A hundred of Britain’s ‘most dilapidated and poverty-ridden housing estates’ are to be redeveloped, promises David Cameron. Some will be demolished and rebuilt from their foundations. Just as the last economic crisis had nothing to do with the bankers, it now seems that the cause of the 2011 riots has been pinned down to ‘decades of neglect in rundown housing estates’. But don’t worry, Cameron is going to ‘tear down’ the ‘brutal high-rise towers’ to tackle drug abuse and stamp out gangland culture. Indeed, he’s so serious about it that he’s put aside £140 million to do the job.
Only ten days after writing a blog on the government’s illusionary policies, I didn’t expect a new and even worse example to come along quite so soon. This one’s so bad it’s difficult to know where criticism should begin. Perhaps the old-fashioned physical determinism of assuming that people’s problems are caused by high-rise blocks would be a good start since – if he’d spoken to people who live in them or the councils that manage them – Cameron would have learnt immediately that many provide pleasant homes. Even where they don’t, management problems these days are often down to the fact that ownership is fragmented, with many flats having been sold to absentee private landlords uninterested in anything except getting the rent. And where there are gangs or drug abuse, it’s easier to blame these on the building or on the councils that manage them than to look at wider issues about society that might cast uncomfortable light on government’s spending priorities.
Let’s make the daring assumption that this programme might produce some action on the ground – rash, I know, given what has happened with so many other government housing initiatives. But if so, the biggest thing on which Cameron will need to be pinned down is his commitment to work with tenants – as many as 100,000 of them, he says. So let’s assume he’ll set aside any paternalistic assumptions that he (or a consultant or developer) knows what’s best for them, and that he’ll really start to listen to what tenants want for their estates.
Oddly enough, their likely first priority is unwittingly flagged up by Cameron himself, in the opening words of his Sunday Times article: he says ‘it all comes back to one word: security’. He wants to bring security to families ‘who currently have none at all’. Well this might produce an interesting discussion. He clearly expects this will mean talking about the poor design of estates and tenants’ wish to live in ordinary streets not high-rise blocks. There might be some tenants who want that, but my bet is that most will define ‘security’, or lack of it, in very different terms. Here’s a shot at a few possible answers: community policing by officers we know, that has now disappeared; community centres that catered for young people, now closed; people who are benefit-dependent having very little or no money and getting withdrawn, depressed or worse; most jobs being insecure and offering low wages. And of course, he is highly likely to find tenants worrying about the ending of secure tenancies, or about higher rents that will drive out better-off tenants, or about Greg Clark’s scheme to sell off the best bits of their estates.
The problem with any list like this is that they’re all problems that Cameron’s governments have either created or made worse. And where they haven’t made them worse yet they plan to do so soon. If a tenant says that what worries him sick is not ‘concrete slabs dropped from on high’ but the prospect of being forced to move out of the flat he regards as home, will Cameron listen? If she says that her security comes from having neighbours who are friends and going with them to Friday-night bingo (as a friend who lives in an Islington estate was telling me recently), will Cameron promise that their community will be preserved along with the essential facilities that bring neighbours together?
Conservative governments are not alone in having high-minded views on what the problems and solutions are in poor communities, that bear little relation to experience on the ground. But residents are going to be instantly suspicious of a programme where the solution seems to have been drawn up in advance: knock down the high-rise blocks and build new homes in ‘streets’. Like Lord Adonis and his proposal for City Villages, already demolished (forgive the pun) in Red Brick both by Steve and by Duncan Bowie, the new report views estates as public assets whose value can be better maximised by redevelopment than by keeping the existing homes. (Strangely, I can find no reference in the new report from Savills to the earlier, similar one from ippr).
Both reports have a major failing – well identified by Duncan Bowie – in seeming to forget that these estates are currently providing very affordable housing to tenants who can’t pay higher rents. Before any plan to reconfigure an estate is drawn up, the first consideration must be: how can we keep these tenants here, and continue to give them good homes and secure tenancies, without rents having to be increased and the community being broken up? It’s not as if these issues are new ones: in London especially they are highly topical, as a scan through articles by Dave Hill will demonstrate. Yet Cameron betrays how out of touch he is by failing to mention them.
Also largely ignored is the current role of local authorities, who happen to be the owners of the estates. Cameron says they’ve neglected the estates for decades. Well if that’s the case, who is struggling to run planned maintenance programmes within available budgets, meet the now-forgotten Decent Homes Standard and try to ensure that tenants live in warm and easier-to-heat homes (none of these issues are mentioned in the new report)? The clue that councils are not going to be offered a big role is in the size of the funding package: £140 million won’t buy much regeneration in a single estate, let alone a hundred. As he says, his kind of regeneration will ‘will work best in areas where land values are high’, which is shorthand for developers coming in and making a killing. Stand by for more schemes like Barnett’s West Hendon or Southwark’s Heygate. Not forgetting to mention, of course, the still-pending jewel in the crown: Capco’s redevelopment of Hammersmith and Fulham’s West Kensington and Gibbs Green. As Cameron aptly concludes, ‘together we can tear down anything that stands in our way’.