The Campaign for St. Raphael’s Estate: Fighting a Social and Environmental Disaster
St. Raphael’s estate is built on land between the North Circular Road and the River Brent in Neasden, North-west London. The housing is a mix of maisonettes in 4-storey blocks, flats in low-rise blocks, bungalows and, in the earlier development to the east, terraced town-houses provide 1,174 homes for over 3,000 people (below). 648 of these homes are for council rent, and 158 are leaseholder properties acquired under the Right to Buy; all 806 properties of these properties are owned and run by Brent Housing Management. In addition, there are 322 privately-owned properties, mostly in the older houses that line the north circular to the east, known locally as the ‘Old Estate’; and a further 19 are homes owned by Network Homes housing association. In addition, the estate has a day nursery and pre-school; a state school for children with special needs aged 4-11; a children’s centre that was previously the residents’ community hall; a charity food bank and kitchen for refugee support and homelessness; gardening allotments and children’s playgrounds; a largely closed-down parade of shops and commercial units; a church and a former police station now used as meeting rooms by the Residents Association. The 27 residential blocks were built between 1967 and 1982, while the terraced housing was completed between 1918 and 1938.
In April 2019 Architects for Social Housing was contacted by residents from St. Raphael’s estate for advice on resisting the demolition and redevelopment of their homes by the Labour-run Brent council. Since ASH is contacted on a regular basis for such help, we suggested residents first view our film, The Costs of Estate Regeneration, which is based on our report of the same name. This is a quick way of introducing residents to what they are facing and how ASH might be able to help them. Residents’ response to the film also gives us an idea of the strength of their campaign and their commitment to fighting the combined power of the council, its private development partners and their contractors, without which any help we can give them is severely limited.
The following July residents booked a hall and screened the film (above), and in August we were happy to receive back a letter signed by 48 residents stating the following:
‘We the undersigned residents of St. Raphael’s estate, have viewed the video by ASH the architects and would like to get them involved with our campaign for infill with development, formerly known as refurbishment. We would like to invite them to come on board and help us explore the option that Brent Council has offered to us, infill with development.’
ASH was on a residency over the summer, but on our return in September we met up with several residents who showed us around St. Raphael’s estate and brought us up to date with their campaign. The following week we followed up with some thoughts based on what residents had told us about the actions and statements of Brent council, what they had sent us of the literature they’d received about the council’s plans, what we had read on the council’s website, and what we had seen of the estate itself.
1. First Letter (17 September 2019)
As we discussed last week, before ASH makes any commitment towards producing design alternatives to demolition that show the benefits of refurbishment, infill development, roof extensions and improved communal facilities, it’s important that your campaign first challenges the grounds on which the council is considering the demolition and redevelopment of St. Raphael’s estate as a possible option, to convince residents of the benefits of which, as you explained, they are currently using all their influence.
In the report, St. Raphael’s Estate: Housing Options Appraisal, presented by Phil Porter, the Strategic Director of Community Well-being to Brent Cabinet on 12 November 2018, it states that the purpose of the proposed regeneration of St. Raphael’s estate (whether refurbishment, infill or demolition and redevelopment) is ‘improving life on the St. Raphael Estate’ (paragraph 1.1.). This is ambiguous, as it doesn’t say whose life will be improved: the current residents or those who will be able to afford the increased rents, service charges and sale prices of the new properties should Brent council demolish and redevelop the estate.
The report goes on to say that the council will support building a ‘thriving, clean, crime-free neighbourhood’, and, depending on which option is taken, ‘build brand new homes that properly meet the needs of families who live on St. Raphael’s’, as well as meeting London’s need for ‘good quality and genuinely affordable housing’ (para 1.2).
I’m not sure what the council means by ‘thriving’, which they have not defined in the report, but you should seek to clarify what this means for yourselves, for instance by demanding the return of your community hall, which is at the heart of any ‘thriving’ community, the return of the estate shops the council appears to have closed down, easy access to which are also a condition of a ‘thriving’ community.
Although the report includes them in the same sentence, cleanliness and crime are not the same thing. If the council is failing to address fly-tipping, for instance, or poor bin collection, they should do so in accordance with their duties as the local authority responsible for doing so. I don’t see what this has to do with a document laying out the grounds for an estate regeneration. If, on the other hand, the bin stores are not meeting their current use, this should be addressed by, for example, having an architectural practice design new bin stores better adjusted to the current needs on the estate. None of this comes within the orbit of a possible estate demolition programme.
As evidence of what it calls ‘the clear and pressing need to tackle deprivation and reduce economic and social polarisation’ on the estate, the following statistics and information are quoted in the report:
- ‘38 per cent of children are living in poverty in St Raphael’s compared with 19 per cent across England’ (para 3.13).
- ‘Personal robbery is a prevalent crime on St. Raphael’s estate, which increased by 107 per cent from last year, compared to an increase of 52 per cent in the rest of the borough’ (para 3.15).
- ‘Also increasing, but to a lesser extent, are assault of wounding/Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH).’
- ‘There is also recorded gang activity on the estate.’
The report goes on to say that the council is working ‘very closely’ with the Metropolitan Police to try and tackle these issues. But then asserts:
- ‘However, the design and nature of the estate is likely to be a contributing factor in these crimes.’ (para 3.15)
The motivations of comparing poverty levels on a London council estate with poverty levels across the rest of England should be apparent enough, but it is a warning of how statistics can be used to support fraudulent arguments. In fact, poverty levels across London are 37 per cent, so St. Raphael’s estate is not exceptional, except perhaps in having a population with lower poverty levels than on most London housing estates.
Similarly, statistics showing increases in crime rate as a percentage say nothing about what crime levels are. In fact, the Deprivation Index online map of 2015 shows crime and anti-social behaviour to be lower on St. Raphael’s estate than the surrounding area to the immediate east. But whatever its levels or increases, this is something to be addressed by the police, and perhaps by local community centres.
You said that there are several nurseries and children’s centres on the estate, but no youth club and no sports facilities. Nowhere in the report is the argument made for the causal connection it asserts between the ‘design and nature’ of St. Raphael’s estate and what crime there is, and until the council commissions a report that clearly demonstrates this connection — one which accounts for the lower crime rate on the estate compared to the surrounding neighbourhood, and takes into account other factors such as the removal of the community hall and the lack of communal facilities such as sports grounds, boxing clubs, youth centres or other places where teenagers and youths might find activities other than crime and ‘gang activity’ — then the council is doing nothing more than trading in negative and unfounded stereotypes about working-class and BAME estate communities that should have no place in considerations about how to ‘improve life’ on St. Raphael’s estate.
Further on in the report, under the heading ‘Housing Need in Brent’, it states:
- ‘There are 12,200 households currently in affordable housing need in Brent.’ (para 4.2)
- ‘Between 2014-2017, only 8 per cent of the 6,074 residential dwellings completed in Brent have been for social rent.’
- ‘The draft London Plan sets Brent a target of 29,150 new homes over the period 2019/20 to 2028/29 of which the Strategic Target for affordable housing is 50 per cent (14,575).’
Given the generous layout of the estate and the building typology of some of its blocks, ‘building brand new homes’ is certainly possible without demolishing what is already there: through infill housing development on land currently underused or which could be better used, and through light-weight timber construction on top of existing housing blocks. This is fairly common these days, and a current example of such a proposal is on the Mile End estate in Tower Hamlets, which will add an additional 142 homes without demolishing a single existing one.
Before the council goes anywhere near proposing a ballot to residents asking them to choose between a demolition and redevelopment option and a refurbishment and infill option, they should pay an architectural practice separate from the one given the brief for the demolition and redevelopment option (or for the masterplan) to produce an option up to feasibility study stage for the refurbishment and infill of the estate, have their proposals costed by an independent quantity surveyor, together with an assessment of its financial viability. Only this will allow residents to compare the benefits of such an option against the costs of demolition and redevelopment, how many new homes each option will produce, and — most importantly — what relative tenure and costs those new homes will be.
As I said in our conversation, under the London Mayor’s policy on ballots for estate residents — the numerous failings and biases of which we have exposed — it is possible for councils to hold ballots before an Investment Partner is found. It is very important that you challenge this orthodoxy and let other residents know why you are, because until an Investment Partner is found residents will be balloted on nothing more than promises that will have absolutely no legal or contractual hold on what will get built should residents choose the demolition option. As it is, although the ballot has subsequently been pushed back to October 2020, the timeline Brent council originally produced for the ‘regeneration’ process (below) makes it clear that the Cabinet will be making the decision ‘whether to move forward with infill or redevelopment’ months before residents get to vote whether or not they agree with them. Residents won’t be balloted, therefore, on the infill option if, as will undoubtedly happen, the Cabinet chooses the demolition and redevelopment option depending, supposedly, on ‘community preference’. But until the ballot is held, how can Brent council possibly claim to know what that preference is?
Since the council has said that one of their motivations for putting St. Raphael’s estate up for regeneration is that it wants to build ‘genuinely affordable housing’, you should hold them to this claim. First of all, ‘genuinely affordable’ is not a tenure or rent type, so this is a deliberately misleading and vague description of so important a motivation. Affordable, as we’ve laid out in our report on The Costs of Estate Regeneration, encompasses and is increasingly compose of Shared Ownership properties that have been shown to be unaffordable to the average Londoner. This category also includes London Living Rent, which is a Buy-to-Let scheme for households earning up to £60,000/year, and London Affordable Rent, which is around 60 per cent higher than social rent. None of this can be described as ‘genuinely affordable housing’, and certainly not to the current residents of St. Raphael’s estate. If Brent council is intent on meeting London’s housing needs, they should start by producing a report on what the housing need is in Brent, and particularly the ward of Stonebridge. Until they do, and until they show how they will be able to meet that housing need by demolishing and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate, they have no basis to their claim.
Neither the council nor their contractors have produced — or at least made available to residents — a financial viability assessment of the costs of demolishing and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate; but our initial rough estimate of just replacing the existing homes is as follows:
Compensation for leaseholders
- 480 leaseholders and freeholders x c. £300,000/home = £144 million
Demolition of existing homes and infrastructure
- 1,174 homes x c. £50,000/home = £58 million
Replacement of existing homes
- 1,174 homes x £320,000/property = £375 million
Total cost of replacing existing estate
- £577 million
This, remember, is before a single additional home has been built. But before Brent council allocates how many of the new properties will be let at some category of ‘affordable rent’ or sold as shared-ownership or market-sale properties, and even before their private Development Partner takes their 20 per cent profit from the rent and sale of those properties, this more than half a billion-pound cost will have to be accounted for. By comparison, the cost of refurbishing the existing homes and estate infrastructure up to the Decent Homes Standard Plus is:
- 1,174 homes x £50,000/home including estate infrastructure = £58 million
The huge costs of compensating, demolishing and developing housing in London’s artificially high property market means that any new development on the land cleared of your homes will have to be overwhelmingly for market sale properties, with the resulting loss of homes for social rent, the majority — if not all — of which will be replaced by affordable housing at best. In reality, though, the decades-long process of demolition and redevelopment is so disruptive to residents that many will take the offer of rehousing elsewhere, either in the borough of Brent or outside, with the resulting breakup of the community. As for the residents without secure council tenancies, or those renting privately from leaseholders, these will have no claim whatsoever to any putative ‘right to return’ the council may extend to secure council tenants. Again, this does not equate to the council’s stated claim of creating a ‘thriving’ community.
Perhaps worst of all, the 408 leaseholders and owners of private property, which makes up over a third of the entire estate, will be offered on average around 25 per cent of the sale price of the replacement market-sale properties in compensation for their demolished homes. This will, at best, compel them to enter into so-called Shared Ownership deals that in reality will reduce them to no more than assured tenants with an option to buy the remaining 75 per cent share on the property. These will be owned not by the council but by a designated housing association that, in common with all estate redevelopments, will be handed the responsibility for the affordable housing component of the new properties. At worst, most of the leaseholders and owners of private properties will be forced to accept the inadequate compensation and move out of London altogether in order to afford a new property, assuming that they are able to get a new mortgage.
The difficulty you face is communicating this information to a sufficient number of residents to form a campaign that can counter the lack of information on which the council will ballot residents about the future of their homes. The best way to do that is to start a campaign to have the community hall returned for your use on evenings and weekends. St. Barnabas, which you said has taken over the hall for use as a nursery, is a children’s charity, so any campaign to have access to the hall outside of nursery times should target their obligation to children. Pointing out the lack of a meeting place for the families and children on the estate to meet, discuss and make a decision about their future is a barrier to any claims the council is making about having a clear mandate from the residents for whatever option they choose. I would suggest setting up a meeting with St. Barnabas, asking for use of the community hall to be returned to you, and informing them that you will be organising a demonstration to protest the taking away of the estate’s community hall and demanding its return.
From our visit I remember there was a newsletter on the noticeboard outside the nursery claiming to be the ‘voice of the estate’. You can identify this and ask what kind of voice do residents have when they can’t speak to each other in a shared space? As I said before, a protest of estate families and households with their children will make the protest harder for Brent council and St. Barnabas to dismiss as ‘a few troublemakers’, as they will undoubtedly try to do. It will also make for good images and press, and you should take as many photographs and as much footage as you can of children holding signs and banners asking St. Barnabas to ‘Give us back our community hall’, etc. And you should contact the local gazette to inform them of the protest and ask them to send a reporter down.
In its Equality Analysis, the council’s Estates Regeneration Team has emphasised that there is a higher than average number of children living on the estate — as if this were some sort of reason to demolish their homes — and that a higher than average number of them are living in poverty. Reducing the housing costs of their households, therefore, should be of paramount concern. There are a larger than usual number of community facilities on the estate, including nurseries, a children’s centre, a pre-school, a school, a charity and a church. I understand, as you said, that a lot of these facilities are worried about losing their lease by opposing the council, but you should still ask for their support for your campaign.
When, in September 2016, leaseholders on the Aylesbury estate in Camberwell opposed the demolition of their homes and the Secretary of State, to everyone’s surprise, briefly upheld their opposition on the grounds that it infringed upon their human rights, one of the grounds he cited was that, under the Equalities Act 2010, the inability of leaseholders to afford to return to the new properties on the redeveloped estate discriminated against them according to their ethnicity (BAME residents would be forced to move away from their ethnic community), and their age (elderly residents would be unable to get the new mortgage required to afford the increased prices, and children forced away from their schools would suffer a negative impact on their education). It might be useful for you to demand an impact assessment into the effect moving estate children away from their schools and friends and support networks will have on their development. In other words, what the council is trying to turn into a negative about your community you should use to challenge the basis of their arguments for demolishing it.
Having challenged these bases — and I will write some more about this later and send it to you — it’s important that in the report from the Strategic Director of Community Well-being the survey of the condition of the housing stock on St. Raphael’s estate conducted in August-September 2018 produced the following findings:
- The findings of the survey reveal the properties to be ‘in a reasonable state of repair’ (para 3.5).
- The previous spend on responsive repairs for the last 5 years is an average of £624 per property, per annum (para 3.6).
- The 30-year spend profile shows a total of £32.7 million investment is likely to be required for the 806 council properties (tenants and leaseholders).
- The level of investment required per property (£1,353 per annum) is considered to be ‘in line with expectations with respect to an estate that is maintained and meets the Decent Homes Standard’.
- No major investments are required in the next 5 years.
- Beyond this, however, more investment is required, particularly from years 11 to 30, when asset replacements would be due as they ‘end their life-cycle’.
To clarify, £624 per annum over the past 5 years is a tiny expenditure by the council on the maintenance of your homes, and any degradation in their existing state will be down to this relative neglect to maintain them. The anticipated annual spend per annum of £1,353 per home over the next 30 years is also low, and I imagine less than residents’ current service charges, certainly when spread between tenants and leaseholders. Finally, the bulk of this investment is anticipated to come between 2029 and 2048, as parts of the estate require ‘replacement’. Importantly, they attribute this to the estate’s assets reaching the ‘end [of] their life cycle’.
It’s very important that residents understand what this quoted phrase does and doesn’t mean. As you told us in conversation, Karakusevic Carson Architects, who have been brought in by Brent council to draw up a masterplan for the redevelopment of the estate, have told you that your homes have ‘come to the end of their natural life span’. This is something that residents are told again and again by consultants paid by councils and housing associations to justify the demolition and redevelopment of their homes. But while it’s true that certain elements of your homes — such as windows or water pipes or roofing or kitchens — might have come to the end of their ‘design life’, this does not mean that the homes of which they are a part are ‘at the end of their natural life span’ and must therefore be demolished. This false argument is something that you’ll need to be able to refute when used by Brent council in order to convince residents to vote for the demolition of their homes, so we’ve thought it necessary to include this detailed explanation.
The description of council estates as being ‘at the end of their natural life span’ is a phrase we hear used all the time from architects and politicians to support their decision to demolish estates across London, such as the Heygate, Aylesbury, Central Hill, etc. Spoken by an accredited expert to a non-expert resident, the resident often feels compelled to trust the voice of the consultant, believing in the independence, or at least the professional duty of care, that they rightly believe the architect owes to the resident above and beyond the architect’s contract with the client and their employer.
Residents on estates in the process of being ‘regenerated’ (i.e. demolished) are put through a large number of extremely stressful experiences. Unfounded stereotypes are quoted as fact, specifically around the supposed relationship between the architecture of the estate and crime and anti-social behaviour, the isolation of the estate from the surrounding neighbourhood, and the claim that residents’ homes have ‘reached the end of their natural life span.’ The proposed solution to these supposed failings in the architecture and/or build quality of an estate is the cynical proposal to demolish residents’ homes.
However, the argument that all the council estates built between 1950 and 1980 have come to the end of their ‘natural life’ is at best naive, and at worst dishonest and opportunistic. There is, in fact, such a thing as a ‘design life’ to a building, which lenders, insurers and owners call on when they lend, insure or borrow against a certain project. This determines how long someone can safely assume that a given building, bridge or school will last, in order to ensure that it is mortgageable. The 60-year design life of a building that is repeatedly quoted by architects and councillors intent on demolishing an estate was and is used to determine repayments against debt raised for the construction. This is, in fact, why most of the estates built in the 1960s will now have paid off their 60-year loans, and are now making money for the councils.
However, just because parts of a building have a design life of 5, 10 or 20 years (their roofs, windows, kitchens, etc.), this does not mean that the whole estate has ‘come to the end of its natural lifespan’ and must be torn down. In the current era, when architects are lining up to put their name to another declaration against climate change, the fundamental understanding of the ‘life’ of a building needs to change in ways that won’t be good for the accounting or marketing department of an architectural practice. And therein lies a problem. How can an architect be ‘independent’ when such advice would conflict with the hugely increased profits they will make from a billion-pound demolition and redevelopment scheme such as that proposed for St. Raphael’s compared to a hundred million-pound refurbishment and infill option? How can an architect be said to be ‘independent’, when recommending refurbishment contradicts the wishes of their client — in this case Brent council — to demolish an estate and redevelop it at greater densities and with a greater percentage of higher value properties that will increase the value of the land and that of the surrounding neighbourhoods?
The obvious response to an architects’ assertion that residents’ homes have ‘passed their use-by date’ and are ‘no longer fit-for-purpose’ is to ask that architect: ‘How old is the house you live in?’ The chances are it is at least as old as the estate they are arguing must be demolished, and probably much older. According to an English Housing Survey stock report conducted in 2008, 80 per cent of our housing stock was built before 1980, and 60 per cent before 1964. Does this mean we should recommend the demolition of all our Victorian terraces and Georgian squares? Of course not.
In our experience — and in the experience of the genuinely independent surveyors and structural engineers with whom ASH has worked — the majority of buildings built in the 1960s to 1970s are of a better build quality, and will have a longer ‘design life’, than those being built today. On all the estates with which we have worked — including Knight’s Walk, Cressingham Gardens, Central Hill, West Kensington and Gibbs Green and Northwold estates — the assessments of structural engineers and surveyors have been that the structure is in good working order, and not in need of demolition. It’s not surprising that this is also the case with St. Raphael’s estate. Many individual buildings, or components of buildings, may be in need of significant refurbishment, but this should be part of the ongoing maintenance of the estate, and paid for by residents’ rent and service charges. As part of an environmentally sustainable architectural practice, a local authority’s sustainable urban strategy, or a landlord’s sustainable approach to asset management, refurbishment and infill must be the default option to the maintaining of our social housing stock.
Given which, the wilful mis-use of phrases such as ‘past their natural life span’ and ‘no longer fit for purpose’ by architectural practices to describe homes that can and should be refurbished and maintained is disingenuous at best, and more obviously deliberately misleading, in bad faith, professionally dishonest, abusing their duty of care to those they are advising, acting against the best interests of the users of their services, and putting the commercial interests of their own companies above the best interests of the resident community.
This should be enough to be going on with. I’ll write later about the council’s argument about overcrowding and how we can address this. As discussed, we may be able to work up a design alternative to demolition for part of St. Raphael’s estate, such as the area around the shops, as an example of what can be achieved through refurbishment, infill, roof extensions and additional community amenities. However, alternative proposals on their own will achieve nothing, and as a Community Interest Company with no public funding ASH has to prioritise how much time we can devote to individual campaigns. Design work takes a lot of time, and we can only make a commitment to do such work once you have built up a strong campaign with the backing of a sufficient number of residents with the commitment to force the council to listen to its demands. I hope you’ll stay in touch and keep us abreast of what you are doing and what successes you have had.
As we said last week, we’re more than happy to come and talk to your campaign members and other residents, hopefully in your community hall when you’ve regained access to it. And in the meantime, we will continue to give you any advice we can, to answer any questions you have as much as we can, and to send you as many links to articles and reports that will refute the false claims of the council and their consultants.
2. Second Letter (25 September 2019)
Here is to the link I mentioned to the 2015 Deprivation Index. ASH uses this source all the time to check the government facts about crime and anti-social behaviour on estates we work with — facts which consistently contradict what the councils wanting to demolish their homes tell residents. I’m also attaching screenshots I made for different forms of deprivation. As you can see, on this first map (below), crime is in fact lower on the southern half of St Raphael’s estate than the surrounding area to the east, and no higher in the northern half than the area to the north and east. So the causal link the council is trying to make between the estate and crime does not exist.
The council’s report also tries to make an argument about the low-income levels of residents, as if the estate is not only attracting but somehow creating poverty. In fact (below) the entire St. Raphael’s estate has on average a higher income than the surrounding area to the north, east and south.
The council also tries to link the estate to child poverty and deprivation; but once again (below) this is lower on the estate than the surrounding area to the north, east and south. The immediate cause of this, one would suspect, are the lower housing costs for residents living in council housing rather than trying to pay London’s rising private rental rates. So far from being a reason to demolish the estate, these figures are a reason to retain it, given that the redevelopment will inflict far higher rents, service charges, mortgages and house prices on residents.
Finally, St. Raphael’s estate provides a considerably higher living environment (below) than the surrounding neighbourhood to the east, and is comparable to the wealthier neighbourhood across the canal to the west, which in other respects has outperformed it on poverty and crime. Once again, this shows that even lower income levels can be offset by lower housing costs in council housing. And, also, that living as part of an estate community can raise the quality of the living environment above its income level.
It’s very important that you use these statistics, which come from government-collected data, to refute the unfounded stereotypes quoted by Brent council as reasons to demolish your homes. It’s particularly important for your campaign, because we’ve found that — unfortunately, since they are repeated in every TV show, news item and newspaper report — residents begin to believe these lies about their own community.
3. Third Letter (27 September 2019)
A PhD student working with ASH on this projects has just informed me that the updated 2019 Deprivation Index online map has recently been published, so I thought I’d update you on what she’s found. Below are screengrabs of the map focused on St. Raphael’s estate, and as you can see: on crime, on multiple deprivation, and on the living environment, the estate in 2019 (on the left) has actually improved since 2015 (on the right), further refuting the lies Brent council is telling you. Far from being a ‘sink estate’, St. Raphael’s is improving as a place to live, with reduced crime rates, lower deprivation and an improved living environment.
Another thing that has come to light is that, if residents want to know the kind of residential properties that will be built on their demolished council estate, there’s a new developer in Wembley called Tipi, and their website page on Wembley Park shows the kind of properties the developers on the St. Raphael’s site will be advertising. With the fall in the London market for market-sale properties, upmarket private rentals are emerging as the new tenure type. It’s clear that land running alongside Brent River with a view of the new Wembley arena and walking access to a tube line into Central London has enormous financial potential for Brent council, but not when a council estate is built on it.
Finally, someone sent me this video (above) by George Mpanga, better known by his stage name of George the Poet, who grew up on St. Raphael’s estate and now sits on the board of the Arts Council. The video is sponsored by Brent Council, and gives space for council officers and Karakusevic Carson architects to spread misinformation about the motivations for redeveloping the estate. Among Mpanga’s more misleading comments are:
— ‘Change is one of life’s guarantees.’
— ‘Full redevelopment of the estate is an opportunity to design out crime.’
— ‘London has a housing shortage. That’s partly why the council wants to build. They can’t leave the land’s potential unfulfilled.’
To state the obvious, change may be a fact of life, but that doesn’t justify socially cleansing estate residents from their homes under the guise of ‘regeneration’, as has happened on the Ferrier, Heygate, Woodberry Down, West Hendon and the more than 200 other London estates demolished, privatised or socially cleansed in order to gain access to the land they’re built on. Neither Brent council nor any other local authority in London has made the argument that the ‘design’ of council estates creates crime, which as we have seen is lower on St. Raphael’s than the surrounding area. And London — which has over 22,500 long-term vacant residential properties currently standing empty — doesn’t have a housing shortage; it has a shortage of homes for social rent, the most in-demand tenure type, which is not what Brent council is even promising to build. The potential the council and their development partners see in St. Raphael’s is not more homes for social rent but the market-sale, shared ownership and private rental properties that will increase the value of the land your homes are built on.
I imagine the council have employed George Mpanga because of his potential to appeal to the 46 per cent of the estate residents that are black; but this video is a very dangerous bit of propaganda and part of the campaign to convince residents to vote for the demolition of their own homes. Unfortunately, despite growing up on one, Mpanga has a history of promoting estate demolition, having presented a BBC Inside Out programme on The Death of the Council House in September 2018 that was full of misinformation about the results of redevelopment on other estates such as the Aylesbury, where 778 homes for social rent are set to be lost. I wrote about the consequences for residents of estate demolition together with a link to the ASH report in the comments section of this video, but my comments were removed, presumably by Mpanga, which doesn’t accord with his declared wish to defend the interests of residents. You should think about countering this video promoting the demolition of St. Raphael’s, and maybe even producing your own video with some facts about the estate and the social, environmental and economic costs of demolishing it.
Finally, we have been told that Karakusevic Carson Architects is organising tours to take residents around the Colville estate redevelopment in Hackney. Since residents of the single block of social housing that has been built have been told to vacate their homes as they are not safe, that’s kind of incredible, but I imagine they won’t be taking you around that building. Before you go, it might be a good idea to read about this scheme and its many failings.
4. Resident Petition (October 2019)
In October 2019, despite the propaganda campaign promoting demolition, the residents’ campaign to save St. Raphael’s estate launched a petition, online and in paper form (below). This stated:
‘We the residents of St. Raphael’s Estate do not want redevelopment. We want refurbishment with the clause that we are in control of how this is done. We need to protect our homes and open space. We need to preserve it for our children and the generations to come.
‘If our estate undergoes redevelopment we will lose our community, pay higher rents, have a private housing association as our landlord, short and unsecure tenancies, higher water rates, and lose our green space.
‘Although St. Raphael’s estate is portrayed as an unpleasant place, this is wrong. There is a strong, united community here which does not want to be separated from their families, stripped of the place they have called home for so long, moved away from neighbours, friends and family, simply because it’s profitable to the investors who are leading us into an uncertain future.’
At the time of writing the online petition had collected 269 signatures. This is considerably more than the 146 residents from 128 households that have attended the various consultation events held by Karakusevic Carson Architects, and shows the strength of opposition to the council’s plans.
5. ASH Design Proposal
In October a PhD student working with ASH started identifying and drawing up the 7 different building types on the estate. That same month, at the invitation of Murray Fraser, Professor of Architecture and Global Culture and Vice-Dean of Research at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, who had invited ASH to contribute to a housing design research workshop, we presented our proposals for a design case study of a part of St. Raphael’s estate (below). This case study would explore and demonstrate the possibilities of refurbishment of existing homes, infill development and roof extensions, and improvements to community facilities that would address the perceived problems on the estate, increase its housing capacity to meet housing need rather than developer profit, and avoid the disastrous consequences for existing residents of demolishing and redeveloping their homes as a mix of market sale, shared ownership and unaffordable rental tenancies.
One of the more ridiculous of Brent council’s claims is that St. Rapahel’s estate lacks facilities; yet it is the council that has closed down the shops on the parade at the centre of the estate (below), and handed over its former community hall to St. Barnabas, depriving residents of a place to meet. Since this is standard practice by councils prior to implementing an estate demolition scheme, it’s hard not to see in this a cynical and so-far successful attempt to stop residents organising opposition to the council’s plans. And yet the same council has the nerve to accuse young residents of ‘anti-social behaviour’. In actuality, anti-social behaviour is merely social behaviour in the wrong place, and ASH will explore how to reinstate and improve the facilities and amenities, both commercial and communal, in which residents of all ages can engage in ‘sociable’ behaviour without facing fabricated criticism from the council.
ASH’s proposal was well received by the architects present at this meeting, which included Peter Barber, who is one of the few architects to have built social housing in London. At a subsequent meeting with the Vice-Dean in December, Professor Fraser committed several architects from the Bartlett School of Architecture to work with ASH on developing this option. There is also the potential for engineers from the Bartlett School of the Environment, Energy and Resources to work with ASH in producing an impact assessment of the enormous carbon cost of demolishing, disposing of and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate, against the environmental benefits of refurbishing the existing homes. This is something ASH previously commissioned Model Environments to produce on Central Hill estate, and which neither Brent council nor Karakusevic Carson Architects, with all their resources, has seen fit to produce in their eagerness to gain access to the land residents homes are built on.
6. Brent Council Changes its Plans (9 December 2019)
At the end of the year Brent council announced that it had revised its plans for St. Raphael’s estate. Instead of demolishing the entire estate according to the phased plan (below) sent to residents and passed on to us, they are now only proposing to demolish the western part of the estate (area A).
In our estimation there are several reasons for this change of plan:
- Areas B and C are made up of the terraced housing built considerably earlier than the housing blocks in area A, and most are privately owned. 204 of the 322 privately-owned properties on the estate and 24 of the leaseholder properties are located in areas B and C, which contain only 126 council-tenanted homes. By leaving these out of the so-called ‘regeneration’ of St. Raphael’s estate the huge cost of compensating owners for their demolished properties is removed.
- At the same time, by removing this large proportion of home-owners from the ballot, the decision to demolish the estate will be overwhelmingly be taken by council tenants, who make up 522 of the 793 households in area A, compared to the 134 leaseholders and 118 private owners. The totally inadequate compensation councils offer home-owners for their demolished homes typically inspires them to be at the forefront of resistance to the council’s plans, while council tenants are more disposed to believe the council’s empty promises to rehouse them in brand new properties which, miraculously, will be for same rental rates and service charges.
- The noise and pollution from the North Circular Road is the major failing in this site, and the biggest barrier to the prices of the market-sale properties the council plans to build on the redevelopment. By leaving the part of the estate lining this very busy road untouched that threat to the value uplift in the site is removed. By the same token, the sought-after land to the west, which runs down to the very attractive Brent River, borders the more affluent neighbourhood on the other side, and has those sought-after views of the new Wembley Stadium, is now the exclusive concern of the council. This is where developers will be able to charge the prices they will need to recoup the costs of demolition, compensation and redevelopment, which in turn have been reduced by this smaller area occupied primarily by council-tenanted homes.
This late change in Brent council’s proposal should make their real motivations transparent to everyone; but residents told that the council wants to ‘design out crime’ from the estate have the right to ask how that will apply to areas B and C. Although crime rates, as we have shown, are falling on St. Raphael’s, they are relatively higher in the areas of the estate Brent council now plans to leave alone, as is the level of income deprivation (below). How does this match with the council’s declared desire for ‘improving life on St. Raphael’s estate’ by demolishing residents’ homes? Or did they just mean the lives of residents on the potentially more lucrative land the council was always after?
And although, as we have seen, the housing on St. Raphael’s estate is in good condition, and the only refurbishment anticipated will be required in another 10 years at the earliest, wouldn’t that replacement of elements of the housing ‘come to the end of its lifespan’ be expected to be required in the older housing in areas B and C, rather than the far more recently completed buildings in area A?
What this change of plan reveals is the real motivation for Brent council’s cynical plans, which is not to improve the living conditions of the residents of St. Raphael’s estate, but to move them off the land on which the council, its private development partners and its architectural contractors intend to build as high-value residential property as the value uplift in the land will allow.
Surprisingly — for this information is usually never made public — in December Brent council published its preliminary Financial Viability Appraisals (FVA) of the three areas, A, B and C, and these make blatantly clear the motivations for demolishing and redeveloping St. Raphael’s estate. The estimated costs of compulsorily purchasing the 139 privately-owned properties in area C is £65.4 million, resulting in a FVA gap or shortfall of £67.4 million. Similarly, the cost of compulsorily purchasing the 115 privately-owned properties in area B is £53.6 million, resulting in a FVA gap of £53 million. For both areas, Brent council writes:
‘Uplift in sales values are not considered achievable across the whole area given the impact of the North Circular Road.’
For both areas, therefore, Brent council concludes that the scheme is ‘financially unviable’. Nothing here is said about the social concerns the council apparently had for the residents of the estate. Area A, however, is different. Although the costs of compulsorily purchasing the 225 privately-owned properties here is £78.5 million, which is considerably more than in areas B and C, the FVA gap is only £22 million. Why? The answer is simple, and Brent council spell it out loud and clear:
‘The positive impact of a redevelopment scheme of this scale, with a waterfront location, should attract uplift sales values of up to £7,500 [to £7,750] per square metre, as evidenced elsewhere in the borough.’
Only high-value market-sale properties, in other words, will offset the huge costs of demolition, compensation and redevelopment, sufficient to make even this smaller redevelopment scheme in area A financially viable. This includes what this document clarifies is developer profit of 20 per cent of total development value for private and 6 per cent affordable housing. We should clarify that this means 20 per cent profit to the developer, in addition to the actual costs of development in salaries.
Although Brent council hasn’t given a breakdown of the number of residential properties and tenure types on which their Financial Viability Assessments have been made, when they state in this document that the tenure split on the new development will be ‘50% social/affordable 50% private’, residents should expect that the majority of the so-called ‘affordable’ housing will be shared-ownership properties — as is in fact the norm on estate redevelopment schemes — the remainder a mix of rent-to-buy properties and so-called ‘affordable’ rent, and a tiny proportion, if any, homes for social rent. According to figures released by the office of the Mayor of London, of the 31,851 residential units completed in London in 2017-18, 27,148 — 85 per cent of the total — were for market sale or rent; 2,839 were intermediate, meaning shared ownership or equity; 1,431 were for affordable rent, meaning up to 80 per cent of market rate; and a mere 433 — 1.36 per cent of the total — were for social rent. Residents of St. Raphael’s estate should expect similar percentages if they vote for the demolition and redevelopment of their homes.
Brent council has stated that the highest demand for housing in the borough is for ‘two- and three-bedroom houses’ (paragraph 4.5). And since the average size of a 2-bedroom flat in the UK is 70 square metres, at the lower range of the sale price on which its Financial Viability Assessments have been made, that’s at least £525,000 the developer will be asking for a market-sale property on the redeveloped St. Raphael’s estate, and far more, £675,000, for a 3-bedroom property. Yet in its report on housing need in the borough, the council has also stated (paragraph 4.7):
‘The fundamental point is that there is not enough social housing, and the housing which is available in the private sector is becoming more expensive and unaffordable to many people.’
This contradiction raises questions residents should ask themselves as well as Brent council:
- How do half-a-million pound-plus properties on a ‘waterfront location’ meet housing need in the London Borough of Brent, where the average income is £23,000 per annum?
- Where will the 522 council-tenanted households who currently live in area A of St. Raphael’s estate be rehoused and at what rental level and tenure type?
- At compensation rates cited by the council at £210,000 for a 1-bedroom flat, £265,000 for a 2-bedroom flat and £320,000 for a 3-bedroom flat, how will the 134 leaseholders and 118 home-owners in area A be able to afford market-sale and shared ownership properties selling between £7,500 and £7,750 per square metre?
- How is this blatant land grab and social cleansing of a community supposed to improve the life of the residents of St. Raphael’s estate?
This February, 2020, ASH is meeting with residents to discuss how to oppose these plans and save St. Raphael’s estate from what, if they go ahead, will be a social and environmental disaster for the community, their neighbours and the London Borough of Brent. Please join us.
Architects for Social Housing