Saving St. Raphael’s Estate: The Alternative to Demolition

Architects for Social Housing is pleased to announce the publication of our report on the design alternative to the demolition of St. Raphael’s estate in Neasden, in the London Borough of Brent. The result of two years’ work with residents, the report includes ASH’s proposals for the refurbishment of the estate’s 760 existing homes, the improvement of its landscape and community facilities, as well as designs for infill housing and roof extensions that will increase the estates housing capacity by up to 608 new homes, half of which can be made available for social rent, all of which can be provided without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single resident. Titled Saving St. Raphael’s Estate, the report can be downloaded as a PDF file, and will soon be available, with additional material on the social, economic and environmental consequences of demolition, as a print-on-demand book.

ASH has submitted this report to the Built Environment Summit, a report and conference hosted by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Architects Declare, who have launched an open call for evidence and research on climate change. If you would like ASH to come and talk to your department, group or organisation about its contents, please contact us at info@architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk

1. The Future of St. Raphael’s Estate

The choice facing the residents of St. Raphael’s estate is a clear one. To vote for their homes to be demolished and replaced primarily by market-sale and shared-ownership properties that will sell for between half a million and 1.5 million pounds, or to demand their homes are refurbished up to contemporary performance standards, with additional homes and improvements to the landscape and community facilities. A vote for demolition will lead to the eviction from their homes of the vast majority of the residents — council tenants, leaseholders and freeholders; refurbishment and infill, on the other hand, will allow the continuation and regeneration of the community, with additional homes for social rent in which future residents of St. Raphael’s estate can afford to live.

To allow residents to compare the consequences of their choice, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) has spent the last two years working with residents to develop proposals for the refurbishment of the existing homes, with options for infill housing and roof extensions, and the improvement of the estate’s communal amenities. At the same time, we have studied the consequences — socially, financially and environmentally — of residents voting to demolish their homes, and of the cleared land being divided between commercial property developers and housing associations.

Since 2015, ASH has worked on design alternatives to the demolition of 6 council estates across London, including Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, West Kensington, Gibbs Green, Northwold and Patmore estates. None of these estates have been demolished, and thousands of council homes that would otherwise have been replaced by properties for sale far beyond the reach of council tenants are still being lived in by them. However, although residents are now permitted to vote on the future of their homes in council-run ballots, demolition is still overwhelmingly the preferred choice of councils undertaking the regeneration of estates under their management. This is because residents aren’t being informed beforehand about the financial consequences — for them and their neighbourhoods — of voting for the demolition and redevelopment of their homes that is inaccurately and misleadingly referred to as ‘estate regeneration’.

As a consequence of this lack of information, of the 14 housing estates that have been offered a resident ballot so far, only 1 has opposed demolition. Yet on hundreds of estates across London, ‘regeneration’ has in practice meant the eviction and dispersal of estate communities, the loss of thousands of council homes, and their replacement with market-sale and shared-ownership properties, and a variety of so-called ‘affordable’ housing whose rents in the London Borough of Brent are between 1.5- and 4-times social rent. Informed consent about its consequences is a principle of any choice, and especially one affecting the lives of thousands of residents. Without this information, how are the residents of St. Raphael’s estate expected to make the right decision, not only for them but also for the housing needs of the borough of Brent?

The research undertaken by ASH over the past two years provides some of the crucial information that has been withheld from the residents of St. Raphael’s estate by Brent Council and its consultants. We shared some of this information with residents in our presentation in St. Patrick’s Church in February 2020; and in our analysis and criticisms of the masterplans for the redevelopment of St. Raphael’s estate by the council’s architectural consultants, Karakusevic Carsen Architects, in March 2020.

At the first of these presentations, ASH received a unanimous vote from the more than 80 residents present to develop design alternatives to the demolition of St. Raphael’s estate. Subsequently, over 600 residents have signed a petition rejecting demolition and demanding infill housing and the refurbishment of their homes. These proposals will ensure the continuation of the community, refurbish all the existing homes, increase the housing capacity of the estate for both existing and future residents, and improve the existing landscape and community facilities. This report, Saving St. Raphael’s Estate, which we are publishing 17 months later, is the fulfilment of our promise to residents. It is our hope that the information and proposals this report contains will enable residents to make an informed decision, individually and collectively, about the best future for St. Raphael’s estate.

2. The Costs of Estate Demolition and Redevelopment

After 16 months of ‘lockdown’ restrictions, the crisis of housing affordability in the UK has grown even worse, and nowhere more so than in London. In June 2020, the number of households living in temporary accommodation had increased by 14% from the previous year. By December 2020, those living in overcrowded accommodation in the private-rental sector had doubled from 7% the previous year to 15%, an estimated 570,000 renters. In January 2021, over 750,000 families were behind with their housing payments, 300,000 of which had dependent children. That’s double the numbers before lockdown. And the costs of lockdown on UK housing have been unevenly borne, with 9% of all households in the social-rented sector and 6% in the private-rented sector in arrears, compared to just 2% of mortgagors. Clearly, demolishing its already-diminished stock of council homes for social-rent, and replacing them with residential properties for sale at upwards of half-a-million-pounds, is not the way for Brent Council to address either present or future housing needs in the borough.

There is also growing concern about the environmental costs of demolishing homes in good condition in order to increase land values for buyers and investors in the new properties. When Brent Council launched its ‘Climate and Ecology Emergency Strategy’ this year, it appeared to acknowledge the environmental and climate crisis. However, ASH has commissioned the environmental engineers, Model Environments, to produce an estimation of the carbon costs of demolishing St. Raphael’s estate. Their report (included in Appendix B), proves conclusively that demolishing and disposing of the 760 homes, numerous community facilities and hundreds of trees on the estate, then replacing them with between 2,000 and 2,250 new properties, is totally incompatible with Brent Council’s declared intention to reduce carbon emissions, sustain existing ecosystems, and reduce waste and pollution. Residents should remember that any demolition and redevelopment will be phased over many years and even decades, with the families waiting to be rehoused forced to live and raise their children on a highly toxic building site.

In addition, our report also contributes to the current debate within the architectural profession regarding its responsibilities towards the ‘climate and ecological emergency’. Like the rest of the building industry, architects are facing a dilemma. How does an industry based on the production of new buildings adapt to an increasingly pressing need for de-growth? We believe that, in a time of dwindling resources and environmental change, the building industry must make the retrofitting and refurbishment of existing housing estates the default option in any regeneration scheme, with demolition and redevelopment only allowed in exceptional circumstances, and when no other option is possible. As we have shown in this report, that is not the case with St. Raphael’s estate.

In addition to these environmental concerns, there is also the financial viability of demolishing and redeveloping such a large estate, the risks of which have been increased by the uncertain economic climate as a result of the ongoing lockdown of the UK. Property developers are unlikely to make investments on which they do not have a guaranteed return. And as part of his Affordable Homes Programme 2021-26, the London Mayor has recently announced that there will be no funding for the replacement of homes demolished as part of an estate regeneration scheme.

To date, Brent council has not provided a viability assessment for any of their proposed redevelopment options; but this absence of funding will have one of two consequences for St. Raphael’s estate. Either Brent Council will take demolition off the ballot options as financially unviable; or — in the event that residents vote for demolition — the new development will have to include more properties for market sale, less for shared ownership, with a greatly reduced number of so-called ‘affordable-rent’ housing, and no homes for social rent.

This report, therefore, is also for Brent Council, offering a financially viable, environmentally sustainable and socially beneficial alternative to the demolition of St. Raphael’s estate. ASH’s proposals (costed in Appendix A) will increase the number of homes for social rent, retain the existing estate in council hands, avoid the huge costs of demolition and disposal, enable the council to build homes that meet housing need in the borough, and refurbish and improve the housing, community facilities and landscape for both existing and future residents of this thriving housing estate.

3. The Estate Regeneration Ballot

Brent Council has recently announced that the estate regeneration ballot will only be held once they have established whether their proposals are financially viable. It is vital, therefore, that this assessment is made public, so that residents can see the estimated tenure mix and assumed prices of the proposed properties. However, Brent Council has repeatedly refused to answer residents’ legitimate questions about what their demolished social-rent and leaseholder homes can and will be replaced with. Every Freedom of Information request to the council has been rejected on the grounds the information is ‘commercially confidential’, and that its publication may compromise the property developers and housing associations competing for the council’s contracts. This alone shows that Brent Council is placing the profit-margins of its financial partners above the housing needs of the residents. It is unlikely, therefore, that this crucial information will be given to residents prior to the ballot; and yet, without it, no vote on the regeneration of the estate can be considered as ‘informed’.

For this reason, ASH has conducted extensive research, based on previous estate redevelopment schemes in Brent and across London, into the consequences for existing residents if they vote to demolish their own homes. This includes 1) reports on the actual levels of poverty, deprivation, crime and anti-social behaviour on the estate, all of which are below the London average; 2) the condition and estimated life-span of the existing housing stock, which is reasonable and capable of being extended for 30 years with minimum investment; 3) the compensation for leaseholders, which is less than half the price of the new properties on the redeveloped South Kilburn estate; 4) the huge reduction in the numbers of homes for social rent required by the lack of funding for their replacement and cost of demolition and redevelopment; 5) the enormous increase in rents for existing council tenants, which range from 60% for London Affordable Rent to 260% for Affordable Rent; 6) the loss of secure tenancy and increase in service charges if their tenure is transferred to a housing association; 7) the reduction in the quality of poorly-built ‘affordable’ housing blocks, of which there are numerous examples across London, compared to the existing council homes; and 8) the segregation of space, access and facilities on the redevelopment according to tenure type, compared to the integrated housing and mixed community currently living on the existing estate.

As with all estate regeneration schemes, there are no guarantees, and no legal requirement, that Brent Council will keep any of their ‘promises’ to residents about the future of St. Raphael’s estate. Everything the council has promised so far is subject to ‘financial viability’. This means that if the developer argues the project cannot afford sufficient homes for social rent — or even ‘affordable rent’ — to rehouse all the existing residents, then the council is under no legal obligation to re-provide them. Is Brent Council acting honestly by asking residents to vote on something as serious as the future of their homes and community, when the information they have received from the council is at best inadequate, and at worst inaccurate and misleading, and whose consequences for them they will have no control over following that vote? We believe that this cannot be fair, and our report is our attempt to give residents a better chance to make the right decision for them.

The estate ‘regeneration’ programme is facilitating some of the largest, most destructive and unnecessary demolition of council housing in London and across the UK at the moment, and must be stopped. This report is aimed at providing clear and factual evidence in support of the retention and refurbishment of St. Raphael’s estate. It shows, conclusively and with extensive designs, costings, estimations and documentation, that there is a design alternative to the demolition and redevelopment of St.Raphael’s estate, one that is socially beneficial for existing and future residents, environmentally sustainable for the neighbourhood and its ecosystem, and economically viable for both residents and Brent Council.

We hope that residents will vote ‘no’ to demolition, and ‘yes’ for the future of St. Raphael’s estate.

4. Executive Summary

The architectural designs and research contained in ASH’s report demonstrate:

  • That the existing homes are structurally sound and in reasonable condition, and there are no structural, design or maintenance failings that justify their demolition;
  • That the existing landscape is well-used and home to a rich ecosystem, and should only be improved where it is possible to do so, not destroyed and redeveloped;
  • That it is possible to add up to 608 new homes to St. Raphael’s estate without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single resident;
  • That the cost of constructing these new homes, refurbishing all the existing homes, and improving the landscape and community facilities, can all be covered by a combination of Government and Greater London Authority grants, and the sale of no more than 50% of the new-build properties;
  • That the cost of demolishing and redeveloping the 760 existing homes is highly risky in the current economic climate, if not actually financially unviable following recent changes to GLA funding on estate demolition;
  • That the prohibitive and unnecessary financial costs of demolishing and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate will require its replacement with properties for market-sale, shared ownership and ‘affordable’ rents well beyond the means of existing leaseholders and tenants, resulting in the eviction and dispersal of the existing community;
  • That these new properties are deliberately targeted at professional couples with joint incomes in excess of £150,000 per annum, wealthy families buying a home for their children, buy-to-rent overseas investors, and commercial investors looking to profit from the escalation in land prices in London, and in no respect meet housing need in Brent or London;
  • That ASH’s refurbishment and infill proposals increase the number of council homes for social rent that local residents can afford, providing homes for those on Brent Council’s housing waiting list, or currently living in overcrowded or temporary accommodation both on and off the estate;
  • That refurbishing the existing homes, landscape and community facilities would improve the quality of life for existing residents, reduce their living costs and extend the lifespan of the existing buildings;
  • That the financial cost of demolishing and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate is 3 times the cost per home of ASH’s proposals for refurbishing the existing homes and constructing 608 new homes;
  • That the embodied carbon cost per home for a demolition and construction scheme is 400% that of a refurbishment and infill scheme, and must, therefore, be rejected in the current ‘climate emergency’;
  • That St. Raphael’s estate is much-loved by its residents, who want to see it improved, not demolished;
  • That infill and refurbishment is the most socially beneficial, environmentally sustainable and financially viable future for St. Raphael’s estate.

5. Booklet delivered to the Residents of St. Raphael’s Estate

Because, under the Government’s lockdown restrictions, we were unable to book a hall on the estate in which to exhibit ASH’s design proposals, we produced a short booklet summarising our report, which the residents campaigning to save St. Raphael’s estate distributed to all 760 households.

The full report can be downloaded as a PDF file here: Saving St. Raphael’s Estate.

Geraldine Dening
Architects for Social Housing

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 financially, you can make a donation through PayPal:

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