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David Cameron’s proposed plans to bulldoze the poorest council estates in Britain and relocate thousands of people are another example of social cleansing by the government (Cameron promises to bulldoze ‘sink estates’, 11 January). In the last five years thousands of families have been relocated, leaving large parts of London to the rich. The people who will be relocated will be forced into the rental market and the grip of ruthless landlords.
It may come as a surprise to him that these so-called troubled estates are not only populated by gangs and drugs. Vibrant communities exist, where neighbours know each other, unlike many of the wealthy streets in other cities. The fact that people often have no choice but to live within a troubled community is no reason for the prime minister to label someone’s home as bleak or brutal. Relocating poorer people from their homes to free up development opportunities for the rich is not a solution to the social issues often found within these communities.
The redevelopment of the Liverpool and London docks was indeed a successful reconstruction project but the properties within these developments are predominately occupied by the wealthy, not people who earn the minimum wage. Planners trying to emulate Le Corbusier’s ideas only succeeded in encouraging social problems.
To link antisocial behaviour to the design of housing is not new. Cameron, in his call to raze certain “sink” estates, uses the rhetoric of the riots and makes a link with the design of these estates: “The riots of 2011 didn’t emerge from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings.” His tone is aggressive, calling for “all out assault on poverty and disadvantage” rather than a “bid for the political centre ground” as your report suggests. He joins Prince Charles in calling for a more traditional approach to design to solve society’s ills.
Yet at the University of East London and in our practice ZCD Architects, we have been carrying out extensive research into housing design and community life in 16 estates across the country. The results may be somewhat surprising – some so-called “sink estates” perform very well in terms of providing safe spaces for residents, particularly children to socialise and play. Streets, on the other hand, fare less well; how many these days are full of happy children safely playing outside?
More seriously, if – as he suggests – funding will come from “new private homes built attractively at a higher density” then children unfortunate enough to live in these blocks will suffer the same fate of their currently “ghettoised” counterparts.
Simply falling back on the tired rhetoric of streets-are-good, postwar-is-bad risks the same disastrous consequences of the much-maligned postwar housing experiment. This time round, we need evidence to form policy objectives and we need to listen to residents about what they want for the spaces outside their homes.
I felt a strong sense of deja vu on reading Robert Booth’s article about proposals to redevelop “sink estates” (190,000 council homes at risk, says Labour, 12 January). During John Major’s government, I led a study of the feasibility of regenerating nearly 5,000 homes in the then “sink estate” of Castle Vale in Birmingham. Alongside the proposal for a Housing Action Trust (eventually accepted), the Treasury required me to examine the option of a private-sector-led redevelopment.
The redevelopment option required the displacement of most of the current population, and in the absence of sufficient alternative social housing they would have become homeless. The higher direct costs of regeneration that maintained social renting were far outweighed by the indirect costs of emergency B&B-style accommodation for those displaced (leaving aside the social costs). Over the 12 years of the Castle Vale HAT’s existence (1993-2005) it cost £205m in government grants, but unemployment and crime shrank, while health and education improved. Castle Vale became sought after by both social tenants and first-time buyers, mostly from among the original inhabitants.
The rationale that applied to Castle Vale then is even more cogent now – more low/insecure incomes, fewer affordable alternatives to rent or buy, and even greater need for secure, stable neighbourhoods. But fast forward to 2016 and the present government has learned nothing from its predecessor. George Osborne’s 200,000 “affordable” homes will cost buyers up to £450,000 and will rely almost entirely on private funding (his public spending plans work out at £20k per dwelling – affordable to him).
Meantime, the conditions that create “sink estates” will be exacerbated – as once stable neighbourhoods are under-invested with poor quality homes and services, and let on short-term tenancies to last-resort tenants. Social research showed the “sink estate” reputation of Castle Vale was the impact of a tiny minority of residents: present policies will repeat the lesson at untold cost to the vast majority of social tenants, all over the country.