London starts building more social housing
TTHE NON-TRAINED Eye, the small football field and bumpy grass mounds between two post-war council apartment buildings in the Bells Garden estate don’t look like much. For Lewis Schaffer, a professional comedian from New York who lives nearby, they are on the front lines in a battle with the Southwark council. If the board is successful, three new blocks will soon fill the space. Mr. Schaffer sees it as the height of stupidity. “You wouldn’t want to build on Central Park, would you?”
London councils were once big house builders, building the majority of new homes in the capital in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadiq Khan, the mayor, wishes a return to the glories of the past. It promises 10,000 new social housing units by 2023, funded by a £ 1bn ($ 1.4bn) investment pot. Things are going in the right direction. Last year, counseling began on 3,156 homes, up from 454 in 2015. They are building at their fastest pace since the early 1980s.
To do this, they must overcome two obstacles. One is the lack of land. About 85% of the capital is built and the rest consists mostly of green spaces or protected by the “green belt”. Thus, the municipalities have little choice but to rent houses on their own land. The handy fruit is made up of unused pieces of existing estates, says Tom Copley, deputy mayor for housing.
Such an approach requires few demolitions of existing houses, but the NIMBYs, the second hurdle, still oppose it. In Southwark, the waiting list for social housing stands at 15,000. Infill developments are proposed on some 28 post-war estates, replacing parks, garages and ball fields with new apartments, under plans to build just 11,000 new homes by 2043. But even that is proving difficult.
These post-war estates were built to satisfy an ambitious new vision of working-class life. The developers razed the slums, replacing them with “streets in the sky” (often prefabricated). The communal gardens allowed residents to mingle and relax. Bells Garden may seem seedy, but its residents’ continued use of the common areas lives up to those ideals (even if their relaxation is tinged with a noticeable cannabis scent).
Sacrificing these little luxuries has sparked protests. In Southwark, residents organized rallies, affixed banners to ball fields and raised funds for legal advice. A project to build nine apartments in Nunhead was scrapped in March. The Southwark Council Housing Chief was forced to resign after finding out he ran an anonymous Twitter account called @SouthwarkYIMBY, which enjoyed skewering activists.
But not all fillings meet with opposition. By removing concrete dead space, a project in Islington was able to create gardens for local residents, ensuring their support. Alice Brownfield of Peter Barber Architects pulled off a similar trick in Camden by sewing 15 new smart brick homes into the existing estate. The gardens and extensions, however, reduce the number of new residences.
In Southwark, Mr. Schaffer remains hopeful of victory and the justice of his cause. “We shouldn’t feel resentful and selfish because we care about our homes,” he says. But the Southwark rebellions did not deter other councils from building. On May 19, neighbor Lewisham announced plans to build nine estates. The NIMBYs have long held sway over the capital. It is loosening now. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Spaces inbetween”