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Assessing Aylesbury: What's the true cost of demolishing council estates?


New evidence has emerged about Southwark Council’s decision a decade ago to bulldoze the Aylesbury estate. Keith Cooper reports

Rocketing house prices and the need to densify London have transformed hundreds of its post-war estates into prime land for redevelopment. Demolishing and doubling the densities of occupied estates would ease the city’s housing crisis significantly, according to unpublished research by Savills, while the principle of densifying estates to create a wave of ‘city villages’ has been previously championed by the chairman of the government’s new infrastructure commission, Andrew Adonis.

But there is also a backlash from those who claim such efforts are ‘gentrification’ or even ‘social cleansing’, and argue instead for a less radical programme of estate refurbishment.

So what does the row over one of the most prominent estates in the capital, the Aylesbury, reveal about what is going on? And where should architects stand on the issues involved?

The 2,700-home Aylesbury in Walworth, south-east London, has become a rallying point for protestors such as Architects for Social Housing (ASH), which has protested at events this year including the Stirling Prize and the AJ120 Awards.

The estate, designed by Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton, was completed in 1977, but by the 80s was viewed as failing. In 2005, Southwark Council – which has also overseen the demolition of the nearby Heygate estate – decided to knock it down.

Jane Rendell

Just last month, however, architecture professor Jane Rendell (pictured left) publicly accused the council of presenting a ‘misleading’ case to councillors ahead of this 2005 crunch decision. Rendell, who teaches at the Bartlett, is providing pro bono advice to remaining Aylesbury residents, and says she believes demolition will disadvantage and displace them. She is also a leaseholder on another Southwark estate which may also be redeveloped.

Rendell made her accusations during a public inquiry into a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for the homes of Aylesbury leaseholders who refuse to vacate the next section due be knocked down.

The inquiry, which began in May and resumed last month, analysed reams of research, designs and costings by architects Levitt Bernstein and BPTW, engineer Conisbee and development consultancy Frost Associates. All were commissioned by Southwark to help evaluate and price up refurbishment ahead of its crucial decision.

After extensively reviewing these reports, Rendell concluded that this ‘enormous’ amount of expert research had been summarised into a two-page appendix that failed ‘in any way to reflect the volume of work’. She also alleged that Southwark’s evidence for demolition and rebuild in the briefings was a ‘one-page flowchart’ that was ‘wholly inadequate … to make such an important decision’.

In particular, Rendell challenged what she called the ‘extortionate’ price tag that Southwark attached to refurbishment. She said she found it ‘impossible to track down’ most of the cost for ‘external works’. This cost made up half of the £314 million total for refurbishment (see box).

‘Refurbishment might have been seen [by councillors] as a more viable option,’ she told the inquiry. ‘But it wasn’t possible for [Southwark’s] executive to tell from reading the evidence. From my reading, it was misleading.’

For their part, Levitt Bernstein, BPTW and Frost Associates are declining to comment on Rendell’s claims, while Conisbee says it never advises on costs.

Responding this week, Southwark said the £148.9 million figure was ‘conservative’ and had been arrived at after a ‘long and comprehensive investigation’ in 2005. A spokeswoman added: ‘None of the work to refurbish the estate was funded, which is why the council made the decision to regenerate with an external partner. We stand by the report and the decision.’


The authority is now working with housing association Notting Hill on the redevelopment, which aims to create 3,500 homes. While half of these are expected to be ‘affordable’, the new estate will have fewer homes for social rent but more ‘habitable’ rooms in this category. HTA Design is the masterplanner and Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Duggan Morris are designing homes for the next phase.

Speaking about the choice between refurbishment and redevelopment, HTA managing partner Ben Derbyshire says the process required ‘intensive involvement of the affected community, professional input and a political process … a balance of costs and benefits’.

HTA, he adds, had ‘absolutely no reason to doubt the thoroughness’ of the process, leading to Southwark’s area action plan (AAP) on which its redevelopment brief was based. All architects involved had developed the AAP into the scheme ‘now approved by the council and supported by the majority of residents’.

Yet attempts to rebut Rendell’s evidence have failed to shake her belief that refurbishment remains a viable option for the Aylesbury.

She says architects should understand the ‘consequences of demolition’ and could ‘walk off jobs’ as a last resort if they cannot persuade clients to alter design briefs.

‘Would they want to be pushed out of areas in which they grew up so richer people could move? Or be forced to pay extra for less quality and less space?’ she asks. ‘If the answer is no, it can hardly be right that they should enforce such conditions on others.’

Rendell’s appeal for architects to resist ‘unethical’ regeneration resonates with protest groups such as ASH, which also helps residents draw up alternatives to plans proposed by their landlords.

‘We should be challenging clients at the very beginning of a brief,’ says architect Geraldine Dening, who co-founded ASH after the estate that she lives in was earmarked for redevelopment. ‘There are alternatives to demolition but if people accept the status quo, nothing will change.’

Claire Bennie, who led development at housing association Peabody until April, says council leaders’ decisions to start from scratch are understandable.

‘They hear tales of dampness and broken lifts, see large costs on the horizon and have a duty to house more people,’ she says.

Architects could intervene more in the run up to redevelopment but not by acting alone, she adds. ‘We must help change the opaque processes by which estate regen decisions are often made. ‘These can be deeply unhelpful and alienating. We should be part of an earlier discussion with clients, councils, and residents to hammer out the issues and agree an equitable cost-benefit methodology.’

For the Aylesbury’s remaining residents, the inquiry into the council’s CPO is a last-ditch attempt to halt the remaining phases of demolition.

For those living in scores of other post-war estates that now face demolition, resistance to this prevailing approach now promises to be tougher than ever.

Resident’s view

Beverley Robinson [pictured right]

Beverley Robinson (pictured right) is one of a number of Aylesbury residents opposing the compulsory purchase order. She moved on to the estate in 1988 and fears she would be forced to leave the area – home to many of her friends and family.

Robinson became a leaseholder after purchasing her home under right-to-buy in 2005, the year the estate was earmarked for demolition.

‘I like living in the area, saw it as a good investment and was told the estate was going to be refurbished,’ she told the inquiry.

Unemployed since 2010, she is mortgage free and lives off her savings. She had been offered £117,000 by the council for her flat and given the chance to purchase an equity share in a new one. Robinson, however, fears the council’s rehousing policy would require her to plough all but £16,000 of her savings into the property.

Southwark Council said it was reviewing its rehousing policy following feedback from residents.


Readers' comments (10)

  • Ben Derbyshire

    My comment in full:

    The decision-making process for appraising refurbishment versus redevelopment of housing requires intensive involvement of the affected community, professional input and a political process to determine the outcome - essentially a balance of costs and benefits. Although we were not involved in the process that led to the decision to redevelop Aylesbury, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the thoroughness of the process that gave rise to the Area Action Plan, which was adopted by Southwark and the residents of the estate as the basis for the redevelopment brief. Indeed we believe this enabled HTA Design as masterplanners, and the team of architects, including HTA Design, Hawkins\Brown, Mae, and Duggan Morris, to develop the adopted AAP proposals into the scheme now approved by the council and supported by the majority of residents.

    Ben Derbyshire
    Managing Partner, HTA Design LLP
    Chair, the Housing Forum.

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    With regard to the decision-making process requiring what Ben Derbyshire calls 'intensive involvement of the affected community', at a 2001 ballot responded to by 76% of Aylesbury Estate residents, 73% voted in favour of refurbishment and against demolition.(http://www.theguardian.com/society/2001/dec/27/1)

    As to reasons 'to doubt the thoroughness of the process that gave rise to the Area Action Plan, which was adopted by residents of the estate', in 2009 Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First made a submission to the Government Inspector on the ‘systematic failings of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan consultation process.’ (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com/resources/)

    Where architectural practices such as HTA, Mae, Hawkins\ Brown, and PRP - to name just a few - come into estate regeneration with a fixed set of objectives, pre-determined by councils, housing associations, property developers and politicians, for the demolition and rebuilding of the existing estate, and then use the consultation process to generate the reasons and excuses to achieve this, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) begins by asking the community about their needs and wishes, and uses these to generate objectives and initiatives to bring this about. It is a process that moves from the inside out, from community to genuine estate regeneration – one that leaves the existing community intact.

    ASH, which is not (despite the AJ's insistence) a protest group, is employing this consultation model in our current architectural work with Central Hill and West Ken & Gibbs Green estates. Last month, with just such a proposal, we helped save half the homes on Knight's Walk estate, which you may read about here, since the AJ has refused to publish our architectural work. https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/knights-walk-recommendation-to-cabinet/

    For those wondering – and it seems there are many who are, in the profession and outside – this is what an ethical architectural practice looks like.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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  • Councils typically took out 60-year loans from the state to build these estates. Are the outstanding loans taken into account in assessing demolition/rebuild costs? They could be paying off the original capital cost of the Aylesbury Estate for the next 20 years on top of the cited costs for rebuilding.

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  • Congratulations to Jane Rendell and the others who are fighting on this. Also relevant and useful is work from another bit of UCL - the Engineering Exchange - on the embodied energy issues in the refurb/demolish issue. See http://www.engineering.ucl.ac.uk/engineering-exchange/demolition-refurbishment-social-housing/

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    A point of correction. Duggan Morris Architects are in no way connected with the displacement or re-housing of people on the estate, but are instead working on a health and social programme on a redundant site for the new health centre, community health centre and early years nursery.

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  • At the CPO inquiry Professor Jane Rendell presented maps (link below) of the displacement of Aylesbury Estate council tenants and leaseholders - so far. I'm not surprised Duggan Morris Architects are eager to distance themselves from such practices. Social cleansing by any other name would smell as rank.

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  • Correction. The maps were by Professor Loretta Lees, an international expert on gentrification.

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  • The bias in the non-application of VAT to new-build housing and its application at 20% to renovations & upgrades is a huge weighting towards whole-sale demolition of housing, well within the 60 year life-span which was a precondition of cost-yard-stick approval. The cost of the social disruption is simply externalised.

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  • RE: What’s the cost of demolishing council estates? AJ 27.11.15/ Vol 242

    Simon Elmer states that we Mæ, along with other cited architects, “come into estate regeneration with a fixed set of objectives, predetermined by councils…”. Simon is not in a position to judge what our objectives are. We start every project analysing the problem and then measuring the opportunity. We have led projects that have resulted in refurbishment (for example Hillington Square AJ 26th June 15) as impartially as we have regeneration schemes. At Knight’s Walk, a project Simon refers to, Mæ were appointed as architect to consider all options with the residents and arrived collaboratively at a partial redevelopment proposal. He is wrong to state that total demolition was the only option being proposed and Mæ will always aim to balance competing interests creatively and collaboratively.

    Alex Ely, Principal Mæ

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  • With regard to the options available in March 2015 when ASH was invited in by the Hands off Knight's Walk campaign, I copy in this leaflet handed out at the public consultation with Lambeth Council on 3 March, 2015, which readers may find on their campaign website (https://handsoffknightswalk.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/the-facts-about-the-public-consultation/).

    Contrary to Alex Ely's claims that Mae Architects 'arrived collaboratively at a partial redevelopment proposal', ASH was brought in by residents of Knight's Walk to address precisely their dissatisfaction with both the consultation process conducted by Mae Architects and the options it had generated, all of which were for full demolition, as this document shows:


    'On Thursday 26th February, the Knights Walk Residents and neighbours attended a “consultation” evening held by Lambeth, Soundings and Mae architects. In the interests of accuracy, we have summarised the proceedings below:

    - The evening was extremely well attended by the vast majority of Knights Walk Residents as well as residents of neighbouring roads and estates including Ariel Court, Dryden Court, Vanbrugh Court and Renfrew Road.

    - Also present for the whole evening were our MP Kate Hoey, Kate MacKintosh (widow of the architect of Cotton Gardens Estate and Knights Walk, George Finch and herself a former Lambeth architect) and a number of other experts in the field of architecture and estate design.

    - Lambeth officials attempted unsuccessfully to prevent entry of neighbouring estate residents and were reluctant to wait for elderly Knights Walk residents to arrive.

    - The Knights Walk Residents state that the consultation exercise so far is in breach of the fundamental rights for a fair consultation as set out by the Supreme Court in 2014 [the ‘Gunning’ principles] in all 4 principles. There has been no effective consultation.

    - Soundings reported that Knights Walk Residents are generally extremely satisfied with the estate with only minor criticisms.

    Mae Architects on behalf of Lambeth presented 3 options for Knights Walk ‘regeneration’:

    Option 1 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk
    Option 2 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk
    Option 3 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk

    They rejected and misrepresented an option suggested by residents and ignored all their other suggestions

    All the Options proposed by Lambeth and Mae Architects were rejected outright by all present as totally unacceptable including our MP Kate Hoey.

    It was also revealed that there would be private housing included in the redevelopment despite the stated aim of the project to be to increase public housing.

    It was admitted that residents would not receive ‘like for like’ housing when rehoused.

    Knights Walk residents fully accept the need for increased public housing on Knights Walk and Cotton Gardens Estate, are fully willing to cooperate and have many ideas of their own as to how this might be provided but will not accept the planned complete destruction of their homes or this long established community.


    Alex Ely, as he has in Building Design, may continue to lie about both Mae's involvement in pushing through demolition schemes under the guise of regeneration, and about their practice of ignoring residents' wishes at the behest of their council clients; but fortunately residents' records of their campaigns to save their homes from demolition are a matter of record. As, too, is the appalling record of Lambeth Council's ongoing assault on council housing, specifically in their plans to demolish Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill estates. No quantity of denials by the architectural practices involved, whether Mae or PRP, will lessen their role in the social cleansing of these estates.

    Simon Elmer
    Architects for Social Housing

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