Will Cameron’s rhetoric about regenerating the UK’s most run-down estates lead to any benefits for the people who actually live on them?
Brutal high-rise towers, dark alleyways haunted by criminals – and entrenched poverty. The picture painted by Downing Street of the UK’s most run-down housing estates this week is one that, to Britain’s shame, is instantly recognisable. However, the portrayal that accompanied the launch of the government’s latest headline-grabbing housing initiative – the regeneration of 100 of the country’s sink estates – offered only part of the story. The government’s “solution” to the problem, likewise, is very far from complete.
The link between run-down, post-war housing in hostile urban environments and a poverty trap is well-evidenced, if sometimes conveniently ignored by local authorities due to the cost involved in tackling the issue. Much of the gang violence in London and in other cities is found in developments like these, with generations trapped in a seemingly hopeless cycle of low incomes, limited educational opportunities and low aspiration.
The government’s characterisation of these estates, however, while it nods to the “welcoming homes” they can contain “behind front doors”, ignores the fact that many also contain established, close-knit communities, which – particularly for older generations – offer a network of support and friendship that, despite financial poverty, can dramatically enrich the lives of their inhabitants.
So the first, social, concern with David Cameron’s plan, has to be about the future for the residents already there. Taken in the context of the government’s overall drive towards home ownership, and a raft of policies, such as the housing benefit cap, that are making it harder to secure affordable homes to rent in the UK’s cities, it is hard not to see the estate regeneration scheme as a policy that will drive low-income households further out of urban areas, and therefore further from the opportunities for work that those areas provide. Perhaps not so likely to “end poverty”, as the government puts it, as move it somewhere less noticeable, less concentrated. Even the large regeneration programmes launched under recent Labour governments – which offered replacement council homes and secure tenancies for affected residents – were controversial, given the potential for unintended, damaging consequences for the people they were designed to (and in many cases did) help.
But, when it comes to the construction industry and the opportunity offered by these schemes, there is also a looming practical hole in the initiative, which has to call into question the chance of it even getting off the ground. And that is the amount of funding with which Cameron is planning to attack poverty: £140m – or about £35m less than the cost of the proposed Garden Bridge over the Thames.
This pot, which will be stretched across 100 housing estates, will clearly, as the government openly admits, need to be heavily supplemented by private sector funding. Just how heavily is made clear, however, when you consider that just one of the estates the government highlighted in its announcement as a successful example of previous regeneration – Woodberry Down in Hackney – took £59m of public sector kickstart funding to get off the ground.
Granted, that scheme was launched in the midst of a downturn. But who is to say that today’s still fragile economy will not have dipped into something more sinister just at the time the government wants to lever in the funding it will need to deliver the initiative? After all, the government will not outline details of how its regeneration policy will work until this year’s Autumn Statement; and then there’s the likely opposition from local community groups once target estates are identified …
Even in a best case scenario, with a strong economy, the historic reluctance of institutional investors to become involved in development work means there are huge question marks over the ability to attract the funds needed for an initiative on the scale outlined by the government.
None of this equates to a suggestion that the type of estates depicted by the government should not be rethought and redeveloped; doing so would go a long way to improving the life chances of those who will live within them for generations to come. But the idea that this can be achieved without a complementary suite of social rent and housing policies, and a good deal more upfront investment from the government, seems almost as desperate as some of the environments themselves.
Sarah Richardson, editor