An Overview of Social Housing in London
London’s estates not only play a vital role in providing social housing, but also embody a rich heritage of social progressiveness and architectural innovation.
A number of London’s estates have gained iconic status, such as the Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets and the Alexandra Road estate in Camden. Much has been written on the rich history of London’s social housing estates, and rather than provide a detailed account, this chapter will set out key milestones in the development, design and renewal of housing estates in London.
Timeline of Social Housing – Milestones and Policies
London’s First Estates
London’s frst estate, funded by the philanthropist George Peabody, was completed in Spitalfelds in 1864. A number of estates were built by the Peabody Trust in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including at Westminster and Bethnal Green. Other notable philanthropists who built some of London’s early estates include Sir Edward Guinness and Octavia Hill. London’s frst state-funded social housing, the Boundary Estate, was built in Shoreditch in 1890.
The Inter-War Years
The Housing and Town Planning Act was passed in 1919, and is commonly associated with the ‘Homes ft for Heroes’ initiative, which aimed to pick up the pace of construction to provide homes for returning soldiers. These inter-war estates were often characterised by a low-density suburban design (often as low as 12 houses per acre) on greenfeld land, or small blocks of four to six storeys built on slum clearance land in more central locations, such as Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth and Excalibur Estate in Lewisham. Estates built following slum clearance tended to have much higher densities.
The Post-War Estates
After almost a million houses were destroyed or damaged during the WW2, Labour and Conservative 20 governments alike sought to rebuild housing across London and other cities. In the frst ten years following WW2, local authorities were responsible for building some 75 per cent of homes. In contrast to the suburban densities of many pre-war estates, the post-war estates placed more emphasis on the town, the ‘neighbourhood unit’, and mixed development, including maisonettes, point blocks and two-storey homes. Many of these design principles featured in the 1944 Dudley Report and 1944 Design Manual, which promoted densities of 120 homes per acre in central locations and 30 homes per acre in suburban locations. Examples of such estates in London include the Somerfeld Estate in Hackney, Churchill Gardens in Westminster, and the Alton Estate in Roehampton. The 1954 Housing Repairs and Rent Act added an emphasis to slum clearance as well as the postwar rebuild. The 1956 Housing Subsidies Act introduced subsidies for each storey built above six storeys in a bid to stimulate the construction of fats, particularly in inner cities where higher densities were considered necessary to replace homes lost through slum clearance. Industrial methods of ‘systems building’, associated with both speed of erection and construction quality, were encouraged in order to meet ambitious housing targets.
The Retreat from High Rise
The 1967 Housing Subsidies Act abolished the subsidies awarded to developments for each storey above six storeys. This followed a range of government reviews that decried the “inhuman scale” of many industrially built developments, and structural problems compounded by water penetration. The 1968 gas explosion at Ronan Point, a 22-storey block in Newham, in which four people died, raised further concerns about the quality of some industrial construction methods.
The 1974 Housing Finance Act reduced council housing subsidy and replaced controlled rents with ‘fair’ rents – in effect a rent increase. It also legislated 21 for a major increase in the funding provided to housing associations, shifting the responsibility for developing and maintaining council houses away from local authorities and towards housing associations. The 1979–1995 Priority Estates Project (PEP): A live experiment in which 20 estates, prioritised on the basis of their problematic design and inadequate management, were granted localised estate-based management in an attempt to improve conditions. A strong emphasis was put on tenant engagement, local housing management, and on training organisations and individuals in the hands-on skills required.
The 1980 Housing Act and Right to Buy: This Act enabled council tenants who had lived in their homes for a minimum of three years to buy their property at a discounted rate (33 per cent discount of the market price for a house and 44 per cent for a fat, with tenants of over 20 years being eligible for a 50 per cent discount). The impacts of Right to Buy have been widely debated, with major outcomes including an increase in home ownership, and the eventual transfer of council homes to private landlords.
The 1985 Department of Environment Estate Action (EA) initiative: This initiative aimed at developing partnerships between national government and local authorities to invest in the physical upgrading of estates while improving management and maintenance. This was followed by the establishing of Housing Action Trusts (HATs) in 1988. These nondepartmental public bodies (not dissimilar to Urban Development Corporations) aimed to take over local authority housing within a designated area in order to improve the housing stock and the quality of the environment. Emphasis was also given to increasing diversity of tenure in areas with high concentrations of council tenants. Three HATs were established across London:
1—Stonebridge, in Brent.
2—Tredegar, Morpeth and LeFevre estates in Tower Hamlets.
3—Oliver Close, Boundary Road, Cathall Close and Chingford Hall in Waltham Forest.
The 1994 Single Regeneration Budget: the SRB combined a number of previously existing programmes that focused on economic, physical and social regeneration, including housing programmes. By consolidating initiatives from a range of government departments, the SRB aimed to make it easier for local areas to secure resources for regeneration. An estimated £26bn was spent between 1994 and 2001 – £5.6bn from the SRB itself and the remainder from local authorities, EU funds, and the public and private sectors.
The 1998 New Deal for Communities had a strong focus on transforming neighbourhoods physically, as well as delivering social programmes, based on the experience of the 20 estates involved in the PEP (1979– 1995, above). Housing and physical environment projects accounted for the largest share (32 per cent), followed by community (18 per cent) and education projects (17 per cent).
Four local authorities in London took part in the first round of partnerships in 1998, and a further six in the second round in 1999. Notable examples include the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark and the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets. First established in 2001, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal aimed to address deprivation and inequality, through a combination of initiatives focused on the physical transformation of neighbourhoods (including the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and Decent Homes Programmes) and others which targeted socio-economic outcomes (such as Sure Start).
The Estate Regeneration Fund (ERF) was announced in 2014, to fund 3 major regeneration projects. In January 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron announced the intention to regenerate 100 of the country’s most run- down housing estates with “attractive and safe homes”. The announcement included a further £140 million fund and the setting up of an advisory panel. Co-chaired by Lord Heseltine and former Housing Minister Brandon Lewis, the remit of the panel is to look at how the “layout of estates can be best used to deliver more quality homes that people can buy and rent” and “ensure that there are strong protections in place for existing residents so they will always be given the right to return to their communities”.
It is worth noting that this fund was announced under the government’s Life Chances initiative, with a focus on improving stock conditions and tackling deprivation and exclusion on estates, rather than creating additional units.
This timeline illustrates the way that London’s social housing estates evolved and were remodelled over the past 100 years. Despite their philanthropic origins, London’s social housing estates owe much to state investment and intervention, particularly between and after the world wars. This changed in the latter half of the 20th century, with a shift of emphasis to physical and social conditions on London’s estates, and on ensuring their integration with surrounding areas.
More recently, policy has tended to focus on home ownership as a means of providing housing, and it is only in the past few years (and indeed mainly within London) that estate redevelopment has been linked to increasing the overall supply of housing. It is important to view these policies in the context of trends in supply and demand, in home ownership, and in attitudes towards government-funded housing.
It is equally important that current policies are viewed in the context of potential uncertainty around investment and development following the vote to leave the EU in June 2016. At the time of writing, there are indications that many developers are re-evaluating projects following the Brexit vote.
While this does not mean that these projects will not go ahead, this hiatus, alongside a potential impact on labour availability and materials costs, may slow down London’s development pipeline.
There is little reason to believe, however, that the popularity of estate redevelopment as a means of increasing the housing supply will diminish.
The next chapter of this report sets out the potential for estate densification across London’s housing estates.