Kate Macintosh, architect of the recently listed Leigham Court sheltered housing scheme, on the threat to London council estates
More from: The housing crisis: how did we get here?
Earlier this month, I was invited by the Save Knight’s Walk campaign to attend their Open Gardens Estate event organised with Architects for Social Housing (ASH) in order to celebrate the gardens and green spaces found on housing estates.
This was for me, in part, an opportunity to celebrate the listing of my own 269 Leigham Court Rd in Streatham, and to thank those who had helped in the campaign to save it. Knight’s Walk, a group of patio houses and two storey flats grouped round an area of woodland at the base of three 22 storey tower blocks, together comprise the Cotton Gardens Estate in Kennington, designed in the 1960s by my late life-partner George Finch. Along with five other sites in the borough, it is now threatened by the bulldozers of Lambeth Council.
For the record, the density at Cotton Gardens/Knight’s Walk is 343.5 people per ha or 96 DPH (dwellings per ha) – roughly double what is currently demanded on suburban sites round Winchester.
We cannot afford to let right-to-buy undermine the ability of housing associations to raise funds against their property holdings, to maintain their stock and to continue to build. Right-to-buy for local authority tenants should be discontinued, unless constrained by a requirement that the property is returned to council ownership when the purchaser decides to sell, at the original purchase price plus inflation. This would stop the ridiculous acquisition of these dwellings by buy-to-let landlords, who then rent out to families on council waiting lists, at rents that have to be subsidised by housing benefit – a merry-go-round on which public wealth is repeatedly transferred to the pockets of property speculators.
Equally, we cannot afford to allow land-banking by super-markets and volume house-builders. Neither can we afford the weighty 20 per cent VAT penalty on renovation and maintenance work to the existing housing stock, which creates the artificial imperative to favour demolition and replacement; new-build being zero-rated. We need a level tax playing field.
It needs a coalition of politicians of good faith from all parties, along with environmentalists, conservationists, professional bodies and charities active in the housing field, to band together and campaign on these issues, devise rational solutions and arrest the steamroller of big finance, which is being allowed – no, encouraged – progressively to crush all innovative and creative locally generated activities. Once the social capital is created, high-finance moves in, redesignating a place as an ‘opportunity area’.
The UK is somewhere between the ninth and 27th richest nation on earth with a GDP more than 4,000 times larger than it was in 1955. And yet we have 1.86 million households waiting for social housing.
I am old enough to remember the post-war Labour government. At a time when the national debt was 245 per cent of GDP, it rebuilt the country, doubled living standards and established the welfare state and the NHS – all now under threat. Now with national debt worth 80 per cent of GDP, all public assets are being sold off, to further enrich the 1 per cent and impoverish the rest of us.
If we could do so much in 1945, when the country was technically bankrupt, what might we not now achieve with the political will, in building a more just society? I salute the endeavours of ASH. It is acting in the spirit of leading US Democrat congresswoman Nancy Pelosi when she said ‘Don’t agonise, organise.’