Estate regeneration schemes have seen more than 100 of London's council estates demolished and replaced with developments of predominantly luxury apartments, redefining the British capital and fuelling the housing crisis. Communities across London have been displaced and tens of thousands of new homes have been built, but the vast majority are financially far out of reach for people seeking to buy a home, while thousands lie empty and unsold.
But as the UK government responds to the climate emergency, the retrofit and reuse of buildings in place of demolition to achieve net-zero is becoming a priority. Combined with the highly contentious nature of estate regeneration, an unfavourable economic climate and the halting of landmark demolitions, the tide may finally be turning against knocking down social-housing estates.
Communities across London have been displaced and tens of thousands of new homes have been built
London mayor Sadiq Khan signalled a move away from demolition not backed by residents in 2018, declaring that estate regeneration schemes need to obtain support through mandatory ballots. Since then, high profile plans to demolish architecturally acclaimed estates Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill have been "paused" by Lambeth Council after an independent review by the late crossbench peer Bob Kerslake recommended a "fundamental reset" to the council's handling of the redevelopments.
Sentiment is also moving sharply against what is known as the "cross-subsidy" approach to regeneration that has dominated in the past two decades, in which council estates are demolished to make way for expensive for-sale properties that in turn fund building a proportion of more affordable homes. The model was declared "bust" by housing association leaders as far back as 2019, before the economic downturn left thousands of apartments unsold across developments in London.
While plans for demolition come under scrutiny, more emphasis is being placed on infill development, such as Camden's rejuvenation of the post-war Kiln Place social housing estate. Working with the London Borough of Camden, Peter Barber Architects upgraded the whole estate and increased its density without demolishing any existing homes.
Brutalist estates that escaped the wrecking ball through listing, such as Erno Goldfinger's exemplar of social housing Trellick Tower, are enduringly popular and it is not difficult to see how many other estates could be revitalised through refurbishment and infill. Despite the stigmatised image of many estates, retention is often popular with local communities.
Aysen Dennis has been at the vanguard of the fight to save south London's condemned Aylesbury Estate for the last 20 years. The Aylesbury first hit the headlines in 1997, when Tony Blair chose the estate to deliver his first speech as prime minister, placing housing at the centre of his policy programme.
Since then, its declining fortunes have mirrored the decimation of social housing. In 2005, despite widespread opposition from residents, Southwark Council announced it would demolish the estate and in 2010, the process of moving residents out began.
Nothing had prepared me for the event, which saw hundreds of people fill the corridor
Earlier this year, Dennis opened up her home and held an exhibition in her two-bedroom flat, documenting and celebrating the struggles of residents to save the estate over the last decade. With its fabulous light-filled views over London, her home filled with artwork, activity and colour was in sharp contrast to what she described as the "managed decline" of the estate around her.
I was invited to speak about the housing crisis at the exhibition, which caught the attention of national newspapers from The Times to the Daily Express that Dennis later told me misrepresented her by claiming she was surrounded by squatters and anti-social behaviour. I arrived at her flat on the eighth floor where she was one of the few remaining residents still living there, expecting to speak to a small group of housing activists.
As her cosy living room filled with a stream of people sitting on the floor, it became clear that we would need to move outside. Nothing had prepared me for the event, which saw hundreds of people fill the corridor as far as the eye could see, reflecting the strength of feeling and support for the ongoing campaign.
Feeling the winds of change, campaigners on the Aylesbury now hope that a last-ditch legal appeal could succeed where all else has failed, raising the possibility that demolition may be paused here as well.
Already a previous public inquiry, despite ultimately ruling in favour of demolition in 2017, set a precedent for significantly higher levels of compensation to flat-owners than the appalling low sums offered to Aylesbury leaseholders. This changed the financial dynamics of estate regeneration, making it harder for social-housing landlords councils to stack up the numbers.
This latest legal challenge affects the second phase of the development – the first phase has already been demolished and rebuilt. At a hearing this week on 28 November, the High Court will consider a judicial review brought forward on Dennis's behalf by Public Interest Law Centre.
Dennis's fight to save the estate may, against the odds, still be in with a chance
The claim argues that the planning permission recently granted for part of this phase, which involves the demolition of five buildings including Dennis's home, differs substantially from the original planning permission as the proposal includes plans to build a much taller 26-storey tower for private sale on the site.
The highly technical legal case concerns a "Section 96A non-material amendment" to the original outline planning permission covering the estate, which adds the word "severable" to the permission, effectively making it much easier for the developer to change the scheme. The case, which is being closely watched by lawyers, could be critical because it comes soon after a Supreme Court judgement found that land is not severable unless the permission clearly says so.
The Aylesbury has long been a bellwether for the future of social housing, and it could be that Dennis's fight to save the estate may, against the odds, still be in with a chance.
Anna Minton is the author Big Capital: Who is London for?, published by Penguin. She is a reader in architecture at the University of East London.
The photo is by PA Images/Alamy.
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