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Will Central Hill be the next example of ambitious social housing to be razed?

The 1960s Central Hill housing estate in Crystal Palace
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The programme of replacing council estates with ‘mixed communities’ could see the demolition of a treasure of responsible housing design, says Kate Macintosh

1435594 Kate Macintosh

1435594 Kate Macintosh

The London Borough of Lambeth, which is considering the clearance of six housing estates including the 1960s Central Hill development near Crystal Palace, is following the urging of Andrew Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. In March 2015, Adonis said that London council estates should be demolished in order to build swathes of new houses for sale. Knocking down existing council housing would provide the opportunity to build ‘mixed communities’ that would function as ‘city villages’, he claimed.

Local authorities are under siege pressure from central government funding cuts, which make even routine maintenance unaffordable. They are therefore casting around for valuable land assets from which they can squeeze some revenue while attempting to reduce their ever-growing housing application lists.

As a notable advance in housing design, Central Hill  was well received at the time. It was designed by Lambeth Architects Department with Rosemary Stjernstedt as its chief designer – a trailblazer and role model for women architects of my generation. Architectural critic Colin Amery noted, it ‘is the built version of the current vogue for low-rise high density that absorbs the motor car and provides safe, good housing at reasonable densities’. But Central Hill also had ambition: Lambeth ‘made strident efforts to humanise the design of high-density housing,’ according to the RIBA Book of 20th Century British Housing.

The unstable ground conditions of London clay required sophisticated and costly geoengineering. Ted Happold (within the Ove Arup office) was the brilliant mind put to work on this problem. The housing sits on top of 21m-deep piles, with subsoil drainage to obtain an adequate factor of safety against slip. The water table was lowered by means of graded aggregate-filled buttress drains.

These foundation conditions will force any developer seeking to make a killing on this site to build on the existing footprint. The only way they would be able to increase density is by increasing height.

The recent threat to Central Hill is of course not peculiar to Lambeth. Indeed, the neighbouring borough of Southwark paved the way with the demolition of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates. However, all this densification and so called ‘regeneration’ (contrary to Adonis’s argument) has mysteriously resulted in a reduction in the number of ‘affordable’ homes at Heygate from 1,194 to 74 out of a total of 2,500 units. Also mysterious is the way developers’ calculations of their likely profits vary wildly from the day they are negotiating the site purchase with the council to the day they start marketing their products, when suddenly it becomes legitimate to expect a 25 per cent profit.

With ‘affordable’ defined as 80 per cent of the market rent in a totally unregulated market, London boroughs are on a hiding to nothing

Lambeth’s record on delivery of housing for social rent and ‘affordable’ is lamentable. A recent survey of London boroughs’ performance on housing delivery during 2014-15 shows that Lambeth delivered 11,853. While this was 155 per cent of its target, a mere 12 per cent was built for either affordable or social rent. It is clear that the London boroughs are on a hiding to nothing. With right-to-buy being extended to housing associations and ‘affordable’ defined as 80 per cent of the market rent in a totally unregulated market, they can never keep up with demand. The extent of the failure to control the private rented sector can be seen by the UK’s housing benefit bill. The UK redistributes significantly more tax on this than all other European countries, costing Britain nearly 10 times as much as Germany.

Within this no-win situation, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) is making valiant efforts to save Lambeth and the borough’s tenants from the worst depredations being inflicted on the social housing estate across the capital, by providing pro-bono services. The organisation is consulting with tenants and carrying out capacity studies. These show how more units can be insinuated into the existing framework while avoiding demolition. Central Hill is among the estates to have had the benefit of its attentions.

Were it not for the skewing of the economics of construction by the 20 per cent VAT tilt toward clearance and rebuild, plus the mad casino that is the London housing market – attracting the kleptocracy of the world to its playground – it would be immediately obvious that Central Hill is a treasure of responsible housing design, which should be carefully cherished for future generations.

An application has been made by the Twentieth Century Society for the listing of Central Hill. I urge readers to write to Historic England in support of this application.

Kate Macintosh was an architect at Lambeth Council from 1969 

The 1960s Central Hill housing estate in Crystal Palace

The 1960s Central Hill housing estate in Crystal Palace

The 1960s Central Hill housing estate in Crystal Palace

Rosemary Stjernstedt – a pioneering woman architect

Rosemary Stjernsted had recently moved to the Property Services Agency when I joined Lambeth Architects Department in 1969. I had heard of her high reputation as the designer of Central Hill while I was at Southwark working on Dawson’s Heights. She was recruited as group leader from London County Council architects department by Ted Hollamby when he became chief architect and planner for Lambeth in 1964. As the lead designer for Alton East, Roehampton, she was the first woman architect to be appointed to a managerial level in the public sector, making her an important pioneering woman architect in the history of UK architecture.

In Hollamby’s Lambeth the group leaders were given a brief. They were aware of the general preferences and policies of the chief architect and planner, and would be sympathetic to them, but enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. In the case of Central Hill, the overall consistency shows a single mind at work and in control and therefore I would maintain that Rose is the undoubted chief designer.

There are many records of the high regard in which she was held by her senior and contemporary colleagues. In the British Museum Sound Archive recordings, both Ted Hollamby and Sandy St John Wilson mention her with great respect, and Ted makes it clear that he particularly valued Central Hill as embodying all the qualities he was seeking in new housing.  

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I hope Andrew Adonis gets to see this, because he has real expertise in public transport policy and shouldn't wander into talking rubbish about housing policy.
    Kate Macintosh is commendably polite in her references to developers - and the pernicious effect of 20% Vat (would that George Osborne had the same enthusiasm to heal this festering sore that he's shown in promoting the Garden Bridge) and her references to the 'mad casino' and 'kleptocracy' might soon prove to have been far too polite.
    Unless the government and the boroughs can get their act together fast and shut the stable door before even more horses have bolted there's surely going to be serious trouble in London sooner rather than later.

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