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‘It can’t be sustainable’: The hidden costs of demolishing council housing estates

For decades, tearing down and “regenerating” council estates has been the norm – but with the climate and housing market in crisis, campaigners are questioning the costs for people and the planet.

On the western edge of the Central Hill housing estate in Lambeth, a temporary wall plastered with cheery posters greets visitors approaching the complex. 

For more than five years, the 450 homes on this estate have been earmarked for demolition and rebuild in a process commonly referred to as “estate regeneration”. The posters, courtesy of Homes for Lambeth, promise an enticing future of “cleaner, greener” homes on the site, replete with photographs of smiling families, solar panels, e-bikes and bustling high streets. 

Without further interrogation, these claims might seem to stack up. In 2019, Lambeth’s Labour council – sole owners of housing delivery group Homes for Lambeth – became the first London authority to officially declare a “climate emergency”, making an ambitious pledge to reach net zero in its operations by 2030. 

The problem is, demolishing and rebuilding properties is far from sustainable. Construction, along with the energy required to heat, cool and power buildings, is estimated to account for almost 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Declaring a climate emergency but approving demolition is completely contradictory. Knocking down a major estate and replacing it just can’t be sustainable,” Will Hurst, managing editor at the Architects Journal (AJ) says.

Through its “retrofit first” campaign, the AJ has spent several years on a mission to alert policymakers, architects and the public to the shocking wastefulness of demolition and rebuild in the construction industry, a sector responsible for a third of the UK’s waste output

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It’s not just the planet that suffers when homes are bulldozed. Often, estate regeneration pushes out working class and ethnic minority council tenants, dispersing them to the outskirts of cities and tearing close-knit communities apart.

For decades, this process has continued unabated in cities across the UK, leaving tonnes of carbon emissions and dispersed communities in its wake. In London alone, at least 161 estates have been torn down since 1997. Today, 100 are earmarked for the same fate.

Britain is now in the throes of a climate and housing crisis – and estate demolition increasingly looks like a poor choice for tackling either. 

If the estates currently marked down for demolition were instead retrofitted, it’s not just residents who would benefit: it could change our approach to cities altogether, forging a new path for construction that  benefits people and the planet.

Panels at the edge of the Central Hill estate.

“It’s about getting rid of people who are deemed unproductive”

For decades, perhaps even centuries, demolition has been a byword for urban improvement: of clearing out the old to make way for the new.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the social housing sector, where Tony Blair’s 1997 promise to regenerate “no hope areas” with new homes for council tenants was followed again, decades later, by David Cameron’s pledge to tear down and rebuild Britain’s “sink estates”. 

Though Blair’s attempt to regenerate the maligned Aylesbury Estate was famously disastrous, political promises to tear down social housing were nonetheless realised. 

Between  2011/12 and 2020/21, more than 30,000 local authority homes were demolished, according to data collated by Paul Watt, professor of urban studies at Birkbeck, University of London and author of Estate Regeneration and Its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London.

Of these 30,000 homes, London accounted for a third (11,900) of the total.

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The second part of the promise – to rebuild these homes – was less faithfully kept. Data collected on the regeneration of individual estates shows a common, unmistakable theme: a net loss of social housing on the rebuilt development. 

Things weren’t always this way, says Watt, who points out that net loss of social housing became more common with greater private sector involvement, under regenerations started by New Labour. 

“The funding model shifted towards private sector involvement, which meant that rebuilding of social housing has to be cross-subsidised by building private homes for sale,” he explains.

“So what you often see is a variable but substantial reduction in the amount of social housing on the re-built estates.”

The former Heygate Estate in Southwark, London, is a particularly striking example.

Formerly the site of 1,200 council homes, the luxury “Elephant Park” complex that replaced Heygate provided just 82 homes out of 3,000 for social rent. According to a report by Transparency International, a significant proportion of the remaining units were sold off to foreign investors. 

Council homes have also disappeared in other ways – perhaps most notoriously through Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme, which offered council tenants a route to buying their homes at a cheaper rate. 

Rumours that sitting prime minister Boris Johnson might revive the scheme have sparked criticism from housing charities, who say the policy would simply amount to selling off Britain’s few truly affordable homes, squeezing out tenants who can’t afford to buy in the first place.

Regeneration projects are often justified on the grounds that the estates selected have gone beyond repair or become unmanageable. You might hear crime and antisocial behaviour cited. 

According to research by Jessica Perera of the Institute of Race Relations, it’s often ethnic minority households, overrepresented in social housing, who find themselves at the mercy of these decisions. 

In a report published in 2019, Perera described the overlap between successive governments’ attempts to gentrify so-called “sink estates” and the criminalising of young Black men, calling regeneration projects “a replication of the government’s “hostile environment”.

Accusations of “managed decline” are often made. That is, deliberately making estates unappealing, and thus justifying their regeneration. 

“Essentially, managed decline is where any sort of repair work that can be avoided, is avoided, including stuff that they [councils] are legally obliged to do,” says Ben Clay of the Manchester Tenants Union.

According to Clay and other housing campaigners, repairs and maintenance work will slow or decline in quality once an estate has been chosen for regeneration, strengthening the argument for bulldozing it as quality of life declines. 

Clay doesn’t mince his words on his view of estate regeneration, referring to the process as a kind of “state-led gentrification” initiated to improve local economies by removing economically unproductive people. 

“What [leaders] could do is rebuild economies by getting people skilled up and taking on new work. But the easier way to rebuild an economy is to change the people,” he says.

“You can call it gentrification, or social cleansing or whatever, but it’s basically about getting rid of people who are deemed to be economically unproductive.”

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“You have to give kudos to the people who’ve stayed”

Sabine Mairey’s kitchen table is stacked with evidence of a long battle to save the estate she’s lived on for more than 20 years: large protest placards, glossy brochures and even, Mairey points out, some complimentary tea bags sent by Homes for Lambeth. 

“It’s just hilarious. I’m not kidding, they sent actual tea bags in an envelope – as though that makes up for demolishing my house,” she says, incredulously. 

Complementary tea bags probably aren’t what trailblazing postwar architect Rosemary Stjernstedt envisioned when she presided over Central Hill’s construction in the late 1960s with Bevridge’s “cradle to grave” welfare mentality in mind. 

Formerly, the estate provided everything from a hostel for nurses working at Croydon hospital to play areas and services for the elderly. Built on a hill below the treeline, the estate uses this sloping topography to its advantage, giving every home ample light, space and stunning views over the distant City. 

From Mairey’s balcony, the cluster of London’s central skyscrapers, dominated by the Shard, is clearly visible on the horizon. 

“They’re probably thinking this would make a profitable commuter development for people working in Canary Wharf,” she remarks with a sigh, as we look over the city. 

A banner opposing regeneration hangs from Sabine Mairey’s balcony.

Since the regeneration was first mooted in 2012, Mairey says Central Hill residents have tried numerous creative tactics to save the estate, including two unsuccessful attempts to get it listed by Historic England for its distinctive postwar architecture.

Residents have also asked whether the estate can be refurbished rather than demolished – a request that has been rebuffed by the council, who say that “significant cuts in government funding, the withdrawal of decent homes grant funding, and enforced rent reductions” mean it is unable to borrow the funds necessary for retrofitting homes.

”Lambeth spent two years going through all the possible options, from refurbishment, infill and partial rebuilding, to provide more and better homes for the people of Central Hill, including those submitted by residents and campaigners,” the council told The Big Issue.

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Mairey, however, claims Lambeth Council has been unclear when it comes to the projected costs of retrofit.

“[The council] said the estate is in disrepair and that it was too expensive to bring it up to a decent standard – but they wouldn’t show us the figures on the cost of refurbishment,” she says.

Sitting on a bench in the estate’s basketball court, facing a tall row of grey-brick flats, she admits that a number of homes have struggled with repair issues in recent years.

Echoing Clay, however, Mairey claims that repairs on the estate have been purposefully neglected in order to encourage current residents to leave ahead of regeneration. 

She points to an information request, shared with The Big Issue, which shows that the billable amount of income from rent and service charges for all housing units on Central Hill estate in 2020/21 amounted to more than £1.3m. Only £709,948 of this was reinvested in repairs and maintenance.

“I’ve known people with problems like sewage coming into their homes, and they just get fed up and leave when the repairs don’t happen. You have to give kudos to the people who’ve actually stayed, because it shows they’ve got determination,” Mairey says.

Repairs are just one reason staying on the estate has become untenable for many, she adds. Homes on the estate have been effectively blacklisted – meaning they cannot be bought or sold – unless sold back to the council.

If encouraging residents to leave was the aim, even a quick glance at the estate suggests it’s been successful. In the back yard of one empty home, peeling paint and untidy piles of leaves and debris suggest some homes have been vacant for months. 

By Mairey’s estimate, 80 units are currently empty – while more than 36,000 people are on Lambeth council’s waiting list for housing. 

The council hasn’t been clear about how many social homes will be supplied on the new estate, says Mairey, who suspects that making secure council tenants leave could be a form of sneaky accounting. 

“They’ll say that everyone will be given a home on the new estate – but if 50 council tenants leave, then that’s 50 social homes they won’t have to rebuild,” she says. 

Lambeth Council responded to these allegations by saying that the regeneration proposals have been planned “in collaboration with local residents”.

“Through consultation and master planning, we are determined to delivering high quality, affordable and council-level rent homes based on what the tenants of Central Hill and those from across the borough have told us they want,” the council says.

Some homes look as though they have been empty for several weeks.

Yet according to Professor Watt’s research, Mairey’s experience is far from unique. Whether residents on an estate are secure council tenants, homeowners or private renters, many will lose out as a result of regeneration, which “unlocks” land values and results in more expensive properties.

Secure council tenants must be rehoused – but this doesn’t necessarily have to be on the new development, which is often impossible where there’s a net loss of homes, Watt says. Private renters have no rights to return, and will often find rents on the new development too high to pay. 

Right to Buy means that many homes on council estates are already in the hands of former council tenants – yet even homeownership isn’t enough to save many from demolition.

While owner-occupiers will be compensated for their property, the price will rarely cover the cost of buying a home on the new estate.

“One option is shared ownership on the new estate, but often it’s elderly people who have paid off their mortgage in this position. They might have to take out a new mortgage, which is difficult when you’re elderly,” Watt explains. 

Even if previous residents do come back, they’ll find the community they enjoyed has disbanded, says Watt. 

“You have a radical transformation in the population. Yes, some council tenants might come back, a few leaseholders and freeholders might come back, but the incoming population will be well-to-do middle class people,” he says.  

“Many of the council tenants who come back will find themselves a minority in a totally transformed urban environment.” 

“The NHS will be forced to pick up the tab”

The health impacts for those people whose lives are disrupted by estate regeneration are hard to understate.

Professor Loretta Lees, who led an academic study on estate regeneration, said the implications were not just clear in interviews with residents, but with local GPs too.

“I have spoken to local GPs who have been disturbed by the public health impacts (eg. stress, anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, etc) with respect to the decanting of the Aylesbury,” she wrote in a blog post about the study.

Clay, who has helped residents in Greater Manchester fight regeneration, says tenants are often “scared” into believing they must leave their homes, are unaware of their rights, and are often afraid to challenge what they’re being told.

“A lot of people don’t have the perseverance, or perhaps the communication skills or the confidence to take on these people – you’re relying on them for a new home,” he says. 

It’s a human cost that isn’t accounted for in any regeneration project’s balance sheets, says Watt. Ultimately, it’s the public who end up paying the price.

“The NHS will be forced to pick up the tab for the worsening health people experience because of the stress or the noise and dirt people suffer through during rebuilding. 

“None of that appears in the balance sheet – it’s offloaded onto the NHS and, ultimately, the taxpayer,” he says.

Communities often end up dispersed as a result of regeneration, Professor Paul Watt says.

“It’s the equivalent of driving a car 99 million miles”

Health impacts aren’t the only thing not being priced into regeneration. Currently, there is no regulation of the “embodied carbon” created during the construction of a new building – the emissions that come from transportation and manufacturing of materials. 

“When you demolish a building, you’re wasting all the resources used to make it originally – and wasting the carbon emissions that were created,” says Joe Giddings, of the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN). 

“Then, the construction of a new building creates more carbon emissions. That could all have been avoided if you upgraded the existing building,” he adds. 

Embodied carbon has only recently come to the attention of architects and builders, a fact that’s all the more shocking when you discover just how damaging its impact is.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) estimates, for instance, that 35 per cent of the lifecycle carbon (all the carbon emitted in a building’s lifetime) from a typical office development is emitted before the building is even opened. The figure for residential buildings is 51 per cent. 

Current plans to demolish Marks and Spencer’s flagship store on Oxford Street, for instance, would cost around 40,000 tonnes of CO2 – an amount that would require 2.4m trees to mop up.

“That’s the equivalent of driving a typical car 99 million miles – which is further than the distance to the sun,” Hurst says. 

Both Hurst and Giddings are keen to stress that they’re not against demolition in all cases – but that “in the vast majority of cases”, retrofit is possible, and almost always the better option for the environment

The need to build new homes to address the housing crisis is clear, and neither Hurst nor Giddings are against building on principle – they object instead to adequate buildings being destroyed where they could be improved instead.

As things stand, a 20 per cent VAT charge on retrofit (compared with 0 per cent on new build) is deterring wider take-up of retrofit, but there have been some positive signs. 

In Glasgow, the refurbishment of Queens Cross Housing Association homes attracted international attention at COP26 after the retrofit slashed energy demand by 80 per cent. Residents not only kept their homes, but enjoyed a vastly improved quality of life – including lower energy bills. 

It’s an apt example of how retrofitting buildings has positive knock-on impacts in other areas, including its potential to lower fuel poverty and promote better health. It’s also far more palatable to voters who object to building on greenfield land, says Hurst.

“The idea that, instead of building homes on greenfield land, you could reuse a building already standing – that’s much more palatable to voters,” he says.

For residents like Mairey living under the threat of the wrecking ball, the growth of the green architectural movement has been a godsend. If the argument against demolition on the grounds of human cost won’t cut through, she hopes, the climate argument could finally shift the dial.

The decision to regenerate Central Hill was made almost a decade ago. Since then, a global pandemic and the increasingly hard-to-ignore climate crisis have renewed public focus on health, inequalities and the environment. Just last week, Labour won Westminster in local elections with a “retrofit-first” promise in its election manifesto.

Mairey, and thousands of other residents on estates across the UK, hope that it could finally spell the end to our appetite for tearing buildings down and starting from scratch. 

“The council will have to revisit their decision before they go ahead with any rebuilding. And since they made the decision there’s been a declaration of a climate emergency and a pandemic,” Mairey says.

“How, in a climate emergency, can you still come to the conclusion that this is a good idea?”

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