By Koos Couvée
On the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, east London, old grey Soviet style council blocks surround the brown brickwork characteristic of post-war social housing. One of London’s biggest council estates, it was built by the London County Council in the 1940s as a utopian ‘estate of the future’. 70 years on, a brand new private apartment block rises above the old and the estate is once again being turned into a social experiment. Located north of Clissold Park, in close proximity to Manor House tube station, the area is regarded as deprived but with great local assets, and a regeneration project has been underway for a number of years. According to Hackney Council, Woodberry Down is becoming a ‘vibrant mixed community of choice’ – the existing council blocks are being knocked down and in their place a mix of affordable homes and private flats are being built.
On the west side of the estate, near Manor House tube station, are the low rises. These terraced homes and maisonettes are located next to the estate’s nursery and a stone throw away from an NHS building, the first purpose built health centre in Britain after World War II. You can still feel the warm atmosphere of what once was, and in part still remains, a tight-knit community in which everyone knows each other. But the houses have been neglected for years and many are standing empty, the windows boarded up with blue metal plates and gardens completely overtaken by weeds. On either side of Spring Park Drive on the west side, squatters have moved in. Spring Park Drive is located in phase II of the regeneration plan, an area with a lot of empty homes vacated mainly by council tenants who have been re-housed or have left the estate. Most people left in these blocks and houses, scheduled for demolition in 2013, are leaseholders who took up the right to buy in the 1980s and 1990s.
The plan for regeneration of Woodberry Down was conceived in the late 1990s during a time of economic boom. A structural evaluation report undertaken on behalf of the Hackney council in 2002 concluded that 31 out of 57 blocks were ‘beyond economic repair’. The report recommended all homes on the estate be demolished. Labour-run Hackney Council told residents at the time that it would be less costly to knock down the gigantic estate, home to near on 2,000 families, than to bring the homes up to the government’s Decent Homes standard.
As a result of funding restrictions on the construction of new council homes, Hackney Council agreed a deal with Berkeley Homes, a large Surrey-based house building firm, in which the regeneration of the estate is self-funded, with private housing cross-subsiding affordable housing and some community infrastructure. Although the number of units available for social renting will remain constant, the tenure mix is changing from change from 67 per cent social rented and 33 per cent leaseholders with Hackney Council, to 41 per cent affordable homes, with rented accommodation run by Genesis housing association and 59 per cent privately owned. In other words, an additional 2,700 homes will be built by Berkeley Homes over the next two decades in order to fund the programme, and ensure the developer, who noted annual profits of £96m in 2011, reach their target of 21 per cent profit as agreed in the deal with the council.
The options available to leaseholders, those residents who have bought their homes through the Right-to-Buy scheme, and many of whom have been living on the estate for decades, are basically twofold. They can either sell their homes back to the council, and with that money buy another property on the open market, or agree a new leasehold with the council on one of the new builds. For compensation for the loss of their homes, Hackney Council will pay leaseholders the market value of property plus home loss payment of 10 per cent of market value, plus a disturbance allowance of around £5,000. The idea is that residents take this money and buy a new property in the open market. But compensation – based on ‘real market value’ – is not enough to buy a similar property in Hackney, a gentrified inner London borough that has seen house prices increase dramatically over the last ten years. And most of the new builds sold by Berkeley Homes on the estate, are twice, three or four times the value of the old council flats. Leaseholders simply cannot afford to buy them. They can also opt for the option of shared equity in one of the new builds, but for this arrangement to work the old property needs to be worth at least 70 per cent of the value of the new property. Only three residents on the entire estate have taken up this option so far – most leaseholders do not want to move from a house into a flat and/or find the new flats too small. They simply want to retain what they have.
Many Woodberry Down residents believe that Hackney Council has left their properties to rot in order to bring down their value, and thereby the cost of compensation. The surveyor working on behalf of Hackney Council, Drivers Jonas & Deloitte (who are also working on behalf of Newham Council on the Carpenters estate in Stratford, also earmarked for demolition, very much a similar scenario), insists that the home valuations reflect ‘real market value’. But a single mother I speak to is being offered £205,000 for her three bedroom house, and an elderly woman has had her three-bedroom flat valued at £190,000. A young father living two blocks down is being offered £160,000 for a four-bedroom flat. It is highly unlikely these people will get anything near equivalent to what they have in Hackney. Needless to say the leaseholders are furious.
Thatcher’s flagship Right-to-Buy policy extended the option of home ownership to all by allowing council tenants to buy their homes at a considerable discount. The idea was that home ownership equalled class ascendancy, provided a safety net for future generations, and would cement tight-knit communities of long-term residents. While only a third of residents on Woodberry Down have exercised their right to buy, the policy was hugely popular throughout Britain. In 2009, the number of council houses sold off to former tenants passed the two million mark. The political promise underpinning the policy was, in Thatcher’s words: “In about 25 years’ time there will be a lot of people who will be inheriting something, because for the first time we will have a whole generation of people who own their homes and will be leaving them, so that they topple like a cascade down the line of the family. That is popular capitalism.”
Popular capitalism, alas, is not proving very popular in Hackney. Suzy Nelson is a lecturer in urban planning at Westminster University, presently carrying out a study of the regeneration process at Woodberry Down. When I meet her in her Baker Street office, she describes the leaseholders as the ‘squeezed middle’. The term, popularised by Labour leader Ed Miliband, refers to a trend in which middle class wages fail to keep up with inflation. It is used by Nelson to describe a situation in which leaseholders, who have bought into the Thatcherite idea that home ownership equals social mobility and financial security, are now faced with an inflated housing market in a gentrified area where they can no longer buy an equivalent property. They are forced to take two steps back, face having to move to the outskirts of London or out of the city altogether.
A process of displacement and what I call ‘accumulation by dispossession’ lie at the core of urbanization under capitalism. It is the mirror-image of capital absorption through urban redevelopment, and is giving rise to numerous conflicts over the capture of valuable land from low-income populations that may have lived there for many years.
David Harvey – The Right to the City
Berkeley Homes describe the new private blocks they have called ‘Woodberry Park’, as “a mix of commercial, residential and leisure facilities make this mixed use development, built by leading property developer, Berkeley an ideal location to invest for the future.” Two-bedroom flats currently advertised in the new development start at £395,000, and a three-bedroom flat can cost as much as £667,500. The flat on top of the new tower is being sold for £1m. The glossy brochure advertising Berkeley’s private flats features adverts for Harrods, Louis Vutton, Selfridges, haute couture and West End cuisine.
The new apartments in the tower block, which can be spotted from as far as Finsbury Park, have not been sold in the UK. In fact, the typical buyer at Woodberry Down is a Hong Kong or Singapore-based investor, buying new-build properties with the aim of renting them out in the open market for a combination of income and eventual capital gain. The high prices of the new builds, the reputation of the Manor House area and the high density of residents on the estate means it is unlikely the properties will attract a great deal of local buyer interest. It thus appears that Woodberry Down will lose most of its leaseholders because of the unaffordability of housing in the area, and become a high-density estate of social and private renters. Needless to say from a sustainable community perspective, the plan is a complete disaster. Families and elderly men and women who have lived on the estate for decades, purchased their homes and played an active role in the community are simply told to pack up and go.
Hackney Council, due to government funding restrictions on the construction and maintenance of social housing, has done its best to get a good deal for the residents. At least people have the option of being re-housed and are not shipped of the estate altogether. In fact, the council’s commitment to building 41 per cent affordable new homes is comparatively strong, as this proportion is much larger than elsewhere. For instance, at the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, also earmarked for demolition, plans for the construction of affordable homes have been dropped. In Tottenham there have been two recent occasions where Haringey Council have let a developer get away with a zero commitment to affordable housing. With property prices at an all time high, this amounts to nothing other than state-sponsored gentrification; some describe it as “social cleansing”. Furthermore, “affordable” housing means housing associations can charge up to 80 per cent of market rates. With London rents ever rising and the government unwilling to impose rent caps, this particular notion of ‘affordable housing’ is hugely problematic.
At Woodberry Down, the close working relationship between Hackney Council, surveyor firm Drivers Jonas Deloitte and Berkeley Homes, reveals another side to the smiling residents depicted on glossy brochures. Leaseholders in particular feel that there is a deliberate strategy of misinformation towards them, aimed at smoothing the process of demolition and keeping the cost of leaseholder compensation down. Residents on phase II of the estate were only called to a meeting after the deadline of the Compulsary Purchase Order (CPO) issued on their homes has passed, and there had not been a meeting for months prior to the deadline. Moreover, Drivers Jonas Deloitte actively discourages leaseholders to discuss their valuations with each other, and will only speak to residents individually. Just 36 people have taken their compensation money and thereby lost their right to return to their area. The fact that these people have taken the money is used by the council as evidence of the fact that compensation reflects real market value.
Cllr Karen Alcock, Hackney Council’s Deputy Mayor said: “All the leaseholders and freeholders who live on the Woodberry Down estate are an essential part of the local community, and the Council is doing everything it can to help those who wish to remain on the estate. We have a range of rehousing options, including an offer of financial assistance to those in financial difficulties who wish to remain on the estate.”
She added: “Our negotiations are continuing and once the purchase price has been agreed, the council will pay compensation and reasonable moving expenses. I would like to reassure all leaseholders that using the powers granted by a CPO would be a last resort, and that discussions with all leaseholders will be conducted in a fair and transparent way.”
Woodberry Down is quite a typical example of how urban regeneration works in post-Thatcher Britain. The process is part of a wider trend of state-sponsored gentrification, which displaces working class communities. And it is not just the state sponsoring gentrification.
Most of the London and national media outlets have uncritically thrown their weight behind the Olympic craze, neglecting their duty of holding London politicians to account, and leaving it to countless independent local blogs, and sometimes the Guardian (Dave Hill’s blog is excellent), to expose the social cleansing that is going on in London under the banner of regeneration. The media’s bias was most blatantly exemplified by the London Evening Standard in the run-up to the mayoral election, when it reduced the mayoral race to a personality contest, and backed Boris without a mention of his dismal record on housing, policing and other factors that underpin London’s most serious social problems.
The Evening Standard’s Homes & Property section is one big advert for gentrification and “aspirational living”. “The East End has turned rough and tumble into impossibly cool”, writes David Spittles. “Away from the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf, the arty lofts of Hoxton and gentrified pockets around Victoria Park, homes are still affordable enough to keep the property dreams of young Londoners alive.” Well, that is if you consider buying a window box in a 21-storey tower block for £200,000 attractive. And ignore the fact that another group of Londoners is shipped out of the capital through a combination of rent rises and housing benefit cuts.
The London property market works as a safety net for a wide range of foreign investors, and with taxes on foreign purchase being the lowest in a world dominated by finance capital, it will show no signs of slowing down. And with thousands of people pouring into the capital each year, gentrification of yet unconquered spaces will continue, recession or no recession. Residents facing demolition and regeneration plans should be supported in their struggle for a type of urban renewal which does not lead to the bulldozing of social ties, local history, historic buildings and displacement of entire communities.
Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans – http://www.facebook.com/carpvoice
Wards Corner Community Coalition – http://wardscorner.wikispaces.com/
Southwark Notes – Whose Regeneration? – http://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/
Heygate Estate – http://www.35percent.org/
Recent IPPR publication entitled ‘Affordable capital? Housing in London’ – http://www.ippr.org/publications/55/9064/affordable-capital-housing-in-london
Excellent article by UCL student on Carpenters Estate regeneration – http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/bloomsbury-olympic
David Harvey – The Right to the City
The Multicultural Politic is Stephen Fry proof thanks to caching by WP Super Cache