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London councils urged to demolish and rebuild housing estates

Words: Simon Wicks
Woodberry Downs | Pic: Lucy Fisher

London council estates should be demolished to make way for ‘city villages’ with more homes built at higher densities, shadow infrastructure minister Lord Andrew Adonis will argue at the launch of a new publication tonight (Tuesday).

City villages: An answer to the London housing crisis? is a collection of essays edited by the Labour peer on behalf of think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research. The publication is to be launched this evening at an event at RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects).

According to a report in the Financial Times, Lord Adonis will argue that knocking down existing council housing and rebuilding at higher densities with mixed tenures can increase housing without needing any funding from the state. Current tenants could be rehomed in new properties at the same location, but within a 'city village' composed of different kinds of housing, including social housing and private housing sold at open market prices.

In his essay, the peer will point out that the large scale creation of low density housing estates in the postwar era means that the population of inner London is still almost two million below its 1939 peak. This is despite the fact that the total population of the capital has just reached a record high.

Because London councils own on average 25-30 per cent of the land in their boroughs, they are in a strong position to replace and remodel large swathes of housing stock - and in so doing help to solve the capital's housing shortage without spreading into undeveloped land. Experts believe some 40-50,000 new homes per year are required in London to keep up with population growth; fewer than 20,000 houses were started in 2014.

According to Lord Adonis there are around 3,500 council estates within London boundaries, but only an estimated 50 have been redeveloped to provide a wider range of housing. In some cases the regeneration of council housing estates has proved controversial, with falling quanitites of affordable housing becoming part of the mix. The total rebuild of Southwark's Heygate estate, for example, has attracted criticism for creating 2,500 homes with just a quarter for rent or subsidised ownership.

Lord Adonis will, according to the FT, cite Woodberry Down in Hackney as an example of how densification and variation can provide a 'city village' development containing sufficient affordable housing, without cost to the public purse. Here, fewer than 2,000 council flats in tenement blocks are being replaced by 5,550 homes for rent and sale.

“The scale of council-owned land is vast and greatly under-appreciated,” Lord Adonis told the FT. “There are particularly large concentrations of council-owned land in inner London, and this is some of the highest-priced land in the world.” He added: “The local authority planning regime has got to adapt properly to the potential for [market-priced rent] developments.”

The collection of essays is being published as the Conservative Party prepares to relaunch its Right to Buy policy which enabled around two million council tenants to purchase their own home at an affordable price. The policy has been cited as one reason for the current for the shortage of affordable housing, as many of the bought-up properties were not replaced.

Also presenting at this evening’s City Villages event at RIBA are architect Lord Richard Rogers, mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock and the National Housing Federation’s head of policy Rachel Fisher, who has given The Planner her thoughts on how the incoming government can help to solve Britian's housing woes.