ASH was recently asked a number of questions about our principles and practices by a member of Momentum, a faction of the Labour Party supporting Jeremy Corbyn that we have been highly critical of in the past because of its support for Labour councils demolishing council estates. Many of the questions we were asked are ones ASH has been asked before; but what made these different was that they were based on consistently inaccurate perceptions about what we believe and what we do. Perhaps it was no more than a provocation; but it was interesting to see so many contributors to our Facebook page respond at such length to the questions, and correct so many of the lies spread about the viability of estate refurbishment by the councils trying to demolish them. One of the things we were asked was ‘What is ASH?’, and I think the discussion that ensued is one of the answers to that question. It seemed to us, therefore, that it might be useful to anyone interested in ASH to publish these questions on our blog along with our answers, which incorporated many of the contributors’ responses.
I’m not really sure who or what ASH is, but these are genuine questions to them or this forum:
1) What is your alternative to estate redevelopment on estates that are past their sell-by date? Do you simply think the council should spend millions on keeping decrepit buildings upright when it would be cheaper in the long run to rebuild? I think many of the tower block demolitions were probably wrong, and no one now suggests removing those still standing, but blocks like Tower Court, where I worked for years as a gardener, clearly needed demolishing as it was covered in cracks. Similarly, I think it strange that you appear to dispute the claim that there is a need for family-sized flats, and your position of not redeveloping appears to leave many families in substandard, too small accommodation.
2) If you accept there is a need for some redevelopment, which I hope you do, how would you finance it? I don’t need to point out that we have lived now through decades of attacks on social housing by central governments, both Tory and Labour, wedded to the ideology of ‘mixed communities’. There is no money for social housing in Hackney. The mayor, Philip Glanville, is clear that their redevelopment is only possible via the sale of significant numbers of luxury flats and providing so-called affordable housing. What is your alternative to this funding? Personally, on Woodberry Down – again somewhere I have known and worked on for 30 years and is now not great housing – I think they could have done far more piecemeal approach, redevelop bits at a time; but fundamentally there were blocks there, like where Skinners School is now, that were cracking up, had no lifts, so no good for mums and the old. Another good example, which I campaigned around initially, was Haggerston West with Carl Taylor. Haggerston East was transferred to CanalSide, who actually did do up the old blocks, knocked some flats together, and that was the option that I would have liked on Haggerston West. However, what was proposed on Haggerston West gave a lot more houses, a lot more flats, and that persuaded the tenants who voted – those that were left – for the council’s scheme. I think they were conned, but, equally, I understand that the kind of money that CanalSide used was not available for the Haggerston West redevelopment, and that that could only have been funded by private housing. Fundamentally it seems to come down to this: you seem to believe that all redevelopment is gentrification as it introduces luxury flats, so does this mean you simply want to keep things static?
3) Where do you think London Borough of Hackney will get money to renovate flats from? By building private infill, as you slightly bizarrely seem to support? I was involved in opposing the council’s infill Estates Plus programme 10 years ago, as the tenants felt it took away their garages and green space. We won, by the way. If you think that the council can simply borrow money I would be very interested to hear of examples where this has happened, as I am unaware and think there are some legal issues, but I may be wrong.
Thank you for your questions, which I’ll try and answer as far as I can:
1) I’m not sure what you mean by estates being ‘past their sell-by date’. Half of London lives in 150 year-old Victorian brick terraces, and we don’t hear calls for them to be demolished. The concrete structures that are consistently described by councils as ‘past their sell-by date’ are nowhere near such a loose definition. You’ll recall that concrete was first used by the Romans, and the structures they used it on are doing pretty well. As the builder on the ASH forum wrote, the cracks that you put forward as evidence that these estates ‘clearly need demolishing’ are nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, like the Labour councillors whose assertions you seem to be basing your judgements on, you don’t seem to understand technically what you’re talking about, and should speak a little less authoritatively on a subject that has such consequences for the homes of thousands of residents.
As for the need for a proportion of families on estates to move into larger flats – or more accurately, flats with more bedrooms – I don’t know where you get the idea that we ‘dispute’ this. In fact, in our critique of these inaccurate judgements about the state of disrepair of council homes justifying their demolition, ASH has addressed precisely this issue in our article on Lambeth Labour Council’s ‘Criteria for Demolition’. You may wish to read this text. Again, a family growing and requiring more bedrooms does not, as you claim, make that accommodation ‘substandard’. On the contrary, the council homes Labour councils are so intent on demolishing are considerably more generous in size than the increasingly reduced space standards guiding new builds.
2) If by ‘redevelopment you mean the demolition of existing council homes and their redevelopment, then no, we do not accept that. If you take the trouble to go onto ASH’s blog, which I hope anyone would before asking us such lengthy questions, you’ll see that our first principle is ‘that increasing the housing capacity on existing council estates, rather than redeveloping them as luxury apartments, is a more sustainable solution to London’s housing needs than the demolition of the city’s social housing during a housing shortage, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house.’ On all the design alternatives to demolition ASH has produced – on Knight’s Walk, Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates – we do not demolish existing homes, which we propose to refurbish, but we always introduce new homes, increasing the housing capacity of the estate by up to 45 per cent. Far from wanting to keep things ‘static’, as you assert – again, based on I’m not sure what – we propose a future for these estates by refurbishing the existing homes, keeping the community together, and adding new homes to extend the life of that community and provide more housing for rising housing demands (as opposed to real estate investments). You can find our designs for each of these proposals on our blog. If you’re genuinely interested in our proposals and how we propose funding them – which so far no council of the Labour Party has been – you can read our 50-page Feasibility Study Report on West Kensington and Gibbs Green.
3) As ASH has said consistently for some time, we believe what you call ‘redevelopment’, which only follows on from the demolition of council homes, is not gentrification but social cleansing, so your ‘seems’, once again, is wrong. I wonder where you’ve got your uniformly inaccurate opinions of ASH from: it sounds like from the Labour Councils whose social cleansing of London’s council estates we oppose. I’m also not sure what you’re trying to convey by your description of our infill proposals as ‘bizarre’, except to try to dismiss them. But if you look at our proposals, they are for both infill and roof extensions, and are a mix of homes for private rent or sale and more homes for social rent, not exclusively ‘private’ as you assert. And they never eat into the green spaces on the estate, as you suggest they have to, but are almost always built on derelict or disused land identified by residents. Again, you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about with these blanket assertions, and I invite you to look at ASH’s proposals for a better understanding.
There are a number of ways in which estates can generate the money for their refurbishment. One of these is by a Right to Transfer to a Community Land Trust, such as is being attempted by the West Kensington and Gibbs Green community. Another might be by setting up a Tenant Managed Organisation and borrowing against, for instance, future rental income, as Cressingham Gardens have suggested as one of several financial models proposed in their People’s Plan. This is up to the individual estate campaigns and residents. What we propose architecturally, which can combine with and compliment these options, is generating funds for refurbishment through the renting or selling of a proportion of the new homes we propose to build on the estates.
But more generally, your assertion that Labour councils are broke and cannot afford to refurbish their estates so they have to be redeveloped is based on a fundamental untruth, which is that refurbishment is too expensive. In fact, quite apart from all the problems of destroying a community, the disruption to lives of decanting an estate, not to mention the social, mental health and environmental consequences of demolition, refurbishment has been consistently shown to cost a fraction of demolition and redevelopment. Far from being the only financially viable option, councils are taking on enormous financial risk setting up special purpose vehicles in such an insecure housing market, and against the advice of people and institutions that have a far more objective understanding of the risks than the easily lobbied amateurs on Labour cabinets. As campaigners at Cressingham Gardens have pointed out to Lambeth Labour Council, tenants rents and service charges are ring-fenced and only allowed to be spent on housing as part of the Housing Revenue Account, and are therefore not affected by the central government funding cuts you mention. As an example, only £200-250,000 of the £1,200,000 the council collects in annual rent from Cressingham Gardens is spent on maintenance and repairs. And even if SPVs were the only way councils can raise the money they have squandered through mismanagement of the housing revenue account and the escalating wages of their officers, they should do so not in order to demolish council estates but to refurbish and extend them according to models such as that offered by ASH.
To argue that demolition and redevelopment is the only financial option is to buy into the very easily exposed lies of the Labour councils that are responsible for fabricating this argument. There are many examples of this I could give you, but to take just one, read the article on our blog by Professor Jane Rendell, based on her testimony at the Public Inquiry into the Compulsory Purchase Order on the Aylesbury Estate, about how Southwark Labour Council buried the report they commissioned into the relative cost of refurbishment versus demolition. The Labour councils to which ASH has presented its alternatives to demolition – Lambeth and Hammersmith & Fulham – have done exactly the same thing with our alternatives to demolition based on fabricated figures, withheld information, inaccurate assessments, false claims and deliberate misunderstandings – lies, in other words. The truth – which perhaps your allegiance to the cult of Corbyn has blinded you to – is that Labour councils are not looking for solutions to the housing crisis; they are devising – with Jeremy Corbyn’s blessing and Sadiq Khan’s support – ways to sell as much of our public land as possible into private hands.
Architects for Social Housing