Post-war council estates suffer a barrage of stigmatising representations. Central and local governments, think tanks, and property companies call them ‘sink estates’ and ‘concrete monstrosities’. In television dramas and feature films, council estates are invariably grim and crime ridden. These representations have real-world effects. They establish social moods and opinions that encourage and justify the wave of estate demolitions that have beset London and other cities in recent decades. In this article, Dr Nick Thoburn argues that demolitions are more profit driven than by the need for housing affordability, security, and safety, and that these demolitions cause social and environmental harm.
- Since 1997, tens of thousands of council units have been demolished, and the Estate Watch project identifies over 100 London estates under threat.
- Council-estate demolition is increasingly contested by housing campaigners and researchers who show that it deepens rather than solves the crisis of housing affordability.
- The vast carbon emissions from estate demolition, disposal, and rebuild undermine policy aims of net zero.
- Repair and retrofit, along with meaningful consultation with residents, is a preferred alternative to demolition.
The social and environmental consequences of estate demolition
Demolition brings about social and individual cost, uprooting residents from support networks and jobs, fragmenting communities, and reducing the supply of affordable, safe, and secure housing. Demolition has an environmental impact too, which is hidden behind claims that net zero carbon targets will be achieved through ‘green’ replacement housing. A demolished estate releases tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. And the carbon costs of manufacturing the concrete, steel, and other materials for rebuild are such that 51% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical residential development is emitted before it is even opened.
Yet central and local governments, housing associations, and developers still proceed apace with estate demolition and rebuild. The common justification is that residents share the dominant mood and opinion about council estates. However, our research project with residents at East London’s Robin Hood Gardens found this not to be the case.
Researching the lived experience of a council estate
We established the project in dismay that the residents of Robin Hood Gardens were almost entirely absent from the prominent public debate about the estate’s merits, failings, and impending demolition, their presence at best tokenistic. We set out to challenge this situation and centre residents’ social, emotional, and sensory experiences of the estate’s architecture, their views about its demolition and public representation, and their housing hopes for the future.
What we found was a very different picture to the dominant stigmatisation. Residents despaired of the lack of investment in and maintenance of the estate. This is another scandal of council housing today. Council estates are not ‘subsidised’, as is often said, but generate a surplus. Yet this surplus is rarely invested back into the housing stock. At London’s threatened Achilles Street estate, for example, between 2011 and 2017 just £239,000 was spent on repairs and maintenance, yet rent and service charges in the same period generated £2.6 million for Lewisham Council. This disinvestment must be framed also in the national context of severe cuts in funding from central to local government, falling by 49.1% in real terms between 2010 and 2018, when demand for key services is increasing.
The impact of managed decline
This neglect and disrepair too often becomes ‘managed decline’, where councils leverage long-term disinvestment for demolition. At Robin Hood Gardens, residents were aware and critical of this path to demolition, which one resident described to us as the ‘social cleansing’ of their neighbourhood. Their views of the estate’s future were complex, sometimes coloured by the seeming inevitability of demolition that is produced by managed decline. But in the main, residents wanted refurbishment not demolition, in an estate whose architecture and homes were tremendously popular.
For Motiur Rahman, the estate’s deck-access ‘streets in the sky’ brought a joyous, open-air sociality to East London: ‘In Eid, the doors would be open in every house and you would have all these people, swathes of people going up and down the corridors in their glitzy outfits, going to people’s houses, eating samosas. It gave you the opportunity to live an outdoor life’. He talked of spending whole summers as a child on the estate’s protected inner green, coming in briefly for lunch, then ‘out again, and the next time you came in was 8pm when the sun went down. You were absolutely blissful and sort of lost in those moments’.
On warm summer evenings, Adrienne Sargeant’s family would take chairs out onto the street deck and eat their dinner raised up in the open air. She recalled the strong attachment held by her father, who hailed from Barbados and worked as a bus conductor: ‘he absolutely loved it here, absolutely loved it’.
The book and online photography exhibition from this project are brimming with other enthusiastic residents’ accounts about Robin Hood Gardens, an estate now lost to demolition. How can estate demolition and the marginalisation of residents’ views and experiences be prevented elsewhere? Two policy implications arise from our research.
- Repair, refurbishment, and retrofit of existing social housing for existing residents should be the gold standard. Demolition should not be the favoured option but the very last resort, an option institutionally disapproved of for its damaging impact on residents, communities, and the environment, and used only when buildings are proven to be structurally unsound. A motto for this approach can be taken from the architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, responsible for award-winning refurbishment of French social housing: ‘Never demolish, never remove – always add, transform and reuse’.
- Residents should be consulted meaningfully and fairly. Since 2018, London local authorities are required to obtain a majority in a formal ballot of residents for any redevelopment proposal involving whole or partial estate demolition, an opportunity refused to residents of Robin Hood Gardens. This is progress, and it should be extended to all parts of the country. But the ballot process is stacked in favour of demolition and must be overhauled.
Research on recent estate ballots by Sian Berry, Member of the London Assembly, shows local authorities and developers lavishing funds on communications and consultants to obtain pro-demolition results, the unequal sharing of information, limited detail about rehousing offers, and reports of incentives, all of which place the case against demolition at a major disadvantage.
Instead, favouring repair, refurbishment, and retrofit should be baked into the consultation process for all local authorities, with residents consulted meaningfully and fairly about the social, emotional, and architectural experiences of their estates and the plans for refurbishment. Meaningful consultation also requires that all options are adequately and equally funded, and that consultation is genuinely exploratory, not established to achieve the preferred outcomes of external parties.
Our research was with residents in London, but the negative social and environmental impact of estate demolition should be an integral consideration in social-housing policy across the country. And beyond the direct threat of demolition, every UK estate is an opportunity for meaningful consultation about the social, emotional, and architectural experience of council housing, as a means to counter the stigmatisation of estate residents and secure the future of this vital housing tenure.
Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.