I have a bright idea. London has a terrible housing crisis. There is a general shortage of homes of all kinds and a specific shortage of genuinely affordable housing. So let’s sell off the only genuinely affordable homes we already have and ‘redevelop’ large estates containing concentrations of the only genuinely affordable homes we have, replacing them with a mixture of much less affordable and downright unaffordable homes.
Doesn’t work for you? Well actually, it doesn’t work for me either. But this is exactly what a large number of housing people are doing in London today. And they want more. With developers all around London eyeing up estates for their next big killing, egged on by the mayor and councils like Barnet, it is a good time to have a hard think about what public policy should be.
A timely set of essays published this week by the Institute of Public Policy Research looks at the possibilities of transforming London’s, and especially Inner London’s, council estates into ‘City Villages’, with higher densities providing many more homes. There are lots of good ideas here, and a brilliant historical piece by the late Peter Hall, summing up in a few pages the successes and failures of London planning over 70 years. There are several interesting case studies from around the London boroughs. But two things got my goat.
First, in what at first I thought was a joke, they have a chapter by a representative of Capco about their Earls Court development. A city village (if 7,500 homes is a village) of rich people replacing long-standing social tenants with virtually no new social housing is not my idea of progress and has no place in such a report. People would be better off reading Dave Hill’s many reports on the development.
And secondly, some of the essays are littered with casual prejudicial statements and phrases. Council housing estates are ‘mono-tenure’ (no such thing exists in London anymore, if anywhere) and lazy descriptions like ‘dysfunctional’ are used. The worst examples are exploited to generalise and condemn all estates. London’s housing market is indeed dysfunctional, but council estates are not top of my list for reform. Some authors seem to operate on the assumption that there is no community on estates because the people are poor; I wish they would look around at some of the campaigns going on in London now (for example in Barnet). Amazingly, when the surface is scratched you find estates are full of gifted people doing all kinds of great things in their communities. And when it comes to it, they can fight and organise!
The chapters in IPPR’s book are diverse and come from different standpoints. In some of the chapters there is recognition that a clear aim of regeneration should be to protect the existing residents and to replace the social rented housing like for like. In their case study, Jules Pipe and Philip Glanville, writing about Hackney’s Woodberry Down, make it clear that this was an explicit objective that seems to be being achieved. But in others there is the usual lack of definition of ‘social housing’ and what is being discussed is the ‘Affordable Rent’ model, which is often not affordable at all. If people like Capco are not to be trusted, then neither are some of London’s biggest housing associations, who are switching as fast as they can from traditional social rent to ‘Affordable Rent’ at much higher rents. It is the central nonsense of housing policy: cut the upfront investment that would keep rents low, creating a commitment to pay higher housing benefit for ever.
Stephen Howlett of Peabody goes with the grain of the National Housing Federation’s calls for more ‘freedoms’ for housing associations by proposing ‘more flexible rents’. He says: ‘To increase affordability in London, a new, more flexible rent model that is based on a combination of the market rent and the tenant’s ability to pay, including the ability to move to shared ownership and/or outright ownership when appropriate, might offer an affordable solution for Londoners.’ Of course, the model is one thing: what matters is how many £££s people are going to be charged. To my mind, the only likely outcome from such new formulations would be rents that are significantly higher than social rents; landlords would have a direct incentive to find higher income tenants to get more rent (as is already happening with ‘Affordable Rent’). It is only social rents that produce quality homes that people on low incomes can afford.
Lord Andrew Adonis, who put the book together with IPPR’s Bill Davies, has proved to be a radical influence on the London scene recently, especially around transport. Here, he describes the need to more than double the rate of housebuilding in the capital. He has a nice vision of ‘hundreds’ of properly planned, mixed-tenure, socially mixed City Villages replacing existing estates. No-one doubts that there is a lot of potential to build extra homes on local authority land within estates, and that long-term comprehensive regeneration is the best answer in some cases, but I find the overly-grandiose vision unconvincing; the existing estates also had beautiful masterplans published before they were built with famous architects pointing to the parks and community facilities. The problem is that so much gets lost in the delivery, and these days social housing is the first to go when costs rise as they invariably do. My instinct is to prefer the approach of Islington Council, looking estate by estate for development opportunities to add vital social rented homes to the stock. I do not share the authors’ view that it is somehow wrong for Islington to have so many council housing estates using up some of the most valuable land in the country.
Adonis tries to contradict the ‘assumption’ that existing residents will be displaced by wealthier incomers. ‘This need not, nor should it be, the case, since redevelopment will usually mean a much better use of land with typically around twice the density of the existing estate’. But the proof of the pudding is in the evidence. A recent well-researched report by the London Assembly on regeneration in London discovered the huge scale of losses of social rented homes over the past decade – more than 8,000 in a relatively small number of comprehensive schemes. When you look around London now, things are getting worse: the political and financial drive behind development is to create ghettoes for the rich and profits for the developer. If that doesn’t change, City Villages will not become the cohesive mixed communities that Adonis dreams about.
The other issue that is critical to the regeneration of large estates is the problem known by the unpleasant name of ‘decanting’. Even if genuine commitments are made to existing tenants that they will be rehoused back in the new development on like for like terms, they often have to be rehoused elsewhere for a number of years. The normal solution is an alternative social rented unit provide by the council or a housing association – and ‘decants’ often have power to get what they want. Flats let to decants are not available to rehouse others on the waiting list or parked in temporary accommodation. In some boroughs the opportunity cost of the decanting programme has been huge. The impact of a major redevelopment on the flow of homes for new lettings is rarely recognised, and the IPPR report envisages redevelopment on a huge scale.
The issue of tenure is central to the consideration of major regeneration or redevelopment of existing estates. It is not just a matter of crude numbers of new homes – what is built at what rent and for whom matters just as much.
Social housing is our most important housing asset. Losses through regeneration and continuing losses though right to buy, ‘conversions’ to unaffordable ‘Affordable Rent’ and market sales to bring in the cash to pay for new build, create major questions which those in favour of the new City Villages need to answer – and don’t in these essays. If these questions can be answered and the provision of rented homes at genuinely affordable social rents becomes a primary objective in such schemes, then the proposed intensification and better optimisation of land use might be more of a runner.