Here are eight thoughts on David Cameron's £140m “sink estate” revamp policy

Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, north Londo: one of the estates said to be in the government's sights. Image: Iridescenti/Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday prime minister David Cameron announced plans to spend £140m rebuilding up to 100 of Britain's worst sink estates. “For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again," he wrote in yesterday's Sunday Times. "For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

Full details of how all this will work won't be forthcoming for a while ("by the Autumn Statement", we're told, which won’t happen until early December). In the mean time, here, in no particular order, are eight thoughts on the plan.

Rebuilding some estates is probably a good thing

Let’s not beat around the bush: this country built a lot of terrible estates in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many of them were badly built (too hot, too cold, too damp, or just plain ugly). Many more effectively wrecked their local communities, by rendering the streetscape "impermeable" – that is, dividing one neighbourhood from another.

So. Tearing some of the worst offenders down, and replacing them with new housing built on a more human scale – a new dense network of low-rise streets – is probably no bad thing.

It helps solve the land problem

It's not just right wingers who are in favour of this kind of policy, either. Lord Adonis, one of the Labour's brightest urban policy minds, has been talking about replacing council estates with "city villages" for a while.

There’s a reason for this enthusiasm. To have a hope of fixing Britain’s housing crisis, we need to free up more land for building housing. And if we're not willing to extend our cities into their green belts (I'm up for that, but almost nobody in politics is), we need to find a way of freeing up land inside them. 

And the large estates which are already owned by the public sector seem a good place to start. 

You can probably get more homes on this land than they currently contain

It seems obvious that estates full of tower blocks would have a higher population density – would house more people – than traditional streets of terraced homes and lower rise apartment blocks can.

Obvious, but wrong. Many estates have huge swathes of windswept open space between blocks, so their population density is surprisingly low. In fact, the most densely populated parts of London are the four- and five- story terraces of Kensington and Notting Hill.

So when the government claims this policy could result in more housing, it’s not necessarily wrong. That said...

The money is a joke

£140m, across 100 estates? Do me a favour. That's peanuts. That's £1.4m per estate. 

Now obviously things aren't quite that simple. The government isn't going to rebuild all 100 of those estates. We're talking about bits of land that come with planning permission, so it'll be cheaper to build homes here than almost anywhere else. And there's talk of private investment, from developers and pension funds, too – so that £140m won't be the total scale of the investment.

But nonetheless - £140m? Really? The last Labour government spent £181m improving housing in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets alone. £140m – I can't stress this enough – is nothing. 

So is the commitment to replacement housing

The government has claimed that the "right to a home" for the existing residents of these estates – both social renters, and private owners – will be protected by "binding guarantees".

That's brilliant if it's true. But there’s a long, ignoble history of tenants being decanted from estates and promised replacement homes, only for those promises to be broken when it turns out they aren’t affordable.

And – I may have already mentioned this – £140m is nothing in this context. If existing residents really are protected (if!), that money surely isn't going very far. 

While we're on this:

Right-to-buy makes this harder

It'd be easier to do this sort of thing on an estate composed entirely of social tenants. They have legal rights, and there are obviously ethical questions about making decisions about people's homes – but at least the public sector, ultimately, owns the property. 

However, very few, if any, estates are composed entirely of social tenants, because for 30 years those tenants have had the right to buy their homes. At least some of those flats will now be privately owned – and leaseholders will need financial compensation.

So, all this will probably tie everyone up in red tape as people battle to protect their homes. And remember that £1.4m per estate? Assuming some of these estates are in London, then it could cost you that much to compensate three or four leaseholders for the fact you've demolished their flats.

It's all a bit utopian

The government's belief that it can do an enormous regeneration programme on the cheap isn't the only thing that sounds a bit idealistic here. Cameron's various statements yesterday weren't just about improving people's homes, but about improving their souls, too. Here's that Sunday Times article again:

“Decades of neglect have led to gangs and antisocial behaviour. Poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so.”

Better homes, the implication is, will lead to better people.

I don't want to be too down on this because architecture does have an impact on behaviour (people are more likely to take pride in open space they don't share with several hundred of their neighbours, that sort of thing). But nonetheless, the idea you can fix decades of entrenched poverty just by knocking down a few tower blocks – and that you can do it on a shoestring – seems a bit, let's say, optimistic.

These are still people's homes

Last thought. No matter how bleak those concrete blocks look to you, they will contain dwellings whose residents love them, and will fight their demolition. Whatever the benefits in the long term, in the immediate future, this policy is going to hurt.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric, and is on Twitter here.

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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.