In response to the Prime Minister’s stated aim to tackle – and in some cases demolish – the perceived problem of a hundred postwar council estates, we asked social housing expert Claire Bennie, previously of the Peabody Trust, to examine the reality behind the rhetoric.
Taken in its own right, demolition can be a rational act. Parts of cities are often built, changed, demolished, and rebuilt – this is all part of the lifecycle of any normal urban area where standards, uses and land values evolve as the city grows. But with estate regeneration, we are talking about the future of our shared public land, precious and diminishing. We need to take collective care not to make irrevocable decisions based on either conspiracy or bad science.
For centuries, old homes have been cleared to make way for new ones, with varying state motivations, spoken and unspoken. Peabody and others cleared slums to improve public health, as did local authorities after the first war. Providing ‘homes for heroes’ fuelled 20s and 30s slum clearance; but it was the post-war ‘anti-poverty’ initiative which became one of the most ambitious state-led programmes, with 1.5 million UK properties demolished, affecting a massive 15% of the population. Thatcher and Blair’s regeneration efforts moved the dial back towards economic regeneration as well as physical, and now we have Cameron’s declaration of war against disadvantage. Six claims for and against Cameron’s regeneration plans follow.
Thatcher and Blair’s regeneration efforts moved the dial back towards economic regeneration
The case for estate regeneration
The latest case for the prosecution cites the elimination of poverty and disadvantage through redevelopment (full or partial) as its driver; the production of new housing is given as a ‘by-product’. The 100 yet-to-be-identified estates will not always undergo full scale redevelopment, and the current £140m pledge is for planning work only.
Sixties estates are a focus of poor social outcomes and crime due to their physical nature
Reviews of evidence about the effects of past ‘area-based investment’ show that these programmes are not proven to have solved alleged social problems. Experts I asked were clear that addressing any social dysfunction had to be de-coupled from physical regeneration. Wind-blown walkways, hidden corners, floating blocks in unloved landscapes and extensive ground floor garaging are the less welcome tropes of such estates. But a self-selected, design-oriented population with very few social challenges (and with the ability to pay a high service charge) allows such estates to thrive and be valued. By contrast, council estates from the time suffered a spiral of decline due to ill-advised letting, repair and management policy changes, and have ended up housing families with huge challenges. Perhaps it is these families that need investment and support, not their homes.
Sixties estates are unrepairable, unmortgageable, unheatable, unhealthy: in short, unviable
When buildings cost more to manage and maintain than the rent they generate, or if service charges and running costs are crippling residents, doing nothing is not an option. This introduces the awkward refurb vs demolition tipping point. You could retain and invest £100,000 to £150,000 per home, necessitating the sale or market rent of between 30-80% of those homes to fund the works. This is the model at Sheffield’s Park Hill, where grade II listing provoked such a strategy. Demolition and rebuild will cost a lot more, but may be justified if the buildings cannot be salvaged – costing more than say £200,000 per home to refurbish. Is it greener to refurbish or demolish estate buildings from the 60s? Expert views differ, depending on the building life assumed, but buildings with extensive cold bridging can be so awkwardly constructed that an overclad is all but impossible.
New homes for the future community could be achieved via redevelopment
Estate agent Savills’ recent report shows that 1% of London’s land (about 1,600ha) could be available for redevelopment on 60s estates, yielding a prize of between 50,000 and 360,000 new homes. The upper figure may be worth the candle, though financial realities mean these will almost certainly be all market tenure, and will take 10-30 years to start delivering. Sales values would need to start at £500,000 for a new two-bed home for a doubled density scheme to pay for itself, and for all social housing to be reprovided. Estate renewal is therefore unfunded in most places outside London: full redevelopment has only worked in recent times with a mix of substantial gap funding and loss of affordable housing, as well as large density increases.
The case against estate regeneration
The case for the defence is put by unlikely bedfellows: estate residents, concrete heritage enthusiasts, green campaigners and a growing minority of property professionals.
Redevelopment results in unacceptable community fracture
How do you put a value on the loss of an intricate and irreplaceable neighbourly ecosystem, evolved over 60 years? It has been tried, but the data on the outcomes for residents re-housed on or away from their estate is very slender and needs more analysis. This major downside of new housing creation is often borne by social housing residents alone, not helped by ill-formed compensation packages. Suburban redevelopment would yield far greater density gains, but is hampered by freehold house ownership and a lack of incentive for those owners to bother. Post-war estates, still in public ownership, are easier to pick off for redevelopment but surely there is a much simpler 1,600ha to develop, as long as we do it with class? Can I mention the 33,000ha of Green Belt in Greater London?
Estate regeneration is time-consuming, expensive, risky, reduces social housing and benefits developers
Achieving multi-stakeholder buy-in, getting planning, achieving vacant possession, riding recessions and selling the new homes to achieve the cross-subsidy is not for the faint-hearted, and takes twice as long as anyone ever predicted. The previous point about reduced social housing is exacerbated by involving private sector developers whose (perfectly rational) business model in the UK is to sell homes and walk away (with margins of £40,000 to £80,000 per home). In a downturn, major housebuilders cannot participate, creating uncertainty. Councils and others could commit (some are, depending on their ability to borrow) to retaining most of the new homes themselves in order to rent them at various price points. Forget instant returns: patient capital is the name of this game.
New high densities create ugly, anti-urban places with high management costs and built heritage is lost
Great developments can be high density, tall and not necessarily in traditional formats. Two factors must be taken into consideration: people should be housed in block types appropriate to their needs and design quality must be exceptional. Heritage issues may not always win the day but must be a factor in demolition vs refurbishment decision-making, and replacements must be architecturally worthy.
The ambitious post-war ‘anti-poverty’ initiative demolished 1.5m properties and affected 15% of the population
How should we weigh all these pros and cons in the balance, and whose opinions and concerns should count for more? My view is that the stock condition and the density prize are the key two considerations in a demolition decision, and that a lot more thought needs to be dedicated to the effects on, and compensatory measures for, existing communities. The arguments for demolition are often opaque and patrician – ‘we know what’s good for you’. Professionals and residents should together devise a rigorous but simple cost benefit methodology to examine each estate. Compelling leadership and communication is then needed to mediate that analysis and reach a conclusion if we are to avoid the current stand-offs at these first 100 places.
Claire Bennie is an architect and housing developer and was formerly development director at Peabody