Sunday, 15 February 2015

London's Housing Crisis: Professor Loretta Lees - "Stop right-to-buy, stop demolishing council estates"

The Heygate Estate - now demolished - in south London
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2012

Loretta Lees is a Professor of Human Geography at University of Leicester.
Professor Lees specialises in urban regeneration, gentrification, and urban geographies of young people.
Lees is an author of Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London.*
The handbook offers ‘successful tactics and tools used by groups challenging’ council-backed, developer-led ‘regeneration’ and offers ‘alternatives to council estate demolition’.

It’s 11 February 2015 and Professor Lees addresses a gathering of architects and surveyors at City, Country, Suburb?
This event is part of ‘The Future of Housing’ series of talks, organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, hosted by the Geological Society on London’s Piccadilly.
This is what Lees has to say.

“The 21st Century is urban. For the most part, we’re all urban now,” says Professor Lees.
“We’ve all urban mindsets, even those living in the suburbs or rural areas. Some call this ‘planetary urbanisation’ – the complete urbanization of society.

“The traditional divisions of city, country, suburb, urban, suburban and rural are breaking down.
“We’ve got gentrifiers with suburban mindsets living in gentrification frontiers in the cities.
“They’re not the left-liberal gentrifiers of the past.
“But conservative with a small ‘c’ and even with a big ‘C’.”

Professor Loretta Lees, with surveyor James Goff (left)
and architectural writer Owen Hopkins © London Intelligence 2015

“The new-build city centre developments where they live are sold as ‘new urban’ but they’re really suburban in character.
“Urban hipsters hark back to a simpler, even rural way of life, identified through organic food and an environmental conscience.
“They’ve conspicuous thrift in renovating old houses and getting back to basics.
“Stripped wood floors.
“Open plan.
“All the aesthetics that IKEA and Habitat are now mass producing.”

“The suburbs themselves are more urban now.
“As more people have moved into London’s post-war suburbs, bringing gentrification demands with them.
“Good coffee shops.
“Urban parks and playgrounds.”

"Urban food...good coffee shops...Habitat..."
© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence 2010

“Planners and policymakers need to wake up to the breakdown of the old categories of urban, suburban and rural.
“Realistically, the way forward is to rethink cities.
“The Green Belt, I think, should remain.
“We should infill and densify our main cities and protect rural areas.
“Environmentally and economically, this makes good sense in terms of jobs and services.
“But infill and densification needs to be thought about creatively.”

“We can democratise the future of cities.
“If we draw upon the best aspects of the city, suburbs and rural, planning them together.
“We need a nationally efficient high speed transport network like Switzerland that can rebalance the economy between North and South cities.
“We need better, faster local public transit.
“Property values are already jumping around in London, especially those areas close to new rail, tube and even cycle paths.”

“People think in terms of spatial capital – the ability to live in a strategic location to where they work – and this needs to inform where houses are built.
“Such as around transport hubs – for instance, at Colindale in north London.
“Good idea.
“But the downside is that it is often at the expense of council estates and tenants – who are pushed out.”

"Affordable housing is not affordable for the vast majority"
© London Intelligence 2014

Get back
“My view of garden cities is that our big cities are already redeveloped as garden cities – or green cities – that encompass nature.
“But all of this is dependent on planning democratically.
“The core issue of planning theory and practice is fundamentally about the allocation, distribution and alteration of property rights.
“Planning needs to get back to its reformist roots.
“Planners need to start realistic and strategic conversations about the social and economic reform of our cities.”

“All new housing needs to be affordable for the population that needs it.
“As affordable housing is not affordable for the vast majority of people.
“Council housing, or social rented housing, needs to be retained. “Grown and protected.
“We need to stop right-to-buy.
“We need to stop the significant demolition of council estates.
“We need to make sure that if registered social landlords take over council estates that rents don’t through the roof.”

“The state has an obligation to protect us from gentrification.
“The state also has an obligation to house the poor and the less well off.
“And even beyond that, to allow middle class people to have access to social housing, if they so desire.
“The cult of property in the UK needs to be undermined – and not supported.
“Homes are for living in.
“They are not investments.”

“Given the volume of investment in real estate – not just in London – we may yet be in real trouble.
“Because there has been an over-escalation of money invested in what Marxists call ‘the second circuit of capital’ – real estate.
“Many people still say, ‘gentrification is good’.”

“But the academic research evidence over 50 years says ‘no, it isn’t’.
“A February 2015 report by the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth looked at the regeneration and renewal of estates of the kind happening in London.
“It says: ‘Overall the evidence suggests that the measurable economic impacts on local economies, employment, wages and deprivation, are not large and are often zero. In contrast, these
projects have a positive impact on property prices.’”

“So, all the forms of urban regeneration we’re seeing at the moment are actually ‘gentrification’ – and this is a problem.
“We need urban regeneration that is not gentrification.”

Afterwards, Professor Lees is asked, ‘which fundamentally aggravates London’s shortage of genuinely affordable housing – ‘right-to-buy’ or ‘buy-to-let’?’
"Both," replies Lees.

* Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London, London Tenants Federation, Loretta Lees, Just Space, Southwark Notes Archive Group, June 2014, London.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, February 2015

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