On sunday, David Cameron announced a new programme to regenerate Britain’s postwar housing estates. He’s not the first to propose it; Labour’s Andrew Adonis’ and Lord Rogers have also previously called for postwar estates to be replaced by ‘City Villages’.
It’s a clever headline, because on the surface it’s an idea that no one can really disagree with. Despite the unhelpful rhetoric about ‘sink’ estates, most people would agree that the postwar housing estates remain traps of deprivation and poverty for those who live there. And yes, many of them are characterised by barren, un-owned gaps that could yield more (badly-needed) homes that would leave their neighbourhoods significantly better, safer, more lively and more attractive.
So as Shelter’s Pete Jeffreys has remarked, the question of whether this is a good idea or not hinges not on the idea itself, but entirely on how it is done, and by whom.
At its best, this programme could be a great reforming project to invest in upgrading some of the worst parts of our cities, and improve the lives of those who live there, as well as creating thousands of new homes in city centres.
At its worst, it could simply provide thin cover for a rather pernicious policy of selling London estates to opportunity-hungry speculative developers, ‘decanting’ the social housing tenants who live there, demolishing their homes, and rebuilding high-rise apartments at high cost and high profit, to be sold at prices unaffordable to all but speculators and the wealthy.
It’s not just that such an approach would be callous and socially damaging, it simply wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t lower house prices (for reasons explored before here), it wouldn’t improve the lives of those who live there now, and it wouldn’t unlock anything politically. It would quickly become mired in desperate conflicts (perhaps even riots, ironically). It would be just the latest in a long, international tradition of misconceived ‘slum clearances’; the poor shoved aside to make way for real-estate under the pretext of improving housing standards or ‘building more homes’.
The Estates of the Nation
In many ways Britain’s housing estates represent both the best and worst of UK housing. The best in that they speak to a time in which we saw providing everyone with a decent home as an achievable objective. The worst in that they epitomise the dumbness of our centralised industrial mass-housing models, which assumed that development is something done-to, not done-by citizens. They took a scale of social self-organisation that has worked throughout most of human history… and simply ignored it. Instead, they produced ambitious masterplans of perfectly standardised filing cabinets for humans. The dwellings themselves may have been of a good physical standard, but the humans within them had been socially-isolated, without the rights or means of self-governance that are essential for individual or communal resilience. Architects love to debate whether architecture was or wasn’t to blame for the ‘failure’ of these estates as social and economic platforms, but the reality is that the estates failed long before any architects were involved. It’s the procurement, stupid. A neighbourhood built by one person is not a neighbourhood.
As progressives, it may be an uncomfortable lesson for us to accept, but one of the main reasons the estates failed is that they treated human beings not as citizens capable of self-determination, but as consumers and statistics. They were based on a wrongheaded conception of housing as being about powered objects, not empowered people — a noun instead of a verb. As John Turner articulates so powerfully in his books, most mass-housing fails because it strips us of our autonomy, our agency, our family networks and our sense of ownership or responsibility over our neighbourhood; to the point where we are unable to mend or extend our homes, start a business in the shed, get our windows replaced or even change a stairwell lightbulb when it goes. Britain’s postwar urban estates left the most disadvantaged people in society concentrated together and utterly dependent on external public services that could so easily be cut by any government that felt it no longer needed the votes of those who live there.
An estate by any other name…
You’ve probably guessed where this is going. The obvious point is that we haven’t really changed that model, we’ve just outsourced it to real-estate development companies. There is a self-evident foolishness in knocking down estates and replacing them with more expensive (albeit slightly better-designed) versions of the same thing. Only this time they are not so much filing cabinets for the poor as permanent hotels for the upper middle class, burdened by bigger and bigger mortgages. The estate regeneration projects might be dressed-up with layers of ‘consultation’, they might be rebranded as ‘mixed use neighbourhoods’ or ‘urban villages’, they might even let the previous residents back-in afterwards, but an estate by any other name is still an estate.
What if instead we were to take the idea of ‘villages’ seriously, by revisiting the processes and social structures by which real villages actually happen.
Since 2010 the UK government’s housing policy has been strangely bifurcated. With one hand, it has produced policies which could be described as ‘business-as-usual’: politically savvy but economically illiterate moves to deregulate or subsidise the few huge developers upon whom we’ve historically been dependent. But with the other hand it has also proposed a handful of quite radically reforming ideas: the Right to Build, the Community Right to Bid, Neighbourhood plans, the Right to Reclaim and the Community Right to Build, which recognised that it is communities — through their consent to development — that create the value behind development, and should therefore have control over it, and the right to retain the value they create. As a recent Demos report explored, these policies are fundamentally robust in principle, because they are framed not as building programmes but as Rights. They are rooted in the realisation that the way out of gridlock is not less, but more democracy.
So what if we were to apply that same approach to the postwar estates?
A Right to Regenerate
What if we were to create a new ‘Right to Regenerate’ for estates, which would give communities the power to propose, vote-on and own new development of their estates, such as gap ‘micro-sites’, rooftops or — yes– even the wholesale replacement of buildings if they choose.
The difference is that instead of paying a developer a 20–30% margin to take on the risk of battling with residents, we could let citizens form community trusts or co-operatives and be the developers themselves. The revenues then coming from sale or rental of those homes could then be re-invested into upgrading existing homes, building more homes, creating new local enterprise space, or supporting community-owned institutions and support programmes.
But creating a genuine ‘Right’ is not only about giving legal ‘permission’ to do something. It is about providing communities with the templates, tools and support to practically use those rights (given that they probably don’t have the skills or the time). One move might be to use a small part of that £140m to create a national Right to Regenerate agency, which exists to provide communities with digital tools (such as this one), legal templates, and also facilitation support, such as a few hours with community housing hero Stephen Hill, who walks around neighbourhoods with local residents, looking-for and discussing development opportunities.
There will always be those who will say it’s just too difficult, that we should fall back on the developer-led model. And in many ways it is still too difficult (take-up of the community rights has so far been quite low). Our challenge is to make it less difficult. We (and many others) are working on open digital technologies aimed at making these approaches much, much easier — to make them a ‘new normal’.
If the idea of giving citizens the power and ownership over the regeneration of their estates, to build genuinely affordable housing and to found real ‘villages’ seems a bit far-fetched and unlikely to succeed, let’s just consider the alternative.
We won’t know if we don’t try.