How poor maintenance of London's social housing created the conditions for its demolition

Residents at south London's Cressingham Gardens estate protest its proposed demolition. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

In housing, maintenance is more important than design: if this were more often acknowledged, then the lifespan of many social houses could be drastically extended.

But instead, their inadequacy and rapid dilapidation is typically blamed on poor design – either due to modernist architecture’s excessive social engineering, or due to the overreach of post-war local and national governments, racing to build more houses at an ever decreasing cost. To this way of thinking, post-war social housing was an unmitigated mistake and given the chance it should be replaced with something better.

The importance of maintenance could not be clearer in the case of a pair of estates in South London, both built in the 1970s under the oversight of Lambeth council’s chief architect, the late Ted Hollamby were both highly praised upon their completion, particularly for the Scandinavian-influenced humanist architecture prevalent in the design. In the past few years, both have been under threat of demolition.

On its website, Lambeth council makes the reasonable claim that the estates need to be regenerated because the houses are in such a state of disrepair. But this raises the question of how these housing developments fall so rapidly into this state in the first place.

A view of the Central Hill estate. Image: Charlie Clemoes. 

It could be that those originally praising the estates were wrong and they were not built to last. But it could also be due to poor maintenance, which created the conditions for the demolition threat.

More than enough has been said to support the former argument: the narrative of the utopian modernist block turned sink estate is seared into popular imagination to the point where evidence is no longer required to prove it. But to support the opposing argument, there is also plenty of evidence that the estates were indeed well designed. There is evidence, too, that they have not been properly maintained.

To build both estates, Hollamby drew upon a wide array of building expertise. Notwithstanding the array of architectural talent working on both projects, he also assembled a highly skilled construction team. The structural engineer, Ted Happold, later went on to work on the Sydney Opera House and set up a firm which worked on the Pompidou Centre. Meanwhile, Cressingham Gardens’ beautiful curved brickwork required the services of a master bricklayer, who was also employed in the construction of the staircase in Hampton Court Palace.

But it doesn’t take an architectural historian to notice the high design standards Hollamby kept to: you only need to walk around the estates.

With the benefit of a bright, early-autumn weekend, it was difficult to avoid marvelling at such a thoughtful design. Both estates demonstrate a style of building that hardly features in London any more. The overall feel is more countryside than city: there is space, conspicuous quiet, and numerous passageways are completely denied to the car, so that residents are able to traverse each estate free of the impatient demands of the motorist.

There is also an intimate engagement with local topography. In Central Hill, the hillside is used to shield the estate from the noise of the road above, and both estates are barely perceptible from a distance, being so well ensconced in the landscape.

In Cressingham Gardens, front doors face each other, kitchens face the passageways and the flats are in close proximity, all the better for neighbours to talk to one another and feel more connected to the wider estate.

Despite the high density, flats are also very spacious and both estates still manage to host bountiful green space. Most of these trees are older than the estates themselves – the homes were built around them. And the estates also leverage the surrounding parks to great effect: Central Hill falls within a green corridor stretching from Dulwich Common to Norwood Park via Crystal Palace, Cressingham Gardens opens out onto Brockwell Park.

This concern for greenery has proved to be one of the major areas of antagonism in Central Hill. Originally ivy grew out of raised beds planted along every passageway covering many of the estate’s walls, offering a cheap way of greening otherwise plain light-grey buildings. Several years ago the council approached the residents asking to cut this ivy back, on the assumption that it risked damaging the building’s structural integrity. Not wishing to create unnecessary conflict, the residents obliged, unaware that the ivy would be entirely removed. Any ivy that remains has had to be fought for.

Central Hill again. Image: Charlie Clemoes. 

It is hard not to see this as a wilful erosion of Central Hill’s aesthetic value. And this feels all the more apparent in the case of waste disposal on the estate, which had gotten so bad when I visited that there was a massive pile of rubbish right at the estate’s entrance. It's not the kind of thing that you associate with an inner London borough.

But this is only the most evident problem among a catalogue of minor maintenance problems with both of the estates. Paving stones are in need of replacement and visibly unsafe, especially for older residents. None of the outside detailing looks like it has been replaced since the estates were finished. The zinc roofs of Cressingham Gardens are leaking in various places and the guttering needs to be replaced. An independent report has also noted the effect of poor tree maintenance on many non-structural and drainage problems. Together these oversights amount to a basic neglect.

So why have the estates not been properly maintained? There is an argument that their innovative design makes maintenance more difficult, requiring specialist skills and unusual materials. But this doesn’t take into account the litany of common, solvable issues mentioned above. 

In fact, the reasons are much more complicated and long-term, and they reveal how political the issue of maintenance can be.

Protesters at Cressingham Gardens. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

Estate under-maintenance is intimately linked to wider disinvestment of inner city areas throughout the 1970s and ’80s and the creeping return of development from the 1990s onwards. Throughout this time, those who remained in inner city social housing were first forgotten and then, as investment increased, deemed to be an obstacle. In the first case councils had no money to maintain their social housing stock; in the second, they had no desire to.  Adding further fuel to the decline of London’s social housing was the relative economic hardship of its occupants, who have often had neither the means nor the time to take maintenance into their own hands.

But hope remains when residents can collectively organise to redress the balance. While the fight to save these two estates is ongoing, recent news has emerged that Cressingham Gardens may be saved from demolition due to a High Court ruling that the council acted unlawfully in the consultation process. At the centre of this was the removal of three options available to residents which offered the possibility of refurbishment, leaving only the options of full or part demolition remaining.

This ruling could not have been achieved without an organised residents’ campaign, pursuing a collective legal case against demolition and accompanying this with a vocal public awareness campaign. At the centre of the argument was an appeal to the financial sense of refurbishment and maintenance – helped along by several revealing FOI requests on the risible sums spent on maintenance over the years.

All this offers hope that the equally energetic campaign to save Central Hill may be able to reverse Lambeth Council’s seemingly single-minded desire for demolition. Perhaps there’s hope, too, that similar campaigns can also arrest social housing’s all too rapid transition from construction to demolition by way of under-maintenance.

Charlie Clemoes has an in urban studies from UCL and is on the editorial staff of Failed Architecture. He tweets as @clemvp.

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Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.