This week David Cameron committed the government to the regeneration and improvement of 100 of the country’s most run-down council estates. From a commitment to demolish and rebuild some of the very worst estates to more modest environmental improvements on others, Cameron’s programme takes the government into an area which some Labour councils have been tackling for many years.
The prime minister’s description of the problems confronting many of those living on the brutalist estates built in the 1960s and 1970s is accurate. Some estates became and remain symbols of inner-city neglect, with crime, antisocial behaviour, health inequalities and unemployment the only things that flourished there. Quite often the most brutal estates do not make the best use of the land they occupy. However, his proposed remedy may not learn the lessons from regeneration programmes already under way, and the programme funding of £140m is woefully inadequate.
In my own borough of Southwark we are undertaking two of the most high-profile estate regeneration programmes – at the former Heygate site at Elephant and Castle, and the Aylesbury Estate a little further down the Walworth Road.
The reasons for each of the regeneration programmes are similar, and echo Cameron’s diagnosis. Both were brutal system-built postwar estates which had fallen into disrepair, both had become hard to let to council tenants, and reinforced poverty, crime and inequality. Basic design failures led to lengthy and costly failures of the district heating systems they relied upon, and created isolation rather than community.
While it is absolutely right that we replace these estates to create the homes and jobs our borough needs, both of these regeneration programmes have been expensive to deliver in time and finance – and both continue to be politically challenging – with some of the loudest opponents claiming to be of ‘the left’.
But there is nothing progressive in looking away, failing to rebuild our worst estates and condemning the residents of those estates to substandard housing and poor life chances. Labour values should always support the removal of that substandard housing and its’ replacement by homes of the highest quality design and build.
The government’s programme funding of £140m equates to £1.4m for each of the 100 estates Cameron has identified – a tiny sum compared to the hundreds of millions any big regeneration scheme costs and perhaps enough to purchase the leasehold interests of less than 10 of those who have exercised their Right to Buy. How does Cameron’s commitment to bulldoze the country’s worst council estates sit with his rush to sell homes on those same estates to their tenants? One of the greatest costs of any estate regeneration is buying out those leaseholders in order to deliver vacant possession, so two of the government’s flagship policies do not sit easily together.
The funding and delivery of estate regeneration should involve genuine partnerships between government and the private sector. The risk of leaving the funding and delivery of major estate regeneration programmes solely to the private sector – Cameron’s preference – is that the delivery of any replacement social housing can be compromised and market forces can delay or stop any programme.
Estate regeneration is not quick. No significant regeneration programme can be delivered in less than a decade, and most will take between 15 and 20 years from inception to completion. So the prime minister must think again if he has any idea that this will solve the very current housing supply crisis.
A commitment to quality housing in genuinely mixed communities should lie at the heart of any Labour administration’s programme. It is disappointing that our national party has once again let the Tories inhabit territory which should naturally belong to a progressive centre-left party. But Labour in local government will continue to use our power to deliver the quality homes and improved life chances that our residents, our towns and our cities need.
But, Cameron should spend some time with those Labour councils that have delivered major regeneration projects to understand that whilst his ambition of replacing some of our worst estates is right, he has much to learn about the time, the risks and the costs involved.
Peter John is leader of Southwark council
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