Council flats in poor housing estate

Inside Housing - Opinion Piece by Nick Thoburn

Post-war council estates suffer from a barrage of stigmatising representations. Central and local governments, think tanks, and property companies call them ‘sink estates’ and ‘concrete monstrosities.’ In television dramas and feature films, council estates are invariably grim and crime ridden. These representations have real-world effects. They establish social moods and opinions that encourage and justify the wave of estate demolitions that have beset London and other cities in recent decades.

Conducting research for my book, Brutalism as Found: Housing, Form and Crisis at Robin Hood Gardens, I made many visits with my colleague Kois Miah to the Robin Hood Gardens council estate in east London whilst it was being razed to the ground. What we witnessed reinforced the view that such demolitions are more often driven by profit than the need for housing affordability, security and safety. Numerous other insights were gained from what we saw and the people we met.

Demolition brings social and individual cost, it uproots residents from support networks and jobs, fragments communities and reduces the supply of affordable, safe and secure housing. It has an environmental impact too, which is hidden behind claims that net zero carbon targets will be achieved through ‘green’ replacement housing.

A demolished estate releases tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. And the carbon costs of manufacturing the concrete, steel and other materials for rebuild are such that  51% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical residential development is emitted before it is even opened.

Yet Whitehall, local authorities, housing associations and developers still proceed apace with estate demolition and rebuild. The common justification is that residents share the dominant mood and opinion about council estates. But this was by no means the case at Robin Hood Gardens.

We established the research project in dismay that its residents were almost entirely absent from the prominent public debate about the estate’s merits, failings and impending demolition. We set out to challenge this situation and centre residents’ social, emotional and sensory experiences of the estate’s architecture, their views about its demolition and public representation, and their housing hopes for the future.

We found a very different picture to the dominant stigmatisation. Residents despaired at the lack of investment in and maintenance of their estate. This is another scandal of council housing today. Council estates are not ‘subsidised,’ as is often claimed, but generate a surplus. Yet this is rarely invested back into the housing stock.

At London’s threatened Achilles Street estate, between 2011 and 2017 just £239,000 was spent on repairs and maintenance yet rent and service charges in the same period generated £2.6 million for Lewisham Council. This disinvestment must be framed in the national context of severe cuts in funding from central to local government, falling by 49.1% in real terms between 2010 and 2018, when demand for key services is increasing.

This neglect and disrepair often becomes ‘managed decline’ where local authorities leverage long-term disinvestment for demolition. At Robin Hood Gardens, residents were aware and critical of this path, which one resident described to us as the ‘social cleansing’ of their neighbourhood. Their views of the estate’s future were complex, sometimes coloured by the seeming inevitability of demolition that is produced by managed decline. But in the main, residents wanted refurbishment, not demolition, in an estate where the architecture and homes were tremendously popular.

So, based on our research, how can estate demolition and the marginalisation of residents’ views be prevented elsewhere?

First, repair, refurbishment and retrofit of existing social housing should be the gold standard. Demolition should not be the favoured option but the very last resort, an option institutionally disapproved of for its damaging impact on residents, communities and the environment, used only when buildings are proven to be structurally unsound.

And second, residents should be consulted meaningfully and fairly. Since 2018, London local authorities are required to obtain a majority in a formal ballot of residents for any redevelopment proposal involving whole or partial estate demolition, an opportunity refused to residents of Robin Hood Gardens. This is progress, and it should be extended to all parts of the country. But the ballot process is stacked in favour of demolition and must be overhauled.