The month in architecture: Condemnation for the housing bill

David Cameron claims architecture contributes to riots but architects decry the housing bill and 'sink estate' rhetoric

As the coup de grâce of his 1974 Horizon documentary Writing on the Wall, hirsute architect and urban planner Oscar Newman strolls around the, then still under construction, Aylesbury Estate musing on whether a group of young children playing football will mature with any sense of pride or responsibility. ‘Will these children grow up to become the criminals that we seem to have so much of in America?’ If things should get that bad, decides Newman, you would have to close housing estates down - tear them down for the good of the children, because crime and poverty is built into the very walls themselves. 

Oscar Newman tours the Aylesbury Estate

Forty years later, alleging that ‘sink estates’ were behind the 2011 riots, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to do just that to the worst concrete offenders - tear them down. Anyone familiar with this Pruitt-Igoe school of thought will think, as novelist Dreda Say Mitchell writes in the Guardian - ‘this again?’ The same alienating caricatures created by urbanists such as Newman and later Alice Coleman are being repackaged and regurgitated but this time they are a distraction from (and for the gullible an impetus for) the new Housing and Planning Bill, described by Julia Park in the AJ as ‘law-making at its worst’.

If the contents of the bill weren’t disheartening enough, the attempts to hastily push it through parliament (the last reading was passed at 3am), belie an awareness of how regressive it is. Architecture critic Oliver Wainwright has summed-up the bill as a ‘wholesale power grab’. The flagship introduction of Starter Homes - provided by local authorities for first-time buyers with a discount of 20% market value and capped at £450,000 in London - has been shown by Architects for Social Housing (ASH) to be unaffordable for 98% of people on low incomes.

Architect-led protests against the bill have been staged outside the Houses of Parliament

New tenants will no longer be offered secure lifetime council tenancies - instead replaced with two five-year tenancies - and even those already on lifetime tenancies will likely have them changed once they are ‘decanted’. Should your London household income exceed £40,000, you will be forced to pay market rate, hitting low-paid workers hardest. Right-to-Buy extensions to housing associations will deplete the number of British social homes. Those few who snap up discounted starter homes will be permitted to sell again at the original value just five years after purchase on top of the increase in house prices the bill will fuel. The bill amounts to doling out public money to a small number of already well off individuals at the expense of their poor neighbours.

What the Conservatives seem happier to discuss is Cameron's waging war on council estates. Top of his list of estates to be bulldozed is Broadwater Farms, turned around after £33 million worth of investment but, based purely on proximity and history, seen by Cameron as the biggest contributor to the Tottenham Riots. Yes, the Prime Minister is arguing architecture caused the riots - let that sink it. Those not on the blacklist are promised a poultry programme of regeneration. The budget: £140 million, £9 million shy of what Southwark Council last year quoted for the external improvements to the Aylesbury Estate alone. When a sum for a single estate’s exterior fails to be sufficient to ‘radically transform’ 100 estates across the country it is likely that once again the estates themselves will be blamed although, as ASH’s Simon Elmer remarks £140 is so little it "wouldn’t even pay for the bulldozers". 

The 1985 Broadwater Farm riots. David Cameron claims architecture was to blame

The bill is an attempt to push generation rent to become not only generation buy, but generation speculation, at the cost of anyone unwilling or unable to access property ownership. Yes with home ownership rates falling for the first time in a century, this group is quickly diminishing: a recent report by ONS has ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds down from 65% in 1991 to under 45% in 2012, putting the UK below its supposedly ‘content to rent’ continental cousins. 

With this bill, such a trajectory will continue. The fight for alternatives lies with those members of generation rent that do not want to become generation buy - not because they cannot afford it, but through a will to develop places to live with a sense of ownership more meaningful than a capital asset.