Excalibur: Open Garden Estates 2017

Between 1946 and 1948, in response to the loss of housing during the Blitz and the return of demobilised servicemen and women, 156,623 pre-fabricated homes were built across the UK. Excalibur estate in Catford, comprised of 178 bungalow homes, is one of these. Located in what is now Lewisham, the borough had suffered some of the highest loss of housing from bombs, and these quickly erected homes were initially anticipated to be temporary housing, to be replaced later by council estates. Many of them were, but some have survived into the Twenty-first Century, and contain communities that have lived together since the end of the Second World War. Now they are under attack by councils, housing associations and developers, eager to cash in on the rocketing value of London land.

In 2002 Lewisham Labour council met with residents to propose the stock transfer of their homes to a housing association. In 2004 Savills estate agent, which is advising councils on estate regeneration schemes across London, produced a report saying that none of the existing homes were up to the Decent Homes Standard. In 2005 Lewisham council estimated the cost of refurbishment at £65,000 per home, and argued that it would be too expensive to bring the homes up to this standard. Residents were indignant at the council’s description of their homes as ‘indecent’, and began a campaign to save the estate from privatisation.


Initially 93 per cent of residents voted for the conservation of the estate, and they were supported in this by both the Twentieth-century Society and Historic England. However, they were only able to get 6 buildings on the estate listed. Even this was described by the Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, as ‘perverse’. The estate had been managed by a Tenant Management Co-operative since 1990, but when it continued to oppose the proposals it was dissolved by the council and replaced. In 2010 the Homes and Communities Agency said that it would not provide funding for a stock transfer, and Lewisham council announced the ‘regeneration’ of the estate as the only financially viable option.

It recently emerged that Steve Bullock, Lewisham’s elected Mayor, is one of the directors of the company Surrey Canal Sports Foundation, which had lied about the funding for the Millwall FC stadium Compulsory Purchase Order issued by Lewisham Labour Council on behalf of the off-shore property developer Renewal (which funds the Foundation). Another director, who subsequently resigned when his involvement was exposed, is the Leader of Southwark Labour Council, Peter John, OBE. Among its many incidents of malfeasance, the Foundation wracked up a £1 million debt renting a hall of ping-pong tables from Renewal (which is to say, itself), while making zero income for the past three years.

In 2007 Lewisham Labour council entered into partnership with London and Quadrant housing association, which has its head office in the borough. L&Q is the largest landlord in London, with a turnover of £720 million in 2016, when it merged with the East Thames Housing Group. This February L&Q bought the private land company Gallagher Estates for £505 million. David Montague, the Chief Executive, had a salary of over £355,000 last year. As a registered social landlord L&Q not only enjoys tax breaks but receives funding from the government’s Homes and Communities agency to build affordable housing.

In 2010, following a concerted campaign by Lewisham Labour council and London and Quadrant housing association, which told residents the estate would be demolished and redeveloped and they would be invited to return to new homes, a ballot was held on the question: ‘Are you in favour of the regeneration of the Excalibur estate as proposed by L&Q?’ 56 per cent of residents voted in favour of this proposal. The council started ‘decanting’ residents that year. Since then, 39 homes have been demolished, and their residents moved to places like Rochester, Ashford and Gillingham in Kent. Leaseholders, of which there are 27 on the estate, have been offered £140,000 compensation for their demolished homes, and those who have refused this offer have had their homes purchased by Compulsory Purchase Order issued by the Mayor of Lewisham. Residents have complained that since the regeneration began Lewisham council has run the estate down, withholding maintenance from their homes and refusing to remove fly-tipped rubbish around the estate.

In 2011 Lewisham Labour council granted planning permission for 371 new properties on the cleared land of Excalibur estate, a more than 100 per cent increase in housing density. Their argument for this is that such a large plot of land, covered as it currently is with single-story homes, is insufficiently dense to meet the housing needs of the borough as specified in the London Plan. In the planning application, 143 of these new properties will be for private sale, 35 for shared ownership, 15 for shared equity, and 178 for affordable rent. Secure tenancies in the affordable properties will not succeed to children or partners, so any resident that does return will be the last generation to have a secure tenancy, housing associations by law only able to offer assured tenancies.

Throughout the 2011 planning application ‘affordable rent’ (up to 80 per cent of market rate) and ‘social rent’ (around 30 per cent of market rate) are used interchangeably. However, in the subsequent March 2015 Report on Phase 3 of the Regeneration of Excalibur Estate, the ‘affordable’ component is only once described as being for ‘social rent’ (paragraph 6.4), and this is the only place where it is referred to as such; every other reference is to ‘affordable’ housing. Moreover, under the government’s Shared Ownership and Affordable Housing Programme, L&Q have received public funds from the Homes and Community Agency for the Excalibur estate redevelopment, and none of that funding is for homes for social rent. Under this programme, £4.1 billion of the £4.7 billion allocated for the UK between 2016-21 is for properties for shared ownership, £329 million for Rent to Buy, and the remaining £235 million allocated for sheltered housing. L&Q have refused to answer a Freedom of Information request from the 35% Campaign about their record of converting ‘social’ rents into ‘affordable’ rents.

The architects for the new development are Hunters, who also won the contract for the demolition and redevelopment of the Bermondsey Spa estate in Southwark, where the Labour council, under Steve Bullock’s off-shore developer co-partner and council leader Peter John, is similarly and systematically converting ‘affordable’ into ‘social’ housing. And no wonder. Hunters Architects’ vision of the future shows white, middle-class, professional families sitting suited and booted in their new gardens, oblivious of the working class community that once lived on the land on which their new properties have been built.

On the billboards erected around the estate by Lewisham council and London and Quadrant it says: ‘This development will provide high quality new homes for affordable rent, shared ownership and private sale, and will improve the area for the local community.’ In the Greater London Authority’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration, a draft of which was published last December and sent out to estate residents for consultation, the London Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, removed the loss of social housing as a condition under which estate demolition would not go ahead, allowing it to be replaced first with ‘affordable’ housing at existing or higher densities, then with ‘better quality’ housing at existing or higher densities.

Keepmoat builders won the £10.8 million contract for the first phase of the development last year. On the Project Information Board for the development on the land cleared of 39 prefab homes, in the box marked ‘Project Scope’, they write that 57 new properties are being built, 18 for private sale, 5 for shared equity, with 34 marked simply ‘affordable’. The box marked ‘Community Involvement’ is blank.

On the edge of the estate is the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which was set up in December 2014 by Elisabeth Blanchet and Jane Hearn. Fortunately, since it is built on land owned by the Church of England, it is not part of the council’s demolition plans. On Saturday, 24 June the museum hosted an open event at which they showed films by Lucia Tambini and Elisabeth Blanchet that told the history of the estate and the campaign by residents to resist its demolition. Elisabeth had previously got in contact with ASH, and the organisers made the event part of this year’s Open Garden Estates, which we’ve been organising for the past three years. As we have in previous years, we advertised Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture under the title ‘Estates of Memory’. The online architectural magazine Dezeen listed Excalibur estate as one of its ‘top ten picks’ of the Festival, and every ticket on the Eventbrite invitation was taken. A map allowed visitors to take a self-guided tour around the estate, and after the films residents and organisers answered questions about the history of the prefabs and the campaign to save their homes.

The current Moving Prefab Museum replaced a previous version, which was founded in March 2014 in an original prefab as a temporary show-house that visitors could enter and get a sense of what life in a prefab home is like. The museum attracted hundreds of visitors from across London, the UK and the world, who came to get a last look at these unique and vanishing homes. This became a cause of concern for Lewisham council, as the museum became a source of information about how the residents had been tricked into voting for ‘regeneration’, and the house itself contradicted the council’s publicity about the ‘indecent’ state of the homes. The council-elected Chair of the Residents Association started to send Elisabeth threatening letters, windows were broken and objects stolen from the museum. Then in October 2014 the show-house burned down. The fire had been set on a retro record player with an accelerant, and declared by the police to be an arson attack. Even though the door to the house was double-locked – about as strong an indication of the identity of the perpetrator as you could ask for – the police didn’t investigate further.

One of the legal challenges to the redevelopment by campaigners is that the land on which the Excalibur estate is built was donated by Lord Forster, then the Governor-General of Australia, to the London County Council. In 1946 the London County Council promised to return the land to parkland once what was then conceived of as temporary housing was demolished. However, the two records of this covenant on the land, one of which was deposited with Lewisham council, the other at the London Metropolitan archives, have both disappeared. There were, presumably, two parties to the land transfer: the Forster Family and the London County Council. The relevant history of the Forster Family can be accessed in the National Archives, and this suggests that in 1946 the land was held by the Forster Estate Development Company. Their records appear to have been deposited with Lewisham Archives in 1993. This is one of the ‘missing’ documents. The records of the other party to the transfer, the London County Council, have ended up in the London Metropolitan Archives. This is the second ‘missing’ document. However, the Land Registry indicates that the Compulsory Registration of transfer of title in land was introduced in Lewisham from 1900, in which case it should have retained records of the 1946 transfer, including any restrictive covenants. A copy of the deed can be accessed here. There is a risk, however, that you pay the fee and still don’t end up with what you want. We recommend, therefore, that both Lewisham council’s archives and the London Metropolitan Archives are both visited first to establish whether the ‘missing’ documents a) were ever archived, and b) are really missing.

Architects for Social Housing
(With thanks to Nick Barber for his research on the missing covenant)

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