Wednesday, 31 May 2017

'Never demolish' : Frédéric Druot, Tour Bois-le-Prêtre and the Art of Refurbishment

Frédéric Druot, on Tour Bois-le-Prêtre at RIBA © London Intelligence 2017
By Paul Coleman

“Never demolish,” admonishes Frédéric Druot. “It’s stupid to demolish. Demolition never speaks about the people who live inside.”
Renovators lionise architect Frédéric Druot as a king of ‘retrofit’ – the rescue and reuse of public housing.
But developers tend to prefer to demolish such public housing, denigrating it as obsolete and outmoded. Hence, the demolishers dismiss and even demonise Druot.

Never demolish
Druot looks a little refurbished himself, smartly but not sharply garbed, casually clad in a sports jacket and jeans. Speaking in zippy-zappy clipped vowel English, Druot peppers his drole speech with wry irony. He charms a 500-strong audience gathered inside the imposing central London HQ of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
“It is incredible, I know, but in France, people actually live in buildings,” quips Druot with a Gallic shrug.
Cue generous applause from the assembled architects. Not a soul seeks to dismantle Druot’s ‘never demolish’ central tenet during the Q&A session that follows his speech. Such reluctance seems surprising - given that a corporate array of architects, developers and politicians are collaborating to demolish more public housing in London than in any other city on Earth.
Tour Bois-le-Prêtre
Druot enlightens his RIBA audience about Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, a wholly refurbished 1960s public housing complex in Paris that stands in stark contrast to London council tenants and leaseholders who live in a forest of London council estates now threatened with, or actually undergoing, developer-led demolition and redevelopment. The transformation by refurbishment story of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, a 16-storey block in the 17th arrondissement of outskirts Paris, enshrines Druot’s ‘never demolish’ mantra.
Back in the 1960s, the fashionable idea of ‘streets in the sky’, inspired by Le Corbusier, seduces Raymond Lopez, Tour Bois-le-Prêtre’s original architect. Lopez designs 96 apartments inside a 50-metre high tower. But, for a variety of reasons, including political indifference, Tour Bois-le-Prêtre residents endure their estate’s later decay and neglect during the late 1970s and 80s.
Coloured panels promise to rescue residents from this decay in the 1990s, altering the block’s original façade in order to improve insulation. But the panels – and the installation of smaller windows - severely reduce natural light entering each apartment. Residents say they begin to feel claustrophobic.
"The little boy and girl could not see out of the window," says Druot.

Inside out
Tour Bois-le-Prêtre again deteriorates further in the late 1990s, falling below 21st century building standards. Residents desperately need the block to undergo repair and modernisation. Some Parisians movers and shakers even call for the entire block to be demolished - a similar knee-jerk reaction similar to that acted upon by many London urban planners and politicians dithering over the deteriorating physical fabric of the city’s council estates.
But, in 2005, Paris Habitat, the Paris Office for Public Housing, decides to run an architectural competition to renovate Tour Bois-le-Prêtre - on condition that any renovation must not exceed the building’s existing footprint. Frédéric Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal’s winning proposal hinges on, what Druot calls, “working from the inside out”. The idea of ‘inside out’ is to give residents the improvements they crave - more space, greater natural light, better ventilation and grander views of Paris.
Druot, Lacaton and Vassal’s renovation removes the façade of each apartment and bolts on self-supporting glass-clad balconies. Akin to a conservatory, each ‘winter garden’, measuring 7.5 by 3 metres, gives residents in every apartment a welcome flood of natural light. These ‘bolt-ons’ increase space and warmth and reduce energy costs. The glazed balconies offer residents spectacularly enhanced views of Paris.
The ground floor is also renovated and two new lifts fitted. Even better, another four apartments are added to the original 96 - but without changing Tour Bois-le-Prêtre’s original structure.

Existing residents
The fact that this refurbishment finally costs just €11.2 million generates much comment in France, especially as Tour Bois-le-Prêtre’s demolition and redevelopment would have cost, at least, an estimated €20m.
These cost savings also raise the eyebrows of RIBA’s architectural crowd - and ought to actively interest London councillors and planners. But what really engages people in France is just how closely Druot, Lacaton and Vassal work with Tour Bois-le-Prêtre’s existing residents. Residents stay in the tower block during the refurbishment instead of being temporarily rehoused elsewhere, thanks to the use of prefabricated new elements.
After the renovation completes, life returns to normal, even to the extent that some residents still complain about maintenance issues and security worries. Of course, renovation does not solve persistent problems of poverty and anti-social behaviour in the surrounding neighbourhood. The refurbishment also seems to have taken an inordinately long time to come to fruition; even refurbishment seems it must suffer from the warp that is ‘Housing Time’.
Even so, the overall result is that Druot and colleagues design and deliver a stunning transformation of Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, a building some thought irreparable and condemned by others as ripe for demolition. As Druot explains to his RIBA audience, social housing tenants now enjoy nigh new homes delivered by an innovative ‘inside out’ renovation that “put existing residents first”.

There’s another measure of the quality of the Druot-Lacaton-Vassal renovation. If a block looking like the made-over Tour Bois-le-Prêtre came on to London’s housing market, up-market real estate agents, speculative overseas property investors and ‘ultra high net worth individuals’ would be all over it like a profit-seeking rash.
But, more importantly, Tour Bois-le-Prêtre also offers potential as a  refurbishment model, an alternative for a plethora of London council estates now facing ‘regeneration’ via costly and socially destructive demolition and redevelopment schemes.
Council estates where tenants and leaseholders still call for refurbishment include Robin Hood Gardens, West Hendon, Grahame Park, Cressingham Gardens, Central Hill, Knight’s Walk, West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Northwold, and King’s Crescent.  According to housing activists, those estates represent just the more visible swathes of a forest of some 100 London council estates facing a developer-led demolition and redevelopment model of ‘regeneration’. Many, like the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark, look set to be demolished and replaced with a predominant element of private luxury housing, similar to Woodberry Down in Hackney. 

Heygate to Haringey
Others could go the way of the Heygate Estate where developer Lend Lease has demolished over 1,200 council homes, a ‘regeneration’ commanded and sanctioned by New Labour politicians at the helm of Southwark Council. Less than 80 ‘social rent’ homes are being built as a paltry and token replacement for the seismic local loss of public housing at the Heygate.
Many of the Heygate’s 3,000 displaced and dispossessed residents have been dispersed to other parts of Southwark and across London – and some are compelled to live in other parts of the country. International property investors, especially from South Asia, are widely reported to have enjoyed a two-year head start over domestic buyers to buy the new luxury replacement homes. Southwark Council’s New Labour-styled leadership stands accused of selling off public land and selling out local residents’ homes so global developer Lend Lease can make profits from international investors. Local people talk of a ‘revolving door’ between people working for Southwark Council and Lend Lease.
Southwark Council leader Peter John describes the fate of the Heygate as ‘regeneration’. Many Southwark residents call it an act of class war, a clear form of ‘social cleansing’.
As for Lend Lease, it now looks to drive a similar regeneration vehicle towards council estates in north London, like Broadwater Farm. Lend Lease hopes to seal a wide-ranging ‘regeneration’ deal with another clan of New Labour-styled politicians in the north London borough of Haringey, sometime soon after the General Election.

Tour Bois-le-Robin Hood
Hence, In this highly politicised 2017 moment - post-Brexit and at the height of a fiercely fought General Election campaign - few of these London council estates look likely to be rescued from the developer-led demolition and redevelopment approach to regeneration that dominates London in the 21st century.
These multi-million, and in some cases, multi-billion pound ‘regeneration’ schemes, some hauling themselves through 20 years of phased demolition and construction, threaten existing residents – mainly working Londoners on average and lower incomes - with dispossession of their homes and displacement from their neighbourhoods.
For instance, elected politicians at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets have granted residential developer and housing association Swan Housing consent to demolish 214 homes at Robin Hood Gardens, an estate completed in 1972 and a prime example of Utopian-style Brutalist housing. Many residents actually want redevelopment but also want to be allowed to return as secure council tenants, rather than as fixed-term housing association tenants on a new development with a vastly increased density of households and a reduced proportion of subsidised ‘social rented’ homes for people in their income bracket.

Swan says the overall scheme will see 1,575 homes built over a ten-year phased construction programme. The redevelopment will include 700 ‘affordable homes’ of which 80% will be for ‘social rent’, roughly equivalent in price to a council rent. But tenants worry that these ‘social rents’ might rise to unaffordable levels on the back of fixed and insecure tenancies. The exact price and type of ‘affordable homes’ to be provided also remains shrouded in mystery – fuelling further antipathy to the Orwellian London ‘affordable housing’ concept where many such homes are unaffordable to Londoners on average and lower incomes.
By some accounts, the defeat of a campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens is all over bar the shouting. An attempt to protect Robin Hood Gardens by securing its listed status failed. Richard Rogers, architect of the Pompidou arts centre in Paris, the controversial One Hyde Park, and London Heathrow Terminal 5 – and not renowned as a staunch advocate of council housing - believes that Robin Hood Gardens is of “outstanding architectural quality” that offers “generously sized flats that could be refurbished”.

Refurbishment, therefore, seems ‘old chapeau’, despite Druot’s ‘never demolish’ refrain  - and for some London council estates refurbishment might not always be the best option. But London council estate residents should be given refurbishment options if there is a chance they could succeed - and residents should automatically be given the chance to have their say on refurbishment versus demolition options through estate-wide ballots, a natural exercise and extension of local democracy.
As Druot says: “If you don’t believe me, take a look at Tour Bois-le-Prêtre. The little boy and girl can now see out of the window." 

For more information:
Tour Bois-le-Prêtre

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017

General Election 2017: Liberal Democrat housing pledges

© London Intelligence 2017

Below is a raw first taste of the housing pledges in the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the General Election on 8 June 2017. 

The Liberal Democrats will aim to build 300,000 new homes a year – to double the current level. Government would commission the building of homes for sale and rent. Developers would be stopped from advertising homes abroad before advertised in the UK.

A Rent to Own model would give tenants increasing stakes in their rented property, owning it outright after 30 years.
Young people to be helped with a Help to Rent scheme that provides government-backed tenancy deposit loans for all first-time renters under 30. 

500,000 affordable, energy-efficient homes will be built by the end of the Parliament.
Ten new Garden cities will be created with tens of thousands of new high-quality and zero-carbon homes.
A government-backed British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank would provide long-term capital for major new settlement and lever in other finance for house-building schemes.
The borrowing cap on local authorities would be lifted.
Borrowing capacities of housing associations to be raised. 

The voluntary Right to Buy pilots, set up the Conservative government, would be ended. The associated high value asset levy would be scrapped too. 

Smaller housing schemes would be freed of any duty to provide affordable homes.
Local councils to be empowered to prevent large developers reneging on affordable housing commitments.
A Community Right of Appeal would allow local people to defend an approved local plan against planning decisions.
Local councils could charge 200% Council Tax on second homes and on overseas investors who ‘buy to leave’ homes.
Land-banking developers with planning permission to face penalties if they fail to build after three years.

Letting fees for tenants to be banned.
Up front deposits to be capped.
Minimum standards for rental homes to be raised.
Tenants to be given first refusal to buy the home they are renting from a landlord who decides to sell during the tenancy. The price to be set at an independently valued market rate.
Mandatory landlord licensing and a database of rogue landlords and letting agents to protect tenants against rogue landlords and agents. 

Rough sleeping
Ending rough sleeping by increased support for homelessness prevention. Funding age-appropriate emergency accommodation and supported housing.
Ensure all council have at least one provider of the Housing First model of provision for long-term, persistently homeless people.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017

General Election 2017: Labour Party housing pledges

Aylesbury Estate, Southwark, south London © London Intelligence 2017

Below is a raw first taste of the housing pledges in the Labour Party manifesto for the General Election on 8 June 2017. 

The Labour Party pledges to build over a million new homes by the end of the next Parliament, with at least 100,000 council and housing association homes a year for genuinely affordable rent or sale.
Thousands of low-cost homes will be reserved for first-time buyers.
Right to Buy will be suspended to protect council homes. Councils will only resume sales if they can show a one-to-one replacement of sold homes. 

New department 
Help to Buy funding will be guaranteed until 2027.
Local people will get first choice on new homes built in their area.
A new Department for Housing will oversee housing provision by an overhauled Housing and Communities Agency. Councils will get new power to build homes for local people on brownfield sites. 

The Green Belt will be protected. A new generation of New Towns will be built to avoid urban sprawl.
A National Transformation Fund will underwrite the building of new homes, including council homes.
An industrial and skills strategy will imbue construction firms with skilled workers who enjoy rights at work.
Homes will be insulated to help reduce energy bills, reduce winter deaths and meet climate change targets. 

Land Registry 
Local plans will address the need for older people’s housing, offering choice and downsizing options. The Land Registry will be kept in public ownership to ensure transparent land ownership. 

Labour promises to secure leaseholders from unreasonable ground rent increases and end the routine use of leasehold houses in new developments.
Three-year tenancies will be the norm. Rent rises will be capped. Letting agency fees for tenants will be banned.
Tenants will be given new rights to tackle bad landlords.
New legal minimum standards will ensure homes are fit for habitation. 

The abolition of housing benefit for 18-21 year-olds will be reversed.
The ‘bedroom tax’ will be scrapped.
Rough sleeping will be ended within the next Parliament. Some 4,000 additional homes will be reserved for rough sleepers.

Source: Labour Party

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017

General Election 2017: Conservative Party housing pledges

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© London Intelligence 2017

Below is a raw first taste of the housing pledges made by the Conservative Party in its manifesto for the General Election on 8 June 2017.
The Conservative Party pledges to build 500,000 new homes between 2020 and 2022, on top of an existing pledge to build 1 million by 2020.
Councils will be helped with low-cost capital funding to build new homes ‘but only those councils that will build high-quality, sustainable and integrated communities’.

Fixed-term social housing will be built. It will be sold privately after ten to 15 years under an automatic Right to Buy for tenants. Compulsory Purchase Orders will be made easier and less expensive for councils to use. 

High-quality, high-density housing in the form of mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets will be encouraged. Housing associations will be helped to build new specialist multi-generational and older peoples’ homes. Councils will have powers to tackle developers that do not build when granted planning consent.
Public land will be used to build 160,000 homes, a repeat of a 2015 pledge.

Rough sleeping
Rough sleeping will be initially halved, and then eliminated by 2027, by setting up a homelessness reduction taskforce.

There is no mention of the extension of Right to Buy to housing association homes, or of the sell-off of highest-value council homes to pay for the discount.

Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017 

Friday, 5 May 2017

Council housing: for whom does the bell toll?

'Dogma': Pre-demolition Heygate Estate © London Intelligence 2017

Writers tend to pen obituaries long before their subjects die, especially about the famous, the seriously ill, or at risk ‘pre-dead’. 
Veteran Labour politician Tony Benn once recited an obituary of Prime Minister Harold Wilson to a fuming Wilson himself. The BBC had asked Benn to write it several years earlier.
As the 8 June General Election approaches, some commentators have already written obituaries marking the imminent death of British council housing. For instance, ‘A Conservative election victory could spell the end of council housing’ tolls the tombstone headline inscribed above a doomsday article by Dawn Foster in The Guardian (5 May, 2017).
But, it’s a fair question; if we accept that Britain’s council housing is at risk, is it seriously in peril, or even ‘pre-dead’? 

The Conservative Party nakedly pursues a dogmatic aim to remove the state from housing provision. By 2016, a staggering 1.87 million homes have already been lost in England under Right to Buy since 1980, according to government figures. But the Theresa May government continues to pursue the extension of Right to Buy from council housing to housing association homes. Conservatives still wishfully think homeowners tend to vote for them.
Yet, under Theresa May, as under David Cameron, the Conservatives primarily regard housing not as the provision of homes but as the spread of commodified and hyper-financialised real estate assets, including swinging publicly owned land into private corporate ownership. This process burgeons a secondary market of interest-bearing loans, commissions and fees to swell a plethora of lenders, builders and agents that inflates personal debt against income. All of this bloats a global pod of international investors and developers with a plankton of profit. 

Foster, in her article, says ‘council housing pays for itself over a lifetime, in terms of reducing housing benefit, healthier, happier families and reduced strain on local health and social services’.
But ask good folks in London boroughs like Southwark, Newham, and now Haringey – and they will tell you that it is actually Labour councils that have spent the past ten years or so selling off publicly owned land at huge discounts and demolishing council estates in Stratford, Walworth and now Tottenham, displacing council tenants away from their neighbourhoods where their families have lived for generations. Labour councils’ consent to developer-led estate ‘regeneration’ schemes even involves serving compulsory purchase orders on Right to Buy leaseholders; so much for Right to Buy’s ‘own your council home for life’ mantra. 

Councillors in these boroughs, clad in Labour clothing, seem spellbound by the powerful aroma and glitter of global real estate. Like zombies, they slither and shuffle with developers and global property players at annual real estate jamborees such as MIPIM at Cannes and the London Real Estate Forum in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square.
Leading Haringey councillors have fallen into bed with Lend Lease to set up a joint 'development vehicle' that threatens council tenants in a myriad of council estates across the borough. Elsewhere in the borough, residents and traders at Seven Sisters are fighting compulsory purchase orders that could see their homes, shops and enterprises lost to a residentual scheme proposed by developer Grainger that includes no council homes.
Some councils, like Islington Council in north London, try to stem this tide but at significant cost. Apparently, the Labour council has spent more than £6.2m buying back homes that it was compelled to sell to people for less than £1.3m under Right to Buy. 

Market state 
But, generally across London, a local ‘market state’ -  a coalition of Labour politicians and property profiteers - continues to replace council homes homes with new housing for private market sale, private rent and mortgage-driven shared ownership. They replace council homes with increasingly ubiquitous ‘Affordable Rent’ housing, with rents charged at up to 80% of local average market rents.
Leave aside that Affordable Rent offers fixed rather than secure tenancies. Rents continue to rise and overheat in most parts of London rendering Affordable Rents unaffordable to average and lower income households. The politically Affordable is socially unaffordable – an Orwellian doublespeak that might’ve even raised a George Orwell eyebrow. 

Originally philanthropic but now profit-driven, housing associations are also slated for lustily nailing the coffin lid. For instance, Notting Hill Housing, with the backing of Southwark’s Labour leadership, remains hell-bent on demolishing 2,750 homes on the Aylesbury council estate in Walworth, south London, including many ex-council homes bought by former council tenants and now leaseholders under Right to Buy.
Notting Hill Housing intends to replace the Aylesbury’s 2,750 homes with 3,575 new homes of which 1,750 will be ‘affordable’. But this involves a net loss of between 778 and 1,166 genuinely affordable and secure tenure social rented homes.
Housing associations across the country are also going cap in hand to government for funds that are only released on condition that the money is used to build Affordable Rent homes offered at 80% of local market average rents. 

Labour’s pre-manifesto promise is to help councils and housing associations build one million new homes. But the deeper challenge for Corbyn’s Labour – and, indeed, for any emerging ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, Greens and left-leaning Liberal Democrats - is to shed the developer-led ‘regeneration’ approach to building new homes, even when the developer is a registered and regulated housing association.
If that message could somehow be impressed upon the electorate before 8 June, then maybe those ‘inevitable’ obituaries could be waste-basketed and reports of the extinction of British council housing could be classed as greatly exaggerated.
Yet, with council housing, as with most things, ‘if’ remains one of the most telling words in the English language.

© Paul Coleman, London Intelligence, May 2017