Saturday, March 22, 2008


In getting under the skin of the Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project, Murphy clarifies why I oppose the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens. I too think its architectural merits are questionable (it is certainly a remarkable building) and I’m not at all sure I would particularly want to live there. Nevertheless, there are two reasons to support its maintenance:

(1) as a reminder of a time when Labour governments were committed to building high-quality housing for working class people;
(2) more pragmatically, because the alternative will mean a drastic reduction in Council housing.

To be clear, I only support the retention of RHG as social housing. An alternative might be to sell the homes, en masse or separately, to private developers, who could pump them with capital and turn them into des res’s for the financiers who work nearby. I would oppose this as much as demolition.

A more likely alternative is for Tower Hamlets to demolish the stock, give up its status as landlord and sell the land to developers or registered social landlords. As Murphy correctly states, while most of its current tenants would be quite happy to see RHG fall to the ground in a cloud of smoke, most would also like to stay in the Blackwall area. In reality, while the Council could campaign for the land to be used for “the local community”, it would have no longer own the site, and it could not guarantee the right of return for RHG’s decanted tenants.

The dwindling supply of social housing is at odds with growing demand. Tower Hamlets is rare in that it owns and manages all 13,000 of its homes. Most Councils have part-privatised the management of their housing by setting up Arms Length Management Organisations. But even those Councils who retain ownership and management oversee Housing Registers where even the most vulnerable have to bid, auction-style, week after week, for housing. There are currently 1.3m eligible households in the UK who are on a waiting list for Council housing.

The pragmatists wish to solve this supply crisis by developing capacity in the private-rented sector. The reality is that, in a city such as London, where land is expensive, few private landlords will offer rents which are sufficiently low to be affordable to people on Housing Benefit. This is especially likely in Blackwall Reach, given the proximity of the financial district.

There is only one alternative to the twin problems of supply-and-demand and affordability: for the Government to fund a nationwide programme of new Council housing. Propose the building of new Council housing to most policy people, and they’ll look at you like you’ve just landed from Mars.

But without new homes – lots of them – how can Tower Hamlets stop its current stock from becoming sink estates? Yet, without new money – lots of it – how can Tower Hamlets raise the capital it needs other than by selling off its land? As is so often the case with public consultations, the tenants of RHG are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Here is the government’s choice agenda in all its finery.


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