As seen in the Earls Court redevelopment, the Conservatives are being dishonest about the benefits to estate communities
It’s official: ‘regeneration’ is David Cameron’s answer to the London housing crisis.
In the Sunday Times this week he promised the government will ‘transform’ over 100 housing estates across Britain, promising to ‘work with…residents to put together regeneration plans.’
‘Redevelopment.’ The PM’s answer to poverty, gangs and all of Britain’s social problems, it will also ‘catalyse the building of hundreds of thousands of new homes in London alone’, according to a carefully-timed new Savills report.
Come on Dave, get with the programme, it’s all the rage.
An estimated 56% of London boroughs,under financial pressure to maintain social housing stock, have entered ‘state-led gentrification’ partnerships with a property developer who has promised to take care of everything.
Cameron claims that (only) for some estates will this ‘simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes…’
In fact, most would be razed to the ground. Some 90 council estates in London are currently earmarked for demolition, according to a Birkbeck University study.
The ‘bleak, high-rise buildings’ that appalled Dave so in the 1980s will be a distant memory. ‘Wasted open space’ will be turned into prime London real estate as thousands of glittering new homes are built. Babbling brooks will run alongside blissful garden square. Leisure facilities, ‘commercial hubs’ and Oliver Bonas will transform these sinkholes into an urban utopia.
I live on an estate that David Cameron would probably consign to the dustbin of history. In fact, his favourite UK council – formerly Conservative-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham – did just that. Just before their defeat at the local elections in 2014 and against the wishes of the majority of residents, councillors agreed to sell the land containing the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates to developers Capco as part of the ongoing Earls Court regeneration (even signing a ‘collateral agreement’, binding any future council into following through and keeping it a secret – a particularly dirty trick if you ask me).
Demolition beckons for 760 homes. If the alternative future is so bright, why then has there been such a huge backlash from the local community, who for seven years have fought tooth and nail to save the estates?
Probably because everybody knows that the sole concern of developers is to generate profit (a margin estimated at 22%) for shareholders, company bosses and foreign investors via high-density new-build property sold on the open market.
Social and affordable housing are right at the bottom of the priority list.
Capco plan to build 7,500 new homes in Earls Court. They pledge to re-house families who lose their council-rented accommodation in replacement homes. But on top of that, only 11% of the total number of units will be “affordable” – at up to 80% of market rent or sale value. It does nothing to abate the crisis in demand for London’s social housing, with 344,000 currently on the waiting list.
And fingers crossed that those promised families will actually get their new home.
Southwark pledged 35% of the redeveloped Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle would be social homes- there are now just 62.
A Guardian report last year revealed that Woodberry Down in Hackney used to have 1,555 social homes – there are now only 1,088. Hundreds of people were ‘temporarily’ relocated, and have never returned. This is in addition to the thousands of families exiled to outer London boroughs, and beyond, following the cuts to housing benefit.
How does Dave imagine that transplanting estate communities into new urban wonderlands will magically eradicate poverty and social problems? He was curiously vague. The main benefit seemed to be all this new housing. Presumably, the influx of the super-rich (and they have to be, at these prices) will add a certain style, glamour and ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the area, dragging the rest up.
After all, Stephen Greenhalgh, BoJo’s policing deputy and executor in chief of the dodgy deal for Fulham, claimed regeneration would create a ‘decent neighbourhood’ in Earls Court.
Conservatives are wrong to write off estates like Gibbs Green. Strong, genuinely socially-mixed communities already live here, in sturdy built-to-last blocks of spacious, lowish-density housing (not hellish sky-rises). Neighbours know and look out for each other, a precious rarity in the gloriously isolated social dystopia of most of London’s Edwardian terraces.
Regeneration will rip these communities apart.
After demolition, leaseholders and private tenants will be forced out of the Fulham area, unable to afford the spiralling rent and property prices. Social tenants will never be able to afford to buy their own property. My neighbour is resigned to the fact that her four-year old daughter will never be able to rent, let alone even buy, in the borough she calls home.
Conservative councillors promised us ‘affordable housing for future generations’ – 1500 for the reimagined Earls Court. The reality so far?
Private flats in the hugely upmarket and glossily-advertised Lillie Square, which have sold out, were on offer at £800,000 to £1.3m (one of these nice little nest eggs having already been snapped up by a Capco director and his wife). Even one-bedroom flats close by are selling for £595,000.
What about jobs – perhaps herein lies the great benefit? After all, regeneration promises 10,000 in North Fulham when Capco’s redevelopment is completed.
But what will happen to the existing businesses on North End Road, the artery running through the area? The fishmongers, butchers and hardware shop owners, and the traders who thrive in one of the oldest fruit and veg markets in London, are unlikely to survive.
Developers will promise them space. Then they’ll just as likely be sold off and forced to relocate, losing years’ worth of time and money, because their faces won’t fit in the new Made in Chelsea film set of gelateries, artisan bakeries and gastropubs.
And in the housing blocks themselves, social integration looks unlikely if the rise of ‘poor doors’ is anything to go by. First seen in New York, there have been reports that now in London there are buildings in which social tenants are requested to use a different door from the private buyers. The Woodberry Down estate has ended up segregating social tenants, part-owners and the private residents into three separate towers, with the private buyers given the best site on the estate.
Perhaps David Cameron believes regeneration will encourage council housing dwellers to drag themselves up by their bootstraps and work harder. In reality, most could not be working harder already, while this process will just foster disharmony, segregation and resentment towards the invading rich, while entrenching the wealth gap, which is already a big issue in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Free school meals in the borough are down by 25% since 2010 (the biggest drop, along with four other London boroughs), showing how many social tenants have been forced out. The body of students attending the Fulham Boys School, where I teach, is divided largely between boys whose parents were rich enough to buy property in an area where terraced houses won’t sell for less than £1.5 million, and those in social housing.
And if you think Labour is the last bastion of hope, think again.
Sadiq Khan has staked his hoped-for mayoral election upon the promise to eradicate ‘social cleansing’. But the Labour house is not in order on this one.
Many regeneration partnerships have been pushed by Labour councils (like Heygate). In this borough, we thought voting in a Labour council who pledged in their manifesto to save the estates, together with vociferous support from local MP Andy Slaughter, would keep Capco in check.
Alas, the council have been forced to acquiesce to Capco’s plans for fear of massive legal costs, and the very final decision now lies in the hands, ironically, of a Tory minister, Greg Clark MP. Communities feel let down by a party they have supported for generations; one that is supposed to protect their interests.
Not all estates are the same, and some will be in more desperate need of reform than those in North Fulham (which are not perfect – overcrowding is a big problem). But it is hard to see how David Cameron’s idea of ‘regeneration’ is the answer.
He claims that for decades, estate communities have been seen solely as “something simply to be managed”. Now he’s found a way of managing them. He wants to speed up a process which won’t help them out of poverty, but will squeeze them out of neighbourhoods and a city that families have called home for generations.