Soft Cities

Colm Lacey - Soft Cities

Why we must resist the urge to demolish housing estates

First published in The Architects Journal, 07/03/18 – https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/opinion/why-we-must-resist-the-urge-to-demolish-housing-estates.

Fine-grained infill and refurbishment are in many cases to be preferred to the knock it down and start again approach to housing, writes Colm Lacey.

Recent developments in Haringey and Earl’s Court have served to reinforce the contested nature of housing capacity, particularly social housing capacity, throughout the capital. Much of the debate on this issue remains emotive and draws from age-old polemics on power and privilege, the establishment and the masses. The London mayor’s recent announcement on resident ballots, while a welcome and necessary intervention in my view, is unlikely to move this debate on. 

The truth is, many estate regeneration programmes start from the premise that estates are broken and need fixing.

The regeneration of an estate by the private sector (rather than, say, a local authority) is a wholly commercial exercise and the lens focuses ruthlessly on comparative financial potential, blurring the inherent value of the resident community.

The everyday domestic stories of the estate – the quick chat in the lift, the music drifting through the wall, the de facto communal child rearing – simply have no place in this narrative. I’m being deliberately romantic of course, but it is undoubtedly true that in the world of financial viability, density is king.

However, it is not always the case that wholesale redevelopment will net more units than infill and refurbishment would, and it is notable that the density argument is applied disproportionately to public sector landlords. Nobody ever seems to suggest that the Duke of Westminster demolish tracts of Belgravia to replace it with higher-density housing, irrespective of the number of new units that would be created nor the value thereof. Why is greater value is placed on the protection and maintenance of private sector assets, irrespective of their architectural quality or condition?

Why is greater value is placed on the protection and maintenance of private sector assets, irrespective of their architectural quality or condition?

I suspect the answer is simple: private estates are built with private money. The appraisal and understanding of the cost of creating these physical assets is deep, born of many challenging discussions with funders and the constant need to generate revenue. 

As a result, the average private landlord fully understands the commercial value of what they have. For a typical council housing estate, the financial, infrastructural and political investment in getting the thing built is all too easily forgotten and the need to generate income less pressing. Too often, this leads to an undervaluation of the asset.

Thankfully, this is changing. As local authorities and other public sector bodies are forced to become more commercial, they are developing a practical awareness of the real value of their physical assets.

On many estates, the form remains serviceable and serves its function (ie housing people) perfectly well. So, as the cost of energy and construction increases and political will wavers, I can’t help thinking that the basic premise of many estate regeneration programmes – the demolition good old housing stock to enable the delivery of good new housing stock – is due a wholesale re-appraisal.

Part of the responsibility for this lies with those commissioned to deliver the work.

Council estates are the great edifices of social policy, the very definition of meaningful architecture. The vainglorious siren call of replacing these big architectural ideas can be too much for your average middle class design team, and all too often they dash themselves on the rocks of wholesale redevelopment. Scant attention is paid to the potential for fine grained infill and transformative refurbishment, irrespective of the relative value of such an approach.

Council estates are the great edifices of social policy, the very definition of meaningful architecture.

So then, if we are to accept that pre-existing council housing estates, and the lives that are lived there, have value that we should not lose, how about a sequential planning test for the demolition of existing stock?

Are there vacant infill sites on the estate or nearby with capacity for new housing? If so, don’t demolish. Does the existing estate provide housing of a compliant standard? If so, don’t demolish. Is the existing stock capable of being refurbished for less than the cost of demolition and rebuild? If so, don’t demolish. If the answer to all of these questions is no, then the demolition of the estate, and the terms thereof, should be put to a ballot of residents.

And if all of this simply sounds like a lot of old faff which would stymie many potential estate regeneration programmes, then maybe this tells its own story.