“Whoever makes two ears of corn to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together”, said Jonathan Swift.
And if you can build two homes where only one stood before so much the better. That appears to be one of the key aims of David Cameron’s announcement about transforming “sink estates”. The report for the Cabinet Office by Savills is clearly influenced by three principal players: Alex Morton, Create Streets and Lord Adonis.
Alex Morton will be well known to readers of my blogs. As Planning and Policy advisor in Downing Street, and a former author for Policy Exchange he thinks there is too much social housing and that it creates welfare dependency: “Some of (our housing estates) especially those built just after the war, are actually entrenching poverty in Britain – isolating and entrapping many of our families and communities” says David Cameron. I can guarantee that he did not write those words.
Create Streets appear to have run a very successful campaign to return London to its traditional street pattern, perhaps harking back to a golden age that never existed. I remain to be convinced that the densities and street patterns they so admire will be appropriate or workable for a global city.
Lord Adonis, in a recent article for Prospect Magazine (“How to fix the housing crisis”) made a pitch for transforming London’s council estates by unlocking land values and increasing densities. Southwark, he says, owns 43 percent of its land area and “Islington council alone owns about 150 large council estates (that is, 50 homes or more), situated on some of the most expensive land in the world.” You can see where this is going. Cameron’s statement says that, “…regeneration will work best in areas where land values are high, because new private homes, built attractively and at a higher density, will fund the regeneration of the rest of the estate.” The Savils’ report estimates that 20 percent of London’s 8,500 hectares of council estates could be regenerated. “This could private (provide) somewhere between 190,000 to 500,000 homes, representing an increase over the number of existing homes of between 54,000 and 360,000”. So the focus is likely to be upon London and the South East where values are highest, and it appears to be focused solely upon local authority housing.
Those with a long memory will recall the Priority Estates Project, the Urban Housing Renewal Unit and Estate Action in the early to mid eighties, so this latest initiative has a long pedigree. These outfits all sought to re-model estates. For example, UHRU spent £952,000 on converting 318 four-storey maisonettes to two-storey houses at the Miles Platting esate in Manchester. That’s about £2.7 million in today’s money.
But three things about the latest announcement cause concern.
First the language of “sink estates” confirms everything we feared about this government’s attitude to social housing. It is lazy and stigmatising.
Second, there is nothing in the announcement to suggest that the amount of social rented housing on these estates will be protected and David Cameron was suitably evasive on this when he was grilled by Andrew Marr at the weekend. £140 million is peanuts in the context of 100 estates, and the fear is that the new homes will be predominantly for outright market sale, starter homes and, at best, shared ownership. That will mean a significant loss of social rented housing.
Third, the notion of re-configuring large estates sounds simple, but the reality has proved very problematic, as the owners of places like the Aylesbury estate and the Sutton Estate will tell you. Ominously, David Cameron said that, “… we should learn the lessons from the failed attempts to regenerate estates in the past. A raft of pointless planning rules, local politics and tenants’ concerns about whether regeneration would be done fairly all prevented progress.”. He also says, “…I believe we can tear down anything that stands in our way “ and “…we’ll publish an Estates Regeneration Strategy that will sweep away the planning blockages and take new steps to reduce political and reputational risk for projects’ key decision-makers and investors”.
That suggests a limited role for local authority and tenant consultation. Beware. There may be trouble ahead.