How Local Authorities are Weaponising Sustainability

Across the world, municipalities and local councils are rapidly adopting pledges to help move cities towards ‘net zero’ carbon emissions. At the same time, rates of gentrification, inequality and displacement in our cities remain shameful. In light of campaigns against the latest controversial new development in London’s Brixton putting its sustainability under scrutiny, Tsiresy Domingos traces how poorly-designed green policies are contributing to ongoing racialised gentrification and careless disregard for Black communities in Lambeth and Southwark.


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.