Ever since I read Lynsey Hanley’s fantastic book “Estates”, I have been fascinated by the policy and political issues surrounding social housing. As a tenant of a privately owned council flat there is perhaps an element of soul searching here as I question my own right to occupy a space originally intended for those with greater needs.
In this same spirit of reflection, I recently spent a somewhat morose Saturday morning watching reruns of Channel 4’s “How to Get a Council House”. Despite the best attempts of the title to sell another “I have five hands attached to each finger” reality style docu-drama, I was impressed with the programme’s balance and nuance.
As well as painting a pretty shocking picture of the drought of social housing available for people categorised by local authorities as having high needs, the programme also provided a glimpse into the world of new build social housing. A limited number of these brand new building are available for a few lucky council tenants to move into on social rates on long term leases.
Whatever part of the UK you live in, you may have spotted these new builds. Distinctive by their cheap construction materials, contrasting bright colours and a proliferation of balconies, these types of new and affordable housing are springing up on a recently demolished estate near you. A mix of private buys, affordable housing and social housing, these properties herald the future of social housing in the UK.
I believe the principle of mixing up different types of leases and tenancies is a solid one, one that will ultimately serve to reduce inequalities and the marginalisation of those who live in social housing. Moreover the regeneration of some of the country’s most difficult estates is a positive step towards improving living standards and social outcomes for residents.
However a recent article from Loretta Lees, Professor at the Department of Geography at King’s College London reveals the downside of these new types of developments. Lees argues that:
“Regeneration in London has become little more than the private sector building expensive properties. More and more housing is being built on and around council estates led by the government under the guise of the “mixed communities policy”.
The contrast between disinvested local authority housing stock in London and the highly valuable land it sits on has resulted in poorer people not being able to afford the rents. The increased value of what was once council property means that it is only the developers who are profiting from this.
Local authorities in London must halt this process and pull back from property-led regeneration schemes that are widening inequalities across London and endangering the distinctive quality of life in the capital. Instead of bulldozing council estates, many of which are structurally sound, and building new so-called “mixed income communities”, they should be looking to refurbish existing property, keeping tenants in situ and learning the lessons from the failures of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.”
We all know just how stretched local authority budgets are and the strong financial incentive for councils to enter into partnerships with private sector investors. However alongside the development of these partnerships, social housing waiting lists are only increasing. The impact and success of these new types of “mixed community” infrastructure will only be felt over time, but in the meantime, I hope that local authorities continue to prioritise building good quality, sustainable housing available to those most in need.