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.

While we’re pushing our social media feeds at you, why not like us on Facebook?


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.