Densifying London the wrong way

I’m a firm believer in “densification” – that we can make our towns and cities more dense. This can help us to avoid building on other species’ habitats, and to support more sustainable transport habits like public transport and cycling. I’ve written two blog posts looking at the scope for densifying outer London.

But yesterday, Eric Pickles re-announced his own densification programme, and I’m dead-set against it. The Communities Secretary wants to give Boris Johnson £150m to accelerate the demolition of council estates in London, building more dense housing on the land.

The official statement describes the estates as “London’s most deprived”; the Evening Standard helpfully spelled out what they meant by that, describing “run down” and “notorious” areas. It’s one of those easy stereotypes to trot out that actually have very little basis in fact – UKIP supporters are wealthy Tories, housing benefit claimants are unemployed scroungers, and council estates are crumbling and crime-ridden.

In a bizarre attempt to make this sound benign, the official statement mentions that 1.7 million more people lived in inner London in 1939 than are expected to live there in 2021, implying that it really isn’t all that dense at all. Compared to Tokyo, it isn’t, but compared to 1939? Back then inner London was seriously overcrowded, still blighted by slums; depopulation was a deliberate policy to improve quality of life, moving people to outer London or new towns.

You might wonder – why doesn’t Pickles want to regenerate the sprawling low density suburbs? The potential housing capacity there, as I demonstrated, is anywhere up to a trebling of our housing stock.

The answer is obvious. Council tenants in inner London are easy targets. Their councils lack the funds and imagination to protect and maintain their homes and so, reluctantly or otherwise, they go along with these redevelopments. This in spite a growing list of such schemes that have seen the net loss of social housing, the expensive new flats mostly sold to investors, the dislocation of settled communities, the worsening health of affected tenants, and the environmentally destructive loss of existing buildings.

For Pickles and these councils, the tenants have no right to stay put, certainly not equivalent to home owners. But why not? Think of this as a moral, not a legal question. These tenants have been offered a social contract, the assurance that they will be secure in their homes so long as they want to stay there and can pay their rent, equivalent to the social contract for home owners who can continue to pay off their mortgage. They thrive in lively communities, cope with poverty and social exclusion by relying on networks of neighbours, establish settled family lives and hold down jobs they can afford to commute to.

What is the difference between a compulsory purchase of a council estate, such as the Heygate with 1,200 homes on 9 hectares of land, and a compulsory purchase of some homes in Bromley or Havering, with typically 270 homes on an equivalent 9 hectares?

The difference is cost and political will. Councils own their land and can do with it as they wish; the only question is whether they will gain financially from the redevelopment. But to buy those homes in Bromley or Havering they might need to find the best part of £135m. An imaginative council might see an opportunity to fund that by building 1,200 homes and selling half of them on the open market, but councils aren’t encouraged to be imaginative and proactive in Britain. More importantly, most politicians treat the property rights of home owners as sacred while the rights of tenants are temporary and fungible, and few would countenance the idea of redeveloping swathes of suburbia in this way.

If Pickles wanted to densify areas of London to meet needs, he should look at all areas of low density housing and explore how clever use of compulsory purchase and land assembly can deliver his aims in a way that recognises homes are about people and communities, not bricks and mortar.

This so-called regeneration of council estates is densification through urban clearance, sweeping away the powerless and ignoring the impact on their lives in order to deliver numbers – new homes built, council tax revenues collected, stereotypes confirmed.

For an alternative vision for London, visit the Crumbs for London campaign.

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