In Defence of Central Hill

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In June 2015, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) were contacted by residents of Central Hill, a council estate in Crystal Palace. They has started the Save Central Community campaign that February, and were fighting to save their homes from demolition at the hands of Lambeth Council, who had formally added the estate to their regeneration programme in December 2014.

Contrary to Lambeth’s slur campaign, the estate is extremely well designed. The streets, houses and green open spaces work in conjunction with the rolling landscape, the light and the different degrees of privacy, from south-facing front courtyards to balconies with views across London. It is no surprise that this is a coveted spot. Land values are correspondingly high, and are the main reason for the proposed demolition of a unique and innovative piece of urban design that should be a model of social housing and community living.

Over the last nine months ASH has been working with the residents, getting to know the estate and the community that lives there. Many residents have called the estate home since construction was completed in the early 1970s, with families of several generations living within a few yards of one another.

We began by getting to know the residents, and with their help and support organised a series of design workshops. From these we were able to identify sites where ASH might be able to add additional homes without demolishing any of the existing ones. We also studied the architecture of the buildings in order to establish whether we might be able to add additional homes on top.

Lambeth has admitted that the existing foundations are extremely strong, and are in fact proposing to leave them intact in their own redevelopment proposal. In consultation with a surveyor, we have concluded that the existing buildings are capable of accommodating an additional 1-2 floors. Combined with the significant number of areas that could accommodate infill housing, without building on the extensive green spaces across the estate, ASH’s proposal will provide the much-needed homes for those on Lambeth Council’s waiting list, while some of the remaining flats could be sold to finance the scheme. We believe this is the best future for Central Hill estate, one which respects its present community, the social vision of its past, and its future as council housing for Londoners.

As keen admirers of the estate architecture and its ideological origins, ASH is keen to retain the ethos of the estate, and our proposals will be sympathetic to the existing architecture. There are no structural or other problems with the existing buildings. On the contrary, they are extremely robust and well designed. Any problems of maintenance or design that have been raised by residents can be dealt with by minor refurbishment. Lambeth’s own surveyor’s report has estimated refurbishment costs at around £18 million, less than £40,000 per home.

Environmentally, it is absurd to demolish perfectly good housing, unnecessarily releasing tonnes of carbon back into the atmosphere. Such an act goes completely against the council’s own charter and commitment to sustainable construction practices. In paragraph 6.4 of Lambeth’s Supplementary Planning Guidance for the Vauxhall development they state:

‘An important aspect of delivering sustainable development is the re-use of existing buildings and the conservation of heritage assets. Re-use and minimum intervention approaches when accommodating changes in historic buildings minimises demolition and construction waste, reduces the need for new materials and is more energy efficient than new-build construction. Historic assets should not be compromised by new development and should be fully incorporated into redevelopment schemes to ensure they remain in a viable use.’

Finally, Karakusevic Carson Architects, who are working on another of Lambeth’s regeneration projects, the Fenwick estate in Clapham, has estimated the cost of replacing existing homes at around £225-240,000 per unit. On this estimate, replacing Central Hill’s 456 homes would mean building costs of between roughly £100 and 110 million. That’s before a single new home has been added. In the light of Lambeth Council’s cuts to services throughout the borough, and with the £18 million refurbishment costing less than a sixth of that, this is an unacceptable misuse of money and resources and must be challenged.

There is absolutely no reason to demolish the homes of Central Hill estate, but there are a large number of reasons not to. The first, last and most important of these is that it is home to around 1,500 residents — residents whose wishes have been completely ignored by Lambeth Council, but whose futures they threaten. In the middle of a housing crisis, it stands to reason that the demolition of London’s council estates is not the solution to the shortage of genuinely affordable housing for Londoners. Indeed, it will only make that shortage worse.

Geraldine Dening

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