London's Housing Crisis The Heygate estate

London’s Housing Crisis

London’s Housing Crisis by Felix H. Wilkinson

London's Housing Crisis  Elephant Park
Elephant Park private new build for sale

‘Make me wanna holler’ is a line from Marvin Gaye’s seminal tune Inner City Blues. It’s as relevant today as it was in the late sixties, but for different reasons.  At that time our cities were suffering from decay and urban blight.  Today, issues of affordability and inequality have made it hard to sustain communities that have been in London for years.   Every square foot is sought after by property developers as more and more people now wish to live here.

The huge scale of re-development means that we – ordinary people – have to look again at planning and purpose, architecture and construction, how we live and how we could live.  Since the Thatcher years of the eighties, social housing has been decimated by successive governments and much of our council housing has been sold off. The government said it would create a country of home owners.  The reality is that just over 40 per cent of properties purchased under the controversial scheme are now being rented out privately.  As a result the rents in London are unaffordable.  This has led to London’s Housing Crisis.

Help To Buy Equity Loans

Since 2013, the government has been lending first time buyers forty percent of the sale price for new build properties in a scheme called  Help to Buy Equity Loans. George Osborne the then Chancellor of the Exchequer heralded it as “the biggest government intervention in the housing market since the Right to Buy scheme” of the 1980s.  And like the Right to By scheme it did nothing to aid working class people.

Essentially the government is giving tax payer’s money to the developers via these loans.  And over the years this has helped create a housing bubble.  Without these loans young people wouldn’t be able to afford new build properties and the price would have to drop.  Instead the government has been using our money to get Londoners into debt and feather the nests of their friends, companies like Lend Lease.

London's Housing Crisis The Heygate estate
The Heygate Estate – left to run down by Southwark Council

Lend Lease and Southwark Council

Lend Lease has been working with Southwark Council for a number of years to ‘regenerate’ the Elephant and Castle area in south London. Southwark Council were keen to team up with the multinational construction company and they promoted the selling off of council estates as a new start in affordable housing. The Heygate Estate in Southwark has become a symbol of the false promises and injustices of this ‘renewal’. The council sold the 9 hectare estate to the Lend Lease Group for just £50m, having spent £44m emptying the site and £21.5m on planning its redevelopment.  Corruption or just plain incompetence?  In 1999 Southwark council’s Director of Regeneration Fred Manson sparked controversy when in an interview about the regeneration scheme he claimed that “social housing generates people on low incomes coming in and that generates poor school performances, middle-class people stay away.” 

The People, Where Will They Go?

As a result of London’s housing crisis, the neighbourhoods where poorer people could once afford to live are being reinvented for a different class of people, and Labour councils – who should be there to protect social housing – are complicit in these schemes.  The words of garden city planner Ebenezer Howard are as relevant as ever: ‘the people, where will they go?’  In this ongoing conversation about the future of our cities we all have to be urban planners, accepting the past and investigating history, then looking forward to see what can be made with this knowledge. How can we keep neighbourhoods alive against a tide of blandness, when everywhere is being homogenised with the same shops and restaurants and expensive housing?  How can we use the remnants of the post war dream to build anew?

What will happen with Covid and the ever deepening recession?  Could something new come out of the crisis?  If we don’t take control of our housing then our government will use the pandemic to instigate ever more draconian measures.

More about Felix H. Wilkinson

Useful links

A History of Social Housing

Brutalist Architecture

ASH – Architects for Social Housing

The Guardianan article on South London Social Housing

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