“Concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals … gangs and anti-social behaviour.” This is the nightmare vision of the hundred yet-to-be-identified “sink estates” that David Cameron plans to transform with a £140m fund to “really get to grips with the deep social problems – the blocked opportunity, poor parenting, addiction and mental health problems – that mean so many are unable to fulfil their potential”.
Cameron’s diagnosis sounds simple, but many people have serious doubts about his proposed cure. First, the money is peanuts. Spending an average of £1.4m on each estate will barely pay for the demolition costs. He is right to suggest that regeneration will only happen in high-value areas, mainly London, and it is true that many postwar estates could be rebuilt at higher densities. But social housing rents are being cut, so the only way to pay for regeneration is by rebuilding with a high proportion of homes for market sale and rent.
A recent report for the London Assembly looked at 50 regeneration schemes where the number of homes had almost doubled from 34,213 to 67,601 but the number of social rented homes had reduced by 8,000. On London’s Woodberry Down estate, quoted by Cameron, the percentage of affordable housing fell after regeneration, from 64% to 41%. In recent years, the official definition of “affordable” housing has been stretched almost to breaking point: it now includes homes being sold for up to £450,000. That means a big reduction in truly affordable social rented housing, which will continue the hollowing out process in inner London as the poor are forced to the outer suburbs and beyond.
A second major obstacle is the small matter of a proud Conservative policy – the right to buy. Council estates are no longer mono-tenure. On a typical estate of 500 homes, at least 100 flats will have been sold and their owners will have to be bought out. For London, that will mean finding at least £25m upfront before the first bulldozer is called in. And that leads to a third problem – a major complaint of leaseholders on recent regeneration schemes has been the low official valuations of their homes, a factor that has led to widespread protests and forced many owners to move miles from their estates, breaking up longstanding communities.
Cameron also suggests that these estates have “designed in crime”, which is akin to saying that people are like lab rats who will become better people if their surroundings are improved. Yet many critics believe poverty and social problems are caused not by design but by deeper structural problems such as education and employment opportunities. The history of most area-based initiatives of the past 50 years is that they merely shift poverty and social problems from one place to another.
All over London, regeneration schemes have been stalled as a result of fierce protests by residents – tenants and leaseholders alike – complaining about social cleansing, broken promises and rapacious developers. Ominously, Cameron says many regeneration schemes have been disrupted by “local politics and tenants’ concerns about whether regeneration would be done fairly”. This suggests that new procedures will be put in place to force schemes through, despite the smooth words of ministers that residents’ views will be fully taken into account. You can be sure that the process of transforming sink estates is unlikely to proceed smoothly.
(This article first appeared on The Guardian Housing Network on 27th January 2016)