With the prime minister planning the regeneration of 100 council estates, what does one London borough’s experience teach us?
In January, prime minister David Cameron, keen to deliver good headlines after the winter floods, said his government intended to replace 100 ‘sink estates’ with ‘safe and attractive’ homes.
‘For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links,’ Cameron wrote in The Sunday Times.
On the face of it, David Cameron’s mission, part of his legacy plan to fight poverty, crime and anti-social behaviour and backed by £140 million in government loans, promises a huge pipeline of work for architects to reshape council estates. Research by estate agency Savills predicts that, through the plan, the PM could gain credit for almost half a million homes by radically rejigging social housing. Not a bad legacy to leave.
One inner-London authority, Lambeth, is already in the throes of a major regeneration programme but is having a tough time convincing its social tenants of the benefits, and has even been taken to court in connection with it. It has appointed architects including PRP, Mae and Metropolitan Workshop to consult on redevelopment proposals. But the proposals are being challenged by organised ‘guerrilla’ architects, working pro bono for residents’ groups opposed to demolition.
So what are the pros and cons of Lambeth’s regeneration game plan? And what does this reveal about the prospects for Cameron’s 100 estates plan?
Lambeth, like many authorities, has a big housing supply problem and several estates in its £2.1 billion portfolio are long overdue repairs it says it cannot afford. Its solution for six of them is regeneration, and for each the authority’s options have been mapped out with established architects amid increasingly fractious consultations.
The resulting proposals range from the partial redevelopment of the 33-home Knight’s Walk site in Kennington to the demolition of hundreds of homes across two others: Cressingham Gardens in Tulse Hill and Central Hill in Upper Norwood. The predicted prize for the total package of works is more than 1,000 extra new homes, the kind of result Cameron wants and Lambeth needs. But the estates facing clearance have already made national news for the controversy the proposals have created.
Both Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill were built under Lambeth’s renowned director of architecture, Ted Hollamby, in the 1960s and ’70s, the latter the work of architect Rosemary Stjernstedt under his directorship. Under an insinuating headline ‘If it ain’t broken’ in The Observer this year, critic Rowan Moore praised Central Hill’s design and suggested the decision to demolish was ‘foolish’.
Such disputes about whether to demolish and build anew or to refurbish are taking their toll. Last November Lambeth agreed to almost double architects’ fees to extend consultation on five of its estates. Days later the consultation for Cressingham Gardens, the longest-running, was ruled unlawful in a judicial review for prematurely removing three refurbishment options. Lambeth is duly but reluctantly running the consultation again.
Lambeth Council consulting architects fees
To add to the complexity, the authority plans to farm out its regeneration work – and the management of completed homes – to a private firm, Homes for Lambeth, which it will establish and own.
While such a means of delivering development is not uncommon, it has alarmed some tenants, whose homes are earmarked for demolition. When returning to replacement homes on rebuilt estates, they will become private renters, losing many rights – such as the right to buy – attached to their current secure council tenancies.
‘You must stay and fight for your homes,’ was the appeal issued by Simon Elmer, co-founder of the Lambeth-based campaign group, Architects for Social Housing (ASH), at a meeting of Central Hill residents last month. ‘As soon as you give up your homes, you have lost your bit of bargaining power.’
Protests against Lambeth’s regeneration plans have become increasingly organised and professional, aided by a network of campaigning academics and qualified architects. The latter are helping residents devise alternative plans to preserve their estates, challenging proposals by council-appointed firms. Consultation processes lengthen with each new idea, as Lambeth puts each to the test.
This pattern of friction between the large, ambitious authority with its team of contracted architects and the well-organised grassroots challengers is likely to be replicated across the country if Cameron’s massive regeneration mission takes hold.
Nicholas Boys-Smith, director of housing design lobby group Create Streets and a member of a panel of experts guiding Cameron’s regeneration plan, says architects will have to become accustomed to such challenges from motivated communities. The proposal of alternative plans is an approach his own organisation adopts. ‘There is a growing professional unease among architects with this growing trend,’ he adds. ‘But it is not going away. The community engagement [before development] we see is often fairly tokenistic. Our alternative proposals are usually received politely and with the hope that we will go away.’
Create Streets has even commissioned new research to compare ‘full’ with ‘tactical’ regeneration, which stops well short of clearance. ‘I don’t have sympathy with councils that tear down popular and good housing,’ Boys-Smith says.
In Lambeth, the demolition proposal for Central Hill by PRP is being challenged with an alternative by ASH. The campaign group was invited to feed into the consultation by Central Hill Residents’ Association, whose chair, Nicola Curtis, opposes demolition. ‘We are working with Lambeth to explore what is possible,’ she told a meeting last month at which its plans were unveiled, ‘but to be honest they are not listening.’
We are working with Lambeth to explore what is possible, but to be honest they are not listening
‘Lambeth say [the estate] needs too many repairs, that they can’t afford it,’ she adds. ‘They say it needs to be demolished and the only decision to make is what to put in its place. But why should we break up the community?’ An informal poll of 82 residents showed 90 per cent were against demolition. Instead of flattening the estate, ASH proposes funding its pressing repairs with profits from 250 new homes to be built around the estate, including a new tower block and new units atop existing homes. At a meeting last month when the alternative plans were unveiled to residents, ASH co-founder and lead architect Geraldine Dening admitted some of its ideas would not be universally liked. ‘But this is a response to demolition,’ she told the meeting. ‘These are the ways in which you can keep your homes.’
PRP director Manisha Patel says ASH’s take on Central Hill will be considered, as well as residents’ views. But she adds: ‘Regeneration is very, very hard for people and there are some voices that come through in the consultation process that play on people’s sensitivities. When community groups come from outside, their voices can sometimes be a bit louder than those of residents living on the estate.’
Some tenants, she says, had been ‘unnerved’ by ‘scaremongering’ on social media like Twitter and by residents from other estates. She adds: ‘The most important opinions are those of people who live on these estates.’
The council’s cabinet member for housing, Matthew Bennett, whose Gipsy Hill ward includes Central Hill, doubts that the estate’s ‘very significant problems’ can be fixed through refurbishment. He says: ‘You can’t tell people in damp and mouldy homes – who do think it is a problem – that we can’t do something about it. We don’t have the money to refurbish everywhere.’ Overcrowding on the estate meant parents were ‘increasingly sharing beds with their children,’ he warns.
Bennett is sceptical that ASH’s alternative for Central Hill will pass muster, based on its previous effort to halt demolition at Knight’s Walk, one of the six Lambeth sites due for redevelopment. He says: ‘ASH came in pretty late with a presentation that wasn’t costed and involved building a tower on green space. To be blunt, it was not something an architecture practice would want to put its name to.’ Nevertheless, Bennett says its proposal will be considered in the same way as those put forward by PRP.
ASH’s proposals were not something an architectural practice would want to put its name to
His doubts about the unofficial scheme for Central Hill also apply to the ‘People’s Plan’ for Cressingham Gardens. Under this alternative plan by small Brixton practice Variant Office, 38 additional homes would be built, 23 of which would be ‘dropped’ as inserts into a basement car park. The rest of the extras would replace a row of unpopular 12 one-bedroom flats on the estate.
Variant Office director Ashvin de Vos says the plan aims to change Lambeth’s mind about flattening the estate – a decision effectively shelved by the judicial review – and to improve consultation on regeneration. ‘Consultation is rarely consultation,’ he says. ‘It is someone turning up with some boards, saying, here is what we are doing, and carrying out plans regardless of the response.’
Under the ‘collaborative co-design model’ used to develop the People’s Plan, residents were encouraged to consider a wide range of options in their living rooms instead of at formal presentations. ‘They took our boards home and invited neighbours for tea to talk about them,’ de Vos says.
Variant Office, like ASH, is also keen to discourage demolition on environmental grounds. ‘In Scandinavia they have the Nordic Build Challenge, a prize for the best refurbishment project,’ de Vos says. ‘That is the sort of things we could be doing in Britain: rewarding lean solutions, rather than expecting councils to demolish.’
The weak spot in Cressingham’s People’s Plan, according to Bennett, is its lack of finance, which is the key reason why Lambeth previously opted for wholesale redevelopment, with the promise of profit it brings. ‘There is no information in the plan about where they would get the money from,’ he says.
Bennett is also frank about where Lambeth went wrong in its consultation on Cressingham and how its approach to consultation will change as a result. It’s a lesson from which scores of councils keen to avoid ending in court during this pivotal stage of regeneration will no doubt wish to learn – but not one likely to be welcomed by campaigners.
Bennett says: ‘[For Cressingham] we started with: we know there is a problem, let’s look for a solution, even when we knew there were some estates where we couldn’t carry out refurbishment. In hindsight, that made it very unwieldy. It went on for a very, very long time.’
From now on, Lambeth intends its consultations to be ‘more structured’ and to have ‘more direction’. ‘We will say very clearly from the outset that we have this shortfall in funding, that regeneration and rebuild is the way we are going. It isn’t our fault that the government cut funding,’ Bennett says.
The success of this constrained form of consultation will be tested at the end of March, when the proposal to flatten Cressingham is due to be reconsidered by the council’s cabinet.
Residents opposed to the demolition can afford some confidence of a fair hearing after their earlier court victory and the professional touch of their guerrilla architect. But with only £140 million of investment available from government for 100 estates, it’s likely other cash-strapped authorities, like Lambeth, will curtail consultations as they seek the rewards of regeneration. If so, the community resistance movement that took root and grew in Lambeth could well be cut off at its knees. Cameron’s plan for 100 estates may well end up being far less consensual than he thinks.
Lambeth regeneration plan
How housing estate regeneration became a political football
The idea of radically regenerating council housing estates in England has circulated in policy circles for years and has some influential supporters.
The origin of Cameron’s initiative can be traced to an influential report by the right-leaning Policy Exchange think-tank in 2013. A year later, the report’s lead author, Alex Morton, joined Number 10 as the prime minister’s housing adviser. His co-author Nicholas Boys-Smith, director of lobby group Create Streets, was drafted onto an expert panel of council estate regeneration advisers this year.
In 2014 the coalition administration commissioned estate agency Savills to work out the financial and economic benefit of regeneration along the lines recommended in the Policy Exchange report. A year later the idea was endorsed in another report by the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research, authored by Andrew Adonis, a Labour Party grandee.
With the crucial centre ground of the political and policy world coalescing around the proposal, David Cameron may well have felt confident of consensus when announcing his plan to radically regenerate 100 estates.
But the idea appears to have created one of the sharpest dividing lines between the mayoral candidates in May’s forthcoming election for London mayor. While Conservative hopeful Zac Goldsmith has backed Cameron’s plan wholeheartedly, his Labour rival Sadiq Khan has adopted a far more cautious stance.
‘Estate regeneration has to be about what’s in the best interests of the existing residents,’ Khan says. ‘What it can’t be about is forcing out residents, knocking down homes and replacing them with unaffordable and luxury properties.’
The Lib Dem’s Caroline Pidgeon adopts a similar stance to Khan. She believe in ‘true consultation’, in which residents decide whether their homes are demolished or refitted, rather than having plans presented to them as a fait accompli, her spokesman says.
The Green’s candidate, Siân Berry, goes even further in her campaign, making opposition to demolishing council estates one of her key pledges.
Source: Anthony Coleman
In numbers: Lambeth
Council homes 24,455 (the 10th largest portfolio in England)
Housing waiting list 21,000 (fourth highest in London)
Household in temporary accommodation 1,843 (the 13th highest in England)
Families living in severely overcrowded conditions 1,300
Value of housing assets £2.1 billion
Sources: DCLG; Lambeth Accounts 2014/15
Source: Anthony Coleman