Social housing is in crisis. Demand far outstrips supply, existing estates are often in desperate need of attention and rapidly diminishing housing stock is not being replenished – a problem felt most keenly by existing residents. While the net has recently appeared to tighten for these residents, David Cameron’s announcement that the Government will be investing £140 million to help regenerate so-called ‘sink estates’, could (if deployed in the right way) be an opportunity to take a fresh look at how to upgrade our ailing council estates and improve the quality of life of their residents.
The fund, formally announced this week (11 January), will be used to rehouse existing occupants and revise planning legislation to help regenerate and rebuild around 100 socially deprived estates with historic problems with crime. This is fantastic in principle. Additional funding is clearly desperately needed to improve these estates that are arguably no longer fit for purpose. It is undoubtedly a step in the right direction and a positive announcement from the Government. However, if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it is important to ask ourselves how we can use this money to make a positive long-term difference on the ground.
Three main factors constrain this fund: its modest size relative to the number of estates it is intended to help, the raft of legislation currently going through parliament (particularly extensions to the Right to Buy being proposed in the Housing and Planning Bill, which, from our experience, can cause legal wrangling and significant hold-ups when looking to regenerate and improve council housing) and the complexity of landownership (as councils rarely own social housing land outright).
The reality is that this task, with the legislative tools and funding available, can never be as straightforward as ‘bulldozing’ sink estates and then relying on the private market to rebuild them as gleaming socially-cohesive utopias. People will need to be rehoused, or at least will be burdened by infill development, and one question is: where will the existing tenants go? What we must do, however, is find the best way to deliver the most effective results with the funding available. To do this, we must implement progressive ideas, and culturally readjust to the realities of the modern housing market.
- Lord Adonis’ idea of ‘city villages’, introduced in a report for IPPR last year, is a concept alluded to in David Cameron’s recent announcement. Adonis argues for better models of homebuilding and regeneration and creating new mixed-use, mixed-tenure developments involving both the public and private sector. With the new push for improved social housing, it is time to address some of the challenges Adonis highlights – in particular, finding new forms of partnership between the public and private sector.
- We should also look at density. People often grimace at the idea of building intensification, but this needn’t be the case. Far from building inner-city favelas, high-density housing can be both of a high quality and can efficiently house more people. We are looking at the highest population in London since 1939, but a relatively low population density on existing inner London Council estates. Our Green Belt laws make it difficult to build outwards, so it makes sense to encourage high-quality, well-planned, high-density housing on large areas of publicly owned land.
- Championed by Sir Terry Farrell, placemaking is an essential principle when regenerating these estates. Our post-war estates were built purely for function – rehousing a population battered by years of war in an efficient and cost-effective way. Seventy years on, with different economic and social pressures, these houses are functionally and socially unfit for purpose. Quality public spaces planned early on and working with local communities to understand their needs are vital. Intelligent and sensitive design in the built environment can make a real positive difference to residents’ physical and mental well-being, as well as helping to create a more open and engaging community.
Applying these principles and finding innovative new ways to find partnership between the public and private sector are essential if we are to positively and effectively implement this new government funding in the long term. What this additional funding can do is stimulate the market – helping developers to get quality new development off the ground and kick start the next generation of council housing. A strong example of this is at Kidbrooke Village, where we have been working with Berkeley Homes to more than double the density of the existing Ferrier Estate to provide new homes, including the reprovision of existing social housing numbers, while providing a greatly improved environment and a new high-quality mixed-use suburban village for London.
With an unravelling and changing crisis, we must evolve and adapt. While I am sceptical that with this modest fund we can simply ‘bulldoze’ our sink estates and sweep away their problems – I do think we can step back to intelligently assess how to deploy the fund to make positive long-term differences.
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