1. Governance
January 11, 2016updated 04 Aug 2023 8:34am

Here are eight thoughts on David Cameron's £140m “sink estate” revamp policy

By Jonn Elledge

Yesterday prime minister David Cameron announced plans to spend £140m rebuilding up to 100 of Britain’s worst sink estates. “For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again,” he wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Times. “For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

Full details of how all this will work won’t be forthcoming for a while (“by the Autumn Statement”, we’re told, which won’t happen until early December). In the mean time, here, in no particular order, are eight thoughts on the plan.

Rebuilding some estates is probably a good thing

Let’s not beat around the bush: this country built a lot of terrible estates in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of them were badly built (too hot, too cold, too damp, or just plain ugly). Many more effectively wrecked their local communities, by rendering the streetscape “impermeable” – that is, dividing one neighbourhood from another.

So. Tearing some of the worst offenders down, and replacing them with new housing built on a more human scale – a new dense network of low-rise streets – is probably no bad thing.

It helps solve the land problem

It’s not just right wingers who are in favour of this kind of policy, either. Lord Adonis, one of the Labour’s brightest urban policy minds, has been talking about replacing council estates with “city villages” for a while.

There’s a reason for this enthusiasm. To have a hope of fixing Britain’s housing crisis, we need to free up more land for building housing. And if we’re not willing to extend our cities into their green belts (I’m up for that, but almost nobody in politics is), we need to find a way of freeing up land inside them. 

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And the large estates which are already owned by the public sector seem a good place to start. 

You can probably get more homes on this land than they currently contain

It seems obvious that estates full of tower blocks would have a higher population density – would house more people – than traditional streets of terraced homes and lower rise apartment blocks can.

Obvious, but wrong. Many estates have huge swathes of windswept open space between blocks, so their population density is surprisingly low. In fact, the most densely populated parts of London are the four- and five- story terraces of Kensington and Notting Hill.

So when the government claims this policy could result in more housing, it’s not necessarily wrong. That said…

The money is a joke

£140m, across 100 estates? Do me a favour. That’s peanuts. That’s £1.4m per estate. 

Now obviously things aren’t quite that simple. The government isn’t going to rebuild all 100 of those estates. We’re talking about bits of land that come with planning permission, so it’ll be cheaper to build homes here than almost anywhere else. And there’s talk of private investment, from developers and pension funds, too – so that £140m won’t be the total scale of the investment.

But nonetheless – £140m? Really? The last Labour government spent £181m improving housing in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets alone. £140m – I can’t stress this enough – is nothing. 

So is the commitment to replacement housing

The government has claimed that the “right to a home” for the existing residents of these estates – both social renters, and private owners – will be protected by “binding guarantees”.

That’s brilliant if it’s true. But there’s a long, ignoble history of tenants being decanted from estates and promised replacement homes, only for those promises to be broken when it turns out they aren’t affordable.

And – I may have already mentioned this – £140m is nothing in this context. If existing residents really are protected (if!), that money surely isn’t going very far. 

While we’re on this:

Right-to-buy makes this harder

It’d be easier to do this sort of thing on an estate composed entirely of social tenants. They have legal rights, and there are obviously ethical questions about making decisions about people’s homes – but at least the public sector, ultimately, owns the property. 

However, very few, if any, estates are composed entirely of social tenants, because for 30 years those tenants have had the right to buy their homes. At least some of those flats will now be privately owned – and leaseholders will need financial compensation.

So, all this will probably tie everyone up in red tape as people battle to protect their homes. And remember that £1.4m per estate? Assuming some of these estates are in London, then it could cost you that much to compensate three or four leaseholders for the fact you’ve demolished their flats.

It’s all a bit utopian

The government’s belief that it can do an enormous regeneration programme on the cheap isn’t the only thing that sounds a bit idealistic here. Cameron’s various statements yesterday weren’t just about improving people’s homes, but about improving their souls, too. Here’s that Sunday Times article again:

“Decades of neglect have led to gangs and antisocial behaviour. Poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so.”

Better homes, the implication is, will lead to better people.

I don’t want to be too down on this because architecture does have an impact on behaviour (people are more likely to take pride in open space they don’t share with several hundred of their neighbours, that sort of thing). But nonetheless, the idea you can fix decades of entrenched poverty just by knocking down a few tower blocks – and that you can do it on a shoestring – seems a bit, let’s say, optimistic.

These are still people’s homes

Last thought. No matter how bleak those concrete blocks look to you, they will contain dwellings whose residents love them, and will fight their demolition. Whatever the benefits in the long term, in the immediate future, this policy is going to hurt.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and is on Twitter here.

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