Town Hall told wrecking ball strategy for estates will create areas where only affluent feel at home

Professor delivers warning over hidden health costs for residents – but is told not to forget the investment upsides of new housing

Friday, 4th March — By Richard Osley

Professor Paul Watt

Professor Paul Watt has urged caution over demolition and rebuild

A HOUSING expert has warned the Town Hall to tread carefully over any plans to demolish more council estates in regeneration schemes – telling councillors the cost to tenants is not revealed on the financial balance sheets.

And Professor Paul Watt, from Birkbeck in Malet Street, told a cross-party scrutiny committee that estate redevelopment projects risked accelerating gentrification in areas where less affluent residents can start feeling like they don’t belong.

The issue of estate demolition is a key debate in Camden where the council’s flagship Community Investment Programme (CIP) has used deals with private developers to rebuild – creating new homes for tenants but also allowing firms part of their sites to create blocks of expensive private housing. The CIP has also levered in money for schools and community centres in a similar way.

Camden is currently planning to demolish the West Kentish Town Estate and Wendling in a redevelopment programme after securing a “yes” vote in a referendum.

But Professor Watt warned that tenants might not be aware of what is about to hit them, after 10 years of research into similar projects.

He told councillors on Monday that there were hidden stresses and mental health effects, often on the elderly and vulnerable, with long-running schemes. Camden has been asked to consider whether retrofitting existing estates instead of calling for the wrecking ball – a move which some environmental groups also think would be a wiser strategy.

“Some elderly residents died well before the promised land regeneration is ever reached,” Professor Watt told the committee.

“The elongated nature of the regeneration and its multiple ever-changing phases mean that residents are expected to attend recurrent meetings for many years. It causes exhaustion and burnout and then [they’re] propelled into a limbo land in many ways where their lives are endlessly put on hold, particularly with their relationship with their homes.”

Wendling is to be demolished

He added: “One of the issues around this is the costs which are borne by residents. For example, in relationship to health costs, none of these costs ever appear on anybody’s balance sheet.”

Professor Watt delivered a 15-minute talk on his research, which has lead to five books and findings which he said are the complete opposite of the consultants’ reports filed before a demolition.

He said that while politicians came and went – and so did senior council officers – residents were there throughout, often never seeing what they thought they would get.

Council chiefs jokingly referred to the CIP as Camden’s “North Sea Oil” strategy at its inception 10 years ago – the idea that the Town Hall had a reserve of valuable land which could be tapped into during a time of slashed spending budgets and austerity. For many Labour councillors the CIP investment is seen as one of their greatest achievements.

However, by adding private homes onto estates that were previously only for social housing tenants, Professor Watt said projects which involved estate demolition could be seen as gentrification.

“It’s the reinvestment in the built environment, but it also involves that upscaling of the social class composition of that population,” he told the committee.

“In other words, putting it crudely, a shift from a broadly working-class neighbourhood to a broadly middle-class neighbourhood…

“Working-class residents who remain after the redevelopment tend to feel out of place – the neighbourhood was demographically dominated by new affluent residents – and by the new upmarket retail and leisure facilities, rather than mixed and balanced communities, as the official jargon has it.”

He praised Camden Council for slowing down gentrification in areas like Kentish Town in the 1960s and 1970s by “municipalising” street properties as a deliberate way of protecting a mixed community.

But he added: “What I’m saying is that an effect of mass demolition schemes and rebuilding lots and lots of private properties is going to produce gentrification.”

Asked whether he thought there was a stage when estates were in such poor condition that bulldozers should be considered, Professor Watt said that the tenants had been paying rent and should expect them to be maintained properly.”

He added: “I’m not criticising the motives of councillors for doing what they’re doing. But I think that there is a desperation about it… it becomes like the only way it is possible to provide social housing is essentially off the backs of private development, which is not what private developers are really interested in.”

Councillor Oliver Lewis

Professor Watt said he had not studied Camden’s CIP work as part of his new book.

Labour councillor Oliver Lewis, a supporter of Camden’s policy, said that there was a balance to be found and that tenants could not be left in rotting homes.

“Obviously it’s not the case that councils are knocking down estates for no reason”, he said, adding that there was no prospect of well-built estates – citing the example of Lissenden Gardens – facing a wrecking ball.

He told the professor: “People in my ward – Highgate – have benefited from the scheme. It’s not just housing, it’s schools and community centres.There are considerable upsides in my view…

“It seems to me what’s missing from what you’ve talked about is any idea that at some point there is a balance to be found on the very damp and unhygienic conditions that people live with.”

Cllr Lewis added: “People are consulted on their own future and quite often in these estate-wide ballots, they see that the balance is away from continuing to live in poor housing conditions and towards living in new purpose-built homes.”

£86 million from the Mayor

EXTENDING the Community Investment Programme is expected to be a key part of the ruling Labour Party’s upcoming council election manifesto.

Town Hall bosses were celebrating last September when Camden was granted £86million from the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s Affordable Housing Programme.

Councillor Danny Beales with Sadiq Khan

The definition of what “affordable” actually means has been a source of debate – including how far it should be pegged to the capital’s astronomic private market. But regeneration chief Councillor Danny Beales said more than 550 “social rent” homes could be delivered with the money.

“This funding will go a long way as we progress plans for redevelopment at West Kentish Town and Wendling and St Stephens estates,” he said.

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