Regeneration: urban renewal or social cleansing?

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Exhibition Hall 2Place and identity

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In January this year, the Labour leader of Haringey Council quit after her controversial 20-year plan for housing became the subject of public protests. The plan might have been what the Financial Times called the ‘most ambitious plan undertaken by a UK local authority’ to build 6,400 homes with a potential profit of £275million. But local residents rose up to stop the sale of this council stock, apparently ripe for demolition, to the private sector. It is a scene repeated across London, where there are currently 214 estate regeneration schemes in process, which combined could result in a loss of 7,326 social rented homes.

In a variety of large council-housing projects across the country, protests are growing over the relocation of thousands of long-term residents. The council call it ‘urban renewal’, while social-housing activists who are trying to protect and preserve these estates, along with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, call it ‘social cleansing’. Some even claim that the deaths of 72 people in the Grenfell Tower fire were the result of willful, ruthless acts of ‘apartheid’.

Clearly, all too often, people from these estates are relocated to allow their areas to be ‘upgraded’ or demolished and rebuilt, and then cannot afford to move back at market rates. Consequently, ‘gentrification’ and ‘development’ have become dirty words. Many now claim that John Prescott’s ‘urban renaissance’ really meant ‘overcrowding and under-resourced housing for the many’. Indeed, regeneration is commonly interpreted as merely replacing social housing with unaffordable ‘affordable rents’. It means evictions and the break-up of communities. Even those who have bought ex-council properties are in the firing line, with one homeowner on the Aylesbury Estate being told to move out and offered just £65,000 in compensation rather than the market value of £800,000.

Is regeneration necessary and therefore are evictions a sad fact of life? Is this an attack on the poor and vulnerable, or is it a vital – albeit painful – process of social improvement? Is the phrase ‘social cleansing’ too redolent of fascist ideology to be helpful, or do we need such strong language to get the point across? Is uncertainty the nature of a social-housing tenancy? What’s so good about social housing and should it be protected?