How to play the regeneration game?
London has, right now, the chance of a remarkable transformation. Some of the city’s biggest, most troubled, most ugly, most intractable estates, where tens of thousands of people live, could at last be replaced.
Plans have been drawn up and decisions made. In some cases residents have been moved out, and demolition has started. A blight of decades could at last be eradicated. It is a heroic collective project.
But there is a snag. These plans need money, and a major source of money was going to be the sale of new homes on the redeveloped estates.
As we all know, selling homes isn’t such good business as it was a year or two ago, which leaves the prospect of this transformation delayed, postponed and uncertain. At worst, the effect will be to leave rotting blocks standing empty or neglected for years.
The names of such places are charming. Ferrier in Kidbrooke evokes sweet-voiced singer Kathleen; Woodberry Down in Hackney sounds like it’s full of bunny rabbits; while Aylesbury in Southwark is named after a country town in Buckinghamshire.
In reality all are gigantic developments where utopian ideas of “estates of the future” didn’t work out.
Ranging in size from 1,200 to 2,700 homes, they have common problems. By concentrating large numbers of council tenants in one place, they created ghettos, without the social mix you find in other parts of London.
They were vulnerable to whims in housing policy, which might for example decide to move problem families to a particular place, and trigger a sudden decline.
Architecturally they are not pretty. Woodberry Down, conceived in 1934 and completed in 1962, has the brick blocks and long-access balconies typical of the time.
The later Heygate, in Southwark, consists of long concrete blocks of astonishing severity, while the Ferrier also has long, potentially threatening access balconies, and is system-built, meaning that it is made of concrete panels formed in factories and assembled on site.
None have been improved by years of poor maintenance. They leak, they rot and they attract rodents.
Over the past few years, ambitious plans have been developed for their replacement, all of which seek to rectify their obvious ills.
For the Ferrier, for example, architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands have proposed a “modern suburb”, where access balconies are abolished and semi-private courtyards are created, rather than the no-man’s-land of indeterminate green space of the previous estate, which was prone to be colonised by gangs.
Connections with surrounding neighbourhoods, formerly poor, will be improved, and a more pleasant architectural style adopted. Modern standards of sustainability can be applied.
There will also be a mixture of householders, from tenants of housing associations to owners of their own homes.
This mixture conforms to the current belief that social diversity is good – but it also, very conveniently, offered a way of funding such new developments. The sale of new houses at market rates would help finance the whole project.
Despite their apparent bulk, estates like the Ferrier are surprisingly inefficient in their use of land, meaning that, when rebuilt, they can contain more homes than were there before.
And so partnerships were formed with developers like Berkeley Homes at Ferrier and at Woodberry Down. In the very recent past, such developers seemed all-powerful and able to transform swathes of London at will.
They seemed to know everything there was to know about building homes in large numbers. When these estates were first built, local councils did so with the help of vast loans, which would take decades to pay back. The new idea was to subcontract to the private sector.
But now that the bounty of rising property prices has dried up, developers are looking a little more mortal.
At Woodberry Down the plan to “cross-subsidise” the rebuilding with private house sales evaporated, and £16 million of public money was required to get things moving. This comes from the Homes and Communities Agency, a new body with £5 billion to spend on affordable housing in London over three years.
The HCA is also spending £45 million on the Ferrier Estate and has funded the building of 260 new homes on the Aylesbury Estate, the biggest and trickiest of all.
It was here, hours after he was elected in 1997, that Tony Blair rushed for a photo-opportunity in front of its crumbling blocks, and declared that there “will be no forgotten people in the Britain I want to build”. There are plans to rebuild the entire estate but, again, they were going to need funding from selling homes.
The HCA money means that, at last, the redevelopment of the Aylesbury can begin, but as the plan for the estate is to build 4,200 new homes, the first 260 is only a start.
At the current rate, it will take decades to complete the project and while Southwark insists that changes in the market will not delay it, other experts in the field say that “there is a very serious problem with the lack of development finance” for large projects such as these. In other words, the Aylesbury will remain much as it is now for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, on the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, residents have been moved out of its long grey slabs. The main sign of life is now the flicker of welding torches, as workmen “tin up” the empty flats, covering the windows and doors with steel to keep out squatters.
The blocks are due to be demolished in 2010 but no one knows for sure when new homes will be built in their place, leaving the prospect of a large hole in the centre of Elephant and Castle.
At the Ferrier, they have also emptied many of the blocks, which will now be demolished, leaving land that will be empty for years.
Here Berkeley Homes says it will pay for temporary uses of this land, such as “a tree nursery or landscaped area”, to prevent it becoming a dangerous blight. But the thousands of demolished flats will be replaced slowly, leaving a deficit in the number of affordable homes in the area.
The proposed replacement of these big estates is not universally popular with their residents. They complain of “privatisation”, of the effects of handing control of council property to private developers, and the fact that space standards have shrunk since the estates were first built, so that new flats will be smaller than old ones.
On the Ferrier Estate residents are vociferously objecting to a large reduction in the amount of subsidised rented housing. Some argue that wholesale demolition, as opposed to refurbishment, was not necessary.
But the current plans for these estates’ replacement are now the best – and represent the only hope of changing them.
At least they would do, if the hoped-for cash from home sales had not shrivelled. The Homes and Communities Agency’s money will go only so far.
An extra £500 million for housing was announced in the Budget, to be spent across the whole country, but it is not equal to the scale of the problem.
It is, in the end, a hard choice. On one hand, very large sums of public money would have to be found, more than the HCA’s impressive-sounding £5 billion for London. This does not seem likely. On the other, these places will remain blighted for years, even decades.
If anyone can think of another way forward, they will earn the eternal gratitude of the estates’ residents, and of all Londoners.