Retro first, last and always?

For a decade or more the redevelopment of London’s social housing estates has been a flashpoint. Councillors have lost their seats and council leaders have been deposed. Plans have been challenged in court, in council chambers and on the streets.

Boroughs have pushed forward redevelopment schemes, often in partnership with private developers, as a way of meeting housing targets and avoiding the huge repair bills that have accrued for older post-war estates. Campaigners have countered that demolition and rebuilding disrupts communities, can displace residents and replaces social rented homes with unaffordable intermediate and market housing.

Underpinning these debates are deep-seated issues about community and mobility, trust in public authorities, the roles of public and private capital, and what sort of housing London needs to offer its growing population.

Now, another ingredient can be added to this volatile mix: an increasing focus on embodied carbon generated by the energy-intensive production of materials such as steel and concrete suggests that retaining older buildings may be more environmentally as well as socially sustainable.

The issue is not binary. In some cases, particularly over the longer term, demolition and replacement with a building that uses less energy may make more sense than spending substantial sums on retrofit , even when embodied carbon is taken into account.

But thinking about embodied carbon tends to tilt the balance towards retrofit. At COP26 in November architects, property and construction firms signed a pledge to reduce embodied as well as operational emissions. A campaign led by the Architects’ Journal is championing retrofit and reuse.

So, if retrofit makes sense for people and planet, why are demolitions still taking place? Discounting the possibility that London boroughs actively want to inconvenience and displace their citizens (an accusation that has been levelled at some in the past), I believe that housing targets, financial incentives and complexity work together to push councils towards demolition and redevelopment.

Firstly, demolition makes it more straightforward to increase housing numbers in response to London’s persistent housing crisis and tough housing targets: even if Covid slows or reverses population growth, the capital has a backlog of need and a yawning affordability gap. As big “brownfield” sites become scarcer, boroughs and housebuilders are searching for ways to build more within the capital’s already built-up areas – hence sporadic eruptions of tower blocks across the city. Building denser in privately owned streets is part of the answer, but large post-war housing estates offer the advantage of single ownership, even when this has been eroded by right-to-buy.

Many post-war estates currently under threat are also relatively low rise (though not that low density) by today’s standards. Last week, the redevelopment of Central Hill, a widely-celebrated low-rise 1960s estate designed by Lambeth borough architects Rosemary Stjernstedt and Ted Hollamby, took a step forward when Homes for Lambeth (a council-owned development company) announced a shortlist of firms to prepare a masterplan.

Assessing options for Central Hill in 2017, Lambeth estimated that redevelopment could add more than 500 homes to the 456 already on site. Alternative plans prepared by Architects for Social Housing (ASH), who campaign for alternatives to demolition, proposed refurbishing the existing stock and adding 242 new homes through infill and roof extensions – half the number proposed by the borough.

Refurbishing council housing can also be an expensive process, with limited scope for recovering costs. Refurbishment is funded through the ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account, which relies on rents for income. In 2017, Lambeth estimated that refurbishment costs at Central Hill would be £44,000 per socially rented home, compared to a benchmark of £18,000.

Redevelopment has a different business model. It can be undertaken in partnership with a private developer or through an arms-length housing company with more freedom to borrow and the potential to cross-subsidise, enabling social housing to be replaced by building more for market sale or rent. Lambeth aims for its redevelopment of Central Hill to be cost neutral overall, while its assessment of the ASH plan found no potential for cross-subsidy of refurbishment works. The imbalance is worsened by unequal tax treatment: new builds are VAT free while refurbishment is usually charged at the full rate.

And long-term carbon implications of new build compared to refurbishment are rarely quantified or considered. Even where “carbon costs” can be calculated, local authorities do not benefit from any carbon savings achieved. The government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund has been designed to help improve the energy performance of socially rented homes, but even its maximum grant of £16,000 would not close the funding gap that Lambeth estimated for Central Hill.

Lastly, I think there is a complexity challenge. There is a mature market of developers who can enter into joint ventures with local authorities and deliver a programme of “regeneration” (demolition and redevelopment). By taking control of the site, they can manage risks and adjust the pipeline of development to respond to changing market circumstances and viability reviews. A local authority-owned housing company is in broadly the same position.

But a programme of refurbishment and infill is trickier, particularly where substantial structural work is required. As anyone who has had builders at home knows, refurbishment is disruptive, and budgets need flexibility to cope with unexpected costs, which can rise sharply. Managing disruption to tenants, different teams of contractors and the risks of spiralling costs will sit squarely with local authorities, which have seen their planning and development budgets slashed over the past decade.

Decisions on refurbishment and redevelopment are genuinely complex, balancing the needs of existing and possible future residents, and juggling financial priorities and environmental imperatives. However, despite their declarations of “climate emergency” boroughs lack the incentives and many have been stripped of the skills to invest in and add to their existing housing stock, rather than bringing in the bulldozers again and again.

Originally published by OnLondon.


To the right is a graphic that appeared in the Guardian last weekend, to illustrate a story about flood risk and global warming:

The larger map is pretty familiar: it sets out the flood risk that would arise from a two-metre rise in sea levels (at the upper end of projections for this century).

The smaller map, which seems to have inundated most of eastern England, is less familiar. Reading the small print, it becomes clear that this is a map of a truly cataclysmic scenario. The complete melting of the polar ice caps would release a staggering 33 million square kilometres of water into the sea, and this could result in a sea level rise in the order of 84 metres. So it\’s farewell to Norfolk.

But the qualifications pile up. This outcome is \”very unlikely – and probably only possible many thousands of years into the future.\” So, like global pandemics, asteroid collisions and exploding supernova stars, this type of sea level rise is not really something we can do a great deal about now.

You have to ask why The Guardian chose to print this map. Following the failure of the talks in Copenhagen, it is very tempting – even for those of us who broadly accept the scientific consensus – to stick our heads in the ever-warming sands, declare that the problem is too monstrous to tackle, and enjoy the sunshine.

A debate in the Observer today quotes a former chair of the IPCC as saying, \”Unless we announce distasters no one will listen.\” But conjuring cataclysms like this doesn\’t help; in fact, it plays into the hand of those who argue that the threat is exaggerated, or a trojan horse for a green re-engineering of society.

Big bad cities

The pun may have been weak, but the message behind WWF\’s headline (\”Cities need to green up their act\”) seemed pretty clear: cities are the problem.

WWF (formerly, and perhaps formally, known as The World Wildlife Fund) has come up with a catchy and polemically useful way of describing our ecological footprint – the amount of the earth\’s natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles and consumption patterns. We – in the UK – are living a \’three-planet lifestyle\’. That is, if the whole world were to live as we do, we would need three (or 3.1, to be precise) worlds to support us. That we are still alive is only thanks to people like the Indians, who make up for our profligacy by living a \’0.4-planet lifestyle\’.

The WWF report compares the performance of 60 British cities, and creates a ranking. Newport and Plymouth perform best, and Winchester comes off worst. So, these urban dens of eco-iniquity are dragging the rest of us down. Or are they? When you look at the figures again, it looks as if British cities are actually doing rather well: more than two thirds of them are performing better than the UK average. The press release seems to have forgotten to mention this.

This does not, of course, contradict WWF\’s main message, that we ought to consume and live more frugally and responsibly. Sure. But why are cities always the villains in this piece? In some ways (for example, sourcing food locally) it may be harder to live a one-planet lifestyle in a city. But Tesco\’s pandemic spread across the UK suggests that not everybody in rural areas shops locally, and in other arenas (public transport and higher density living) cities should have a natural advantage.

Asking how the green potential of cities could be better unlocked would be a constructive approach to this debate. But the green movement seems unable to move on from its utopian, pastoralist roots, regarding everything since the invention of the spinning jenny with deep suspicion. Green and pleasant land good; dark satanic mills bad.

Our cities may be part of the problem. But with a growing population, they will have to be the core of any solution.

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.

Green grow the balance sheets oh!

The morning after the world of pop and rock jetted to Wembley to tell us about climate change, a browse through the Sunday paper…

Nearly 12 pages of the 40-page main section of The Observer are given over to advertising. Top categories are:

  • electricity, IT services and electrical goods (30 per cent of the advertising space)
  • cars (25 per cent)
  • financial services (14 per cent)
  • holidays and flights (8 per cent)

Perhaps more revealing than these figures is the fact that 40 per cent of space is given over to advertisements that make environmental claims. A few are summarised below, without any lawyer-baiting discussion about the claims made:

  • A satellite TV system switches itself off at night, transforming its dozing customers into \’eco-warriors\’;
  • A credit card gives 50 per cent of its profits to climate change projects (thereby helping a cute wide-eyed baby);
  • A bank is carbon-neutral, as illustrated by equally cute polar bears;
  • A small car-manufacturer questions \’why spend 2 litres of petrol to get one litre of milk?\’;
  • An IT firm points out that its inkjet cartridges are recycled through their \’Planet Partners\’ programme.

Keep shopping. Save the world.