A review of Estate Regeneration and its Discontents: public housing, place and inequality in London, by Paul Watt.
This is a most important book, and a powerful indictment of the Tory and Blairite housing agenda.
The objective of council housing was to give everyone a decent place to live, as a right, at a rent they could afford, and with security of tenure irrespective of income. In that it was largely successful.
To the Tories and Labour’s hard right housing is a commodity, nothing more, to be used for the maximisation of profit irrespective of the consequences. Regeneration is part of this commodification.
“Estate regeneration” is not about regenerating estates, nor about dealing with the housing crisis. It is another stage in the ideological attack on council housing. To the Tories and the hard right of the Labour Party (there is virtually no difference between them on housing) first the curtailment and ultimately the ending of council housing has always been their objective.
Pre-Thatcher, estates were modernised and numerous improvements made. Today regeneration means whole estates are taken over by developers, emptied out, usually demolished, and mostly replaced with luxury housing. Often few of the original tenants get a place on the new estate. Often much of the luxury housing is bought up by overseas business interests as an asset and not for housing.
Successive Tory Governments refused to fund repairs, maintenance, refurbishment and renewals of council estates. Blair made that funding heavily conditional on estates being transferred to housing association. They thus substantially, and intentionally, worsened a situation of disrepair.
With the Cameron, May, and Johnson governments dramatically reducing direct local authority funding, we end up with government-financed and government-driven gentrification and social cleansing, eagerly supported by Tory and Blairite councils.
The so called “failed estates” or “sink estates” are used as the main argument for regeneration. Tories, Blairites, and the press suggest that it is because they are council estates that they are “sink” estates.
Watt effectively refutes that canard, indicting a lack of maintenance and repairs, plus a media campaign of stigmatisation.
Put another way estates are deliberately allowed to deteriorate, and then the cost of bringing them up to standard skyrockets. With the financial constraints on local authorities, they can’t meet the costs.
Redevelopment may increase the total number of new homes, but many of the new ones are for rent or sale at levels which few if any of the previous tenants can afford. Some may be at “affordable rents”. As these are up to 80% of market rents, they are unaffordable to those on low or even average incomes.
Estate regeneration “unlocks” land value. Extremely valuable public land passes from the local authority to developers, who can then cash in on it. It also increases scarcity of public land. The “freed” land prices drive up rents and house prices.
Effectively destroying the case for so called regeneration, Watt also shows its inherent human cost, its dispossession and its displacement, the despair and the distress.
He exposes the fraudulent nature of the “consultation processes”, and the prolonged timescales (some, like the Carpenters estate, taking decades with no end in sight).
Council estates are working-class communities, and often with a strong sense of community. Regeneration destroys this.
Watt shows how when the community comes together it can fight regeneration, the classic case being the Haringey Development Vehicle, which the local community, supported by the local Labour Party, was able to stop.
This is an excellent book and should be read by all housing and tenant activists.