iMayor: The Ideology of GLA Housing Policy and the New Policy we need on Estate Regeneration

1. Cleaning Up

Recently I watched the film iBoy, which was first released by Netflix in January 2017. Based on the 2010 novel by Kevin Brooks, which is set in the fictional Crow Lane estate in South London, the film relocates the story to the Middlesex Street estate in Aldgate, just off the Petticoat Lane market. A lot of the film takes place on the raised walkways of the outer ring of low-rise blocks that surround the estate’s courtyard and central tower, and which are in turn surrounded by the encroaching monuments to capitalism of the adjacent City, which in the night scenes appear like alien spaceships expanding their intergalactic empire. Much is made visually of this juxtaposition between the dark, run-down, concrete council estate and the glittering metal and glass towers of the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard, and all the other cute names for the priapic emanations of Albion.

I won’t bother you with the story, which is drawn from the increasingly limited range of narrative film; but the basic conceit is that, following a gang shooting on the estate, the young hero has fragments of his iPhone embedded in his brain, and this allow him to access and control digital electronic devices. In their criticisms of the improbability of such a premise and the romantic clichés in which it is played out, what the critics all ignored was the ideological setting to the film, which like all ideology is transparent while at the same time being in plain view. The reason we don’t see it is because it’s so close to our vision as to be indistinguishable from it, like the internalised iPhone screen through which the hero views the world. The Guardian even accused the film of an excess of ‘urban realism’. The clichés no critic saw were those about council estates and the communities they house.

On this one, which is renamed the Crowley estate in the film, the residents are either criminals or victims of crime, their homes dirty, dark and ruled by gangs, the architecture conducive to alienation, despair and ‘anti-social’ behaviour, their community part of a network of organised crime, their mothers crack addicts and whores, their kids dealing or taking drugs, their behaviour only contained by heavily armed police, their proximity to the City of London incongruous and outdated, the existence of the estate futile, doomed and in need – as the heroine says – of ‘cleaning up’. In case the way to do this is in doubt, the file the hero downloads before calling in the riot squad for an early morning raid is titled:

Even if you haven’t seen the film, you won’t be surprised to learn that this characteristically middle-class perception of council estate communities – which has itself been formed through thousands of similar depictions in our press, media, news reports, reality TV shows, documentaries, housing policy documents, think-tank reports, developers’ press releases, estate agents’ adverts, councillors’ plans, housing ministers’ speeches and films like this – was written, acted and directed by a team of writers with a tin ear for the speech patterns of London’s working class (‘you think your drug dealing won’t escalate?’), actors whose occasional ‘sorted’ and ‘fuck offs’ couldn’t hide their Home County accents and RADA haircuts, and a director whose filmography is characterised by ‘gritty’ depictions of Inner City life which, unwittingly or otherwise, prepare the way for the plans of property developers and the planning authorities that are in their pockets. That the ‘breeding-ground’ – to use the sink estate terminology – for the criminality that afflicts our society should be located here, in this inner-city council estate, rather than in the financial district it borders, should be sufficient indication of whose interests are being served by this film. Apparently oblivious to the effect it will have on the community it depicts, iBoy would not look out of place in a property developer’s presentation to the City of London Corporation arguing why this ‘sink estate’ should be demolished and the immensely valuable land on which it stands handed over to them for redevelopment.

Living on an estate myself, I can imagine how the real residents of the real Middlesex Street estate feel about this entirely fictitious depiction of their homes and community, and their fears about what ends its negative stereotypes will serve. The bulging tumescence of the St. Botolph’s Building, erected by developer Minerva in 2011 on the adjacent block, looms large over the film’s cityscape and subtext. More pressing, though, in terms of the threats to the residents of Middlesex Street estate, is the City of London Corporation’s announcement, in September 2015, of a new Housing Strategy. This outlined its vision of ‘tackling the housing crisis’ by building ‘700 new affordable homes’ by 2025 on its 13 social housing estates across London, increasing their housing capacity by 25 per cent, plus a further 3,000 properties on sites owned by the Corporation. Of particular concern would be the answers to the series of questions they ask themselves about how this might best be achieved:

  • ‘What housing need will the 700 new affordable homes aim to meet? The focus could be exclusively social housing, or some resources could go towards intermediate housing for middle income workers who are currently excluded from both social housing and home ownership.
  • ‘What should the scope and scale of our proposals for existing estates be? Projects could either focus on infill opportunities or propose wider estate regeneration where this would be beneficial.
  • ‘Where is additional social housing most required by those with a connection to the City? This involves a trade-off, as increased costs in Central London means fewer units can be delivered for the same resource.’

Already, then, the Corporation’s contribution to ‘tackling’ the crisis of housing affordability in London has been supplanted by the building of intermediate housing indexed to their rent and sale on London’s housing market; the possibilities of infill development have been placed in question by the financial benefits of estate demolition and redevelopment; and the option has been raised of building the social housing component of the affordable housing quota of this programme offsite, and indeed outside of Central London.

Since they announced this Housing Strategy, the City of London Corporation has built 62 new dwellings, including 9 on the limited footprint of Middlesex Street estate – which isn’t much. But in February of this year the Director of Community and Children’s Services for the Corporation delivered a progress report to the Housing Development Working Group in which he stated that, on top of £58 million of Section 106 monies and £3 million in Right to Buy receipts, the Housing Delivery Programme had also received £14.6 million of grant funding from the Greater London Authority for an additional 270 properties, and that plans are being developed to build a further 420. But to meet these ambitions, he concluded:

‘The Corporation will need to consider alternative methods of finance and delivery. This may include cross-subsidy through market sales and rents. Such an approach would additionally offer a broader range of tenures and be in line with the GLA’s funding guidance. Disposal of some sites may also be necessary to generate funding.’

To recap this sequence of events. In September 2015 the City of London Corporation announces a new housing strategy to build 700 affordable housing dwellings on the sites of its 13 council estates. In January 2017 the film iBoy, which depicts one of those estates, Middlesex Street, as a sink estate, is released. Then in February 2018 the Corporation’s Director of Community recommends that, in order to receive the funding from the GLA required to meet its targets, the Corporation will have to expand its Housing Delivery Programme into a programme of estate demolition and redevelopment in which social housing provision will be built off-site and intermediate housing cross-subsidised by the increased provision of properties for market rent and sale. In just over a year, in other words, the film’s fantasy of estate ‘clean up’ has become the Corporation’s reality of estate ‘disposal’. This is the narrative of social cleansing through estate regeneration.

2. Funding Estate Demolition

There is an equivalent relationship between the story we’re being told and the financial interest it serves in the policy on housing that’s coming out of the Greater London Authority as part of Sadiq Khan’s Homes for Londoners programme, which brings together the Mayor’s policies designed – like the City of London Corporation’s housing strategy – to ‘tackle the housing crisis’. The most recent of these is Building Council Homes for Londoners, in which the Mayor recently announced he had secured more than £4.8 billion from the Government to help start building at least 116,000 affordable homes by March 2022. The GLA webpage says that the Mayor expects to allocate the majority of this affordable housing grant towards homes ‘based on social rent levels’. This sounds promising, until they immediately add in parenthesis: ‘(with rents at or below the London Affordable Rent benchmarks)’.

Now, the calculation of social rent is complex, but the 2014 Guidance on Rents for Social Housing from the former Department of Homes and Communities on calculating it for ten years from April 2015 were as follows: 70 per cent of the national average rent, multiplied by average county earnings as a proportion of national average earnings, multiplied by the bedroom weight, plus 30 per cent of the national average rent, multiplied by the relative property value as a proportion of the national average property value. But then there are all sorts of further variables, in particular, following the Housing and Planning Act 2016, at the discretion of the local authority or housing association households earning over £40,000 per annum in London and £31,000 per annum elsewhere can be charged higher rents under the so-called Pay to Stay scheme. But in Lambeth, to take an example, average social rent in 2016-17 was £108.06/week.

In contrast to these labyrinthine but precise calculations, the definition of London Affordable Rent in the Mayor’s Affordable Homes Programme 2016-21 is typically vague; but the benchmark Sadiq Kahn has set for 2018-19 is £158.84/week for a 2-bedroom home, £167.67/week for 3-bedrooms. How that applies to a 2- or 3-bedroom home in Lambeth and a 2 or 3-bedroom home in Enfield remains to be seen, and the absence of any guidance on how London Affordable Rent is calculated is the strongest indication that these ‘benchmarks’ will be subject to financial viability assessments; but even at these levels, as can be seen, London Affordable Rent is roughly 1.5 times as much as social rent, probably more in practice, since in Enfield the average social rent in 2016-17 was £100.97. So although less than the Government’s Affordable Rent, which notoriously can be set at up to 80 per cent of market rate, the Mayor’s London Affordable Rent is in no measure ‘based on social rent levels’, as the GLA webpage claims, either in how it is calculated or in its rent levels.

Just as damaging for the sincerity of the Mayor’s claims about this programme of ‘building council homes’ is that it doesn’t contain any restrictions on the proportion of affordable housing provision that has to be for, respectively, London Affordable Rent, London Living Rent, or Shared Ownership, other than the motivation of different levels of funding. To take a hypothetical example: if a council estate of 100 homes, of which 70 are tenancies and 30 are leasehold, is demolished and redeveloped – at the housing densities levels developers demand in order to attain the 25 percent profit return they expect – as 250 properties, 125 of these at best will be affordable. Of these, around 25 will be available for shared ownership, nominally to rehouse the leaseholders from the old estate, 50 will be for London Living Rent, and 50 for London Affordable Rent. The first two categories constitute the ‘intermediate housing’ to which the City of London Corporation’s Housing Strategy refers; the third category includes the ‘social housing’ it recommends building off-site.

For building these so-called ‘council homes’, the council will receive £28,000 per property (from 2020) for the first two categories and £100,000 for the last, which comes to £7,100,000. Add to that sum the sales receipts from the 125 properties for market sale, which in Lambeth would expect to fetch around £650,000 for a 2-bedroom property; the rents and payments on the 75 per cent remaining on the shared ownership properties after leaseholders have been compensated on average the 25 per cent required to enter into the scheme for their demolished homes; the rents and future sale receipts for the London Living Rent properties, which if they haven’t been purchased within 10 years revert to shared ownership properties; the 50 per cent increase on rents from the 50 London Affordable Rents; plus undisclosed and uncapped service charges for both private and former council tenants, the latter of whose tenancies will have been transferred to a housing association, whether a development partner or a Special Purpose Vehicle; and together you’ve got a hefty financial incentive for councils to demolish and redevelop the estates they are paid by residents to manage and maintain.

As a consequence of this funding incentive, the 100 council homes on our hypothetical estate have now been demolished, the 25 remaining leaseholders have at best been turned into assured tenants who will not own their home until they can raise the remaining 75 per cent shares on a property costing around £650,000 for a 2-bedroom dwelling in Inner London, and have more likely taken the compensation on their demolished homes and bought a new property outside of London. The 50 tenants rehoused on the new development, having lost their secure tenancy for an assured tenancy, will also have had their rents increased by 50 per cent plus service charges. As part of the ‘trade-off’ between building high-value properties for market sale and rent to ‘cross-subsidise’ their Affordable Rents, many – and perhaps all – of them have been rehoused on the off-site component of the redevelopment, which can be built as far away as the outer boroughs of London. The 25 tenants whose council homes have been demolished and not replaced on either of the new developments now face a ‘choice’, which for most of them will already have been made, between paying London Living Rent, which is set at a third of the median income in their borough – which in Lambeth in June 2017 was £33,280, so around £11,000/year, £924/month, or £213/week, exactly double what tenants are paying for a 2-bedroom council home – and being rehoused elsewhere, which can be outside the borough or out of London altogether. And that portion of the estate’s tenants who were living in assured shorthold tenancies from the council, were renting privately on the same from leaseholders, or serving as property guardians in vacated flats not granted secure tenancies, have all been evicted onto the private rental market without any obligation on the council to rehouse them.

Remember that all this is being subsidised by £7.1 million of public money, nearly twice the £3.9 million it would have cost to refurbish the 100 homes on the now demolished council estate up to the Decent Homes Standard. And yet despite this, there is no financing in the Mayor’s programme for estate refurbishment, just as there is none for homes for council rent.

When it comes to policy on housing, the devil is always in the details, and what Sadiq Khan is presenting as a programme of council house building designed to offset those lost to the Conservative’s Right to Buy scheme is on closer inspection a financial model for handing over even more public money for the demolition of what’s left of London’s council estates by Labour councils, and their replacement with properties for market sale, shared ownership properties subsidised not only for their construction but for their purchase under Help-to-Buy, which is available for households with incomes up to £90,000/year, Rent-to-Buy properties subsidised for households with incomes up to £60,000/year, and housing association rents increased by 50 per cent. Until both the Conservative government holding the purse strings and the Labour authorities spending it change existing policy on estate regeneration, the more money that is spent on ‘building council homes for Londoners’, the more council estates will be demolished, and the more social-rent homes, paradoxically, will be lost to programmes like this.

3. Funding Estate Refurbishment and Infill

How, then, in the absence of any funding to do so from the Conservative-run Government, the Labour-run Greater London Authority or the local authorities run by all three major political parties, do we propose funding the refurbishment and increase in the housing capacity of council estates, and in doing so save them from demolition at the hands of the estate regeneration programme?

The quick answer is that, like all developers, you take out a loan against future income, for instance from a lender like the Ecology Building Society or through Rootstock, the investment arm of Radical Roots, a network of co-operatives. But in more detail, if current Conservative government legislation continues to prevent councils from borrowing against their assets, residents could apply for the right to manage the estate – as the residents of Cressingham Gardens are in the process of attempting – and form a Tenant Management Organisation. The extent of the powers and responsibilities of a TMO – which can take many different forms, including a Community Land Trust, a Community Interest Company or a Housing Co-operative – is something that’s agreed between the TMO and the council; but it does not preclude borrowing against future income from rent or sales to build the kind of infill development ASH has suggested for Central Hill estate.

The Leathermarket estate in Southwark, for example, formed a Joint Management Organisation that now manages the homes of 1,053 tenants and 421 leaseholders across 5 Tenant and Resident Associations in Borough and Bermondsey. From the income retained from rents and service charges the Joint Management Board has financed both services and major works, including infill development. Through a Community Benefit Society to which they have loaned £30 million, and whose board is directed elected by members of the Joint Management Organisation, they have built 27 new homes for council rent at Martlake Court, and 40 for homes for council rent on the site of the Joseph Lancaster Nursery. All of these new homes have been made available to council tenants on Southwark council’s waiting list, and none are subject to the Right to Buy. In 2016, on a 75 per cent tenant turnout and 66 per cent overall, 94 per cent of residents voted by ballot to continue the Joint Management Organisation; and last year 85 per cent recommended it to other tenants of Southwark council.

Alternatively, under Section 34A of the Housing Act 1985, residents could also form an equivalent not-for-profit organisation and apply to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for the Right to Transfer the estate into their ownership, as the nearly 2,000 residents of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates are in the process of attempting. Having set up West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes as the not-for-profit organisation, they are waiting on approval from the Secretary of State that will allow them to borrow against their assets, as the council currently cannot, to carry out ASH’s design alternatives for the refurbishment and improvement of the estate, including an additional 250 new dwellings to the existing 760 without demolition.

All these options, however, are being explored by residents searching for alternatives to estate demolition within the limits of current legislation, which is what Labour councils aren’t doing. Nor has existing Labour housing policy proposed meaningful alternatives to demolition and privatised redevelopment under a future Labour government, as they would be if they were opposed to the Conservative government’s legislation and policy on estate regeneration. But then, it’s not as if the last Labour government of Tony Blair, who had no such legislative restrictions, was committed to a programme of council building.

During the 13 years of New Labour government between 1997 and 2010, 362,900 new social-rent dwellings were built by both councils and housing associations in England at an average of 27,900 per annum; but because Blair didn’t repeal Margaret Thatcher’s policy of allowing council tenants the Right to Buy their homes at a state subsidised discount, an astonishing 566,000 were sold at an average of 43,500 every year, leading to a net loss of 15,600 social-rent homes per annum. By comparison, under the Coalition and Conservative governments of 2010-2017, 127,800 social-rent homes were built in England at an average of 18,300 per annum, two-thirds of what was built under Labour; but only 82,400 were sold through Right to Buy at an average of 11,800 every year, resulting in a net gain of 6,500 social-rent homes per annum.1

The problem, therefore, doesn’t lie only with current Conservative legislation – even though that has to change – but also in the political philosophy of the Labour party. Bad as they are, what these figures don’t include is the loss of social-rent homes to estate regeneration schemes through either their demolition or their privatisation, the vast majority of which are being implemented by Labour councils in London’s lucrative housing market. These haven’t yet been compiled, but between 1997 and 2010 under New Labour, 159,730 social housing homes were demolished in England at an average of 12,280 homes per annum; while between 2010 and 2017 under the Coalition and Conservative governments, 48,680 homes were demolished in England at an average of 6,950 homes per annum. Having been hit with the stick of Conservative government legislation, Labour councils have greedily swallowed the carrot of privatisation without considering what else can be done; but as the figures under New Labour show, that carrot has been swallowed, digested and dumped on council tenants for years, and is not something Labour councils have been force-fed by more recent Conservative government legislation.

It’s important to remember that estate demolition isn’t only about the numbers of social-rent homes lost, and therefore cannot be directly compared to those lost to the Right to Buy, which introduces leaseholders and private landlords into a community of council tenants. Estate demolition entails the social cleansing of the majority of residents from the new development and the gentrification of the neighbourhood to which they belonged following the estate’s redevelopment as predominantly properties for Rent to Buy, shared ownership, private sale and capital investment for home owners, Buy to Let landlords and property speculators.

As ASH has demonstrated in our design alternatives to demolition for five estates, including Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, Northwold, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, the cost of estate refurbishment and infill is tiny compared to the cost of demolition and redevelopment. Not only that, but the cost of refurbishment, which current Labour housing policy completely ignores as an option, should already be covered by resident and leaseholder rents and service payments on top of government funding for the Decent Homes Standard. But even with the financial mismanagement by councils that have failed to ring-fence the Housing Revenue Account for the expenditure for which it was erected around this income, the refurbishment of an entire estate like the 476-home Central Hill or the 306-home Cressingham Gardens, which Lambeth council have estimated at, respectively, £18.5 million and £14 million, could be covered by the building of a proportionately small number of properties for private sale or rent on London’s grossly inflated property market, with the remainder providing the homes for social rent for which there is such demand in London.

Finally, although we in no way recommend the commercial priorities, unaccountable and privatised management structures and lack of public scrutiny of how they operate, it would be financially viable to implement the ASH model of estate infill and refurbishment through the Special Purpose Vehicles Labour councils like Southwark, Lambeth, Croydon and Newham have set up – ostensibly in order to circumvent Conservative government legislation on borrowing against their assets to build council housing, but in reality to bite the carrot being dangled in front of their empty nosebags. If Tenant Management Organisations can borrow against their assets to refurbish their homes and build infill development for council rent, there is no reason why, even with all the shortcomings it would entail in terms of the privatisation of the estate and its management, Southwark Housing Company, Homes for Lambeth, Brick by Brick or Red Door Ventures could do the same if they wished to.

Ultimately, though, as Labour Party housing policy and the practices of these and other Labour councils clearly demonstrates, the political will is lacking at both party and council levels to explore any of these existing possibilities, or the many more that would be opened up by funding residents and organisations like ASH to develop them. The out of hand rejection of ASH’s proposals for Central Hill estate by Lambeth Labour council based on withheld and redacted financial figures, inaccurate assumptions, inconsistent evaluations, deliberate misunderstandings and schoolboy miscalculations is further confirmation of this lack.

4. Manufacturing Resident Consent

The same absence of political will and the same commitment to estate demolition also, unfortunately, defines the policy coming out of the Greater London Authority under the Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan. The scrutiny and opposition that greeted his disastrous Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration when it was submitted for public consultation in December 2016 has been almost completely absent from the publication of its final version in February 2018, when it was released behind the smokescreen of the further consultation on the Proposed new funding condition to require resident ballots on estate regeneration when schemes involve the demolition of more than 100 homes and the construction of 150 in their place, and therefore referable to the Mayor for a planning decision. The terms in which this ballot is being presented to residents include:

  • That it will take place early in the regeneration process, and prior to the procurement of a private development partner;
  • That a further ballot would not be required to approve this procurement or the adoption of a masterplan;
  • That the single ballot would, therefore, be final and decisive.

So let’s look at how this would work through a current estate regeneration scheme. Following a capacity study by Karakusevic Carson that identified the estate as suitable for ‘regeneration’, Enfield council started ‘consulting’ residents of the Joyce Avenue and Snell’s Park estate. The estate has 744 homes, so around 2,000 residents, to whom, in September 2017, the council presented three options: 1) Infill, 2) Partial redevelopment, and 3) Full redevelopment. On a ballot of 92 residents, 8 per cent preferred option 1, 15 per cent preferred option 2, and 56 per cent preferred option 3. So that’s 52 residents out of 2,000, or 2.6 per cent of the total estate community, have given consensus for the demolition of the entire estate, most likely with most of the remaining residents not even being aware of the fact. Of course, the proposals – which actually go beyond the Mayor’s requirements for the ballot by containing a rough masterplan by HTA Design of what the new development will look like – said nothing about what private development partner will own and run the new development; how much the homes for private sale and rent will cost; what percentage of affordable housing there will be; what percentage of that percentage will be for Shared Ownership, London Living rent or London Affordable rent; what these categories mean; and what, if any, homes for social rent will be built to replace the hundreds demolished. And that’s it: a 56 per cent consensus from a ballot early on in the regeneration process to which the council and developers – when they’re appointed – can point over the next 10-15 years and call this scheme ‘resident-led’, ‘community-endorsed’, or any other euphemism for what is an object lesson in manipulation, withheld information and lies.

As an example of what currently happens between resident consensus and planning permission, the regeneration of Knight’s Walk in Lambeth is a warning to residents of the Joyce and Snell’s Park estate in Enfield of what is likely to happen to the proposals to which they have given their final consent. When presented to Lambeth Cabinet in October 2015, 18 properties were to be demolished and 82 new and replacement properties built. 18 of these were to be replacement, including 1 freehold property and 17 replacement homes for council rent; and of the 64 proposed additional properties, 25 were to be for council rent and 39 for private rent. It was to this that residents gave their consent. Two years later, in December 2017, having procured their private development partner, Lambeth council sought planning permission for the development. In the interim the proposal had increased to 84 new and replacement properties; but only 14 are now replacement at ‘council level rent’ (assumed on £135/week for a 2-bedroom flat in 2016-17); while the 70 additional properties are now constituted by 13 dwellings for ‘tenancy strategy rent’ (at £265.29/week for a 2-bedroom flat, more than double social rent), 12 dwellings for intermediate rent (£384/week for a 2-bedroom flat, or the full 80 per cent of market rate), and 45 properties for private sale, which in 2017-18 sales values are £650,000 for a 2-bedroom property and £730,000 for a 3-bedroom. Under the terms of the balloting process suggested by Sadiq Khan, the consent of Knight’s Walk residents to what was sold to them back in October 2015 would mean that any subsequent opposition they have to what they have bought in December 2017 could be dismissed even more easily than it is at present by the council that has lied to them.

Labour housing activists have argued that we should embrace the proposal by Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan to ballot residents on the grounds that, however it’s done in practice, in principal it gives power to the residents they don’t have at present. For the reasons I’ve outlined, I think that’s a dangerously wrong supposition that plays directly into the hands of the political party that, following its ‘surprise’ announcement by Jeremy Corbyn in September 2017 at the Labour Party conference, proposed this form of balloting in February 2018. Estate regeneration is always about the details, and the last thing balloting is about is empowering residents. On the contrary, it’s about gaining early, decisive and final consensus for schemes that will be subject to further viability assessments, and will render all further objections invalid and even easier to dismiss than they are already. In other words, this is another example of Labour ideology, very much in line with the appeals of Jeremy Corbyn to place our faith in him and keep voting for the Labour councils demolishing our homes in accord with housing policy to which he has given consent. The fact that architectural practices are complicit in this duplicity is just another notch in the bedstead of shame in which architects somehow manage to sleep at night.

5. Changing Estate Regeneration Policy

Last month ASH published our book-length report on Central Hill: A Case Study in Estate Regeneration. A presentation not only of our design alternatives to the demolition of the estate but also our account of how these were rejected by Lambeth council, this report demonstrated that:

  1. Far from council estates being at the end of their natural lifespan, their refurbishment and increased housing capacity through, for example, roof extensions is not only possible from an engineering perspective but financially viable, socially beneficial and environmentally preferable to their demolition and redevelopment.
  1. Far from not addressing the need for more housing, infill can increase housing capacity on existing estates by up to 50 per cent, as well as increase the overall number of homes for social rent far beyond the ‘affordable housing’ quotas on current redevelopment schemes.
  1. Far from being financially unviable, as we are constantly told by councils of all political allegiances, the cost of refurbishing and increasing the estate’s housing capacity by 50 per cent is less than half the cost of simply demolishing and rebuilding the existing homes before a single new property has been built.
  1. Far from being an economic necessity enforced by government cuts to council budgets and imposed by legislation prohibiting them from borrowing against their assets to build more council homes, estate demolition is a political choice.
  1. Far from being under a duty to residents to consider options other than demolition, under current Conservative government legislation and Labour housing policy councils are free to dismiss refurbishment and infill options as ‘financially unviable’ without verifiable justification or public scrutiny of their decision.

In its current form, residents given a ballot on the regeneration of their estate will be presented with a choice between, on the one hand, demolition and redevelopment, and a continued lack of maintenance and managed decline on the other. This is no choice at all. For ballots to constitute a genuine consensus from the community for an estate regeneration scheme, it is necessary that:

  1. When proposing an estate regeneration scheme, a social landlord (council or housing association) must set aside sufficient funds for a refurbishment and infill option to be designed, assessed and costed by a team of architects, engineers and quantity surveyors independent from the team given the brief for the demolition and redevelopment scheme.
  1. An independent team must be given funds, from both the local authority implementing the scheme and the Greater London Authority, to produce an impact assessment of the social, financial and environmental costs of demolition and redevelopment for existing residents, the local community and the landlord, and that its findings are made public before any resident ballot is taken on regeneration.
  1. Enforceable target requirements must be set in GLA policy, rather than suggested as guidelines outlining what the Mayor would like to see, defining what an estate regeneration is required to meet before receiving GLA funding or local authority planning permission. These must not be expressed in vague phrases about ‘Like for Like’ replacement of homes, residents’ financially contingent ‘Right to Return’ to them, or undefined proportions of promised ‘Affordable Housing’, but in non-negotiable, clearly defined numbers, proportions and rent levels that are not subject to, for example, the future viability assessments of developers.
  1. If an estate community votes against a proposed demolition/redevelopment scheme, the council must carry out the refurbishment and continue (or in most cases restart) the maintenance of the estate at the least, and preferably to implement the infill options produced by the independent team, so that residents’ cannot be presented with a choice between the demolition of their estate and its managed decline.
  1. The London Mayor must allocate sufficient funds through his Homes for Londoners programme for estate refurbishment and infill, and if the residents vote for this option these funds must be made available to them, either working in tandem with the council or through the various forms of resident-managed and community-led development outlined above, as well as those not already created.

Generally speaking, but most particularly in issues of housing, the press in this country, and especially in professional periodicals like the Architects’ Journal and Inside Housing, are little more than a medium for the press releases of the building industry, the Government, the Homes and Communities Agency, the Greater London Authority and our local authorities. There’s little scrutiny and no analysis, just publication of the lies with which they sugar-coat their profit-making schemes. As the estate regeneration programme has met greater and greater resistance, this refusal to question its justifications has become less and less surprising. What is surprising, though, is that so many people in what was once fancifully called the ‘housing movement’ do the same. Whether it’s Peabody housing association announcing the rhapsodically received news that they will stop charging tenants Affordable Rents and replace them with London Affordable Rent (while failing to mention that they will also be replacing social rents for new tenants), or Sadiq Khan announcing councils must ballot residents before demolishing their homes, or the GLA announcing they are putting up £4.8 billion towards building council homes – the basic rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true then it most probably is, and it’s up to those of us trying to hold our registered providers of social housing to account to read the fine print and show why, rather than marching hand in hand to the voting booth singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ The Cult of Corbyn has induced a sort of mass hypnosis in that portion of the electorate that thinks of itself as some distance or other along the ‘left wing’ of politics, effectively erasing the long and very healthy history in this country of being suspicious of politicians and everything they say and replacing it with a childlike credulity that we cannot afford to indulge any longer in the downward spiral into disaster that is the immediate and foreseeable future of social housing in the UK.

It’s time to take the iGlasses of ideology off our collective face and see these policies for what they are, which is a blueprint for funding the demolition of London’s council estates. Then we need to start bringing about the changes to policy that will stop the loss of homes for social-rent, not only to the Conservative’s Right to Buy scheme – which will require legislative change by the government – but also to Labour’s estate regeneration programme, which is the keystone in Corbyn’s housing policies and the source of the cleared land on which he has promised to build half a million homes ‘for affordable rent and sale’ over a Parliament. Until the estate regeneration programme is completely overhauled in favour of refurbishment and infill rather than demolition and redevelopment, and then given the funding it needs to achieve these aims instead of blowing it on an already inflated housing bubble, the housing policies contained in the Mayor’s Homes for Londoners programme are as realistic in their claims to be tackling London’s housing crisis as the film iBoy is in its claims to be depicting the communities that live on London’s council estates.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing


1. These figures are a revised version of previous data analysis by Dr. Paul Watt, Professor of Urban Studies at Birkbeck, University College London, from conversations with whom some of my thoughts in this article emerged. All figures are from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. For ‘Additional social rent dwellings provided by local authority area, England – Completions’, see Table 1006c; for ‘Social Housing Sales: Annual Right to Buy Sales for England: 1980-81 to 2016-17’, see Table 671; and for ‘Social Housing Sales: Demolitions of Social Housing Stock for England: 1997-98 to 2016-17’, see Table 684.

Film still from iBoy (2017)

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work, you can make a donation through PayPal:

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