In early 2016, the Prime Minister announced plans for the demolition of 100 large, run-down and difficult to manage council estates. Anne Power argues demolition not only doesn’t solve housing and social problems, but in fact deepens them. Here, she outlines the hidden costs of the process, and explains why infilling and upgrading is what the government should actually be looking at, not demolition.
Days before David Cameron’s announcement of the estate demolition plan, Savills estate agents, in a report to the Cabinet Office, argued for restoring London’s street patterns by “regenerating and intensifying” large housing estates, adding 50 per cent more homes. Demolition is their favoured option. Yet the report explicitly excludes the cost of demolition – around £50,000 per home. It also excludes the cost of rehousing the tenants. The report therefore undermines the case for demolition by failing to count the direct and indirect costs of destroying homes.
Why demolition is not the answer
Demolition of poor housing earned a bad name for itself in the 1960s and ’70s when it swept away whole communities. And although Savills state that tenants will not be displaced, it is not clear how they will protected. The government is offering a pitifully small fund of £145,000,000 – even though the demolition costs alone would be £5 billion. According to the most successful regeneration developers, the numbers simply do not stack up for building replacement social housing, particularly since government funding cuts have significantly reduced the capacity to build affordable housing.
Together with these costs, there is also the human dimension. Demolition is a hugely destabilising, clumsy, and laborious process, as the existing tenants are “in the way”. Tenants will be frightened by the insecurity, the higher rents, the community upheaval, the vague promise of moving out somewhere, then having the option to return without knowing when or where. Tenants are also affected by the degrading press headlines about riots, drug gangs, criminals and scroungers, which end up presenting entire communities as “hopeless cases”, if not perpetrators of our worst social ills.
Together, hidden and undeclared costs in demolishing occupied estates include:
- Rehousing costs. While displaced tenants wait for somewhere to live, there might be higher reliance on the private rented sector, there might also be higher homelessness rates, and higher housing benefit bills;
- The time-lag in emptying a large estate. This is in the region of 5-10 years, and means that many properties will stand empty for long periods, blighting a much wider area and causing schools, shops and other services to become fragile and sometimes even close;
- The loss of housing capacity in the estate. During the emptying and rebuilding process, there could be a net loss of maybe 500 homes a year during the long redevelopment phase of each estate;
- Displaced families might end up in worse homes since council stocks are shrinking;
- An increase in crime and vandalism while properties remain empty. There is also a risk of arson, theft of piping, wiring and radiators from those empty flats, causing more police action and higher security costs. It is in such conditions that on a Southwark estate, long targeted for demolition, that Damilola Taylor was murdered;
- The biggest cash cost is that of replacement housing, which at “affordable rents” (i.e. 80 per cent of market value) is never affordable for low-income families in London. High service charges for rich buyers inevitably raise service charges for low-income tenants. With housing benefit restrictions and cuts, these replacement homes will not be affordable for social tenants.
What’s the answer?
If Savills’ core proposal of slow, long-term, investment in low-cost renting allows existing tenants to remain in the community, with new neighbours through a process of densification and upgrading, rather than demolition, then it is possible to fit more homes into existing estates, as they argue.
Many large council estates built in the 1960s and ’70s are laid out in ways that do not maximise land use; the layout is sometimes unattractive, though they invariably house far more viable communities than Cameron recognises. So they have great potential for upgrading through retrofit, using Savills’ proposal for street densification. Infill building can create a more traditional street pattern within an estate, as Savills advocate. Converting empty street level spaces into flats, shops and community hubs also creates a lively street atmosphere. The density of existing estates can be increased by at least 50 per cent in this way while retaining the existing homes and community, as work on some large London estates has shown.
Established council estates can offer decent conditions, satisfied tenants, community stability, well-maintained buildings, high density, additional infill buildings and community facilities. Edward Woods estate in Hammersmith and Fulham meets all these conditions, while housing nearly 2000 almost entirely low-income council tenants. This was achieved through three 23-storey concrete blocks and a large number of medium-rise 6-storey blocks with some infill new housing. An energy-saving retrofit and upgrading was carried out on the estate with tenants in situ during 2012-2014. It took three years and cost vastly less than demolition and rebuild, while retaining the existing low-income community. The tenants, the council, the government and Rockwool, who provides the insulation, are all delighted with the result. It is about ‘High Rise Hope’!
Adding homes to plug the unused spaces in estates creates both street frontages and additional homes. This increases the social mix in low-income areas and can pay for itself. Even high-density, high-rise, poor estates offer myriad opportunities for attractive infill. In Tower Hamlets, East London Homes, a local transfer housing association, has built infill flats for sale between blocks, replacing the bridges that previously linked the council flats. The flats make the estate even denser. But they are attractive to young workers able to buy at a modest cost and looking for a truly urban lifestyle. They blend in well with the existing blocks, and the new residents have blended with the existing tenants. This has improved the overall appearance of the estate and raised the morale of the whole community.
Back to Cameron’s plans, the main mistake is the attempt to address poverty and social problems through estate demolition. The disruption, instability, uncertainty, blight and area damage it causes mean that thousands of children’s life chances will be threatened. Parents will keep their children indoors, for fear of trouble in the blighted, decaying environment. Older people will not want to move and stress within families will intensify. It is hard to see how living through such a nightmare over ten or more years can be justified as “transforming the life chances of the poorest in our society”. If politicians listen, the tidal wave of hostility to demolition should turn the tide in favour of renovation and infilling to large estates with a mixture of protecting property and helping people in order to ‘restore London’s streets’.
Anne Power is Professor of Social Policy and Head of LSE Housing and Communities
Image credit: Lotte Grønkjær CC BY-NC-SA
My Housing Association estate in Liverpool is being demolished, re-built & enlarged with all of the existing tenants retaining the option to move back again at social rent.
Personally, this suits me fine, as I’ve wanted to move to another HA flat on the Wirral as I’m my elderly father’s carer. As such, I was on the Home Swappers website for a HA exchange. I had to withdraw from this nearly two years ago, when I found out that my HA had put in for planning permission to demolish/rebuild. As soon as our ‘decant’ status comes through (in about six weeks time) I shall become category A on the waiting list, and can start flat hunting again.
However, various tenants on the estate see no reason why they should move at all. Instead, they want the estate to be demolished section by section, with them remaining in an untouched block, and then moving into a re-built one. I said I’d do some research on how feasible this was on their behalf. The HA has asked them to put forward a case as to why the HA should even consider this in the first place.
Therefore, does anybody on this site know of any examples of a HA/Council doing what these tenants want? It can be from anywhere in the country, not just Merseyside. I suspect purely from a practical and cost perspective, not to mention the Health & Safety angle, these tenants may well be pissing in the wind. But I promised I’d help them with research, so if any such an example/s exist I’d very much like to know of them.
Thanks for anyone reading this post, even if you can’t help out with my request.
An excellent article, but one that I feel misses the local authority dimension. Here in Lambeth – as in Haringey, Tower Hamlets, Newington etc – we have a (Labour) local authority actively promoting estate demolition, using the excuse of the production of “more” affordable homes (which as the author states, are unaffordable at 80% of market rent to most existing estate residents). Our local authority have spent five years telling us that they’re listening to us – estate dwellers – but they hear nothing. They tell us our communities won’t be destroyed, and yet we have the example of numerous attempts at over the last 60 years or more of “transplanting” communities to new housing, that have NOT preserved those communities. We’re told that wishing to preserve our existing homes is “selfish”, because of the volume of people on our local authority’s housing waiting list, and yet the majority of the new homes that Lambeth Council/Lambeth Council’s wholly-owned corporate vehicle “Homes for Lambeth” seek to develop will be for market or “affordable” rent, not social-level rent, which is what would serve those on the waiting list best.
This is about producing “favourable” demographic change, “uplifting” the social profile of an area in order to dilute the current demographic reality on inner city estates, and to produce a set of income streams that will replace lost central government grant. As usual, estate dwellers get to pay the price for local authority mismanagement and central government dogmatism.
As residents of Cressingham Gardens Estate Sw2 area are facing demolition of our homes. It’s sad to say that consultation was fraudulent as residents opinions expressed was not included in the presentation to cabinets members of the labour party. I find this very hard to comprehened been that lambeth council say it’s a collaborative council. What is democracy when residents are dictated to. I voted labour to deny me a voice, the truth about demolition of Estate is stil intensive care. I hope one day it will be in the recovery unit and everyone will come to know the real cost to the residents as well as the council
This is a useful article explaining some of the snags of high pressure demolition and ‘regeneration’ schemes. We can add that the way that decisions about privately-funded developments are made (the Cannes festival experience, the total loss of control by the public sector body after disposal of the states has gone through) all make the outcomes for tenants so much worse. We will be spreading this widely, as here in Haringey many Labour Party members still sincerely believe in the benevolence of the Labour Council’s mass housing regeneration agenda,
I’m living in an estate where this is happening. I was moved from my family home and garden to a smaller unit without a garden which I will have to move from again in 5 years.. Come and visit Wornington Green W10 to hear stories of misery and lies.
Glyn Robbins is absolutely right. We are hated by this governement and being culled if we’re elderly, evicted if we’re not.
People will march, it will make no difference. More than half of the people I know on this estate vote tory at the same time as being crushed by them.
Understand your frustration Clare, particularly given what you’ve been through. But we would never have had council housing at all unless people had been prepared to fight for it. Now we have to fight to keep it. Lots of people are getting involved in the Kill the Bill campaign and it’s not just about marching. This is going to be a long battle, but there’s a lot at stake. I’m in a fortunate position with my own housing, but I have children and a grandchild. I’m not prepared to see them condemned to the kind of housing my parents experienced without a fight. Check out the ‘Kill the Bill – Secure Homes for All’ page on Facebook.
I agree with most of this – and Anne will know the bits I don’t! My own PhD research on the redevelopment of former council estates by East End Homes did not find that the new blocks ‘blended’. But there’s a bigger picture here and Anne is quite right to criticise the self-serving, ideological and profit driven plans of Cameron and Savills. The spectre before us is Chicago, where I visited last year to see the wreckage of a ‘transformation’ plan similar to that being pursued now in the UK. All the bullet points identified by Anne as ‘hidden’ consequences of mass demolition pertain in Chicago, writ large, but they are not unintended. Mass displacement, social disruption and coerced entry to the private rented sector are precisely what the UK government, like their US counterparts, intends. Some of the ground for this clearance of non-market housing form inner cities is being prepared in the Housing and Planning Bill currently before parliament. Be great to see lots of LSE students, staff and alumni on the national demonstration against the Bill on Sunday 13th March, 12 noon at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. (Glyn, LSE 1991 – 1993)