Housing Crisis or Capitalist Crisis? ASH Presentation at the Platypus Society European Conference 2018

The questions we were posed for possible discussion on this panel, even if I were qualified to try and answer them all, would take up the rest of this day at least. So I want to focus on just one question, which I think is coming into sharper focus in the UK, and which relates most closely to what have been ASH’s attempts to propose alternatives to London’s estate regeneration programme. This question is:

‘Why does capitalism appear to produce a housing crisis? And can it be solved in capitalism?’

I chose this question, first, because by proposing that our current housing crisis has been produced it refuses the discourse of ‘crisis’ by which we have been paralysed, and which has made us accept, uncritically and without question, the ‘solutions’ proposed to solve this ‘crisis’, rather than challenging the ends to which it has been produced. One only has to recall that the same terminology has been applied to the financial crisis, the deficit crisis, the benefits crisis, the NHS crisis, the education crisis, the population crisis and (the mother of all crises) the environmental crisis to understand something about how this discourse acts as an instrument of privatisation.

But I also chose this question because it questions the extent to which the so-called solutions to the housing ‘crisis’ are in fact producing and reproducing the very crisis they have been proposed in order to ‘solve’, and in doing so understands our housing crisis not as a failure of capitalism at this particular instant of that seemingly eternally recurring crisis to which it has been doomed almost since its inception, but rather as the instrument of capitalism’s latest colonisation of what housing activists inaccurately describe as a ‘human right’. Indeed, if we wish to understand the mutation capitalism is undergoing as it shifts on its global axis, we could do worse than examine London’s housing ‘crisis’.

The first thing I’d say in answer, then – and which I first wrote in an article on ‘The London Clearances’ in 2015 – is that there is no housing crisis, if by ‘crisis’ we mean something that is out of our control. On the contrary, the shortage of housing and the corresponding boom in UK house prices and rents has been carefully prepared and legislated for over a number of years to serve the interests and fill the pockets of those who have the most to gain from it, both politically and economically. There is – in actuality rather than in the ideology of our society – a class war being waged through housing, and so far it is all going to plan. Far from being out of control, the housing crisis is well in hand.

The question of why capitalism produces a housing crisis (there is no ‘appear’ about it) I won’t answer, as in its essentials it has already been answered in the series of articles on ‘The Housing Question’ published between 1872-73 by Friedrich Engels, whose observations on the inconvenient trajectory of capitalism I understand suggested its name to The Platypus Society. So accurately do these articles describe not only the causes of our current housing ‘crisis’ but also the false solutions proposed to solve it, that in 2016 ASH published excerpts on our blog illustrated with photographs of some of the effects of these solutions. And in this text, which I recommend to anyone interested in the housing crisis, Engels is unequivocal about its causes. ‘The real answer to this question’, he writes, ‘is that capital does not want to abolish the housing shortage, even if it could’. If I may, I’d go further and say that capitalism needs the housing shortage. This is nowhere more true today than in the UK.

The estimated total value of the UK housing stock in January 2017 was £6.8 trillion, having increased by £1.5 trillion in the previous three years alone. Equivalent to 3.7 times our gross domestic product, and nearly 60 per cent of the UK’s entire net wealth, the housing market now constitutes an economy in itself, larger than the GDP of many European countries. Nobody will be surprised to hear that £1.7 trillion of that housing stock is in London. According to the 2016 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 there are 164 property moguls with a combined wealth of £143.7 billion. As for where that property wealth is coming from, the pre-tax profits of the four largest builders in the UK, Persimmon Homes, Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes and the Berkeley Group, rose from just under £419 million in 2011 to over £2.6 billion in 2016, a more than six-fold increase in just five years. And we’ve all heard about the CEO of Persimmon being paid a £110 million bonus this year.

Hardly surprisingly, London house prices have risen by 86 per cent since 2009, and at an average asking price of over £600,000 now cost more than seventeen times the average London salary of £35,000. In Inner London that price rises to around £970,000. Home ownership in the UK, which peaked at 71 per cent in 2003, has been declining ever since and now stands at 63 per cent, with only 40 per cent of Londoners predicted to own their own home by 2025.

Meanwhile, rents on London’s private market, which 20 per cent of British households now live in, have risen to an average of £1,532 per month for a 2-bedroom home, more than twice the national average. The total rent paid by UK tenants last year rose to £51.6 billion, more than double the £22.6 billion paid in 2007. Millennials, born between 1977 and 1995, paid £30.2 billion of that rent, which is more than three times the £9.7 billion they spent in 2007. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has predicted that over the next quarter of a century rents will rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty.

As a result of this huge escalation in the cost of housing, at the end of last year the charity Shelter estimated that there are now 307,000 people in Britain who are homeless – meaning accommodated in temporary housing, bed & breakfasts and homeless hostels or sleeping rough. That’s one in every 208 of the UK population. In London, where 165,000 of those people are homeless, that figure rises to 1 in every 59. These numbers, however, don’t include the hidden homeless, with an estimated 1 in 5 people under the age of 25 having couch-surfed over the past year, a quarter of a million of them in London. This trend is predicted to increase, with Shelter warning that more than a million UK households are at risk of becoming homeless by 2020. Across Britain the homes of 41 percent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and 31 per cent of skilled workers, fail to meet the criterion of affordability under Shelter’s new Living Home Standard. While in London that figure rises to 56 per cent of all homes. The housing crisis, in other words, is a crisis not of supply but of affordability.

Which brings me to the second part of the question, which is whether the housing crisis can be ‘solved’ under capitalism. Even within the fine gradations of neo-liberalism that differentiate the major political parties in the UK, at the last General Election the manifesto pledges on housing published by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties shared a remarkable consensus that the solution to the housing crisis was a massive programme of new-build housing developments. In fact there was nothing remarkable about it, given that all three drew on the same reports produced by the same think-tanks headed by the same directors of the same housing associations under the sponsorship of the same building companies and estate agents. And what they all promised was that if elected to the government of the UK they would build 1 million new homes over the next parliament. By doing so, they all agreed, they would not only provide the homes Londoners present and future need but also, according to oft-quoted ‘law’ of supply and demand, drive the price of that housing down.

The trouble with this programme – which industry professionals have all agreed is impossible to meet anyway – is that while the law of supply and demand describes a capitalist myth of competitive markets responding to human needs, London’s financialised housing market, flooded by global capital, is driven by profit margins. More than 100,000 UK land titles are registered to anonymous companies in British oversees territories such as the Virgin Islands. Transparency International has been unable to identify the real owners of more than half of the 44,000 land titles registered to oversees companies, but 9 out of 10 of the properties were bought through tax havens. An extraordinary 30 percent of properties sold in London last year were bought by overseas investors. At the high end of the market that increases to over 50 per cent. Building more properties for capital investment and buy to let has pushed, and will continue to push, house and rental prices up, and yet that is precisely what the councils, housing associations, property developers, estate agents, architects and builders given the task of solving the housing crisis are doing.

59 per cent of demand in London is for lower-mainstream properties (up to £450 per square foot or below £315,000) and properties for sub-market rent; but only a quarter of the roughly 38,500 properties currently being built will go on sale for this price. Instead, last year builders started work on 1,900 properties priced at more than £1,500 per square foot, more than three times as much, only 900 of which had sold by 2018. And as of January this year, there are an additional 14,000 unsold lower-prime properties on the market for between £1,000-£1,500 per square foot. By contrast, in the year ending March 2016, just 6,550 homes for social rent were built across the whole of England; and not a single such home was built in London in the year up to October 2017.

So, even though he was writing about a housing market that is now a century-and-a-half old, Engels has already answered this question for us. ‘Capitalists have only one method of settling the housing question’, he writes: ‘after their fashion – which is to say, by settling it in such a way that the solution continually reposes the question.’

From the refusal to see in this perpetual recreation of cause and effect the systemic recreation of capitalism by itself comes all the moralistic explanations of the housing crisis that try to explain it away by references to the ‘greed’ of a few capitalists and the ‘cruelty’ of the government. We have no shortage of such explanations today from the mouths of so-called left-wing politicians who sell something they call capitalism ‘for the many not the few’, and whose proposed solutions to the housing crisis are in practice reproducing and multiplying its effects. The estate regeneration programme, which is the basis of the housing policies of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, and which is systematically replacing the UK’s council and social housing with properties built and priced according to the demands of the market, is the primary instrument of this reproduction.

According to our own research, as of September 2017 there were 237 London housing estates that have recently undergone, are currently undergoing or are under threat of regeneration, demolition or privatisation with the resulting loss of homes for social rent. 195 of these estates are in Labour-run boroughs. To give you an idea of the numbers being lost, a net loss of 4,275 homes for social rent has resulted so far from Southwark Labour council’s estate regeneration programme. However, the 3,168 demolished homes for social rent the council has promised to rebuild are in the process of being turned into ‘affordable’ rent, at up to 80 per cent of market rate, bringing the actual loss of homes for social rent to 7,442. In addition, the Greater London Authority has estimated that Southwark will lose an additional 2,051 homes for social rent as a direct result of regeneration schemes the council is currently proposing on the Old Kent Road opportunity area, making the loss of homes for social rent closer to 9,500. That’s in just one London borough. Every one of London’s 32 boroughs has an estate regeneration programme.

In response to the larger question, then, which this panel was convened to discuss – ‘Housing crisis or capitalist crisis?’ – my answer is: neither. The housing poverty and homelessness into which increasing numbers of the UK population are being driven are the products of the success of capitalism, not the symptoms of its failure.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Social Housing Scrutiny Project: ASH Presentation to Haringey Council Housing and Regeneration Scrutiny Panel

On 29 November 2017, at the invitation of Christian Scade, the Principal Scrutiny Officer at Haringey council, Geraldine Dening of ASH made the following presentation to the cross-party Housing and Regeneration Scrutiny Panel. In attendance were Labour Councillor Emine Ibrahim, Chair of the Panel, Labour Councillor Zena Brabazon, Liberal Democrat Councillor Gail Engert, and Liberal Democrat Councillor Martin Newton, all of whom are Members of the Panel. During the summer the Panel had set up a high-level social housing review focusing on national, regional and local issues. The terms of reference for this review are as follows:

  1. To consider attitudes towards social housing, both in Haringey and further afield.
  2. To review the supply and quality of social housing in Haringey with consideration given to both new and older housing across the borough.
  3. To identify barriers in current regional and national housing policy to enable consideration of what Haringey’s lobbying priorities should be around social housing.
  4. To identify key indicators that enable social interventions of estate regeneration to be measured, ensuring existing communities get the greatest possible benefit from changes to their neighbourhoods.
  5. To identify opportunities for residents so they can contribute fully to the delivery of objectives outlined in the Council’s Housing Strategy (2017-22), including monitoring of progress.

The Panel, which is similar to a Select Committee at national level, hoped to receive evidence from a wide range of sources, including professional experts, academics, local residents, council officers, external partners, the voluntary sector and local resident associations. This will be used to develop recommendations, and a report, to be published in March 2018, will include the ASH presentation as part of the evidence pack. Other presentations to the panel were made by Dr. Lisa Mckenzie, Lecturer in Practical Sociology at Middlesex University, and Brian Robson, Policy and Research Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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Battle of Ideas: Reform or Revolution in Housing?

On Saturday, 28 October, as part of the Barbican’s Battle of Ideas festival, ASH was part of a panel debate titled Housing: Reform or Revolution? The rest of the panel was composed of Patrik Schumacher, the Principle at Zaha Hadid Architects, who the previous year, at a speech at the World Architecture Festival, had called for estates in Inner London to be demolished to make way for more productive people and their ‘amazing multiplying events’; Kath Scanlon, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, who the same year co-authored a report commissioned by the Berkeley Group recommending their estate redevelopment, Kidbrooke Village, as an example of why London’s housing should be taken out of the control of local authorities and placed in the hands of private developers; Lisa Taylor, Chief Executive of Future London, a policy network which the previous year had published a report recommending that demolishing and redeveloping council estates was one of the keys to addressing London’s housing crisis; and James Woudhuysen, Visiting Professor at London’s South Bank University, who in 2006 on the BBC Breakfast Show had argued that recycling was a symptom of an ‘authoritarian state’ and accused the Green Party of being ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-human’. This is the text of ASH’s presentation.

1. Reform or revolution?

I want to start with the title of this event: reform or revolution, and look at what this opposition means in practice through a recent image of a new housing development. The image is an advert for the NX Gate apartments in New Cross. It shows a young woman in what I guess advertising executives would call a state of excitement, over which are written the words: ‘The rental revolution is here! Rent from £300 per week’. Developed by Realstar Living, NX Gate rents 2-bedroom apartments from £1,525 per month, not including the numerous service charges. Just down the road from this new development is the Achilles Street estate, where a 2-bedroom council flat costs £414 per month, nearly a quarter as much. Despite this, Lewisham council has plans to demolish this estate and redevelop it along the same lines as NX Gate, making it just one of over 190 such estates that have recently undergone, are undergoing, or are threatened with redevelopment, privatisation and social cleansing by London’s estate regeneration programme. In case we don’t know at whom this ‘revolution’ is being marketed, the Rightmove advert for NX Gate indicates that the new development is 10 minutes from Cannon Street and 12 minutes from Canary Wharf, with Goldsmiths College just around the corner.

In short, the ‘revolution’ in housing is a marketing gimmick, aimed at young bankers looking to buy and international students looking to rent with the bank of mum and dad. So let’s look at the reality behind this gimmick.

Continue reading “Battle of Ideas: Reform or Revolution in Housing?”

Sustainable Estates: ASH Presentation at the Centre for Alternative Technology (Part 2)

Part 2 of ASH’s presentation at the conference on Housing Justice, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology as part of the Small is Beautiful festival in Machynlleth, Wales, 8-11 June, 2017.

‘Economics’, meaning the management of a community’s resources, including those of the household, and ‘ecology’, the study of the relationships between organisms and their physical environment, are both derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning ‘household’. Rather than worship at the altar of regeneration, where communities are sacrificed to the demands of profit, we need to realign our understanding of economics with the notion of sustainability – at the centre of which is the household. Sustainability is the interrelationship of the economy, our communities and the environment.

Contrary to what we are constantly told, housing estates are neither inherently flawed in their design and construction, nor come to the end of their natural lifespan. Rather, through the process of managed decline, estates such as Central Hill in Crystal Palace have been deliberately run down by the local authority, in this case Lambeth Labour council. The resulting state of disrepair is then cited by those same authorities to support their argument that there is no alternative to demolition and redevelopment. The subsequent demonisation of council housing by the media as places of crime and anti-social behavior leads to the wider cultural acceptance of the estate demolition programme by the general public.

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11 Myths about London’s Housing Crisis: ASH Presentation at the Centre for Alternative Technology (Part 1)

Part 1 of ASH’s presentation at the conference on Housing Justice, held at the Centre for Alternative Technology as part of the Small is Beautiful festival in Machynlleth, Wales, 8-11 June, 2017.

One of the biggest obstacles to coming up with sustainable solutions to the housing crisis is that almost everything said about the crisis by the people charged with solving it – knowingly or otherwise – is wrong. On Friday night one of the performers sang a folk song about the poverty of weavers, and I was reminded that I’d recently read that by the early Twentieth Century the English cotton industry produced enough cloth to make a suit of clothes for every man, woman and child on the planet – yet England itself didn’t grow cotton. The raw material came from plantations in the United States of America – a legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade – was woven into cloth by Lancashire weavers, then exported across the world to colonial markets. Yet the only people to make a profit from the cotton’s circulation in what was already a global economy were the British capitalists – the one link in this chain that did none of the labour to produce it. And against the use-value of the clothes as a product, the scale of its production meant its exchange-value as a commodity allowed British capital to undercut and ultimately destroy thousands of local textile industries across the globe. This is an example of the genius of monopoly capitalism, which today has become almost universally accepted as a universal good. It should remind us that capitalism not only produces markets and goods, it also produces myths about itself. In proposing solutions to the housing crisis, therefore, it’s important to understand and dispel its myths, which as products of our neo-liberal ideology are not deviations from the truth, not misunderstandings of the truth, but deliberate productions of the opposite of the truth. Here are eleven myths about London’s housing crisis.

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15 Truths About London’s Housing Crisis: ASH Presentation to the Architectural League of New York (Part 1)


ASH Presentation to the Architectural League of New York (Part One)

London is experiencing a housing crisis, unprecedented in its severity, whose solution demands taking tough decisions. An already densely populated island is predicted to see a major increase in population, and nowhere more so than in its capital. An influx of migrants and refugees will push Greater London’s population up from its current peak of 8.6 million to approaching 10 million by 2020. Land in London is scarce and correspondingly some of the most expensive in the world. The building industry is ready to take up the challenge and build the homes that Londoners need. But they need land.

Although large in expanse, London housing is low in density. Following the population decline in the 1950s and 60s, poorly designed Brutalist council estates were hastily erected across the city, replacing London’s traditional terraces with high-rise but low-density tower blocks. However, intrinsic design flaws and poor build standards have inevitably given rise to anti-social behaviour, crime, drug dealing and even rioting.

But there is a solution. Independent think-tanks have all arrived at the same conclusion: that here, on these sink estates, lies the brownfield land developers need to meet London’s housing demands. In place of housing estates come to the end of their life span we need to build new city villages. In place of high-rise and low-density we need to build medium-rise high-density housing on London’s traditional street plan. In place of hastily erected, pre-fabricated concrete blocks we need to build high-quality, low-energy homes that will last for generations.

Under central government cuts necessitated by a program of fiscal austerity, local authorities are working to get the best deal for existing residents, while at the same time building the homes that that will enable a new generation of Londoners to get onto the city’s property ladder. In close consultation with estate communities, the architectural profession is already designing homes to the highest standard. And the architectural press, vigilant to the ethical dimension of the profession, is reporting on London’s transition to a fairer, more inclusive, less segregated, more multicultural city of mixed communities, while celebrating the emergence of a new London vernacular in architecture.

According to the National Centre for Social Research, 86 per cent of the British population wants to own their own home. To this end, the government has promised a multi-billion pound investment programme to build up to 50 per cent affordable housing on every new development; and the London Mayor has committed to building 50,000 new homes a year for the next five years, doubling the current rate of completion. Backed by the foreign investment a post-Brexit UK needs to be competitive, the private sector will create the new communities London needs to thrive in the Twenty-first Century. By cutting through the red tape of bureaucratic planning requirements, the Government’s Housing and Planning Act is the first step towards this vision of a new London. In this historic undertaking, the architectural profession is ready to take a leading role.


This – more or less – is the narrative to which every politician, councillor, builder, property developer, housing association, marketing consultant, real estate agent, academic, journalist and architect in London has subscribed and repeats pretty much verbatim and certainly ad infinitum. The truth, however, is something very different. Here are fifteen truths about London’s so-called housing crisis.


1. London is experiencing a boom in the housing market. According to figures released last month, London house prices have risen 86 per cent since 2009. In May of this year, the average price of a home in Greater London passed £600,000 (about $760,000), and is currently over £970,000 ($1,230,000) in Inner London. The housing crisis in London is not one of supply but of affordability, with 56 per cent of homes failing to meet this criterion in the new Living Home Standard.

FACTS. 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.

2. The UK is anything but crowded. Twice as much land, nearly 2 per cent of England, is given over to golf courses than to housing. 10 per cent of England’s land is classified as urban, with most of that taken up by gardens, parks, roads and lakes. Just 2.27 per cent of that land is built upon, and only 1.1 per cent is used for homes. As for all those foreigners coming over and stealing our homes, the entire UK accepted a net migration of just 333,000 in 2015, well short of the predicted population increase in London alone.

FACTS. During the worse refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, the UK granted asylum status to just 13,905 people in 2015, with the promise to accept another 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

3. In December 2016, the top ten house builders in the UK were sitting on land with planning permission sufficient to build over 404,000 new homes, and held option agreements with landowners on enough land to build more than 480,000 more. Land, not materials or labour, determines the value of property, and the less there is of it the more it costs. London, consequently, has some of the most expensive land prices of any major city in the world – more expensive than New York, comparable to Singapore and Hong Kong – and therefore the most expensive house prices in the world.

FACTS. Persimmon Homes, currently sitting on land for 92,400 homes, built just 5,171 new properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from £144 million in 2011 to £774.8 million in 2016. Taylor Wimpey, sitting on land for 77,805 homes, built 14,112 properties last year, and its pre-tax profits have risen from just £89.9 in 2011 to £732.9 million in 2016. The Barratt Group, sitting on land for 71,351 homes, built just 7,180 properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from £42.7 million in 2011 to £565 million in 2016. And the Berkeley Group, sitting on land for 42,125 homes, built a mere 3,350 properties in 2016, yet its pre-tax profits have risen from from £136.2 million in 2011 to £530.9 million in 2016. In total, the pre-tax profits of the four largest builders in the UK – who are also the four largest land-bankers – were over £2.6 billion in 2016, a more than six-fold increase in just five years; yet between them they built less than 30,000 homes in the UK last year.

4. While Inner London doesn’t have the population densities of the overcrowded slums of its pre-war peak, the areas the developers have their claws into – the traditionally working-class boroughs of Islington, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Lambeth – are the most densely populated in London. What identifies the Inner London boroughs chosen for ‘densification’ is not their insufficiency of population, but their plenitude of council estates.

FACTS. Islington has a population density of 14,735 residents per km², the highest in London; Tower Hamlets has 14,201, Hackney 13,850, and Lambeth 11,358. Only the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea comes between them with 13,016 residents per km². The City of Westminster, at the very centre of London, has a far lower population density (11,109 residents per km²) than these boroughs, and is only slightly higher than that of Camden (10,675) and Southwark (10,432). Westminster, moreover, has 11,457 properties registered to off-shore companies, and therefore presumably standing empty. Yet we don’t hear calls for them to be bought by compulsory purchase order and demolished to make way for new housing at greater densities. Both these boroughs are, of course, the only Inner London boroughs run by a Conservative Council.

5. Because of this, a concerted campaign has been waged against the design and build of council estates and the communities they house as broken, come to the end of their life, as architecturally flawed, a socialist dream turned nightmare, as full of immigrants and benefit scroungers, as valueless and vacant voids from which wealth can and should be extracted. In reality, crime rates on council estates are consistently lower than in the surrounding area, and their managed decline is easily reversible with the maintenance that has been withheld for decades. But to prepare the British public for the land grab that is driving the demolition of our estates, this image of the 5 million homes in which 17 per cent of UK households still live is propagated and repeated in every news report, reality TV show, government announcement, mayoral manifesto, council meeting, builder’s publication, developer’s conference and architectural presentation.

6. And where the press has led, the think tanks have followed – not in independent pursuit of solutions to the housing crisis, but under the patronage of the public and private bodies that have most to gain from it. London’s housing policy is being written by a real estate firm, think tanks are funded by housing associations, academic reports commissioned by building companies, government housing commissions chaired by property developers. It is hardly surprising, then, that all are agreed on a common aim, from which their sponsors, funders and backers will make the greatest financial profit and political capital.

FACTS. Peabody housing association, which owns and manages around 27,000 homes in London, funded and helped write the Institute for Public Policy Research report ‘City Villages’, to which politicians of all political stripes regularly refer when repeating the discourse of London’s housing crisis, and which recommends that the greatest source of brownfield land for redevelopment is that on which existing council estates are built. The Berkeley Group recently commissioned the London School of Economics to write another supposedly independent report arguing why it, and not our local authorities, should be tasked with building not just our homes but our communities. The London Housing Commission, which was set up by the IPPR, is chaired by the Chairman of Peabody and sponsored by real estate firm Savills, whose report, ‘Completing London’s Streets’, is the source of the London Mayor’s housing policy to build 50,000 homes a year on demolished council estates. And Policy Exchange, another so-called independent think-tank, whose reports ‘Ending Expensive Social Tenancies’ and ‘Create Streets’ were, respectively, the origin of legislation on the enforced selling of high-value social housing and the demolition of high-rise post-war estates and their redevelopment as mid-rise blocks on a traditional street plan, is funded and supported by the Conservative Party.

7. In place of the demolished estates, high-quality, high-value housing is universally recommended as the answer to London’s housing crisis, replacing the only homes to have escaped the city’s rocketing rental prices with financial assets for non-domicile real estate investors, buy-to-let landlords and property speculators. The more council homes are demolished, the more luxury apartments get built, and the worse the housing crisis gets. This leads to louder calls to build more high-value housing, resulting in more social housing being destroyed. And so it goes, like a dog chasing its own tail. And far from being high quality, the new builds are often of shoddy standard; while under private building companies, space standards have gone out the window

FACTS. Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, built by Wandle Housing, a housing association supported by the London Mayor, is being pulled down after only six years due to water damage. Orchard Village in Rainham, still being built on the demolished Mardyke estate by what is now the Clarion Housing Group, is already facing demands by residents to be demolished because of its numerous failings. Portobello Square in Notting Hill is facing the same. And Oval Quarter in Brixton, built on the demolished Myatts Field North estate, has had residents complaining of numerous problems, from noise pollution, rodent infestation, faulty wiring, water leaks, a lack of hot water, a lack of servicing that has been contracted out to private providers, a lack of facilities for residents with disabilities, numerous breaches of health and safety regulations, as well as being locked into 45 year contracts with private power company E.ON that has driven many of them into fuel poverty.

8. While local authorities have suffered huge cuts to their budgets by central government, this in no way justifies the estate demolition programme being pursued by London councils. The refurbishment and infill of existing estates, which can increase their housing capacity by up to 50 per cent, has consistently been shown to cost a fraction of their demolition and redevelopment. The motivation behind estate demolition is not the re-housing of more Londoners at higher densities in better homes, but the enormous profits to be gained from building high-value real estate on sought-after land. The resulting demographic shift is driving London further and further towards a Parisian model of the city, with a centre for the international rich surrounded by a suburban ring of service industry workers drawn from a largely migrant population. And we saw in 2016 how that social contract is working out.

9. Far from being consulted, estate communities are fed disinformation, made false promises and lied to. From the moment they are informed their estate is being considered for ‘regeneration’, to the moment the decision to demolish their homes is publically declared to be the only financially viable option, they are repeatedly told that nothing has been decided. In fact, the decision to demolish an estate is made long before the so-called consultation with its residents begins. Those who subsequently offer resistance are branded as troublemakers, banned from council meetings, removed from engagement panels, and even threatened with the law; and the architectural and financial alternatives they offer to the demolition of their homes are dismissed out of hand by local authorities, many of whom are hand in glove with the building industry.

10. If the architectural press is vigilant, it is not to the ethical dimension of the profession, but rather to the shrinking of the remit of architects to little more than technicians. Whether debating the ethics of building a sports stadium in Qatar or demolishing a council estate in London, article after editorial informs us that such concerns lie ‘outside’ the concerns of architecture. The social – and often socialist – vision of the post-war estates being demolished to make way for the anodyne homogeneity of the new London vernacular is almost entirely lacking from contemporary practitioners. As Woody Allen might say, not since the Nuremberg Trials has the defence of ‘I’m just doing my job’ been so quoted by architects when confronted with the social realities of estates demolition.

11. As for an Englishman’s apparently innate desire to ‘own his own home’ – rents on the private market in Greater London have risen by 9.6 per cent in the past two years alone to an average of £1,540 per month (nearly $2,000). Over the next quarter of a century rents are predicted to rise at twice the rate of incomes, and renters will be twice as likely to live in poverty. Confronted with such uncertainty, who wouldn’t want to own their own home? But at the prices for which new builds in London are selling, home ownership in the capital has steadily fallen since 2003. Yet builders keep building more homes for sale at prices only the very wealthy can afford.

FACTS. Under the promise of home ownership millions of council homes were lost to tenants’ Right to Buy their council house at a state funded discount; but 25 per cent of the homes so purchased are now being rented out for higher rents by private landlords. A report released in January 2013 showed that in London 36 per cent of homes bought under Right to Buy, 52,000 former council properties, were being rented back from private landlords by local authorities trying to house their ever increasing numbers of homeless constituents. In 2015, property developers in London sold 5,300 two-bedroom homes costing between £650,000 and £1 million, but only 2,000 for around £300,000. 

12. In defiance of this housing need, the Government has promised £2.3 billion in state subsidies for 200,000 so-called ‘starter homes’, which now supplant previous provisions for social housing. Purchased at a 20 per cent discount on market rate, investors can sell these properties for the full price five years after purchase. It’s hard to imagine a greater incentive to property speculation. Not to be outdone, the London Mayor has just reduced his campaign promise to build 50 per cent affordable housing on all new developments down to 35 per cent; and his much awaited definition of a London Living Rent, set at a third the average household salary in the borough, turns out to be yet another incentive to get middle-class home buyers on the property ladder at the expense of working-class council tenants. Even if he manages to oversee the 90,000 so-called ‘affordable’ homes he has promised in the next five years, at up to 80 per cent of market rate, with the majority being for shared ownership, few of these will 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.

13. Far from providing the much needed injection of capital required to build the homes Londoners need, the 25 per cent return on their investment builders are now receiving is assuring that the proportion of even affordable housing on new developments is being driven further and further down. Not a single London borough met its affordable housing quotas last year, with just 13 per cent of new homes approved as such – a 24-year low. While the four largest building companies have promised an extra £6.6 billion in dividends to shareholders by 2021.

FACTS. In Elephant Park, a 2,535 apartment development in London’s Zone 1, international developer Lendlease, with the help of a viability assessment by real estate firm Savills, has managed to convince Southwark Labour Council they can only afford to replace the 1,200 council homes demolished to make way for the new development with 82 homes for social rent. On the 1 billion Bankside Quarter development being built on London’s Southbank, the same council has accepted that the developer, Native Land, which is backed by an international consortium of Singapore and Malaysian property developers, cannot afford a single affordable home in its 490 luxury apartments. The fact they offered the council £65 million to build them elsewhere may have helped. And on the Ferrier Estate in south-east London, the Berkeley Group is replacing 1,906 demolished council homes with 4,398 luxury apartments ranging from £412,500 for a one-bedroom apartment to £900,000 for a four-bedroom townhouse, not one of which is for social rent.

14. Worse, even, than the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations, the introduction of market rents for households in social housing earning just over the minimum wage, the enforced sale of council homes that become vacant, the phasing out of secure council tenancies, and the removal of the obligation to build any new homes for social rent, the government’s Housing and Planning Act 2016 has all but deregulated planning. Planning permission in principle will now be granted to any new housing development on the newly defined category of ‘brownfield land’. Previously used to refer to ex-industrial or commercial land that required clearing up before redevelopment, this now includes existing housing estates. It’s on the back of this legislation that the government has announced its Estate Regeneration National Strategy to ‘blitz’ 100 so-called sink estates, many of which will be located on London’s prime land. All that requires clearing up are the residents whose homes stand in the way.

15. Finally, in this vast programme of social cleansing, which will see the greatest change to the demographic of London in generations, architects are playing a role that future generations – if we should ever come out the other side of this historical moment – will look back at in shame, and wonder, much as we do now about the 1930s, how we could ever have let it happen.


Architects are good at solving problems. But to come up with solutions to the current housing crisis we first have to recognise what that crisis is and what is causing it. Architects for Social Housing, which we set up two years ago in order to offer architectural alternatives to estate demolition, has being pursuing the following practical solutions.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

2 or 3 Solutions to London’s Housing Crisis: ASH Presentation to the Architectural League of New York (Part 2)


ASH Presentation to the Architectural League of New York (Part Two)

One of the key ways in which ASH is responding to this threat to our social housing is through the production of architectural alternatives to estate demolition through designs for infill, roof extensions and refurbishment that increase the housing capacity on the estates and renovate the existing homes while leaving the communities they house intact.

Continue reading “2 or 3 Solutions to London’s Housing Crisis: ASH Presentation to the Architectural League of New York (Part 2)”