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Chapter 1

Another Storey: The Real Potential for Estate Densification

Chapter 1

For the past 100 years, London’s housing estates have made a vital contribution to London’s housing stock. This is evident not only in the capital’s built form, but also in the role played by estates in providing housing that is affordable.

London is in the midst of a crisis, as the city is faced with a shortage of over 60,000 homes a year. This shortage of homes is intrinsically linked to a shortage of land, particularly land that is developable, deliverable, and close to transport infrastructure. Building on the green belt is not supported by government or the Mayor of London, and brownfeld land is in limited supply. Hence, densifcation of existing land uses will play an increasingly important role in coming years.

The potential of estate densifcation, in particular, has been the subject of much discussion – and in many instances, enthusiasm. There is also vast development potential in London’s existing affordable housing estates. There are over 100 estate regeneration projects underway at various stages across the capital, comprising a pipeline of over 35,000 new and re-provided homes over the next ten to fifteen years. Estate densifcation is appealing from a policy perspective due to the ability of estates to provide land for redevelopment.

Many estates are the only remaining parts of the capital offering land that is largely owned by local authorities. The fact that this land has already been used for housing means that issues such as land remediation or contamination rarely occur, and sites are often well served by existing transport links. A number of reports have argued that despite their often excellent locations, many of London’s estates are not using land in the most efficient way. Density is often low even when buildings are high, with tower blocks surrounded by ‘dead space’ such as utility areas, car parking and poor-quality green space. As such, London’s housing estates could be a valuable publicly owned development opportunity at a time of housing shortage.

Building on many reports that have set out the theory behind the densifcation of London’s estates, this report seeks to understand the potential for estate densification in more detail by addressing the following questions:

• What do we know about the existing density of London’s estates, and what capacity do they have for densification?

• ‘What factors affect the public and private sector costs of estate renewal, and what does this mean for the financial viability of estate densification?’

The first question will be addressed using analysis of large estates across four London boroughs, assessing the relative density of large estates in comparison to their surrounding wards and borough neighbourhood characteristics.

The second will be framed by an analysis of how the costs and benefts of estate development are shared between the public and private sectors.

Densifcation and Regeneration From the outset, it is worth defining the primary terms of this analysis: Densification is the process by which the number of dwellings per hectare is increased. This can be accomplished through a number of means, including infill, and demolition and rebuild. Regeneration refers to a more comprehensive transformation, often associated with social programmes and outcomes, as well as physical redevelopment.

While estate regeneration does not necessarily always include demolition and rebuilding, the term is now frequently associated with such forms of comprehensive redevelopment. For the purposes of this report, we will use the term ‘redevelopment’, which covers the spectrum of intervention from incremental infill to demolition and rebuild. However, for the purposes of modelling the capacity for estate densification, we will focus on the latter.

Infill Development Estate refurbishment projects have often been accompanied by building on parts of the estate land which are ineffectively used, for example vacant garage sites. As an option for redevelopment, infill can be desirable as it involves less upheaval and rehousing cost compared to estate demolition and rebuild. As such, many councils (and housing associations) have scoured their neighbourhoods for spare land in their ownership for infill development. However, the remaining opportunities for further, less disruptive, infill at higher densities are relatively low. Even where they exist their contribution to intensification may not be particularly significant.

An estate with 10 per cent of its land available for new housing which is built out at double the density of the existing housing will only increase the average density by 10 per cent. Though infill has unlocked additional housing supply in recent decades, problems can arise for those estates with older buildings which might be coming to the end of their useful life. The recent infill developments will have many decades of future use and these may restrict the best use of the surrounding land to maximise housing numbers.

A number of policy initiatives focusing on estate regeneration base their case not only on the ineffcient use of land found on many estates, but also on the poor condition of estates and the socio-economic problems associated with them. Some estates have, from time to time, come to be seen as areas of concentration of social problems, from poverty and worklessness to poor health and high crime rates.

There is also evidence that many estates, both in London and other cities, have an increasing concentration of deprivation and socio-economic exclusion that is often linked to ‘residualisation’.

This is the process by which estates have come to house only low-income households, often due to a combination of policy, social and economic factors, and in contrast with the mixed-income communities that were envisioned when these estates were frst built.

In 1979, around 20 per cent of the richest 10 per cent of households in the UK lived in social housing. By 2004–2005, this fgure was barely one per cent. The proportion of those in the richest 30 per cent living in social housing also dropped by around 20 per cent.

This process of ‘sorting’ is also linked to the impact of Right to Buy, which saw a number of those who purchased their homes move out and sublet them, leaving behind lower-income households. Another factor that has contributed to residualisation is the need for local authority allocations policies to refect the high demand for (and short supply of) subsidised housing.

As a result, criteria are increasingly focused on those in the most extreme need, rather than on entitlement claims that refect local roots and social/economic contribution.6 There is further evidence that indicates that levels of economic exclusion are particularly bad on estates lacking access to transport, amenities, and employment opportunities. This serves to entrench barriers to labour market entry, and contributes to perceptions of certain estates as undesirable places to live. The need to address this social and economic exclusion features in many of the discussions surrounding estate densifcation and regeneration.

In an article for the Sunday Times, Prime Minister David Cameron argued that some housing estates are “actually entrenching poverty in Britain – isolating and entrapping many of our families and communities”, with the worst estates featuring “brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers”.

While this report will not focus on the design of estates, and the bearing that this may or may not have on the social outcomes of its residents, it is important to distinguish between the case for estate redevelopment as a source of public land that can provide much-needed housing, and the motivation to address the socioeconomic issues associated with many of London’s estates.

As identified in Altered Estates, a recent report by four leading London architecture practices, there is no reason why estate renewal projects cannot do both.

It is possible, although not necessarily straightforward, for estate renewal to add to London’s housing supply through densification, while at the same time improving the housing conditions for existing tenants. However, not all estates have potential for densification, and those that do are not necessarily in need of renewal to improve conditions for tenants.

Not without controversy – why getting the figures right matters

A number of local authorities and developers have carried out estate densifications that are deemed to have been successful in improving living conditions for residents, improving the public realm and amenities, and in adding to London’s housing stock.

However, other projects have been more controversial. While each estate redevelopment is unique, the most frequent criticism is that estate renewal leads to a net loss in social housing and an increase in market housing.

This is sometimes attacked by opponents of estate redevelopment as the ‘social cleansing’ of working-class tenants, through the loss of social housing (by no means a feature of all estate densification projects), disruption, and the decanting of tenants. Such claims have featured heavily in a number of high-profile campaigns and media features, such as the 35 per cent Campaign and Focus E15, both of which have formed in response to specific estate redevelopment projects.

One response to the controversy surrounding estate regeneration is to focus on the process of community engagement and consultation. The rationale behind this is that better consultation early in the process – and greater transparency around the aims of renewal – can build trust between communities, local authorities, housing associations, and developers.

This topic has been covered in depth in Centre for London’s STOPPED report.