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Carpenters Estate - Is it viable or not?

Newham Council has handled the current Carpenters Estate protest shockingly badly. Issuing a press release describing the protesting mothers as "agitators and hangers-on" is just idiotically bad handling.

BUT they have also described Carpenters Estate as not "viable", and many commentators (such as Zoe Williams, Russell Brand) have lampooned them for it. After all, they can see the protesting mothers occupying a perfectly decent-looking little home. How can it be not "viable"?

Are they judging viability compared against the market rate for selling off the land? That's what Zoe Williams says, and that's what I assumed too from some conversations. But that's not it at all.

Newham's current problem with the Carpenters Estate is basically caused by the two different types of housing stock on the estate:

  • They have some tall old tower blocks which housed many hundreds of people, but they can't renovate them to a basic decent standard - the council can't afford to do it themselves and the leaseholders couldn't afford to shoulder the costs. (In council reports it's been calculated that the renovation cost per flat would cost more than the value of the flat itself - which means that the private leaseholders totally wouldn't be able to get a mortgage for the renovations.)
  • All the little two-storey houses next to the tower blocks are basically viable, at least in the sense that they should be easy to refurbish. However, they can't just leave people in those houses if they intend to demolish the tower blocks. I'm no expert in demolition but I assume it'd be impossible to demolish the 23-storey block next door while keeping the surrounding houses safe, and that's why Doran Walk is also slated for demolition.

So "not viable" means they can't find any way to refurbish those tower blocks to basic living standards - especially not in the face of the Tory cuts to council budgets - and that affects the whole estate as well as just the tower blocks. This appears to be the fundamental reason they're "decanting" people, in order to demolish and redevelop the whole place. (Discussed eg in minutes from 2012.) It's also the reason they have a big PR problem right now, because those two-storey houses appear "viable" and perfectly decent homes, yet they do indeed have a reason to get everyone out of them!

After the UCL plan for Carpenters Estate fell through it's understandable that they're still casting around for development plans, and we might charitably assume the development plans would be required to include plenty of social housing and affordable housing. You can see from the council minutes that they do take this stuff seriously when they approve/reject plans.

(Could the council simply build a whole new estate there, develop a plan itself, without casting around for partners? Well yes, it's what councils used to do before the 1980s. It's not their habit these days, and there may be financial constraints that make it implausible, but in principle I guess it must be an option. Either way, that doesn't really affect the question of viability, which is about the current un-demolished estate.)

But the lack of a plan has meant that there's no obvious "story" of what's supposed to be happening with the estate, which just leaves space for people to draw their own conclusions. I don't think anyone's deliberately misrepresenting what the council means when they talk about viability. I think the council failed badly in some of its early communication, and that led to misunderstandings that fed too easily into a narrative of bureaucratic excuses.

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