Class War on Woodberry Down: A National Strategy

Woodberry Down in Manor House is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever visited. The council estate, built between the 1950s and 1970s, sits either side of the Seven Sisters Road, cradled in a bend of the New River flowing south. But turn down Woodberry Down itself and behind the Edwardian terraces and red-brick façade of St. Olave’s Church, overlooking the two large pools of Stoke Newington Reservoir, and a strange new world is emerging. Behind a wall of glass sweating office workers run towards you but never arrive. Maps of the surrounding area are reproduced on every corner with arrows indicating ‘you are here’. Hoardings lining the street display huge colour photographs of people smiling or shopping or jogging or pointing. Banners bearing company logos hang from lamp posts next to children’s drawings enlarged by professional artists. Boards and windows are covered with obscure phrases like ‘Designed for life’, ‘Our Vision’, ‘City Living Naturally’, ‘High Spec Equipment’, ‘The Nature Collection’, ‘Wildlife Information’, ‘Career Advice & Volunteering’ and ‘Sales & Marketing Suite’. And in contrast to the noisy mix of classes, races, ages and cultures spilling out of Manor House tube station, here everyone is young, everyone is silent, and everyone looks the same. Ashen-faced girls in dark skirt suits walk home in uncomfortably high heels; while boys with neatly-trimmed beards and tight-fitting jeans walk tiny Pugs along the pavement. Down by the reservoir a huge silver ball sits encased in water flowing from the sort of water-feature you’d expect to see in the courtyard of a Singapore hotel. Everywhere you look signs remind you that this is ‘Woodberry Down’. While above you, emerging from a skeleton of steel and plastic netting, towers of green and yellow glass rise high into the sky. And at every corner, down every alley, on every lamp post, above every shop, beside every entrance, a red plastic dome watches over you, recording your every move. So what has happened here?

When Woodberry Down estate was completed in the 1970s, its 57 blocks of 5- and 8-storey buildings provided 2,013 new council homes. According to the Woodberry Down masterplan, which was granted planning permission by Hackney Labour council in 2009 to redevelop the estate over the following twenty years, 1,980 of these homes will be demolished and replaced with 5,557 new units. Of these, 3,292 will be properties for private sale and 2,265 will be ‘affordable’ housing, the latter comprising 1,177 properties for shared ownership, with 1,088 flats promised for social rent. Between 2011 and 2015, Hackney council spent £16 million of public funds on the Woodberry Down redevelopment, which also received financial support from the government’s Homes and Communities Agency and the Greater London Authority. The council consulted residents and neighbours on the proposed redevelopment for a total of five weeks between 8 November and 15 December 2013. Unsurprisingly, from the 5,109 letters they sent out they received only 32 responses.

Woodberry Down is being redeveloped by two private companies: property developers Berkeley Homes and Genesis housing association. The Berkeley Group currently has 32 developments in Greater London, including Kidbrooke Village, which like Woodberry Down is being built on land cleared of 1,906 demolished council flats on the former Ferrier estate in Greenwich. The most expensive new properties on the Woodberry Down redevelopment have all been sold, but prices on the available properties range from £490,000 for a 1-bedroom apartment, £660,000 for a 2-bedroom apartment, all the way up to £1,475,000 for a 3-bedroom premium residence overlooking the reservoir (now rebranded the Woodberry Wetlands nature reserve) complete with access to a swimming pool and spa facilities only open to other private residents, a state of the art gym and 24-hour concierge service. To give you an idea of whom these 3,392 new properties for private sale are marketed at, a £450,000 property requires a salary of £77,000 per annum and a deposit of £97,000. It’s not surprising, therefore, that 55 per cent of the properties built in phase 1 were bought by overseas investors, mainly from Asian markets. According to the British Property Federation, in 2013 61 per cent of all new homes sold in the capital were bought not to live in but solely as an investment. Equally unsurprisingly, the Berkeley Group has sales offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing.

The other development partner, Genesis housing association, which manages 33,000 homes across London, has been handed the responsibility by Hackney Labour council for delivering over 1,900 homes for shared ownership and social rent on the Woodberry Down redevelopment, presumably to replace the 1,980 council homes that are being demolished. However, these proposed tenancies are dependent upon future viability assessments at each of the 8 phases of redevelopment. In their planning approval, Hackney council committed to delivering 41 per cent ‘affordable’ housing in each phase of the redevelopment; but of the 1,465 new units in phase 1 only 563 were ‘affordable’, 38 per cent of the total; while in phase 2 only 307 of the 850 units will be ‘affordable’, 36 per cent of the total. Far more important than this distinction, however, only 36 per cent of the ‘affordable’ housing on phase 2, a total of 110 flats, will be for social rent. No guarantees have been given for the tenancy mix on the remaining 6 phases, all of which will be subject to viability assessments – which means the 20 per cent profit margins demanded by the developers. So far these ‘independent’ assessments have been carried out by BNP Paribas, the fifth largest bank in the world. How likely these homes for social rent – or even the quota of ‘affordable’ homes – are to materialise in the future was indicated in July 2015, less than a year-and-a-half after the Woodberry Down development was granted planning permission, when Neil Hadden, the CEO of Genesis, said in an interview:

Our current development programme is configured on the basis that we produce a third social housing or affordable housing, a third intermediate tenure, such as shared ownership, and a third for the market. We’ve been having discussions in the light of the budget and we really think that the affordable rent element has gone and therefore we should be looking more at a 50/50 split between intermediate tenures, such as shared ownership and market rent/outright sale. There’s not going to be any grant for affordable housing going forward, so how will other associations make it stand up? We are not able, or being asked, to provide affordable and social rented accommodation to people who should be looking to the market to solve their own problems. My problem will be to supply new housing at different price points in locations where the economics of those schemes stack up, and because of where we work the demand will be there for those properties.

Former council tenants with secure tenancies on the Woodberry Down estate who have had their homes demolished and been moved into the new Genesis housing have complained that as housing association tenants they have fewer rights and can more easily be evicted by their new landlord. And there are reports – particularly from pensioners and low-income families – of tenants having to go into debt just to afford the increased cost of heating their homes, or of moving off the new developments altogether because they cannot afford their increased rent, service charges and utility bills. This is not particular to the Woodberry Down development, but a reputation Genesis has earned across London. In 2014 the Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck, conducted a survey of all Genesis residents in her constituency, and in response to the question: ‘Overall are you satisfied as a tenant of Genesis housing association?’, three quarters of the tenants responding said they were not satisfied, and 81 per cent felt that things were getting worse rather than better.

These are, of course, the lucky ones. When the Woodberry Down redevelopment began, 1,555 households were council tenants, with the remaining 425 flats owned by leaseholders. As shown by the tenure split for phases 1 and 2, which have supplied around 300 homes for social rent, most of Woodberry Down’s 1,980 households are still living in their council homes on the other side of the street. According to the masterplan, these are to be ‘decanted’ at some later date during phase 6 of the redevelopment, which is earmarked to compensate for the lack of ‘affordable’ housing in the earlier phases. But even if the tenure split proposed in the planning document for Woodberry Down materialises – and in the light of the comments by the CEO of Genesis this seems highly unlikely – 1,555 tenant households in council flats won’t fit into 1,088 housing association units for social rent. And £650,000 pound properties for shared ownership or a monthly rent of £2,200 for a 2-bedroom flat are not options for either leaseholders offered £220,000 compensation for their demolished 2-bedroom homes or council tenants currently paying social rent. So where will the people who don’t fit into Woodberry Down’s billboard world go?

Directly opposite Woodberry Down, next to Manor House tube station and just outside the border of the redevelopment site, stands Ivy House, a privately-owned and run hostel for homeless families that contains 97 units over 2 floors. Residents live in single bedsits with their children, and although Ivy House is categorised as temporary accommodation some families have been there for more than two years. Residents are allowed no visitors at any time, day or night, are not permitted to eat in their room, cannot smoke anywhere in the hostel, and are prohibited from using their own bedding. CCTV is fitted throughout, and there are regular room inspections by staff. A barred iron gate is fitted across the entrance. One interviewed mother who lives there said she felt like she was ‘living in a prison’. Ivy House is owned by Rooms & Studios London, a company set up by Danny Edgar and Zamir Haim, that has 1,500 similar units for rent across the capital. On their website they describe the accommodation as being for ‘professionals, students and hostel seekers’. In the three decades they have operated in London the two entrepreneurs have bought, built, refurbished and sold assets worth over £200 million.

Hackney Labour council currently houses 793 homeless families in hostels like Ivy House, the highest number of any London borough, where a total of 2,733 households, around 8,000 people, live in temporary accommodation, the sixth highest in London. £35 million per year in Housing Benefit is being paid to private landlords like Rooms & Studios London in order to house homeless families in temporary accommodation in Hackney – but it’s being paid by central government, not by Hackney council. Although it has one of the worst records, Hackney isn’t alone in producing homelessness. As of September 2016, a total of 73,120 households in England, including 114,930 children, were living in temporary accommodation, with 53,343 of those households in London. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in the year 2015-2016 £20.9 billion of public money was spent on housing benefit in England. A quarter of the people renting in the UK now rely on housing benefit to meet the spiralling cost of their accommodation; but with 20 per cent of homes now being privately rented compared to just 17 per cent socially rented, the majority of that £20.9 billion goes straight into the pockets of private landlords.

The estimated total value of the housing stock in England in January 2017 was £6.8 trillion – an increase of £1.5 trillion in the last three years – equivalent to 3.7 times the gross domestic product of the UK, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth. £1.7 trillion of that housing stock is in London. It’s also not surprising, therefore, that according to the recently published Sunday Times Rich List, 26 of the 100 wealthiest people in the UK listed property as a major source of their wealth; while among the richest 1000 people in the UK – who increased their wealth by £83 billion over the past year alone to £658 billion – there are 164 property moguls with a combined wealth of £143.7 billion.

Listed at number 407 on the Rich List, Tony Pidgley, the Chairman and founder of the Berkeley Group, is one of these. By concentrating developments on the hugely lucrative London market, the Berkeley Group has the highest profit margins of any builder in the UK. For the year ending 30 April 2016 Berkeley announced pre-tax profits of £530.9 million, up from £110.3 million in 2010, and is currently valued at around £4 billion. In 2014, when 441 council homes on the Woodberry Down estate had been demolished and 1,109 new properties had replaced them, Pidgley had a personal fortune of £160 million. Three years later he’s now worth £285 million, with a total annual pay-packet of £23.3 million, making him the second highest-paid CEO in the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 index. It’s not surprising, therefore, that in a speech he delivered last July, Pidgley reflected on the many benefits of estate regeneration:

Regeneration is about creating new places where people aspire to live, work and visit. It is about taking unused or under-used land and transforming it into a thriving community.  It is about putting the heart and confidence back into a community. This is never more important than estate regeneration where people’s homes are being redeveloped.

True regeneration requires partnership between the public sector, developers and the community, creating a shared vision and working together to deliver it. Regeneration takes years, often decades, and a strong partnership is critical to weather the inevitable storms along the way. One thing I know from my years in development is that you do not deliver what you think you will at the outset. Circumstances change and you need to be flexible and to adapt. This does not mean abandoning the vision at the first sign of trouble, but having strong agreed objectives that will be adhered to but may be delivered in a different way.

It is the community who have to come first and be at the very heart of the process, showing them respect and giving them a voice. You have to engage with the community before you do anything else. I know this from the Berkeley Group’s developments at Woodberry Down. We have put our heart and soul into the job of rebuilding these places and transforming not just the physical fabric of each community but the way people feel about their lives.  

Regeneration is about far more than bricks and mortar. It’s about aspiration, well-being, and people’s quality of life. Great regeneration makes a place feel safe, creating a real mix of uses, and a real mixed community with a balance of private and affordable homes.

Inevitably regeneration, and estate regeneration, will lead to an increase in the number of homes. This is positive as we urgently need to provide London’s growing population with homes they can afford. So, we should be embracing increased densities. More homes will generate higher revenues to pay for employment programmes, youth projects, shops, public realm and sports facilities. In effect, it provides the funding to pay for investment in all the things that make a great community.

So regeneration is a force for good and is vital to change people’s life chances as well as delivering more homes and better places for all. We need our new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to champion regeneration to create places where people aspire to live. This is about giving people back their pride in their front door and their community. It will demand tenacity, investment and collaboration with the boroughs. And it is central to the future of our fantastic capital.

In addition to being the Chairman of the Berkeley Group, Tony Pidgley also sits on the advisory panel of the government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy that is similarly targeting 100 council estates across the UK. Other panel members include Elaine Bailey, the CEO of Hyde housing association, which demolished and redeveloped the Packington estate in Islington; Paul Tennant, the CEO of Orbit housing association, which is redeveloping the Erith estate in Bexley with the help of funds from the National Strategy; Nicholas Boys Smith, the Director of Create Streets, a research institute that promotes the demolition of council estates and their replacement with terraced blocks; Dominic Grace, the head of London Residential Development at real estate firm Savills, which – when not advising the Cabinet Office to demolish the council homes of over 400,000 Londoners or writing housing policy for the London Mayor – is advising London councils on their estate demolition programmes and producing viability assessments for property developers that reduce the affordable housing quotas on new developments to their minimum; and Peter Vernon, Executive Director of the Grosvenor Group, the property corporation that manages the estate of the Duke of Westminster and his family, which besides its portfolio in Mayfair and Belgravia owns 133,100 acres in the UK – 0.22 per cent of the total land – and has offices in 18 cities across the world, with current total assets of £47.6 billion. The advisory panel is headed by Gavin Barwell, the Minister of State for Housing and Planning.

The National Strategy has been given £172 million of government funding to assess which 100 estates are to be regenerated, a mere £1.7 million for each estate; so there will be similar demands for partnership between the public and private sector in order to redevelop them; similar changes and adaptations to what residents are promised at the outset to meet future viability assessments; similar transformations of the communities whose homes are demolished into those that live in the new developments; similar replacements of council homes for social rent with private and ‘affordable’ properties; similar increases in densities of housing generating similar profits for the developers; similar collaborations between the private companies whose representatives sit on this panel and the councils that will hand over the public land those companies need to keep bleeding the UK property boom to the last drop; and similar championing of estate regeneration by politicians pointing to the aspirations of the similarly fictitious communities as the one being advertised on Woodberry Down.

London’s housing crisis is not a crisis, and it’s not about housing. It’s been manufactured to create new markets for the investment of international capital. It’s for this reason – and not the cost of their construction – that the properties being built on London’s demolished council estates are so expensive – that, and the profits of developers. The four largest building companies – Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt and the Berkeley Group – made pre-tax profits of £2.6 billion in 2016, an astronomical rise from just £354 million in 2010, and have even promised an extra £6.6 billion in dividends to shareholders by 2021. And while demanding the demolition of hundreds of council estates to free up land for redevelopment, the nine largest building companies currently sit on land with planning permission to build 404,040 new homes in the UK – further driving up the price of land and the housing they build on it. As a result, London house prices have risen by 86 per cent since 2009, and at an average price of nearly £475,000 now cost more than fourteen times the average London salary of £33,720. And as a visit to the Sales and Marketing Suite at Woodberry Down will confirm, the new properties being built on demolished council estate land – even those located outside the coveted real estate of Inner London – cost far higher than the average.

The function of new-build properties within London’s property market ­– which at 3.7 times the UK’s GDP is now an economy in itself – is not to house the 250,000 London households currently on housing waiting lists, or the 240,000 London households with 320,000 children living in overcrowded accommodation, or the 50,000 London households with 78,000 children that are currently homeless and living in temporary accommodation; it is to satisfy the demand of capital for investment opportunities. Because of the enormously inflated exchange value of new-build properties, their use value as homes for Londoners is almost zero. On the contrary, the more council estates are demolished to clear the land for their construction, and the more public land is lost to private companies, so the higher the demand for housing grows, the higher the price of the housing being built in their place is driven up, and the louder property developers like Tony Pidgley demand the demolition of more council estates to make way for higher density, higher cost housing in their place.

It’s within this self-perpetuating cycle of capital that we should understand the demands of builders, developers, housing associations, estate agents, think tanks, architects, councillors and politicians to demolish and redevelop more estates, and their justifications for doing so with ever more fantastical appeals to notions of community. Estate regeneration isn’t a solution to the UK housing crisis: its the means by which the rich perpetuate and profit from that crisis at the expense of the poor. Estate regeneration is a national strategy in the class war being waged through housing.

Architects for Social Housing

3 thoughts on “Class War on Woodberry Down: A National Strategy

  1. Reblogged this on ON UNCERTAIN GROUND and commented:
    We know we keep banging on about this and we make no apologies for it… This piece from ASH is a long read but well worth the effort as it goes into forensic detail about what happens when a council estate in London is ‘regenerated’ and what happens to the former residents. What happens in London has an impact out here along the estuary as people are decanted from the capital. Note that even in Woodberry Down which is going out towards the suburbs, many of the new apartments are being brought by overseas investors and will not be lived in. Despite all the bullshit publicity describing the new ‘communities’ that are supposed to be created as a result of this regeneration, the developers don’t give a toss whether what they’ve built gets lived in or remains empty – they’ve trousered the cash and that’s all that matters. What’s happening across the capital with these ‘regeneration’ schemes and the consequent social cleansing is a blatant act of class war that has to be resisted. This is why we show our solidarity to housing activists in London and reject any attempts by the divide and rule merchants to derail the struggle for decent, truly affordable housing for all…

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  2. I am the chair of Woodberry Down Connunity Organisation, the elected tenants and residents body on the estate. There are so many inaccuracies in this report it borders on the disgraceful. Sorry, it is disgraceful. I am not going to bother to list these, but simply ask you why did you not consult us? We even have a shop in the middle of the estate, which surely you saw. Of course, we are only estate dwellers, so,what do,we know?
    Now where did I hear that before? I know, somewhere called Grenfell.
    If the “architects for social housing” (and what a good idea that would be) want to meet, get in touch. Honestly, we may be estate dwellers, but we don’t bite.

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