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Cameron’s ‘sink estate’ strategy comes at a human cost

David Cameron has put the demolition of council estates at the heart of his plans to “wage an all-out assault on poverty and disadvantage”. Citing the “severe social segregation” of tenants living in council estates, Cameron has committed £140m to redevelop 100 postwar housing estates across Britain. The prime minister has pledged to “learn the lessons from the failed attempts to regenerate estates in the past”.

But instead of issuing a new, evidence-based plan for regeneration, Cameron has regurgitated the Blairite strategy of escalated privatisation and gentrification. These plans signal the final death knell for council estates in England, and the imminent destruction of the communities and livelihoods of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged citizens. We know this, because we have seen it all before.

History repeats itself

Back in 1997, Blair launched his regeneration policy from the stigmatised Aylesbury Estate in London, promoting the rebuilding of estates as “mixed communities”. The idea was to eliminate “no hope areas” by redeveloping estates and building private housing to subsidise social housing.

But the result was gentrification by stealth, as middle class populations replaced low income groups. Take the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle – now demolished and in the process of being rebuilt as a new “mixed income” community. The 3,000 or so residents once living there are gone. They have been displaced. They say, they have been socially cleansed. The map below shows where former tenants of the Heygate Estate have moved, based on FOI data obtained from Southwark Council.

Pushed out. Loretta Lees, Author provided

These displacements have been echoed on many other “regenerated” estates across London and elsewhere, as private, affordable and social housing has replaced council housing. But with affordable housing usually priced at 80% of the market rent, it is unaffordable for most ex-council tenants. And social housing is usually managed by a housing association, which is more expensive and does not have the same protections against possession claims as council tenancies do.

Now, Cameron’s regeneration strategy is continuing what Blair started. And it is interesting that he has incorporated old Thatcherite ideas about the flawed design of high rise or brutalist estates:

“Step outside in the worst estates and you’re confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers.”

It’s revealing that Cameron’s words echo those of geographer Alice Coleman, who wrote a trenchant critique of modernist high rise estates, arguing that their design caused a myriad of social problems. Despite Coleman’s thesis being heavily criticised as a naïve piece of environmental determinism by her academic peers, it propped up the Conservatives’ privatisation agenda in the 80s under Thatcher, and fits well with Cameron’s rhetoric today.

Indeed, the proposals made by real estate firm Savills – which Cameron earmarks as an example of what he wants to accomplish – include plans to demolish council estates and, in some cases, replace them with nice little terraced houses, something Alice Coleman would likely love to see.

Myths and misrepresentations

But “sink estates” – that is, council estates with high levels of socio-economic deprivation – are not created by architectural design. In fact, the label has only tenuous connection to the reality of the lives of people on an estate. Take, for example, the Aylesbury estate in London, which became a national symbol of British, high-rise sink estates. It has been demonised as a run-down hotbed for crime on TV shows such as The Bill and Spooks, and Channel 4 caused controversy by adding trolleys, laundry and rubbish to change the look of the estate for one of its adverts.

But when I interviewed the residents of the Aylesbury estate as part of my research, they were clear that although there was poverty on the estate, it was wrong to classify it as a “sink estate”. In many cases, residents contacted the newspapers and complained about the way their home was being represented. One resident said:

“I wrote back and said [the Aylesbury] is not a hell hole to live in … don’t just keep telling us we live in shit and that we’ve got drugs, crime, prostitution and everything around us when we haven’t … that really, really angers me.”

The truth of the matter was that the labelling of the Aylesbury as a “sink estate” helped the local council to argue that it needed to be demolished. And in 2010, the first phase of that demolition began. Some residents have had to find alternative council housing via the Council’s Home Search on-line bidding system, others have been decanted to other council housing in south London and beyond. Some have lost their right to council homes. The map below shows where tenants in the current phase of displacement have moved to – the displacements as they continue will no doubt stretch further afield.

Displacement from the Aylesbury Estate, mapped using data from the Notting Hill Housing Trust. Loretta Lees, Author provided

Through my research, I heard many accounts of the terrible toll that displacement can take on council housing tenants: isolation, disruptions to education and employment, depression and suicide all featured. “Regeneration” has come at the cost of long-established communities, as this resident says:

“…from the very first day that the demolition was announced, the social bond was affected, because people knew that ultimately within the framework of the next few years, they wouldn’t be seeing each other on a daily basis again. They wouldn’t be part of the same community.”

Fighting back

As a London-based urbanist, I have spent the last five years investigating what can be done about this. In 2014, with the London Tenants Federation, Just Space and SNAG, I co-produced Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London – a resource designed to assist local communities faced with the gentrification of their council estates.

We found that there are alternatives which can keep housing affordable for these residents. Council estates can be refurbished, rather than demolished – as Islington Council did with the Six Acres Estate, at a cost of around £10,000 per dwelling; far less than the circa £60k per dwelling, which Southwark Council is spending on emptying and demolishing the Aylesbury estate.

Then there’s co-operative housing, where properties are controlled (and in some cases owned) by a democratic community organisation, typically made up of the current tenants. Housing co-operatives allow tenants to take responsibility for key decisions about repairs, rents and membership. Community land trusts offer another alternative, whereby properties are sheltered from price increases because a trust owns the land. And resale restrictions ensure that when homes are sold, they go to low-income buyers.

Then there’s community housing associations and even community self-build housing – the list goes on. So when Cameron complains that “tenants’ concerns about whether regeneration would be done fairly” prevented progress, it’s clear that he hasn’t learned anything from the previous attempts at urban renewal. If Cameron is serious about improving Britain’s council estates, there are ways he could do it without destroying communities, and ultimately people’s lives.

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