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Is bulldozing post-war estates really the answer to deep-seated social problems?

Writing in The Sunday Times on 10th January, the Prime Minister said “I’ve put the bulldozing of sink estates at the heart of turnaround Britain”. He claimed that housing estates bring together “deep social problems – the blocked opportunity, poor parenting, addiction and mental health problems — that mean so many are unable to fulfil their potential”.

Trellick Tower

Trellick Tower

He has post-war estates in his sights, especially brutalist and high-rise architecture, claiming that they are entrenching poverty. And he went on to say that 75% of those convicted in the 2011 riots came from post-war estates.

Now there are certainly some unpleasant places to live and there are schemes to transform estates. Oddly enough, the scheme to transform Woodberry Down includes a number of tower blocks of flats, but which are for private ownership. But there is huge social dislocation in demolishing entire streets or apartment blocks. Communities which have formed are scattered and need to re-establish. The post-war estates were partly to re-house those whose houses had been destroyed during the war, but later, and into the 1970s, there was an entirely well-intentioned policy of clearing housing which was declared “unfit for human habitation” and replacing it with modern homes. Communities were split up and then re-housed in new council housing estates. From 1967 onwards these had to meet Parker-Morris space standards and some built before then were at that standard or above. Le Corbusier, operating in Europe, had considerable influence on building decent sized homes, and spacious local authority homes based on his Modulor were built in this country as early as the 1950s.

In contrast, the homes of today are small and fail by some margin to meet the space standards of post-war housing. The architectural commentator Owen Hatherley, writing in The Guardian two years ago pointed out that “The average family home is now 96.8 sq m rather than 98.8 sq m a decade ago, or 153 sq m in the 1920s”.

Inside a flat at Trellick Tower

Inside a flat at Trellick Tower

But observation suggests that a major factor in the quality of life is people. Trellick Tower, an examplar of Brutalism if ever there was one, designed by Erno Goldfinger, has now become highly desirable for some. It has even been listed at Grade II*. Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, once a very grubby building (I know, I visited it in the early 1970s) is now popular with young professionals and media-types, and it looks good today. Margaret Thatcher knew about this and one of the drivers for the right to buy was that owners of property tend to look after it better than renters.

In an earlier housing announcement, during the election campaign, the Conservatives pledged to extend the right to

The view over London from Trellick Tower

The view over London from Trellick Tower

buy to housing association tenants. But will tenants not think twice when they consider that if things don’t go according to plan and their estate ends up in poor shape, with petty criminals living there, they might be in for the same fate? (Much of our social housing is now in the hands of housing associations, where local authorities were effectively compelled to transfer it by previous governments.) What also of those who have already exercised their right to buy their council house or flat and now find that Mr Cameron has their estate in his sights?

Can we really say that re-housing people will be the answer to blocked opportunity, poor parenting, addiction and mental health problems? We must look after our social housing properly. Repairs and renewals will be needed for the new housing the Prime Minister is proposing.

And where does he imagine the 75% convicted in the 2011 riots are going to live when their “sink estates” are demolished? Why, we shall find them in the new housing of the 21st century.

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