Cameron’s Latest Assault on London’s Social Housing is Finishing Thatcher’s Dirty Work

by Adam Robertson

20 January 2016

David Cameron’s latest big idea to reduce poverty, which is apparently one of his priorities, is to bulldoze what post-war housing estates still exist in the country.

According to Cameron, this is the only way to achieve his mission of “nothing short of social turnaround.” £140m of public money has been earmarked to be spent on these so-called ‘sink estates’, in order to “pump-prime the planning process,” as well as help to cover demolition and early construction costs. As a result of this injection of public money, Cameron hopes developers will be able to rebuild those estates that have stubbornly resisted the advances of the private sector up to this point.

Although Cameron promises “binding guarantees” for tenants and homeowners, such mealy-mouthed promises have been made time and again in recent years at other redeveloped estates, and developers have quickly reneged on them when the provision of ‘affordable’ – not even necessarily social – housing units threatens their profits.

Quite how destroying social housing – which condemns those former residents who have been displaced to living at the over-priced mercy of buy-to-let landlords – will help to reduce poverty remains to be seen.

But while the prime minister’s stated justification for handing over £140m to the bulldozer operators of Britain might not seem to make complete sense, the policy fits seamlessly with two trends in how post-war housing estates have fared under neoliberalism.

The first of these is economic in nature.

These estates are typically large. Many of them were built in areas relatively close to city centres in which property values have increased exponentially over the past few years. Moreover, they’re some of the only pockets of valuable land left near the centres of cities which are not already in private ownership and whose residents are politically powerless enough to be pushed around by councils desperate to please bloated developers.

These same bloated developers are desperate for somewhere to make a profit. In a world in which middle-aged economic certainties are eroding beneath the feet of panicked investors, the ballooning property prices created by the London housing crisis is proving an essential life-raft for global capital.

But it’s running out of space. A trip to North Greenwich proves the point. The area around the tube station and the Millennium Dome – which sat semi-derelict for years among the relics of the Thames’ industrial past – has suddenly sprung a forest of tower blocks financed by a Hong Kong billionaire. Even the most expensive to clean, isolated, overlooked brownfield sites have been sucked into the developers’ grasp and turned into ‘exciting investment opportunities’.

But the march of the luxury flat makers continues apace, and new opportunities are sought. Hence publicly owned housing estates have swung into their sights. The choice has a neat symmetry: not only does the land represent some of the last pockets of London developers can get their hands on, but in destroying existing homes to build new ones, developers can ensure they contribute to exacerbating the housing crisis in the short term. Demolishing inhabited houses reduces the supply of houses and increases the number of people looking for house, so house prices continue to rise.

Under the shimmering guise of helping aspiration and alleviating poverty, these developers are going to get a contribution from the public purse towards the cost of demolishing the existing homes that are inconveniently situated on top of such a valuable commodity, while simultaneously having the burdensome planning process sped up for them.

As a policy proposal, this is nothing new. Margaret Thatcher’s government set up the Urban Housing Renewal Unit in 1985, which later became the Estate Action programme. The purpose of these programmes was to enable developers to begin to fill estates with private housing that they could sell for a profit.

When housing estates in Deptford, south east London, were regenerated under the latter scheme a handful of individual blocks were demolished in order to make gaps in housing estates in which private housing could be built. These programmes typically sought to reduce housing density, seen as a source of social strife, and fit as much privately built and owned housing as it could into the existing fabric of estates.

According to Cameron, however, these previous attempts to regenerate Britain’s housing estates have failed, leaving him with no option other than “knocking them down and starting again.” As Thatcherite economics struggles to return profits to investors in a turbulent global economy, Thatcher’s housing policies are turbo-charged in an attempt to save developers and investors from George Osborne’s ‘toxic cocktail’.

The second trend is architectural.

Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s Britain’s councils embarked on one of the most ambitious building programmes in history. Cities were transformed as slums were torn down and modern housing estates were built in their place. Everywhere you looked you would see the signs of rebuilding – the legacy of the welfare state, of a properly built council-owned home for every citizen who wanted one, was unavoidable and ubiquitous.

Today it is embarrassing that such estates are so easy to spot, when the unavoidable necessity of austerity politics and difficult choices is trumpeted from the rooftops by the BBC and tax exile-owned newspapers alike. The widespread survival of large, spacious, well-built housing estates presents a fundamental threat to attempts to convince poor people that there is no alternative to the scraps they’re being offered.

As the welfare state has been gradually unmade by Thatcher and her children, these estates have remained as monuments to what had seemed possible only a few years previously. The historian Patrick Wright described high rises, dotting the landscape in every direction from London’s famous hilltop viewpoints, as the welfare state’s tombstones.

In the 1980s and 1990s attempts were made to mask this architectural radicalism through estate regeneration projects. Pitched-roof houses recognisable as private homes, made from brick and with old-fashioned front doors, were built within estates. Meanwhile, the buildings they were dropped between, which had often been built from prefabricated concrete panels and had flat roofs, bare featureless walls and a raw, unpainted concrete finish, were traditionalised. In Deptford again, pitched roofs were dropped on top of the flat roofs of long slab blocks, and colourful paint jobs were applied throughout the area’s estates. An attempt was made to cover up the world they were built for and turn them into something that might vote Conservative.

But since around 2000 the visibility of such monuments to what was considered political anathema by the salesmen of first Gordon Brown’s credit-fuelled perpetual boom-times, and later the doctrine of austerity, began to become an urgent problem. Joe Kerr, in his essay Blowdown, documents the London Borough of Hackney’s flirtation with the record books, topping the European league of tower block demolitions by a local authority, as it sought to remove the traces of this radical experiment from its skyline in the early noughties.

Several estates that have proved profitable to tear down have made their way through the planning process in the past few years, the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle being perhaps the most famous of them, but a stubborn few remain.

As the Conservatives and their tamed media companies attempt to reduce the horizon of what people in the UK are able to imagine as possible, Cameron plans to remove the last remaining silhouettes of Britain’s radical past from our cities’ skylines.

Once this policy begins to bear fruit, there really will seem to be no alternative to boxy, hyper-dense, overlooked, cramped, cheaply finished and privately owned housing in our cities. The idea that the residents of a city could have a say in how their city should look and work, and that they have a right to affordable and quality housing, will be one that will only be found in history books, no longer one visible on our streets.

Photo: Nico Hogg/Flickr

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