News that the Prime Minister is contemplating demolition of failed housing estates indicates how desperate the government thinks the situation of some of our urban communities may be. This is especially the case in the context of the £800 million of additional funding being put into the regeneration budget, and the endless series of initiatives and funding programmes deployed over the past 20 years. Just what is it about yesteryear's estates that makes them so unattractive, so unappealing? And is it true that the stereotype high-rise estate is the location for more crime, vandalism, unemployment and so on than more traditional housing forms?
What we do know from practical experience and academic research is that most post-war housing is capable of being brought back into beneficial use. All those allegedly impossible-to-let flats in tower blocks suddenly turned into private-sector gold following installation of a canopy entrance and an entryphone. And the history of community architecture shows the extraordinary results which can be achieved once local groups feel confident enough to take greater control of their environments. All too often, management and location factors determine the reputation and treatment of particular buildings and estates. If it were true that the British dislike living in inner-city high-rise blocks, how does one explain the queues to buy flats in the Barbican?
Demolition should only be used as an absolute last resort. The waste of money, for some reason rarely discussed, is phenomenal. Public loans taken out over 60 years to finance buildings which are demolished after 30 still have to be repaid, to say nothing of the housing years lost while replacement stock is built. The estate action programme introduced by the last government attempted to pick the estates most in danger of 'drowning'; in this case politics was truly about priorities. Let's hope Mr Blair's £800 million constitutes a useful lifebelt in a world of sink or swim.