Blitzkrieg! Sink Estates and Starter Homes

1. Sink Estates

Since its regeneration following the 1985 riots, Broadwater Farm has had one of the lowest crime rates of any urban area in the world. In an independent 2003 survey of all the estate’s residents, only 2% said they considered the area unsafe, the lowest number for any area in London. The estate also has the lowest rent arrears of any part of the borough. With £33 million investment, a community centre, neighbourhood office, children’s nursery and health centre have been built, social projects, sports clubs and youth programs have been funded, concierges introduced, raised walkways removed, murals painted, communal gardens planted, transport links improved, shops and amenities made accessible, a more representative Tenants and Residents Association installed, and an estate isolated out on a flood plain of the River Moselle has been turned around and integrated into the Tottenham community. And yet 30 years later, David Cameron described Broadwater Farm this month as one of the causes of the 2011 riots in Tottenham, and home, apparently, to ‘criminals’, ‘troubled families’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’.

This alone shows out of touch this Conservative government is with the working-class communities they are intent on destroying, and which the Housing and Planning Bill, currently being debated in the House of Lords, is designed to bring about. Rioting is caused by poverty, deliberately run-down housing, social exclusion, and – as was the case with both the 1985 and 2011 riots – aggressive and racist policing. It is not caused by architecture, Brutalist, high-rise or otherwise. But it also shows how long the mud flung by commentators who have never walked, let alone lived, on a council estate sticks to the homes and lives of the people they house. Tar one estate, and in the minds of the public you’ve tarred them all.

This is, of course, precisely the purpose of David Cameron’s statement, which lays the ground for his recently stated plans to demolish a hundred of what he calls ‘the worst sink estates’ in the UK. Broadwater Farm finds itself at the top of this list purely on its proximity to the Tottenham riots. But what the Prime Minister failed to mention is its other proximity, which is to the huge swathe of regeneration projects being pushed through by Haringey Council, who last month granted planning permission on what – once Tottenham Hotspur F.C. relocates – will be a 585 apartment, 35-storey, £600 million development with zero affordable housing. The adjacent Northumberland Park estate and its 1,400 council homes are to be demolished to make way for the new stadium. As are the 300 homes of the Love Lane estate, which unfortunately for the residents stands between the new ground and the train station – an unsightly approach, it seems, for the corporate hospitality users the new ground hopes to attract.

To be clear, David Cameron has only promised to demolish – ‘Blitz’ is the typically bombastic word he used – some of the hundred estates; others, he said, might need investment. But the money he has promised to this task, a ridiculously low £140 million, wouldn’t pay for the bulldozers, let alone re-house the existing council tenants. Representative of the Prime Minister’s slurs against their residents, Broadwater Farm is also indicative of their fate. Like most so-called ‘regeneration’ schemes, the option to refurbish the estate has been found ‘financially unviable’, and in its place a program of demolition and redevelopment has only stalled, for the moment, on the obligation to re-house the 90% of its 3,800 residents who live in secure tenancies. This, and not some causal relation between post-war housing estates and crime, is the real context of the Prime Minister’s statement.

2. Starter Homes

The model for the government’s program of house building is outlined in Part 1, Chapter 1 of the Housing and Planning Bill, under the definition of what they call ‘Starter Homes’. Part of the governments so-called ‘national crusade to transform generation rent into generation buy’, the Bill introduces a new duty to build Starter Homes, which will be available to first-time buyers under the age of 40 for at least 20% off market value. This legislation supplants the existing provision, under Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, for building homes for social rent at around 50% of market rate.

However, since the provisional price ‘cap’ under which Starter Homes must be sold has been set at a ridiculously high £450,000 in Greater London and £250,000 across the rest of England, these homes will remain far beyond the reach of the vast majority of people.  Buying a £450,000 home requires a salary of £77,000 per annum and a deposit of £97,000, which raises the question of what kind of first-time buyer the government has in mind. According to the homeless charity Shelter, Starter Homes are in fact unaffordable across 98% of the country for people on low incomes, and across 58% of the country for those on middle incomes.

Moreover, like most of the Housing and Planning Bill, the truth about Starter Homes is even worse than how they are being presented to the public. Under section 2 of the legislation on Starter Homes, paragraphs 7 and 8 explicitly state that the Secretary of State may by regulations amend both the definition of ‘first-time buyer’ and the price cap, with different price limits for different areas within and outside of London.

A look at the building figures over the past year strongly suggests that £450,000 in London, and £250,000 across the rest of England, is the least, not the most, that Starter Homes will cost. In 2014-15, over 66,000 affordable homes – that is, homes sold or rented at up to 80% of market rate – were built in England; but less than 10,000 of those were for social rent, the lowest since records began in 1991-92. In London the figures are even worse. Property developers sold 5,300 two-bedroom homes costing between £650,000 and £1 million in the past year, but only 2,000 for around £300,000. To put this in context, a mortgage on a £1 million home requires an annual salary of roughly £200,000. And this was when there was still an obligation under Section 106 to build so-called ‘affordable’ housing. That’s gone now. As is the Community Infrastructure Levy introduced by the 2008 Planning Act, which generated the funds to build other, genuinely affordable forms of housing, as well as schools, hospitals, parks and other community projects. As for the condition of being a first-time buyer, as paragraph 7 shows this too doesn’t exist. It’s put there purely to deceive the public.

In a carefully stage-managed amendment to the Bill, Zac Goldsmith, as part of the government’s campaign to get him elected as the next London Mayor, recently announced that for every council home lost under the new legislation forcing local authorities to sell off ‘high value’ properties, he would build two new ‘affordable’ homes. Where and how councils will afford to build them, and where their current residents will end up living, he didn’t say. But he followed up with the caveat that it would be ‘really difficult’ to build like-for-like replacements in Kensington and Chelsea or Westminster, or, for that matter, in Camden – as though bricks and mortar suddenly cost more when they crossed the borough boundaries.

We’d like to remind the famous environmentalist and hereditary millionaire that although the sale price of a property is determined by the profit margins of the land owner and developer and the commodity market on which it is sold, the material and labour required to build it remain the same. Despite his sound-bite promise of building ‘2-for-1’, it’s quite clear from section 7 of amendment 112, which extends the definition of affordable homes to include Starter Homes, that no homes will be built for anything like £450,000 in Kensington and Chelsea, where properties currently average over £1,900,000, or anywhere else in Central London.

Since the average price of a home in Greater London is currently approaching £600,000, and nearly a million pounds in Central London, there is little incentive for developers to build Starter Homes for less. Investors, however, will still qualify for the 20% discount paid for by the state. But unlike affordable homes, which retain their discount in perpetuity, Starter Homes can be sold at the full market rate five years from the date of their purchase. And their re-sale will accrue not only that subsidy, which is lost from the public purse forever, but also the profit from the increase in house prices – prices which the Housing and Planning Bill, by overseeing the demolition of London’s social housing stock, is designed to drive up.

Under the pretence of moving existing renters onto the property market, the Bill will in effect offer public subsidies for private investors and builders. The government has promised nearly £2.3 billion pounds of public money to build 200,000 of these Starter Homes by 2020. This is an additional incentive to further speculate in the London property market, not a plan to reduce the housing shortage this speculation has created. Property wealth in Britain has increased by almost £400 billion in the past two years, more than twice the GDP of Finland, and now constitutes an economy in itself. Over the same period, the richest 10% of UK households have seen a 21% increase in their wealth from doing little more than watching their properties collectively generate more cash than entire countries.

It is this enormously inflated and lucrative property market, and not a sudden desire to help renters own their own home, that is driving the government’s housing policy. The only thing standing between them, their financial backers, and the greatest jumble sale in London’s housing history, are the people and communities that live on the land they need to build on. Communities like the residents of Broadwater Farm.

3. Blitzkrieg

Because the government has consistently used them to describe what they are not, I’ve been forced to place many of the words they’ve put forward to conceal the truth about their housing policy in inverted commas. ‘Affordable’ homes that no-one but the rich can buy. ‘Starter’ homes that won’t be lived in by their buyers. ‘First-time buyers’ that will be property speculators. ‘High value’ council homes that includes a third of the social housing stock, and anything over £400,000 in London. ‘High income’ families that will be forced to pay market rates on a minimum wage. ‘Regeneration’ schemes that will demolish the estates they are meant to save. ‘Public’ land that is owned by private investment vehicles. ‘Sink’ estates that have been deliberately starved of funds. A housing ‘crisis’ that has been created by the same people that will benefit from the legislation passed to solve it.

The government is lying to us. There’s no surprise in that; but the homes of hundreds of thousands of people will be demolished or forcibly sold on the back of those lies, and the lives of millions of others made significantly harder by the knock-on effects. A flooded and unregulated private rental market and increased property speculation will affect renters and would-be house buyers alike. Last October Deutsche Bank warned its clients not to invest in London property because of the ‘politicisation of the housing issue’. The ratio between house prices and personal disposable income in London is currently at an all-time high, surpassing levels before the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007, and on schedule to form a bubble of overpriced housing by 2017. Last November the Joseph Rowntree Trust predicted that over the next quarter of a century rents will rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty. 1.9 million households are already on housing waiting lists in Britain. 61,000 are living in temporary accommodation. 45,800 London households are currently homeless. And rough sleeping in London has more than doubled over the past five years. The Housing and Planning Bill will only make these figures worse. Yet earlier this month David Cameron told Parliament: ‘People get too hung up on these definitions. The definition of affordable housing is a house that someone can afford to buy or rent.’

So let me end by using words to say what they mean. The Housing and Planning Bill is not designed to address the so-called housing ‘crisis’. On the contrary, it has been designed to exploit that crisis for the political and financial gain of the Conservative Party and its backers. As the Prime Minister’s language of ‘sink estates’ makes clear, the legislation it proposes, which will soon be law, is a program not of house building but of social cleansing.

What the history of Broadwater Farm shows is that we should be investing in England’s council estates and the communities that live there, not demolishing their homes and replacing them with investment opportunities for the rich that few families, let alone those currently living on the estates, will be able to afford. This is architecture as consequence, architecture as punishment, architecture as revenge. Architecture as asset, as investment, as deposit box. Architecture as gentrifier, as bulldozer, as social segregator. Architecture as ghetto, as weapon, as water cannon. Architecture – as David Cameron put it – as Blitzkrieg. Architecture as anything but homes for those who need them.

Simon Elmer

With thanks to Paul Burnham of Haringey Defend Council Housing for information on the Tottenham regeneration scheme, and to Dan Strange for the illustration.

12552889_1522370454729811_4505152224129723342_n

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *