS boards displayed in the grounds of other estates around the borough. They proudly announce the list of wonderful refurbishment works that their residents are enjoying. Good for them…

But back to the present, and to the information provided to Cabinet members who rubber-stamped estate demolition proposals on 9 March this year.

We see the conjuror has returned: According to Cabinet papers, the £3.4 million was originally a “provision” after all. Hey presto!

The council papers also explain that Cressingham cannot have the money it needs without taking away funds from other estates:

“The cost estimate to bring the Cressingham Gardens estate up to the Lambeth Housing Standard is £9.4m. The original 2012 Lambeth Housing Standard business plan included a provision of £3.4m for these works. There is currently no provision for this additional expenditure in the Council’s LHS programme and costs would need to be met by reallocating expenditure from other HRA [Housing Revenue Account} investment programme schemes.”

After revising down its estimate from nearly £16 million, following a challenge from residents, the council now claims the cost of bringing the estate up to the LHS is £9.4m. But still this includes an extra £1.4m for urgent interim repairs which are covered from the Lambeth Living budget – an entirely separate pot. Residents feel that to provide a fair comparison, it should read “£8m”.

But why bother being accurate, when the higher figure lends itself to Cabinet member for housing Cllr Matthew Bennett’s neat claim, that the expense is “three times” what can be afforded.

Confusing an initial cost estimate of £3.4m with a budget, and then confusing the idea of a budget with ability to borrow against the HRA, could be Bennett’s inexperience or playing the semantics. Granted, the cost is still more than double what the council is saying it can afford. But that doesn’t take into account the bounteous external funding opportunities for innovative refurbishments that the resident working group was closing in on before the council performed another vanishing act: It cancelled the group before it could make final recommendations.
Disappearing act
Disappearing act
The apparently haphazard way the LHS allocations were worked out also draws into question the accuracy of all the budgets for repairing Lambeth’s estates. The Information Commissioner is now involved because Lambeth appears unable to provide a breakdown of what they have spent elsewhere.
These residents have a good memory and want to know: Why has Lambeth council been starving Cressingham Gardens?

3 thoughts on “Which cup is it under? Can you find the 3.4 MILLION pounds?!

  1. “Why has Lambeth council been starving Cressingham Gardens?”

    Because it’s 10 acres next to a park.

    Lewisham Council sold Aragon Tower on the Pepys Estate to Berkeley Homes because the tower block is next to a river and makes nice private flats with a view. They used to be council flats with a view.

    Lambeth Council have discovered they own an estate next to a park, I expect you can fill in the rest yourself.

    I’m not saying it’s right but I can see the motivation behind it all.

    Good article by way, I enjoyed reading it. i hope the IC doesnt take too long getting back to you.

    Liked by 1 person

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