But if they are broken?

The Observer and ‘Comment is Free’ were asked if they would take an online response to an article in this Sunday’s Observer about the Central Hill estate in Upper Norwood, which they declined.

The problem with Rowan Moore’s article ‘Housing Estates: If they aren’t broken…’ is that he overlooks the very reason that the council started working with residents of the Central Hill estate, which is that very large parts of it are ‘broken’.

My experience of visiting residents on the north-facing estate over the last six years as the local ward councillor is not to be shown sun-filled rooms filled with mid-century Danish furniture as the photo in the article illustrated but rather to be brought into people’s homes to be shown the thick black mould in children’s bedrooms that won’t go away no matter how many times it is cleaned off or painted over.

The council’s own estimate of how much it would cost to deal with widespread damp, mould, asbestos, sewerage problems, dilapidated kitchens and bathrooms is in excess of £18m, a figure that an external expert advising residents on the estate has suggested could be too low. This in a borough where the gap between the cost of bringing all homes up to a decent standard, and the council’s available budget now stands at about £85m. This isn’t about talking down where people live but if the money isn’t available to carry out refurbishment, then it would be wrong not to look at possible alternatives for residents.

That’s before we get onto how ‘broken’ the wider housing market is. Many estates, Central Hill among them, were built to be low-density estates at a time when London’s population was low and thought by many to be in terminal decline.

London’s built environment hasn’t kept pace with the huge resurgence in the city’s population and, while I’m not qualified to debate architectural merit with an architecture critic, as a Londoner I do feel safe in saying that there is no solution to the housing crisis that doesn’t involve building more homes.

On Central Hill itself over a quarter of residents say they are overcrowded, partly as the estate wasn’t designed with any two bedroom properties. At one consultation event a mother took me aside to tell me that she lives in a studio flat on the estate with her eight-year-old daughter and is stuck, unable to secure a bigger council flat given the shortage of family-sized homes and unable to afford the rents in the private market.

Across Lambeth as a whole over 21000 people are on the council’s waiting list for housing and, damningly, over 1800 families are now homeless, including nearly 5000 children. The government’s Housing and Planning Bill will make the shortage of genuinely affordable housing even worse and the need for council’s to provide leadership in the housing crisis even greater.

Rowan Moore is quite wrong to say that there is a plan to sell off lots of homes to fund any possible rebuilding of the estate. Lambeth is following a radical and ambitious housing policy which builds homes for rent for people on different incomes. First to increase the number of homes for council rent, with over 600 given the green light by Lambeth’s cabinet since the 2014 election, but also to build homes for private renters, offering them more security and certainty about tenure and rent levels than an unregulated private market currently offers.

Proposals approved by Lambeth in recent months for Somerleyton road in Central Brixton and estate regeneration on three estates: Westbury, South Lambeth and Knights Walk don’t feature plans for any homes for sale other than to re-provide for existing homeowners.

For Central Hill no decision on the future of the estate has been made and the consultation with the whole estate is due to start soon. This whole process is, to say the least, difficult and stressful for residents of the estate. No matter what those options for the future are, it would be wrong for the council to shy away from confronting the reality that we face or to simply put off any decision in order to avoid any negative publicity.

For the wider debate about the housing crisis, about the quality of people’s homes, the strength of their community and how this city builds the homes we need, it would be enormously improved if we focussed a little less on the whimsy of architecture journalists and a little more on the housing needs of real people.

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