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Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London
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Public housing estates are disappearing from London’s skyline in the name of regeneration, while new mixed-tenure developments are arising in their place. This richly illustrated book provides a vivid interdisciplinary account of the controversial urban policy of demolition and rebuilding amid London’s housing crisis and the polarisation between the city’s have-nots and have-lots.

Drawing on extensive fieldwork and interviews with over 180 residents living in some of the capital’s most deprived areas, Watt shows the dramatic ways that estate regeneration is reshaping London, fuelling socio-spatial inequalities via state-led gentrification. Foregrounding resident experiences and perspectives both before and during regeneration, he examines class, place belonging, home and neighbourhood, and argues that the endless regeneration process results in degeneration, displacement and fragmented communities.

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“I’m praying to god, ‘don’t regenerate my estate’ because regeneration has become a nasty word” (Social housing tenant, at a meeting held to discuss regeneration in the Tottenham area of north London, 2016).

This statement, made by an anxious tenant, encapsulates the main theme of this book. Regeneration refers to an urban policy involving spatially targeted reinvestment in and revitalisation of physically deteriorating, economically under-resourced and socially deprived areas – in this case public/council/social housing estates. Even though some regeneration aims can be considered laudable, the practice of regeneration in London has meant that it has become a ‘nasty word’ among estate residents as they see their homes bulldozed and their communities scattered. Much has already been written about this topic by academics, journalists and housing campaigners, but this is the first book to provide an in-depth account of what it means for London social tenants and homeowners to live through the regeneration of their estates over years and even decades. It focuses on regeneration schemes that involve ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ – demolition of an existing estate and rebuilding it as a ‘mixed-tenure neighbourhood’ with large numbers of market properties for sale or rent. Such comprehensive redevelopment fundamentally changes estates in ways that residents don’t expect, and are not properly told about by the politicians, officials and consultants who promote it as a way of solving London’s housing crisis.

In theory, the Carpenters estate in Stratford, in the east London borough of Newham, has been ‘regenerating’ since 2004. In reality, regeneration hasn’t properly started. Instead Newham Council has ‘decanted’ most of the tenants, leaving the estate half-empty for 15 years.

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This chapter outlines the rise and fall of public housing in London with reference to national and local housing policy. Two historical periods are identified: an expansionary period that covers the first 80 years of the 20th century, followed by a contractionary period from the 1980s until the 2010s. This periodisation is theoretically located within the development of the Keynesian welfare state and that form of welfare state’s unravelling under neoliberalisation, an unravelling that has intensified under recent austerity policies. Before outlining this periodisation, it is first contextualised with reference to housing as the ‘wobbly pillar’ of the welfare state.

Most nation states rely upon market and informal housing provision, with the latter prominent in the Global South. It is only within the cities and towns of the Global North that public/social housing has existed to any substantial extent. Public housing was a key part of post-war welfare states in Western capitalist societies (Harloe, 1995; Balchin, 1996). Many Northern European cities – and North American and Australasian cities to a much lesser extent – are physically marked by the presence of public/social housing estates (Urban, 2012; Jacobs, 2019). During the 1950 to 1980s, these estates were often large-scale and took a modernist architectural form (Urban, 2012; Hess et al, 2018). Public housing was also prominent in the former state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, although the collapse of these regimes has resulted in wide-scale housing privatisation (Balchin, 1996; Hess et al, 2018).

Social housing is provided at sub-market costs due to state legislation and funding (although owner-occupation has also been heavily subsidised by the state in numerous ways; Merrett, 1982).

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This chapter reviews the various urban policy programmes which have attempted to renew and regenerate London’s deprived estates. The chapter begins with a brief overview of ‘old’ urban renewal in its post-war slum clearance form, and its ‘new urban renewal’ form as estate regeneration. It then traces the development of estate-based programmes from the 1980s to the 2010s, and in so doing employs a binary early-contemporary periodisation. The early period (1980s to 1990s) included relatively generous public subsidies. Contemporary regeneration dates from the late 1990s to 2010s and is the primary focus of this book. It was during this period that the private sector was expected to undertake the heavy lifting in terms of regeneration funding. The analysis concentrates on the New Labour years since this is when most of the research schemes in this book began. Following this chronological account, the next section examines the hegemonic ‘official discourse’ on estate regeneration and excavates the underlying rationale for such regeneration in London. Aspects of the ‘entrepreneurial city’ are then briefly examined in London, and the concept of the ‘entrepreneurial borough’ is introduced. The penultimate section compares early and contemporary estate regeneration schemes, including with reference to differential mixed-tenure outcomes, while the final section examines what regeneration-as-demolition costs residents both in financial and human terms.

Post-war urban policy in Western capitalist societies consisted of renewal programmes which involved tearing down inner-city ‘slum housing’ which in many cases was replaced with public/social housing estates, typically of modernist architectural design (Hirsch, 1983; Urban, 2012). While such urban renewal often resulted in improved housing, it also erased established working-class neighbourhoods, as seen in Herbert Gans’ (1962) classic study of the West End of Boston.

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The research focused on seven London boroughs – referred to as the ‘main research boroughs’ – while less extensive research was undertaken in four ‘supplementary boroughs’ (Figure 4.1). Six of the main boroughs – Hackney, Haringey, Lambeth, Newham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets – have been among the most deprived local authority areas in England for decades. These six are part of the cluster of ‘inner East boroughs’ that Hanna and Bosetti (2015: 9) identify as having ‘the highest proportions nationally of children and old people living in poverty’. These boroughs also contain large BAME populations that are disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of housing and employment (Chouhan et al, 2011; Elahi and Khan, 2016).

Despite their enduring social problems, there has also been some reduction in the extent of poverty and deprivation in the six inner East boroughs over the last 20 years which reflects how ‘poverty rates have increased in outer London and decreased in inner London’ (Hanna and Bosetti, 2015: 6). Table 4.1 shows the national ranking of the seven main research boroughs based on their average area-based deprivation scores in the 1998 Index of Local Deprivation (ILD) and 2015 IMD. Leaving aside Barnet as an outlier, these featured among the 20 most deprived local authority areas in England in 1998, with four appearing in the ten most deprived areas. By the 2015 IMD, the ranking of their average scores had all improved such that only Hackney and Tower Hamlets remained among the 20 most deprived areas (Smith et al, 2015: 58).

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Since the 1970s, social housing estates within Western capitalist cities have been linked to marginalisation processes in relation to poverty and deprivation. This chapter examines marginalisation at London’s estates with reference to three analytical frameworks: residualisation, social exclusion and socio-tenurial polarisation. While acknowledging that such approaches have considerable credibility – especially in socioeconomic terms – the chapter develops a multi-stranded critique of how they frame and analyse marginalisation. This critique embraces three main themes: employment and class; social inclusion and diversity; and tenure preferences. This critique draws upon interview data regarding tenants’ labour and housing market experiences. The final section focuses on the shifting interrelationship between homelessness and social housing.

The marginalisation of UK public housing has been examined through various analytical frameworks including residualisation (Forrest and Murie, 1991), social exclusion (SEU, 1998) and socio-tenurial polarisation (Hamnett, 2003). Residualisation means public renting transformed during the 1970s to 1990s from general needs housing, catering for a broad swathe of the working class, to a residual ‘tenure of last resort’ for a poor, largely ‘non-working class’ (Forrest and Murie, 1991). The latter include deprived and socially marginalised groups that were too poor to enter owner-occupation – the unemployed, sick and disabled, lone-parent families, the homeless, BAME groups, unskilled workers, and so on (Forrest and Murie, 1991; Hamnett, 2003).

If residualisation began during the 1970s, it intensified during the 1980s due to a series of policy and social developments. The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 contributed towards residualisation by allowing those with ‘priority need’ greater access into local authority housing thereby eroding its base in the general population (Somerville, 1994; Fitzpatrick and Pawson, 2016).

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This chapter examines the aftermaths of regeneration at three estates – West Hendon, Woodberry Down and Carpenters – and analyses what kinds of new places and inequalities are being produced. Regeneration has been going on for 15–20 years at these estates. Not only is this timescale much longer than the 1990s’ CEI and SRB schemes (Chapter 3), but these later work-in-progress schemes are unlikely to be completed within the next decade, if then; hence any aftermaths are provisional. I encourage readers to refer to Chapters 3 and 4 for details regarding housing tenure and rehousing provision at the three estates, which are distinct from one another in relation to tenure patterns, governance and finance. This chapter provides an experiential socio-spatial perspective on the emergent new places. As such, the chapter does not assess the estates’ respective micro-political economies à la Hodkinson (2019), although brief comments are made about governance in the next chapter.

The West Hendon and Woodberry Down cases illustrate how the long-term, incomplete and dualistic nature of degeneration/regeneration means that two places are in symbiotic tension: the old estate which is undergoing degeneration, displacement and demolition, and the redevelopment which is under construction and receiving new tenants and owners. West Hendon and Woodberry Down represent hybrid schemes comprising elements of both places. Four aspects of these hybrid places are analysed: the old part of the estate as a residential area; residents’ views on new homes and new landlords; the new redevelopment as a neighbourhood; and whether ‘mixed communities’ are being created. The final section returns to the Carpenters estate, where regeneration has hardly begun despite having been under ‘regen’ for 15 years.

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Having outlined the multiple discontents that estate regeneration involving demolition gives rise to, I hope that the question raised in the Introduction – ‘why do London estate residents pray that regeneration won’t be coming to their neighbourhood anytime soon?’ – has been answered. This concluding chapter summarises the key findings and makes various policy recommendations.

Chapter 2 examined the rise and fall of public housing in London. The expansionary period involved local government initiatives up until the 1940s, and then reached its apogee under the post-war Keynesian welfare state. The development of public housing in the capital was enabled by the Labour Party’s unbroken 30-year control of the LCC which embedded council estates into the physical landscape of the city – municipal socialism in action. The expansionary period allowed hundreds of thousands of working-class Londoners to escape from the manifold inadequacies of the PRS via the decommodification that public housing facilitated.

In challenging notions of a Butskellite consensus in post-war housing policy, I identified how Conservative local government interventions in London began to undermine housing decommodification during the 1960s and 1970s via a series of proto-Thatcherite reforms, including encouraging discretionary sales of council housing. During this period, Labour councils consistently reversed these reforms. Wholesale housing recommodification was then initiated by 1980s’ Thatcherite privatisation and demunicipalisation policies, notably the RTB, which brought about the neoliberal decoupling of public housing from the UK welfare state. New Labour continued this decoupling, albeit in a less damaging form. It was more generous in terms of overall public spending on local authority housing, notably via the DHP which helped to redress the Conservative government’s disinvestment and the national £19 billion backlog of repairs.

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