Sajid Javid recently made the shock decision to overturn Southwark council’s attempt to buy out the last remaining leaseholders in order to begin demolishing the Aylesbury Estate in south London. A shock both because it came from Javid himself (a former investment banker at Deutsche Bank not typically associated as a saviour of social housing) and because it was made on the grounds of ‘human rights’ despite the wealth of available historical examples where such rights were seemingly of secondary importance. Used by Tony Blair as the location for his first speech as Prime Minister and by Channel 4 to depict a damp, dreary scene of satellite dishes and washing lines, the estate has arguably the most turbulent past of any in the UK, pummelled by years of neglect and contempt. The design of the estate has well known architectural shortcomings, both in the inadequate lifespan of the construction method used and the sheer scale of its resolution. However the issues of estate management, affordability and rehousing of existing tenants go well beyond the discourse of design.
The question remains as to why this decision was made at all. Is it part of a wider message projected by the new government’s initial promises of fighting inequality and social injustice? Is it an attempt to declare allegiance to leaseholders as opposed to social renters? Or, more optimistically, is it the beginning of a fresh view on problematic viability calculations on soon to be developed estates?
At face value, the decision seems to be at odds with any government policy on social housing since the 70s. It would be a mistake to extrapolate this move as any meaningful shift towards protecting the rights of those living on threatened estates. It seems unclear how far the government want to develop the recent political construction of a move towards the centre but it is unlikely to generate a sudden swing in its appeal to voters on inner city estates.
The process of estate regeneration in recent years to densify public land is renowned for its complexity and the precarious state in which it can leave residents. Countless examples of ill-fated revamps on estates have produced an entire generation of organised groups such as 35% or Architects for Social Housing (ASH) which campaign actively on behalf or alongside residents. The crucial political fact was recently pointed out by Paul Watt, academic at Birkbeck University, in a talk titled ‘Forgotten Estates,’ where he explained that social housing is one the three pillars, alongside the NHS and state education, which form the foundations of the welfare state. However it is the most likely, he explains, of the three to be left behind within public opinion. While we depend on state healthcare when we fall sick or send our children to state schools, the reality is, for a multitude of reasons, most of us do not live in a council property and therefore do not have direct physical or emotional connections to it as an idea. It may form the subject of superficial televised documentaries in order to expose the dire situation of those faced with eviction, but the simple fact remains that social housing does not rank high enough alongside immigration or the NHS as political treasures worth investing in or dealing with.
It also would be a mistake to explain the decision simply because it referred specifically to leaseholders as opposed to tenants. This episode brings to light once again the catastrophic combination of the Right to Buy and estate demolition. While it must be said that in many cases leaseholders are indeed able to get a good deal for their property which they invariably acquired at a massive discount, there are also huge losses from this process. As recently explained by George Turner, while the principle of buying your own council property at a discount understandably seems an attractive prospect, the eventual reality is that you have only marginally more rights than social tenants. If the price paid by the council for your property in the event of demolition is pegged by its ‘market value,’ then the property is invariably worthless on the open market and often generates a CPO value of around a third of similar local properties. Consequentially this means residents either move out of high value areas such as London as they cannot afford to buy a similar sized property outright or typically take one of the shared ownership offers available on the newly built part of the site.
Javid’s decision noted that ‘The proposed purpose of the order will have considerable economic and social dis-benefits in terms of consequences for those leaseholders remaining on the order land.’ This has called a halt to the demolition phase and brings hopes of a better deal for the eight remaining leaseholders. While Southwark contemplates legal action against this decision, this episode merely confirms the absence of a national level plan to strategically locate new, affordable housing. The lack of available land means invariably councils are pressured into densifying their stock at unsatisfactory levels of affordable housing. This decision will at least make those developing public land to think twice when offering buyouts to those refusing to leave the estate they call home.