Open Garden Estates 2015

Over the weekend of 13-14 June three Lambeth housing estates earmarked for regeneration, Cressingham Gardens, Central Hill and Knight’s Walk, hosted Open Garden Estates, an event organised by Architects for Social Housing (ASH). Founded by architect Geraldine Dening in order to respond architecturally to London’s housing crisis, ASH is a collective of architects, urban designers, engineers, planners, academics, theatre directors, photographers, writers and housing activists operating with developing ideas under set principles. First among these is the conviction that infill, build-over and refurbishment are more sustainable solutions to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s council estates, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house. ASH offers support, advice and expertise to residents who feel their interests are not being represented by housing associations or local councils during the regeneration process. ASH’s primary responsibility is to existing residents – tenants and leaseholders alike; but it is also committed to finding viable alternatives to developer-led regeneration – alternatives that are in the interests of the wider London community.

From Housing Estate to Brownfield Land

Open Garden Estates was part of ASH’s ongoing attempt to banish the myths of estates disseminated in the media. Invited by ASH to visit Cressingham Gardens on the border of Brixton’s Brockwell Park, a journalist from The Independent on Sunday expressed her surprise at its green spaces and welcoming community when she expected, she said, ‘discarded syringes’. It is this image of housing estates as concrete jungles, as – in the words of the recently published Adonis report – ‘notorious’ and ‘doomed’ sink estates, where living conditions are ‘scandalous’ and ‘chronically bad’, that is at the heart of its proposal to rebrand all existing housing estates in Greater London as ‘brownfield land.’

This term is used in urban planning to describe former industrial land, often contaminated by hazardous waste or pollution, that requires ‘cleaning up’ before being used for new developments. Greenwich Peninsula, once the site of the largest gasworks in Europe, is an example of such a site being redeveloped by foreign investment. In the Adonis report, however, the contaminants that require cleaning up are the hundreds of thousands of Londoners that currently live on what it estimates are the 3,500 housing estates in Greater London.

When employed to describe their mostly working-class residents, already demonised by a concerted campaign in our media and entertainment industries, this language of waste and pollution has dark parallels with the discourse of degeneracy and disease employed in ethnic cleansing. It is not hyperbole to describe these plans, as they are in London’s housing movement, as ‘social cleansing’. 50,000 London families, upwards of 150,000 people, have been forcibly deported from their boroughs in the past three years, some to outer boroughs, most out of the city altogether, all to make way for up-market developments far beyond the pockets of the local communities. This is social cleansing on a scale not seen in Britain since the Highland Clearances, and just as brutal.

Housing Policy and the Adonis Report

The Adonis report, produced for the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), was sponsored by the Peabody Trust, one of the housing associations to which the report recommends councils transferring their ‘stock’; so its claims for ‘independence’ are as creditable as its description of planned new developments as ‘affordable.’ It sets out very clearly what – if it is adopted as policy – will potentially mean the demolition of every housing estate in Greater London. Yet in a report inundated with figures on the prohibitive cost of refurbishment verses the financial viability of redevelopment, not once does it mention how many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Londoners will be evicted and made homeless by its socially and architecturally regressive dream of ‘City Villages’.

If we are to judge by the speech Brandon Lewis gave to the London Real Estate Forum following his appointment as Minister of State for Housing and Planning, these proposals have been taken on board. Behind his concern for tackling, as he put it, ‘the deprivation that blights the lives of residents in these estates’, the Minister plans an unprecedented land grab for their backers and financiers in the building industry. The terminology, justifications and tactics expressed in his speech were drawn lock, stock and eviction notice from the Adonis Report, showing that the latter’s suggestion that London’s housing estates be recategorised as brownfield land will shortly become government policy – if it isn’t already.

And yet, who has heard about it? The mainstream press won’t touch the truth about estate regeneration. With the occasional exception of a few journalists from The Guardian, when housing is raised in the press it is in order to reinforce in the minds of readers the presiding image of run-down sink estates as havens of crime and anti-social behaviour that has little in common with the strong communities that live there. PRP, the architectural practice chosen by Lambeth for the redevelopment of Central Hill estate, began their supposed consultation with residents by publishing a photograph on Twitter of a walkway at night with the exclamation: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway!’ The article on Open Garden Estates for The Independent on Sunday was cut in half, presumably by an editor scared of the potential financial implications to London’s property-owning classes of what ASH and the housing movement is shouting in order to be heard.

Estate Regeneration and the Dismantling of the State

First some lies. In the Newspeak of our Orwellian times, ‘regeneration’ means redevelopment. This was confirmed by Matthew Barnett, Lambeth’s Cabinet Member for Housing, when at a meeting with residents of Knight’s Walk he defined regeneration as ‘building to a high density in order to have more homes for council rent to address the housing crisis.’ However, the redevelopment of housing estates is not driven by the desire to address the housing needs of people on council waiting lists, as is repeatedly put forward by councils, and not only Lambeth’s, unable to provide even projected figures for how many new homes at social rent will be generated from the ruins of the current council homes. Contrary to what residents are told by politicians, borough councils, housing associations and architectural practices, the last thing on the minds of property developers is re-housing tenants on council rental rates – not when the land their homes sit on is some of the most valuable in the world.

Nor is the choice to demolish existing estates driven by the punitive costs of refurbishment – not when the eviction, demolition and redevelopment of the Heygate and Aylesbury estates, models of ‘regeneration’, will cost many times more than they would have to refurbish and maintain. The Six Acres estate in Finsbury Park, built at the same time as the Heygate and Aylesbury by the same contractors using the same system, was refurbished by Islington Council in 2012 at a cost of around £10,000 per dwelling. This is many times less than the projected £60,000 per dwelling Southwark Council is spending on emptying, demolishing and redeveloping the Aylesbury estate. So, what is driving estate regeneration?

Our belief at ASH is this. In addition to the enormous economic incentives for property developers, housing associations and financial investors eager to profit from London’s exorbitant land values, the policy of demolishing London’s housing estates is also the keystone in this government’s crusade to dismantle the welfare state built by Labour after the Second World War. Putting it bluntly, the Tories want to erase everything the housing estates of the 1960s and 1970s stood for – the NHS, state benefits, pensions and education, publicly owned utilities, transport and industry – everything, in fact, that might remind the people of Britain that there is another social contract than the one currently being forced upon us. The economic imperative is the determining one, but it is being driven by the political will to ensure that never again will the ghost of socialist ideology walk these isles.

To this end, not only must the greatest source of working-class housing in London be reduced to rubble and their often significantly lower quality replacements priced at a level few Londoners – let alone working class Londoners – will be able to afford, but the very concept of council housing must become impossible to imagine again. These plans, which are already a reality, to evict an entire class of people will see the greatest change to the topography and demographics of London in generations.

Given the uniform adoption of this neo-liberal agenda by all parliamentary parties, it is hardly surprising that the largest assault on social housing is being pursued, to their shame, by Labour councils; or that the architect of this policy, the Labour Peer Lord Adonis, was himself raised on a Camden council estate. In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote: ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. It is vital to the living future of London and Londoners that we remember a vision of social housing whose planned erasure from the cityscape is the blank canvas of memory on which the housing commodities of the present are being built. So, what can architects do?

Architects for Social Housing

Speaking of Dawson’s Heights, the extraordinary estate she designed in Dulwich in the mid-1960s, Kate Macintosh, who spoke at Open Garden Estates, said: ‘Central to all housing design is the balance between the expression of the individual dwelling and the cohesion and integration of the entire group.’ This vision of architecture as social model rather than financial asset is more than ever relevant today, when architects have so readily yielded their agency to property developers, financiers and politicians. It is time for architects to defend London’s council estates and learn from their vision of the role of architecture in society. It’s time for architects to choose whose side they are on.

ASH operates on three levels of activity: architecture, propaganda and community.

1) We propose architectural alternatives to estate demolition through designs for infill, build-over and refurbishment. The plans being drawn up by ASH for Knight’s Walk and Cressingham Gardens, designed in consultation with residents, are examples of such proposals.

2) We disseminate information that aims to counter negative perceptions about social housing in the minds of the public and relevant interest groups using a variety of means, including protest. The protest and accompanying manifesto at the recent AJ120 Awards was an example of such an action.

3) We support estate communities in their resistance to the demolition of their homes by working with residents, offering ideas and information from a reservoir of knowledge and tactics pooled from similar campaigns. Open Garden Estates was an example of such an initiative.

Open Garden Estates

The form taken by each Open Garden event was particular to the estate that hosted it, reflecting the character of the community that lives there and their campaign to save their homes:

Cressingham Gardens, in Brixton, held TRA-guided tours of the communal gardens on this greenest of estates, while ASH facilitated a workshop with residents on the potential redevelopment of blocks of flats which, to Lambeth Council’s shame, have stood empty and bricked up for sixteen years.

Save Central Hill Community, in Crystal Palace, held a barbeque on the slopes that surround their much-used sports and playground facilities, a grass amphitheatre on which over a hundred residents and visitors discussed their campaign between guided tours of the estate’s communal green spaces and private gardens, all of which had been especially opened for the weekend.

Hands off Knight’s Walk, a much smaller estate in Kennington, opened several of its unique interior courtyard-gardens to the public for guided tours that culminated with a passionate talk delivered by Kate Macintosh, who was celebrating the recent listing of Leigham Court Road.

The success of Open Garden Estates should be measured not only by the number of people who visited the individual estates, but also by how the respective communities made the event their own and employed it to galvanise residents in the struggle to save their homes. By both these measures, Open Garden Estates was a resounding success, to which these quotes from architects who attended the event attest:

Don’t Agonise, Organise!

‘New architecture, whether it was from the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Centuries, or indeed the 1960s, has always suffered from a fifty-year itch, a fall from grace and pressure to be demolished. It is extremely fortunate that societies of believers build up around these important embodiments of our culture and politics, and do lead – always – to a change in our perception of their worth. It’s great that ASH is focussing our attention on these fantastic public spaces and the communities they sustain in this Open Garden Estates scheme.’

– Sam Causer, Architect and Senior Lecturer at the Leicester School of Architecture

‘Open Garden Estates gave me an opportunity to enjoy the communal green, open space within the estate – an invaluable asset for the well-being of all living in the surrounding community – and to show the support and solidarity the residents of the estate have from the wider Crystal Palace community.

‘The event gave the residents the chance to counter the misplaced view of estates being ugly, concrete jungles by sharing the space with the wider community and showing the beautiful open spaces, gardens and homes that are within the estate. It was also an opportunity for them to come and work together making banners, to support future actions against eviction, or potting plants, to improve some of the badly maintained areas of the estate. 

‘ASH, in facilitating this event, is supporting the community on this estate to stand up against the threat of eviction from their homes and potential forced transfer from their hometown. Using experience and knowledge from the growing network of housing activists supporting social housing residents across London, ASH is exposing Lambeth’s sham “consultations” and holding Lambeth to account on their commitment of maintaining the social housing stock – a commitment broken on other “regeneration” schemes in London. Beyond this, ASH is critically questioning architects in their role on such schemes. This will hopefully lead to a much needed discussion within the industry surrounding the social and moral issues that arise when we help to facilitate the implementation of these policies.’

– John (surname withheld on request), a local Crystal Palace resident and architectural technologist with a South London architect’s practice.

‘I’m really impressed with ASH, particularly that you are offering alternative design solutions to the estates earmarked for “regeneration”.’

– Will Farmer, Research Coordinator for Article 25

‘Open Garden Estates gave an invaluable insight into how thriving the communities were, most likely representative of thousands across London. It was encouraging, in the sense that a realistic model for development can be achieved that is based on community, collaboration and participation.

‘The situation the estates face is representative of how local authorities are selling public assets to the private sector. Part of a larger remit to drive working class communities out of London for private gain, this is simply unacceptable. Architects have a key role in our society’s responsibility to initiate change, and the evolving discourse of ASH and its members are an essential and much needed reflection of this.’

– Tomasz Romaniewicz, Architect, Coffey Architects

‘ASH needs to get into every architecture school and every local authority and housing association, to install some of these decent social values.’

– Judith Martin, Heritage Consultant

‘I salute the endeavours of ASH: Architects for Social Housing. They are acting in the spirit of Nancy Pelosi when she said, “Organise, don’t agonise.”’

– Kate Macintosh, Architect

ASH intends to pursue this and other initiatives with estates facing the threat of demolition across London, and to target architectural practices that collude in the social cleansing of the communities they house. We welcome those of you who reject this role to join us.

Simon Elmer

ASH (Architects for Social Housing)

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