David Cameron pledges to demolish UK's "brutal" council estates

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UK prime minister David Cameron has revealed plans to bulldoze or overhaul 100 so-called "sink estates", blaming their design for fostering crime and poverty.

Cameron described the country's post-war social housing estates as "brutal" and a "gift to criminals and drug dealers" in an article published in the Sunday Times and on the government's website yesterday.

He pledged to spend £140 million to help "regenerate" or demolish 100 estates, which Cameron said had been designed in a way that created a poverty trap for those living in them.

"Step outside in the worst estates, and you're confronted by concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers," wrote Cameron.

"The police often talk about the importance of designing out crime, but these estates actually designed it in. Decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour," he added. "And poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so."

Under Cameron's proposals, some existing social housing buildings and public spaces could be replaced by private housing developments.

Heygate Estate_London_Simon Kennedy_dezeen_sq
The deserted Heygate housing estate in south London prior to demolition. Photograph by Simon Kennedy

"Existing estates were built at a lower density than many modern developments – poorly laid-out, with wasted open space that was neither park nor garden," said Cameron.

"So regeneration will work best in areas where land values are high, because new private homes, built attractively and at a higher density, will fund the regeneration of the rest of the estate."

Cameron's announcement came days after the government passed a controversial housing and planning bill that some believe will reduce the number of social housing units built across the UK. There are currently an estimated 1.4 million to 1.9 million families or individuals on the waiting list for social housing in the UK.



Cameron's plans for post-war estates divided UK architects and critics. Dezeen columnist and architecture critic Owen Hatherley described the prime minister's announcement as "infuriating" and "idiotic".

"The pitiful amount of money pledged is absurd to cover any more than mowing the lawn at '100 estates', but the worst aspect is its connection with the appalling housing bill, which will destroy the very concept of universal council housing," he told Dezeen.

"Ironically, one effect of that bill is that 'iconic' estates, which are usually Brutalist, will be precisely those which will go private quickest, as they will be classed as 'high value' and councils will be pressured to sell them," said Hatherley. "But Cameron's specific mention of Brutalism suggests, like much else, that his entire politics and worldview was formed in the 1980s and hasn't changed since."

Park Hill, Sheffield by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith
The Brutalist Park Hill estate in Sheffield, originally designed by Jack Lynn and Ivor Smith, has been the subject of an award-winning regeneration scheme

But architect Glenn Howells, whose projects include the overhaul of the iconic 1960s Rotunda tower in central Birmingham to create 234 apartments, said Cameron's proposal had the potential to deliver wider benefits for the UK's towns and cities.

"Any investment in providing better quality housing reasonably swiftly is a welcome initiative," he told Dezeen. "If it's carried out in the right way, it could mesh and stitch into the wider context, so you end up with benefits spreading beyond the regeneration site into the surrounding area."

"You won't regenerate 100 estates for £140 million. [But] if you are priming the pump to consider how you might properly invest, that's the sort of funding you can consider," he added. "Public land can trigger private investment, but I think it needs to be carried out in a really integrated way."

The demolition of post-war estates has become one of the hottest issues in UK architecture. The Heygate Estate in south London, which housed more than 3000 people, was controversially demolished in 2014. Residents of the nearby Aylesbury Estate are now protesting against similar plans for their homes.

Last year campaigners failed in a last-ditch attempt to save the 1960s Robin Hood Gardens council estate in east London, which was designed by influential British architects Allison and Peter Smithson.

A revival of interest in the Brutalist style of architecture has saved other estates from a similar fate. In 2013 the first stage of a refurbishment project of the Park Hill estate in Sheffield was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, the UK's highest award for architecture.

The Barbican in central London and the Erno Goldfinger-designed Trellick Tower in North Kensington have both become coveted addresses, with increasing numbers of residences becoming privately owned. Trellick's east London counterpart, the Balfron Tower, is also due to be turned into private housing this year after its council residents were decanted.

  • Atlas

    Owen Fatherly sounds like a typical whining left-wing ideologue who couldn’t care less about the unfortunate inhabitants of the hideous and failed estates he is so desperate to defend.

    • Sim

      My impression is that he is eager to defend them because there is no alternative available for the people who will lose their houses in these plans.

      It is downright criminal (and lacking in common sense or understanding of the real issues at hand) what Cameron is proposing.

    • karl

      Typical comment of a whining right-wing-neoliberal-Ayn-Rand-loving ideologue who couldn’t care less about the unfortunate inhabitants who are forced out of their homes.

      The next violent outburst of the marginalised is just around the corner. Place your bets…

      • Atlas

        Your post contains nothing of substance, you clearly have no idea what the conditions in these estates actually are.

        This is what is so sad about the political left, you place your own ideology and hatred above the ideal of improving the lives of others.

        • Conrad Winchester

          I really struggle to understand what kind of dreamland you live in Mr Atlas. In what way have the last two governments done anything to improve the lives of anyone other than themselves and their friends?

          Shrug all you want!

        • matthew piggwick

          I lived on Park hill for four years prior to its renovation, and loved it even then. Money spent on maintenance is important and often lacking.

          It’s amazing the paternalistic and patronising attitude people have toward council tenants.

        • Thomas Wensing

          Dear Atlas, I lived at the Heygate and I would like to take this opportunity to explain to you that many inhabitants felt extremely betrayed and shafted by the local government. First they had to suffer 30 years of deferred maintenance in which the rent was not used for repairs.

          Then they were promised new affordable housing, which of course, never materialised in the numbers promised. Then the flats were gradually boarded up to drive them out. Then I haven’t mentioned the fact that people who used the right-to-buy option years ago were offered below-market rates for flats that had now become ‘derelict’.

          This did not allow them to buy in the area. What happened, in essence, is driving poorer people out to create a bonanza for developers with public money. Please answer to any of these facts, if you will, with an alternative that works from your position.

    • Conrad Winchester

      I live on a council estate. It is really nice. I am not an unfortunate inhabitant. That is really offensive and inaccurate terminology. You obviously have no real clue about what it is like to live on a council estate.

      I have lived in this part of London on-and-off since 1972 and on this particular estate for 12 years. What matters to me most is that I do not want to lose my life, friends and home. How would knocking down my estate, or anybody else’s for that matter, make anything better?

      I am sure I speak for most people in the same situation.

  • Derek_V

    Cue the leftie architects defending these built atrocities.

    • Sim

      There are real living people living in these “atrocities”. 1.4 million for the replacement of each one of these estates is ridiculous.

      That might build you 10 tiny houses (excluding the cost of the land). Where do you expect the rest of these people to move to?

    • Guest

      I know a righty architect. How about that? Meantime, Cameron is still about gesture politics. We go nowhere. Well not until we get out, that is.

    • Thomas Wensing

      Derek, name calling is not going to resolve the need for housing. Buildings go through a cycle of vibrancy and decline. It is only a short while ago that Victorian housing was referred to as slums.

      Social housing from the sixties and seventies can be repaired and the deficiencies can be corrected, just as what happened to the ‘slums’. Maintenance for a start would help. You would not drive in a car for thirty years and never maintain it, so why these double standards when it comes to housing?

      On a final note, with the middle-class diminishing as it has, most young people face a future of rent, so this idea of home-ownership and suburbia as the holy grail has not worked. Collective, medium to high-density housing has to be part of the discussion again.

  • Chris MacDonald

    By all means demolish them, but David Cameron is still a t**t.

    • Lana Marshall

      A pure distraction from solving the real problems of this society. This opinion may be about the architecture but as it is only serves to get you lot writing and bitching about how many happy Germans still live and love the brutal architecture that provides roof and shelter for many across their country.

      How many young Brits would just love one to live in?! Give them well-paid jobs, and say nice things about the estates! We cannot all live in mansions. No space!

  • You’re quite right! We’ve corrected that now.

    Thanks,
    Anna/Dezeen

  • IDRACULA

    Is this a case of blaming the architecture for the social conditions the people that inhabit these structures find themselves in?

  • JayCee

    When one views this new “policy” alongside the recently implemented sweeping changes to planning policy with regard to fast-tracking new-build housing on brownfield sites, one quickly can see the true politics behind this: Cameron cares not one jot for the “unwashed masses” living in these estates; he simply requires an excuse to sell the land off to developers eager to cash in on the housing bubble.

    • Sim

      Exactly. As we say here: “helping people out of the rain and into the raindrop.” Much, much more money will be needed to amend these mistakes in policy.

      Also, what I find astonishing in these times is that it is as if the whole concept of “common decency” and wanting for all people a basic level of human dignity has been completely eroded.

  • Kokon_arch

    Demolition is not the only solution! Kokon, our office in the Netherlands is currently working on multiple transformations of apartment buildings like these to extend their lifespan, upgrading buildings and and their surroundings, as well as the apartments to higher standards.

    More comfortable and more sustainable: http://www.kokon.nl/nl/projecten/transformatie

  • Kay

    Architectural genocide. Pure and simple. And it has been happening all around us for nearly a decade now. It just became official, that’s all. Absolute shame.