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That Sinking Feeling! The End of ‘Sink Estates’?

David Cameron has declared that to help “blitz” poverty, reduce anti-social behaviour and create better homes, some of Britain’s “worst” housing estates must be removed and replaced with “safe and attractive” homes for residents. Much of Britain’s housing is indeed sub-standard but is simply bulldozing it a realistic solution? The Prime Minister has pledged £140 million to redevelop 100 estates, but Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has asserted that this was a mere “drop in the ocean” of what would be needed.

The above figures would mean that around £14 million would be spent on demolishing and rebuilding each of the 100 estates the government proposes to redevelop. One of the proposed regeneration sites is Broadwater Farm in Haringey. There are around 1,200 homes on this estate, meaning that the budget per home would be just £11,666.67. Included in this would be the cost of demolishing the property and completely rebuilding it, which is entirely unrealistic.

In addition to the obvious overestimation of the cost of such a project, Cameron’s “sink estate” narrative stigmatises those living in social housing in the same way that his government has consistently stigmatised those on benefits, whilst the voices of council tenants are consistently ignored. Rather than attacking tenants directly, Cameron is instead attacking the supposed conditions in which they live, allowing his rhetoric to pass as benevolent social reform rather than the continued ideologically driven undermining of the British welfare state. When questioned, Cameron was unable to guarantee that tenants forced to move due to redevelopment would be rehoused in their local area, let alone in the actual developments that replace existing estates. In response, by invoking the spectre of the sink estate, he attempted to pass off social cleansing as an opportunity for social mobility.

We believe it is highly doubtful that the new homes created will be for all of those who lived in the area before and it is probable that instead, a substantial proportion will be luxury flats to be sold at a profit by property developers. That these “new” homes are in fact intended for sale is supported by the growing trend of building properties to buy rather than social housing, by the rhetoric of one Conservative MP who talks of having a “mixture of families” in “open terraced houses” and by the general culture of ever worsening attacks on social housing tenants which result in forcing them out of central metropolitan areas. Even those that remain in the hands of the local authorities may be classed as “affordable” homes, which, as they are defined as 80% of the market rent or around £450,000 to buy, are anything but.

Under other housing law proposals, the current government are planning on charging market rent from some social tenants. A complete overhaul of such an estate, however unrealistic, with the aim of attracting more professional tenants and better infrastructure will surely hike these rent prices as well as other living costs. Even if the government plans to re-house these tenants in their former regenerated homes, it is likely to be unaffordable for them to continue residing there, essentially pushing them out of the area. This is not alleviating poverty, it is simply taken it from one area and spreading it out.

If these tenants are not placed back in their former homes, the landlords will still be legally obliged to re-house them in “suitable” alternative accommodation. “Suitable” however often has a very wide meaning and as a result many of these tenants may find themselves forced to accept offers of accommodation miles away from their homes, schools and families, and in much smaller homes that are far more expensive.

Can we believe that the Government’s intentions are anything other than to sell off land for private development when they have pledged a paltry £140m to this plan, which would barely pay for the bulldozers let alone the rebuilding of these estates? This proposal looks more like part of the general drive to reduce social housing to make way for yet even more profit driven building programmes. This will be of no help whatsoever to those living on these so-called “sink estates” who face displacement and the breakup of their communities.

A far better solution would be to pledge the £140 million to improvements, better management and the development of community groups to tackle the problems inherent in some estates. If the government were to invest this £140 million into creating community centres, local education programmes and local business, it would have a far greater impact on alleviating poverty in that area without adding to the already existing homelessness and housing crisis.