Why are London’s politicians so keen to knock down council estates?
Lib Peck, the leader of Lambeth Council, who is pushing through estate demolitions against fierce opposition from residents, feels that estate regeneration is essential to build extra homes, which are badly needed in London. She has described estate regeneration as
a golden opportunity to act in the face of the crisis
Many other council leaders in London appear to think the same.
But how essential is the kind of estate regeneration being practiced?
Much of the excitement has been generated by reports that have claimed that there is a huge potential to increase housing numbers on council estates.
Developers, seeing an opportunity to generate huge profits from large scale redevelopment programmes, have been particularly keen to press the case. In January 2016, Savills published a research paper suggesting that up to 360,000 new homes could be built by densifying London’s local authority owned housing estates.
Another report, published by Centre for London, and sponsored by Countryside Properties (Countryside, despite the name, are heavily involved in estate regeneration), estimated that up to 160,000 homes could be delivered.
However, scratch beneath the surface of the Centre for London report and the numbers are wildly unreliable. As the authors explain, their model was based on a sample of large council estates in four London boroughs: Lewisham, Barking and Dagenham, Hounslow and Waltham Forest. They claim that they wanted a mix of inner and outer London boroughs. In reality only Lewisham can be considered to be in inner London, and only barely so.
They then look at the densities of the the estates in these areas, and calculate how many more homes could be accommodated if they were rebuilt to the maximum densities recommended in the London plan for Central London. These figures are then scaled up to create a London-wide figure.
The problems with this approach are obvious to anyone with a basic knowledge of London and a GCSE in maths.
Firstly, because the sample is heavily weighted in favour of outer London, the existing housing estates included in the study will be of relatively low density, and so naturally will have a greater potential to increase density.
The study assumes that inner London estates have the same potential to increase housing density than the outer London estates included in their study.
Given that their analysis is based on bringing densities up to inner london levels, this is an absurd proposition.
It should be obvious that there is much less potential to increase the density of central London, when your target is the recommended density for central london. The reality is that much of central London is already at or above the density guidelines.
To give a concrete example, the recommended housing density for a Central London area with very good public transport is 175-355 units per hectare. ‘Urban’ areas have a recommended density of 80-210 units per hectare. The Ethelred Estate, which is one of the largest housing estates in London, is located just a mile or so from the Houses of Parliament. It is just outside the central area, in an area classed as ‘urban’ London in the London Plan. The estate has an existing density of 231 u/ha, which is currently being increased with an infill development to 333 u/ha. Clearly there would be little point knocking down this estate to rebuild it to a marginally higher density, but the Centre for London study assumes all estates have a significant potential to increase their density.
The fact is that the figures compiled by the Centre for London will be a massive overstatement of the potential that estate regeneration has to contribute to meeting London’s housing need.
And the Centre for London’s figures are considered by many to be conservative. One wonders where on earth Savills’ figures come from.
To be fair to the authors, they do admit that their numbers are, to say the least, problematic, but such detail is always missed by journalists and politicians, like Dave Hill of the Guardian, who will quote the headlines.
This has clear implications for policy makers. If the reports on estate regeneration grossly overstate the contribution that estate regeneration can make to housing supply in the capital, should councils be pursuing the policy so vigorously? Perhaps we would all be better served if planning authorities focused their energy on other, more effective, ideas to improve housing supply.