Right to Regenerate

It’s a bright, cold crisp morning in South London and I’m standing on the York Road Council Estate in Battersea with some local Labour Party members and counsellors. We’re here because the Tory-dominated Wandsworth council is planning to bulldoze the place to the ground and we want to talk to residents about the planned redevelopment. Most of them are happy to see the end of the estate, after years of neglect and lack of maintenance the blocks are not fit for purpose. It’s the familiar story: robust post-war modernist buildings becoming dilapidated monuments to how badly we’ve fucked up social democracy. With names like Gagarin House, the post-war idealism is tragically obvious. It’s buildings like these that get blamed for crime and anti-social behaviour, as if the architecture (rather than unemployment, poverty and a crippling lack of investment) has been the biggest problem for the community it houses. Still, the council has now finally decided to take action. This might be because David Cameron’s Big Society advisor Phillip Blond described the conditions of the estate as “appalling” and likened it to the “Soviet Era” – perhaps a reference to comrade Yuri. More likely, however, it’s because this is prime location real estate; the gold is sitting there, waiting to be mined from these concrete monoliths.

The residents are rightly weary of this so-called regeneration. Next to the rectangular Le Corbusien slab designs stand high-rise towers that, during the Thatcher years, underwent their own make-over. The community was uprooted and the residents relocated thinking they would soon return, only to find the towers sold off in their absence. These one time council houses now form a premium, gated community. Its literal ‘gatedness’ has damaged the underlying plan of the whole site. Residents of the estates now have to walk all the way round to access the train station or high street. Of course, over the years many have asked for the fences and gates to be removed but they’re there for a reason: security, or keeping those who live in social housing out.

The new design, like many of the urban redevelopments in London, says a lot about the social climate and growing neoliberal hegemony in regards to how we plan and build our cities. Much of this is distinctly Blairite and cannot be reduced to Tory bashing. Blairite modernism and regeneration focused specifically on bringing the middle classes back to the urban space. The historic class divide between the inner cities and the suburban was to be addressed via large ‘regenerations’ of the crumbling urban sprawl and involved a brand of aspirational tutelage; as the professional classes arrived they would make a neighbourhood ‘better’. There is no doubt some merit in the desire to encourage and create mixed communities but as a means to an egalitarian end rather than some social ‘trickle down’ equivalent; as a way of ending a spatial social apartheid rather than building bourgeois settlements. As the militant modernist Owen Hatherley describes it, “regeneration, in its New Labour form, entailed, like most of New Labour, the attempt to realise social democratic goals via Thatcherite means”. The focus on the middle classes took centre stage and thus began a creeping gentrification and appropriation of urban space by forces that had no interest in achieving any kind of radical or egalitarian aim. The government choose to have housing delivered via the private sector. It should be unsurprising then that the shareholders of these development firms chased profits. The architecture speaks for itself; you need only look at the resulting boom in ‘luxury flats’ and penthouse apartments that plague the skyline of the South London riverside to see who has really benefited from the last decade of urban regeneration.

Concerned residents of Battersea just need to look east to the Heygate sell-off in Elephant and Castle to see what a shit deal they could end up with. Here the Council has sold 22-acres of public land for such little money it has made a net loss, while the new owners, private developer Lend Lease, will make a profit of £194m. 1,200 socially rented units will be destroyed with only 79 to replace them. As the laws stand there is no requirement for homes lost by regeneration schemes or private developments to be replaced to their original specification, meaning a four-bedroom council flat with rent at 40% of the market rate can be replaced by a single room ‘Affordable Rent’ property charged at 80% of market rent. So far Wandsworth Council has promised that there will be no loss in social housing units in the new York Road design, but seeing as the proposals entail a trebling of housing capacity by exploiting the unused park lands this is hardly a victory. There is a housing crisis. We should not praise local authorities because they don’t bulldoze council houses; we need them to build more! It’s clear that the current residence will have no chance of purchasing anything in the new developments without there being significant safeguards so that current rates stay the same. The majority of the new flats will be for yuppies.

The thing which sums up the truly pernicious nature of this kind of neoliberal regeneration is what it  means for free-holders, people who bought their homes under Thatcher’s Right to Buy. They too will have their houses demolished if the blocks came down. So far the council is offering the market value of their properties plus 10% as a pay off, but even with such an offer they would have no chance of affording a similar property in either the new development or the (now gentrified) surrounding area. This means leaving the community and the area as a whole – a key part of the social cleansing model. The council says it is considering making a deal with free-holders in which they can opt into the new housing with the council fronting the rest of the money. They will then own a stake in the property but when the residents end their lease (e.g. die or go into care) the council will need to be bought out or it will take back the property. This is the fallacy of the Right to Buy scheme in its most egregious form, a property owning working class who must now choose to leave their home, or loose their property.

This month Tom Copley from the London Assembly released a report on Right To Buy and its effect on the capital. The facts and figures speak for themselves. Private landlords now own 36% of the council homes sold off, with many then renting the properties back to those with Housing Benefit at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. This is absurd. Broke councils paying extortionate rents to landlords, on properties they built and once owned, or subsidising at increasingly high rates those forced into the private sector because of the lack of council homes. The very lack of council homes is not only due to the mass sell-off at discount rates but also because Thatcher imposed rules that stopped councils rebuilding. The aim was to attack the institution of social housing. The 1989 Housing Finance Act meant only 25% of profits on sales could be used to build housing and banned the use of Council Tax contributions leading to a steady decline in stock and long waiting lists. Privatisation was accelerated with Blair and the new neoliberal urban regeneration, under New Labour more council homes were sold off than under the Tories, and fewer social homes were built on average than under Thatcher and Major. In London this has amounted to a steady decline in council house stock, between 1998 and 2011, only 880 council homes were built whilst 85,254 were sold. With a growing city population and the effects of the financial crash this has been a recipe for disaster.

The irony is that the housing crisis is so severe that even the relatively well off are struggling to find homes. Young graduates and professionals desperately seeking London properties are not only the beneficiaries but also the political targets for this kind of project: the key voters of the ‘squeezed middle’. One of the concerns of York Road residents about the current plan is that it will end Labour Party representation in the area, which it most likely will. The poor are seen simply as a burden that need to be expunged from areas of potential value and profit. It seems the good intentions of the Blairite dream of mixed communities may well have simply been the pre-amble for a banlieu-ification of our city centres.

The most poignant example of these changes is happening just round the corner, at Battersea Power Station. Another site of ‘regeneration’, the building has been bought by Malaysian developers who plan to build (surprise, surprise) luxury flats, office spaces and a shopping mall. Its much-celebrated ‘iconic’ status has formed much of the discussions over the new designs and its ‘brand’ image, yet this is just another elitist farce. The colonisation of working class and fundamentally socialist iconography as merely a collectible symbol of the bourgeoisie’s ‘edgy’ urban tastes. As Mark Fisher has said in his critiques of neoliberal retromania, it’s ‘a kind of naturalised postmodernism’ with an ‘increasing reliance on existing forms, pastiche and retrospection’. The packaging of an ‘icon’, stripped of all meaningful content, sold and consumed like a Che Guevara T-shirt. Because when it comes down to it, Battersea Power Station is not just a symbol, but the physical manifestation of municipal socialism, a reminder of an age of nationalised industry and public ownership of energy; electricity as a common good! As Will Self exclaimed after meeting with developer Rob Tincknell of the Battersea Power Station Development Company:

‘”The development screams: Gated! CCTV! Security! And Rob himself let the cat out of the Gucci bag when he conceded, gesturing to the Chelsea side of the river: ‘Let’s face it, most people will be entering and exiting the site in that direction.'”

With the new York Road regeneration, the finishing touches of the gentrification of Battersea are now pretty much set in stone. And with it there might be people entering the flashy shopping complexes and lounge bars of the new Power Station from south of the river after all.

—Aydın Emre Osborne Dikerdem

2 Responses to “Right to Regenerate”
  1. Anon says:

    ‘ It’s buildings like these that get blamed for crime and anti-social behaviour, as if the architecture (rather than unemployment, poverty and a crippling lack of investment) has been the biggest problem for the community it houses’

    As an engineering student I’ve studied this; environmental health due to housing quality has an enormous impact on the people who live there. These buildings do genuinely hold back their occupants due to the building as well as, not rather, than the unemployment, poverty and lack of investment. I agree that what they are being replaced with isn’t the best solution but these buildings do need to go, they are a hinderence to social mobility.

    • Aydin says:

      I think in some cases your right and I would agree that York Road is pretty uninspired even if it is known to be technically interesting for its period. The place now is without a doubt not fit for purpose. However while there are definitely some design floors, this is not the main reason for the ‘holding back’ of its occupants as you describe. History shows how class attitudes, racism, state investment and social welfare shape what we deem as good architecture.

      For instance, previous to the estates was row after row of Victoria artisan housing built between about 1845 and 1880. By the post war years these had become slums, as national heritage puts its ‘the demise of this housing can be put down to several factors: the early division of tenure between many different freeholders and leaseholders, impeding good maintenance; low-lying, ill-drained ground, leading to chronic problems with damp; sheer hard wear by an impoverished working-class population’, the reason they were destroyed and the estates were built was because the post-war Battersea council was politically very radical and many had endured upbringings in these inadequate homes. They wanted new social housing for the working class of Battersea. Ironically it is those remaining Victorian artisanal houses that are now worth a fortune; the very rich of Battersea live in them or those lucky enough to buy such places in the 70s when they were extremely cheap (again because the area was run down and they were viewed as undesirable houses). In other parts of London many ex-council units, blamed for all manor of social ills because of their, brutal, threatening architecture, full of hidden public spots designed for existential thought by their idealistic architects but in reality used for muggings and stabbings, are now designer bouji pads.

      I always like to use Notting Hill as an example when tackling this issue of the social implications of architecture. If you look at the Victorian mansions of Ladbroke Grove, with their characteristic white pillars of west London wealth, you see the epitome of desirable housing. Nevertheless, these used to be slums, high-density tenements that the housed the poor and the working class, many whom were newly arrived Caribbean immigrants. Their old design was often blamed for their inadequacy. Erno Goldfingers Trellick tower, the looming Brutalist obelisque of the west London skyline was built to solve these needs. Yet by the 1980s it was Trelick that was blamed for crime, violence and poverty, with its Brutalism condemned as threatening architecture of a Kubrikian Clock Work Orange future. This was the case with most Modernist social housing. Go back to it today and you’ll be paying £375,000 for a 322ft ex-council house. The Barbican is another great example, once the ‘eye-sore’ of London, blamed for all types of anti-social behavior now is the home of rich lawyers and doctors and a cultural landmark. These are the direct opposite of being a ‘hindrance to social mobility’.

      Now York Road is no Trellick Tower, far from it, and it is now impossible to save; it has degenerated too much. Still it needn’t have got this bad. Social housing has a lot of issues, but this (particularly in places like Battersea) is because they often house families with the most problems who are in need of the most state help. The destruction of the council home idea in which it wasn’t just the very poor but a third of the population who would occupy means that you get ghettos. It’s the Pruitt Igoe complex ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7RwwkNzF68 ). Tell me the ‘Two up Two down’ council houses of Moss Side and Hulme have eradicated its social problems? What about the red brick cottages of Bradford? I agree we need good social architecture, and we had it, but we also need good social services and frankly better governments at the local and national level! Blaming the housing I think misses the more important points about the political choices that have been made and the direction social democracy has gone.

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