Social housing is worth its weight in gold

Regeneration sounds like a good thing. Who could be against it?

Today’s report ‘Knock It Down Or Do It Up’ from the London Assembly shows why many people, and especially tenants on large estates, have come to see it as a dirty word.

The report looked at major regeneration schemes in London over the last ten years. It found that, although the total number of homes in the defined regeneration areas had increased significantly – in this sample, from 34,000 to 67,000 homes – virtually all of the increase comprised homes for sale at market prices – up from 3,000 to 36,000 – and ‘intermediate’ homes, including shared ownership – up from 550 to over 7,000.

In comparison, the number of homes for social rent declined from 30,000 to 22,000 – a loss of 8,000 genuinely affordable homes.

And to add insult to injury, recent regeneration schemes have added to the number of so-called ‘Affordable Rent’ homes (at up to 80% of the market rent), which have increased from virtually zero to over 7,000. Even if they are promised homes in the new development, tenants in the latest schemes are likely to find that it not ‘like for like’.

This outcome puts figures to a view that residents on many estates have had over the years: despite all the warm words, the hidden aim of the scheme is often to gentrify the area, to remove stigmatised social housing and replace it with a shiny new development that meets the needs of an entirely different group of people. Far from turning ‘mono-tenure’ estates into ‘mixed communities’, they marginalise and displace those who need genuinely affordable rented homes in favour of those who can afford to buy a new, and inevitably expensive, home. For too long the mixed communities argument has only concerned changing existing estates: in housing strategy terms it only bears scrutiny if there is also a sustained programme of providing more social rented homes in predominantly private housing areas.

The justification for sweeping tenure change is normally financial. The private homes are needed to cross-subsidise the affordable homes and to pay for the physical improvements which normally accompany the scheme. But in some cases, refurbishment of the existing stock for the existing residents would be significantly better value.

There is also the question of ‘drift’: the initial promises about the proportion of social housing in the final scheme and the ability of tenants to be rehoused back on site, are ‘revised’ as costs rise. Inevitably, the social housing is squeezed and the share of private housing is increased. Although almost every council says that the interests and views of residents are paramount, they become less so as the scheme progresses and pragmatic variations are made to keep it on course. Two other tricky issues also arise as the scheme is designed in detail: to maximise the value of the final property, the private homes have to be in the best locations, and the social homes in the poorest, and the issue of high service charges in private blocks, which social tenants cannot afford, leads to segregation, with the social tenants accessing their homes through ‘poor doors’ as they have been dubbed.

This is an important study based on the reality of what actually happened on 50 council estates around London. The written submissions and evidence sessions can be read on the Assembly website. It is a warning to residents as to what to look out for when a proposal comes your way, and it offers a clear guide to councillors who think regeneration is a good way forward for one of their estates: think it through, consult properly and transparently, do a thorough appraisal of all the options, be sceptical about developers and financial models, and keep control of the project from beginning to end.

And finally, don’t let the value of social housing be assessed merely in financial terms. It might be cheap, its value might not look much to a estimator, but it is a hugely vital and unreplaceable community asset and it is worth its weight in gold.

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