Why are council estates in London being demolished at a time of housing crisis, replaced by luxury flats that most Londoners cannot afford to live in? This question is central to the work of writer Anna Minton.
Anna, whom we were delighted to welcome as guest speaker at our AGM on 9 November, is reader in architecture at the University of East London and the author of the acclaimed study Big Capital: Who Is London For?, published this year by Penguin. Speaking to an audience of Green Party members and supporters at Camberwell Library, Anna gave a powerful presentation, looking at the impact of the huge sums of money from overseas that have washed up in our city since the financial crisis. For these foreign investors, property is the commodity asset of choice, and London is, in effect, their tax haven.
What does this have to do with us in Southwark? Plenty, it turns out – because investors’ appetite for luxury housing is the driving force behind the so-called regeneration that is transforming areas such as Elephant and Castle, the Old Kent Road, and the Aylesbury estate in Walworth. Unfairly branded by politicians and the media as “sink estates”, council housing is being swept away in a state-led gentrification, based on the “rent gap” – the difference between what the land is worth under public ownership and its potential value when sold to private developers.
Councils such as Southwark, Anna explained, have adopted ideas pioneered by the Labour peer and former cabinet minister Lord Adonis, who has called for all London’s council estates to undergo regeneration. “There are particularly large concentrations of council-owned land in inner London,” Adonis noted, “and this is some of the highest-priced land in the world.”
In practice, Southwark Council has not always unlocked this value when selling off its land. The Heygate estate at Elephant and Castle, for example, was sold to Australian developer Lendlease for £50m – roughly ten times less than its market value, and about the same as it cost the council to clear the estate. There were more than 1,000 council homes on the Heygate; today, only 82 out of almost 2,500 new homes are let at council rents.
Even before regeneration, public housing was being eroded by the right-to-buy policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. Right-to-buy – now scrapped in Scotland and Wales but not in England – has left 40% of former council homes in the hands of private landlords. Councils desperately short of homes now lease back the properties they once owned, at rents up to four times higher than council rents, to house homeless residents.
It is hardly surprising, Anna added, that London is “moving towards a third-world scenario”, with tenants in the private sector paying 50% or more of their income in rent, and people on low incomes – many of them key workers – forced to move away from inner-city areas like Southwark.
To get out of this mess, future UK governments will have to curb property speculation and take back control of markets. We have much to learn from other countries, which use measures such as land taxes to recoup value. And building new council homes, not luxury flats, will be a crucial part of any solution. “We need to build housing outside of the market,” Anna concluded, “and end our obsession with home ownership. If the political will is there, we can reform housing.”
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