1. Governance
January 12, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 8:34am

Council estates need investment – not stereotypes and neglect

By Darren Johnson

Darren Johnson is a member of the London Assembly for the Green party.

The prime minister’s plans to regenerate 100 council estates have already been unpicked here by Jonn Ellege.

But there are deeper problems with David Cameron’s announcement. Here are five.

It’s not about crime

In setting out his plans, Cameron wrote of sink estates with “blocked opportunity, poor parenting, addiction and mental health problems”. He only need write of “concrete slabs” and “dark alleyways” to evoke fear, and make us feel he is finally helping the poor people who suffer from them.

It’s a crude stereotype that’s all too common. Take a look at this tweet from a regeneration company paid by Lambeth Council to develop demolition plans for the Central Hill estate. Feel scared?

What you wouldn’t know is that the layout of this estate is pretty popular with its residents, and frequented by commuters using it as a cut-through from the local train station.

The notorious Heygate Estate in Southwark was always portrayed as a crime-ridden sink estate. But residents obtained crime figures from the Metropolitan Police, showing that crime rates were half the average for the wider borough. The design wasn’t perfect – but faults could have been fixed without knocking it all down.

It’s not about real neglect

The prime minister blames “decades of neglect” in these estates for the rise of gangs and the 2011 riots. Does he think young people were so enraged by brutalist architecture that they attacked shops in Tottenham, entirely unaware of the Mark Duggan shooting?

Yes, Cameron, I agree – poor residents in London have suffered from decades of neglect to their homes, their youth services, and their local economies. Councils are often accused by their tenants of running homes down, and bungling basic maintenance works. Knocking those homes down is unlikely to help.

Here are some of Cameron’s other bright ideas to ensure councils neglect their tenants: force them to sell valuable homes and give the money to housing associations; cut their rent income without compensation; cut back on the Decent Homes funds to keep homes in a basic state of repair; and bar them from borrowing to prudential levels to invest in new and existing homes.

It’s not about the residents

I chaired a London Assembly investigation into estate regeneration in London. We found evidence of terrible practice in past schemes, and set out an approach that would ensure residents are fully involved from the start, not just presented with a sham consultation. We highlighted the awful impact on people’s mental health that poorly run regeneration programmes can have, especially when people feel stigmatised and shut out.

The Cabinet Office asked Savills to set out how this regeneration programme might work. One of their report’s recommendations, drawing on the assembly’s work, was to give “a genuine and privileged role for the local community”.

Apparently David Cameron didn’t read the memo. Despite his professed concern for the welfare of residents on these estates, he wrote that “tenants’ concerns” are one of three problems holding back regeneration schemes.

Would those be the concerns of tenants – and leaseholders – vociferously opposed to the demolition of decent homes in London estates like West Hendon, Cressingham Gardens, Carpenters, Gibbs Green, Broadwater, the Balfron Tower, Sweets Way, Loughborough Park… I shall stop there.

It’s not about better social housing

The assembly investigation I chaired found that, in the past decade, approved schemes would increase the number of homes on those estates. But regeneration also brought a net loss of over 8,000 social rented homes.

In their place came thousands of hugely expensive flats for private ownership. This despite the greatest need in London being for more social housing.

And things will get worse: in the period that chart covers, the grant levels for affordable housing were much higher than they will be under future estate regeneration plans.

Too often, tenants on the estates have been displaced far and wide. Those who get to stay often return to weaker tenancy agreements and higher rents.

Tenants of the Aylesbury Estate, undergoing a regeneration project part-funded by the government and the mayor of London, were repeatedly promised new social rented homes. But I’ve worked with local campaigners to expose that the promise has been repeatedly watered down.

It’s about the sort of homes Cameron likes

How will estate regeneration work once the government ends all funding for low rented homes? Council homes rented by people on the minimum wage or the state pension will be replaced with starter homes, only affordable to households on middling incomes in 5 per cent of London’s neighbourhoods; and shared ownership, which is increasingly out of reach of nurses, teachers and police constables in inner London.

On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, Cameron suggested that London has an unusually high amount of social housing, and that people in the middle need more help.

The prime minister’s real objective is clear. This programme is not meant to deal with entrenched poverty, or to improve the lives of people suffering from years of neglect to their homes. It’s not to increase the amount of genuinely affordable housing in the capital.

It is to knock down council estates to benefit new residents on relatively high incomes.

Aside from the awful impact on the lives of tenants affected by this, the worst thing is that this top-down approach won’t realise as many homes as we could if we really gave the estate residents a genuine and privileged role. In a recent report, I highlighted examples where community-led regeneration has resulted in more homes being supported and built. It’s time the prime minister and mayor took note.

Darren Johnson is a Green member of the London Assembly, where he chairs the environment committee.

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