An Exemplary Regeneration: King’s Crescent Estate

‘It’s a question of never demolishing, never reducing or replacing;
always adding, transforming and reusing.’

– Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton, Jean Philippe Vassal,
PLUS : Large-scale Housing Development (2004)

The regeneration of the King’s Crescent estate in Hackney is an exemplary regeneration. Everyone says so. Philip Glanville, the current Mayor of Hackney and former Cabinet Member for Housing who oversaw its planning application, says so. Karakusevic Carson, the architectural practice that designed it, says so. Higgins Construction, the company that is building it, says so. The Royal Institute of British Architects, on their online page dedicated to estate regeneration, says so. The Greater London Authority, which gave its outline planning consent to the scheme in 2013, said so. Sadiq Khan, who was interviewed on the building site last February on BBC1’s Sunday Politics as part of his mayoral campaign, says so. Even the Duke of Kent, when he visited the site last November – generating the headline ‘Regeneration Fit for Royalty’ – says so. And the Architects’ Journal, which included the estate in its booklet titled ‘Exemplary Housing Estate Regeneration in Europe’, says so. Exemplary: an example to other estate regeneration schemes. Something to include – anonymously, along with the other ‘case studies’ – in the Greater London Authority’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration. Not something like the Heygate estate in Southwark, or the Ferrier estate in Greenwich, or the West Hendon estate in Barnet, or the Woodberry Down estate, also in Hackney – all of which have been object lessons in the social cleansing of estate communities. No, the King’s Crescent estate is exemplary. Everybody says so. So let’s take a look at what example King’s Crescent sets for other local authorities, housing associations, builders, property developers, estate agents, architects and investors looking for a lesson in estate regeneration.

Clissold Quarter

When Kings’ Crescent estate was completed in the late 1960s it provided 632 council homes. Between 1999 and 2012 Hackney Labour council demolished 357 of these homes, beginning with the 19-storey, 114-flat Barkway Court. This tower block was demolished and the land sold in 2002 in order to build 106 private flats, of which 40 were sheltered accommodation. These last were used to house 40 of the households from the 53 sheltered housing flats subsequently demolished in 2005. 9 leaseholders in Barkway Court were bought out, and 1 accepted a shared equity deal on a property in the new development. In total, 4 of the 11 blocks were demolished, including Sandridge Court – which had the same number of flats and storeys as Barkway Court – Westmill Court and Codicote Terrace, plus half of Weston and Lemsford Courts. All the demolished homes were located at the centre of the estate, leaving a large area of land free between the lower-rise blocks on the north and south ends of the estate. Of the remaining 275 council homes that weren’t demolished, 195 are for social rent and 80 are owned by leaseholders.

On 31 July 2013 the Greater London Authority granted Hackney council outline planning permission for the following proposal. The 195 homes for social rent are to be refurbished, and the 80 leaseholder’s homes are to receive external refurbishment. On the land where the demolished 357 council homes stood, 376 flats are to be built for private sale, 115 flats built for shared ownership, and 79 flats will be for social rent as part of the Section 106 agreements. On the hoardings advertising the development, these 79 homes for social rent are described as ‘additional’, and an increase on the existing 195. Nothing is said about the demolished 357, of which 82 were owned by leaseholders. In its planning report the GLA acknowledges that the scheme results in a total loss of 196 homes for social rent.

Perhaps more worryingly, in the report by Higgins Construction – which is, after all, building the new development – they only refer to the 490 private and shared ownership properties as ‘new build’, and the existing 275 council homes as ‘refurbished’. No mention is made of the 79 additional flats for social rent. But then Higgins Construction, the construction arm of the Higgins Group PLC, were also responsible for the regeneration of the Myatts Field North estate in Lambeth, now rebranded the ‘Oval Quarter’, where residents of the new development have made complaints about build quality ranging from mould and noise to infestations of vermin and water shortages, as well as being trapped in 25-40 year contracts with private power company E.ON that has driven many of them into fuel poverty. Despite this less than impressive track record on estate redevelopment, Higgins began construction of the new builds in 2015, and phase 1 of the 5-year masterplan is due for completion in 2017. A sign outside Higgins’ own on-site marketing office proudly reports that 85 per cent of the properties have already been sold – which raises the question: to whom? The sale prices will give us some answer.

According to the Homes & Property section of the London Evening Standard, which ran a feature on the new development on 16 March, prices for the shared ownership flats, which Hackney council will own, start at £98,750 for a 25 per cent share of a 1-bedroom flat costing £395,000, with leaseholders having to pay a monthly rent of £679 plus a service charge of £125; £120,000 for a 25 per cent share in a 2-bedroom flat costing £480,000, with a monthly rent of £825 and service charge of £125; and £160,000 for a 25 per cent share in a 3-bedroom flat costing £640,000, with a monthly rent of £1,100 and a service charge of £175. That’s what the properties start at, and this is only for the 115 flats for shared ownership.

Shared ownership, which is the default excuse for developers building properties no-one can afford to buy, means that until the leaseholder has purchased 100 per cent of the shares in the property they don’t own anything, and their lease amounts only to an assured tenancy. As such, they can face possession proceedings for rent arrears, anti-social behavior or subletting, and any possession order could result in the loss of the property. There is, moreover, no obligation for the landlord, which remains the owner of the property, to repay the purchase price in the event of repossession. Leaseholders – who more accurately are tenants – will be liable for 100 per cent of the service charges for the maintenance of the building, which can be raised at the discretion of the landlord. Finally, as the value of the property increases, so too will the cost of increasing shares in it, and each time more shares are purchased the property will have to be re-valued, with all the corresponding costs of doing so being paid by the leaseholder. Effectively, shared ownership leaseholders are tenants who pay a very expensive down payment to their landlords for an option to buy the whole property at a later date.

So much for shared ownership. What of the bulk of the new development, the 376 flats for private sale at full market price, all of which are owned and will be sold by the Higgins Group? Well, first of all, it’s not King’s Crescent estate anymore. Like Oval Quarter, Higgins Construction’s redevelopment of the Myatts Field North estate, the new development has been rebranded as ‘Clissold Quarter’. As a rule of thumb, ‘estates’ – which politicians and developers after the land they are built on have done so much to equate with poverty, anti-social behaviour and crime – are replaced with ‘quarters’ if the new developments are in the inner city, ‘villages’ if they’re further out. The Evening Standard made no mention of these, but Higgins Homes, the property management arm of the Higgins Group, lists prices for 1, 2 and 3-bedroom apartments ranging from £470,000 to £925,000 – so considerably more than the properties for shared ownership. In actual fact, this is not entirely accurate. The eight penthouses in building 1, closest to the park, have sold for between £1,054,000 and £1,226,000; and the three duplexes in building 2 have sold for between £1,281,000 and £1,313,000. Unsurprisingly at these prices, the homes for private sale are all at the front of Clissold Quarter, with the most expensive being those in a 12-storey tower that will overlook Clissold Park opposite, and which will be topped by the obligatory penthouse suites. A regeneration fit for royalty indeed.

An Exemplary Regeneration

So, how did such a development gain planning permission, let alone come to be described as ‘exemplary’? How did a development that resulted in the loss of 196 homes for social rent be allowed to replace them with 115 flats only the middle classes can afford to buy, even on shared ownership, and with 376 flats that can only have been purchased by property speculators looking to invest their millions in the London property market? How did such a deposit box for foreign investment and the profits of a private construction company receive public funding not only from the Hackney Council estate regeneration programme but also from the Greater London Authority? And how could this example of the social cleansing of a council estate community for the profits of developers, investors and property speculators possibly be described as an answer to the shortage of housing in which Londoners can actually afford to live?

Well, the first thing Hackney council did was argue that the new development of Clissold Quarter, with its 490 homes for private sale and its promise of 79 homes for ‘affordable rent’, is part of the regeneration of the King’s Crescent estate. It’s for this reason – and certainly no other – that the 195 homes that weren’t demolished for this scheme were refurbished. But because they were, the council could argue that on the new scheme the proportion of affordable housing was 274 homes (195 existing plus 79 new), against 490 homes for private sale – around 35 per cent.

Still, that wasn’t good enough for an exemplary estate regeneration receiving public funding from the Greater London Authority. So the next thing they did was decide that since Barkway Court had been demolished and rebuilt in 2002, the loss of its 95 homes for social rent and 13 sheltered housing homes did not count towards the total loss of homes in the redevelopment. So instead of 196 homes for social rent being lost, it now meant that only 101 were lost on the remainder of the scheme.

This still sounds pretty bad. But what isn’t immediately apparent is that the homes for shared ownership constitute part of the scheme’s component of ‘affordable housing’. Perhaps it’s in its usage here that the function of this linguistically meaningless term in estate regeneration is most clearly revealed: that the loss of homes for social rent can be compensated by the building of 2-bedroom flats selling for upwards of £480,000. According to this definition, these 115 flats for shared ownership, added to the 79 new flats for social rent, together with the remaining refurbished 195 homes for social rent, equals 389 ‘affordable’ housing units out of the 765 flats on the entire estate. For the Greater London Authority, this meant that the tenancy proportion of the resulting scheme is 51 per cent ‘affordable’ and 49 per cent market rate, and therefore qualifies for public funding. In fact even this is inaccurate, as the 80 homes owned by leaseholders on King’s Crescent estate have been left out of the equation, but nobody seems to have mentioned this.

What has been mentioned on the hoardings placed around the new development, where Higgins proudly lists the 195 refurbished homes for social rent and the ‘increase’ in their number to 274, is that the 376 properties for private sale have been built ‘to help pay for them’. That is to say, Higgins Construction are claiming that 376 homes for private sale ranging from £470,000 to £1,313,000 have been built to ‘help pay’ for the refurbishment of 195 council homes, rebuild 79 demolished homes for social rent, and presumably help build the 115 flats for shared ownership – although at the prices the latter are selling for one would think they would pay for themselves. Nothing, of course, is said about the undisclosed sums of public funding being spent on 491 homes for private sale.

Without a single additional home or change of tenancy status, therefore, what started out as the loss of 196 homes for social rent was magically transformed, according to the Greater London Authority’s planning report, into the addition of 19 ‘affordable units’. Let’s follow how they calculated these figures. 632 council flats on the original estate, minus the 162 leasehold flats purchased under right to buy, meant there were 470 homes for social rent on the estate. Subtract from these the 95 flats for social rent ‘already’ lost from Barkway Court, meant that only 375 flats for social rent were lost on the estate. Set these against the 389 ‘affordable’ flats that have been built, and by my calculations you get a net gain of 14 ‘affordable units’. That’s not quite the same as the GLA’s calculations, but then no two of these documents ever produce quite the same figures.

Even with the huge difference between social rent and affordable sale, that’s a lot of disruption for a gain that even the Greater London Authority described as ‘modest’. So, finally, Hackney council argued – and the GLA accepted – that the Clissold Quarter development is part of its borough-wide estate regeneration programme, which ‘intends’ to replace 853 ‘existing units’ and provide an additional 275 ‘affordable units’, and so any loss of homes for social rent on King’s Crescent estate – however you calculate it – will be compensated in the future, no doubt using the same methods of calculation – not by new homes for social rent but, under new government legislation and GLA housing policy, by ‘affordable’ housing that includes homes for shared ownership. Besides – as the GLA’s planning report concludes: ‘Given existing problems associated with this mono-tenure estate, it would not be desirable to increase the overall proportion of affordable housing’. What is desirable, rather, is Hackney council’s ‘desire to create a more mixed and balanced community on this site.’

Exemplary, remember, is what this is. Not the disaster of the Heygate estate, where over 1,200 demolished council homes are being replaced with 2,453 properties for private sale and rent, and only 82 flats for social rent. Not the Ferrier estate, where 1,906 demolished council homes – 1,732 of them for social rent – are being replaced with 2,490 properties for private sale, 1,358 for private rent, 550 for shared ownership and not a single flat for social rent. Not even Woodberry Down estate just down the road, where 1,980 demolished council homes are being replaced with 3,292 properties for private sale and 2,265 ‘affordable’ properties, of which 1,088 have been promised for social rent. No, this is King’s Crescent estate, where 357 demolished council homes are being replaced with 115 flats for shared ownership for the middle classes and 376 properties for private sale to real estate investors, property speculators and millionaires. A mixed community indeed.

An Open Letter to Paul Karakusevic

ASH recently made some observations on the role played in the redevelopment of King’s Crescent estate by Karakusevic Carson Architects, which was recently described in the Homes & Property section of the Evening Standard advertising the redevelopment as ‘very much the go-to practice nowadays for estate regeneration’. In return, we received an email from Paul Karakusevic offering to ‘talk you through the tenure split, refurbishment works and new build aspects of the Kings Crescent estate’. Like the Greater London Authority, he, too, was full of excuses. ‘The demolition of the estate was undertaken in the late 90’s under a different Council regime’, he argued. ‘We inherited a 3 hectare gravel field and the retained council buildings that needed some TLC.’ But just in case we weren’t convinced he concluded: ‘I agree with much of what you say on the wider housing issues and the traditional approach to estate regeneration, and it is why we set up the practice to improve things 15+ years ago.’

The last time we spoke to Paul was at a conference held last December by the Architectural League of New York titled Tower, Slab, Superblock: Social Housing Legacies and Futures. The conference aimed to address three questions:

  • What does it mean to reconsider this building stock as an asset, rather than a liability or failure?
  • How can the building stock be re-imagined to better serve current residents and future generations?
  • What roles can architects, designers, and affiliated professionals play in housing crises?

Like these so-called housing ‘crises’, the conference was international in scope, and included speakers from London, Toronto and Paris, including Frédéric Druot, who was very much the guest of honour, and from whose manifesto I’ve taken my epigraph; and every architect and academic present was agreed that housing estates should never be demolished, reduced or replaced, but should only ever be added to, transformed and re-used. The lone exception to this consensus was Paul Karakusevic, whom – if I remember correctly – presented King’s Crescent as a model of estate regeneration – exemplary, even. I can remember his words as he described the project: ‘No loss of social housing. All decanted residents returned to the new development. 490 new homes to tackle London’s housing shortage . . .’

If you’re reading this Paul, perhaps you would accept our invitation to talk you through the lost homes for social rent and the number of evicted residents who never returned. And perhaps you can explain how 376 property investments for international finance address the crisis of affordability in London housing. And while you’re doing it, as the ‘go-to architect on estate regeneration’, perhaps you could supply us with the equivalent figures for the other estate demolition schemes your practice is involved in, such as the Bacton Low Rise estate in Camden (I believe another ‘exemplary’ regeneration), the Leys estate in Barking and Dagenham, the Colville estate in Hackney, the Fenwick estate in Lambeth, the Mansford estate in Tower Hamlets, and the recently awarded contract for the Nightingale estate in Hackney.

Architects are a funny lot. Some, like the Chair of HTA Design Ben Derbyshire, who is quite happy to associate himself with the violation of human rights and neglect of public sector equality duties in Southwark council’s demolition of the Aylesbury estate, seem to enjoy the hatred that comes their way – a little like a Tory politician. Their contempt for the people whose lives they’re ruining is such that they barely seem to notice the protests, and when they do imperiously put it down to the ignorance of residents. Other architects, however, are more like Labour politicians. They’re just as ruthless when it comes to demolishing the homes of the people who voted for them – perhaps even more so – but they want to be liked by the same people for doing so. Perhaps, somewhere where they keep their consciences, they even think they’re doing the right thing. I suspect Paul Karakusevic might be one of these – let’s call them ‘Labour architects’. He’s certainly employed by enough of them – Camden, Lambeth, Hackney and Barking and Dagenham all being run by Labour councils that are at the forefront of London’s estate demolition programme.

So let us be clear about what we’re asking, Paul. On the estate regeneration schemes your practice has been and is currently involved with, we’d like to see the number of council homes that were demolished to clear the land; the number of residents that have been moved off the estate as a consequence; the number of homes for social rent lost to the regeneration scheme; and the tenure split of the new builds – not just between market sale, shared ownership and ‘affordable’, but what constitutes the ‘affordable’ component. Are they, like the 115 flats for shared ownership on King’s Crescent estate, being sold or rented at the ‘affordable’ definition of 80 per cent of market rate? Are homes for social rent in fact being rented at the ‘target rate’ that Southwark council, for instance, has set at 50 per cent of market rate? Or are they available at the London Mayor’s new category of ‘London Living Rent’ as part of his inducement for the middle-classes to get onto London’s lucrative housing ladder? What changes to their tenancy rights have been imposed on residents? What contracts with private power companies have they been obliged to sign up to as a condition of their tenancy? What increases to their service charges have they been compelled to meet? In short, would you provide us with the information that is so glaringly missing from your own website and that of the respective local authority that oversaw the demolition of the council estates on whose land your designs are being built? And when you supply these figures, could you please make them more accurate than those your website carries for the King’s Crescent estate, which lists the tenure split as ‘50 per cent affordable, 50 per cent market sale’? And since you are, as your website confirms, ‘the go-to practice’ for estate demolition in London, could you tell us exactly how much public money, both through the Hackney council estate regeneration programme and the Greater London Authority, was used to subsidise the private development of Clissold Quarter, with its million-pound penthouses and its 12-storey views over Clissold Park? And could you supply us with the names of the buyers and, where appropriate, the off-shore companies that have purchased the market rate properties of your designs, and let us know how many are being rented out for a profit and to whom?

And there’s something else you may be able to clear up. In response to the consultation of residents on King’s Crescent estate, Hackney council reported that it received 80 representations from residents, 69 of which were objections. In addition, two group petitions were received in objection to the application signed, respectively, by 132 and 20 residents. The objections raised by residents included the detrimental impact of the proposed tall buildings on neighbouring Clissold Park; the impact on views out of neighbouring buildings; the impact on the daylight levels of neighbouring properties; the height and scale of the new development; that it was out of character with the neighbouring area; that is does not respect the historical character of the area; the impact it would have on the skyline; the loss of trees from the demolition of the council blocks; the corresponding loss of open space; the lack of desirable commercial, open or community space; that the proposed amount of car-parking space is too low to meet the increased demand; problems with overshadowing; that the application does not comply with the London Housing Design Guide; the increased noise level; the impact of the new development on residential privacy; that social tenants in the new builds will have less desirable views than the market units; that the vehicle and road arrangements will encourage criminal behaviour; that the phasing of development favours new private properties rather than the existing tenants; the level of dust and noise during the construction of the new development; the impact of new commercial space on existing businesses; and, finally, that the consultation period was too short. Residents also raised complaints about the general lack of consultation.

Now, these objections are what are registered in the planning report of the Greater London Authority, and so are a dim echo of what was no doubt the far louder opposition to the scheme from residents and the local community. The most glaring omission from this report – and no doubt the concern at the forefront of residents’ objections – is, of course, concerns about what would happen to the tenants and leaseholders of the 357 council homes demolished to make way for the new development. Lengthy as this list of objections is, of this – the most widespread, pressing and important objection to the consequences of estate demolition – neither Hackney council nor the Greater London Authority say anything. On your website, Paul, you repeat the often-heard mantra of estate demolishers that ‘the current estate is in a bad state of repair and suffers from poor quality, badly overlooked public spaces with the estate feeling inward looking and disconnected from the surrounding townscape’. Could you, therefore, also talk us through how your website’s assertion that you ‘engaged intensively with residents from the start of the process to identify their aspirations for a new neighbourhood’ is compatible with the extensive list of objections to your designs by over 150 of the estate’s residents?

Until these figures and these explanations are forthcoming – and we wont hold our breath waiting for them – it’s surprising what you can learn about an estate when you stop looking at the websites of architects, councils and property developers, and visit the place in person. Last week I went down to King’s Crescent estate and talked to some of the residents. I asked one tenant, a young black guy not engaged in drug dealing, anti-social or criminal behaviour, what happened to the tenants who used to live in the demolished blocks:

– ‘Some were moved into empty homes on the old estate.’
– ‘And the rest?’ I asked.
– He shook his head. ‘I don’t know.’

Neither do I. Perhaps, Paul, you can talk us through where the roughly 1,000 residents that used to live in the 357 demolished council homes are living now.

I also talked to a leaseholder, an Italian man who had lived there for 30 years. He also didn’t know where the evicted 1,000 former tenants of the estate are living now. I asked him about the refurbishments, and he was pleased with them, especially the new balconies. But he also brought up the cost of the new flats.

– ‘Last year’, he said, ‘a 2-bedroom apartment was selling for £750,000. This year it’s £840,000. Why, are you looking to buy?’
– ‘Not me.’ I said, ‘I couldn’t afford that!’
– He looked at me and smiled. ‘You can’t afford it. I can’t afford it. Nobody who lives here can afford it.’
– ‘So who’s buying them?’ I asked.
– He rubbed the tips of his thumb and forefinger together and winked at me. ‘The Chinese, the Russians, the Arab oil millionaires . . .’

At the south-east corner of the estate is a map of the residential blocks, each of which is marked with a letter of the alphabet, beside which is the key. B. Bramfield Court. C. Theobalds Court. D. Datchworth Court. E. Weston Court. G. Lemsford Court. K. Kelshall Court. L. Therfield Court. The demolished blocks, the nameless A. Barkway Court, F. Sandridge Court, H. Westmill Court, and J. Codicote Terrace, plus half of Weston and Lemsford Courts, in which 1,000 former residents of the estate lived in 357 council homes, have been covered over with white tape – both their names and their location on the map, creating a tabula rasa for the new development. This is the ‘3 hectare gravel field’ Paul Karakusevic said his practice ‘inherited’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more explicit image of the social cleansing estate demolition is perpetrating on working-class communities – erased not only physically from their homes, but also from the memory of the estate and the neighbourhood – or heard a more damning description of the architectural profession’s abnegation of social responsibility for its role in this process. An exemplary regeneration indeed.

Architects for Social Housing

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