The Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think tank, has published a paper calling for City Villages. By this they mean redevelopment of council estates. But the term “city villages” matters. It would imply, to most people, something other than replacing one group of tower blocks with another.

The IPPR paper consists of a collection of essays edited by Lord Adonis who also contributes his own thoughts. It is refreshing that it has moved on from imagining that the answer to the housing shortage is for the state to spend billions (which we don’t have) building more “housing unit” (which, being built by the state wouldn’t be very good).

Instead Lord Adonis writes:

“The essays in this volume set out a vision for new ‘city villages’ to help meet today’s housing shortage. City villages are areas of redevelopment and regeneration within the cities, including significantly more and better housing at a broad range of price and rent levels, facilitated by local authorities leveraging their land ownership, particularly their ownership of existing council estates.

“City villages comprise socially mixed, multi-tenure housing, planned not just as housing developments but as entire communities with integral and modern commercial, retail, and transport facilities. These city villages require a new generation of public master planners, radical innovation in design, a wholly new approach to land development, and new forms of partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors. It is one of the most exciting tasks of the next generation.”

For all the talk about  ‘brownfield’ development which “conjures up images of ex-industrial land”in London the great potential is for more housing on council estates:

“The sheer number and size of council estates in London, particularly inner London, is far larger than commonly appreciated, including by many local authority leaders. Southwark council owns 43 per cent of the land in its borough, mostly council estates. This includes 10,000 garages.

“Across inner London, councils commonly own 25–30 per cent of the land in their borough. These municipal landholdings translate into a huge number of individual estates. Islington council alone owns about 150 council estates of 50 homes or more (see figure 1.1.2) on some of the most expensive land in the world. Other inner London boroughs report similar figures and outer London boroughs lower but still substantial numbers, so I estimate that there are perhaps 3,500 council estates across Greater London, the majority in inner London – although, tellingly, there is no official London-wide data.

“Only a tiny fraction of these estates (50 according to a recent report by the London Assembly (2015)) have been substantially redeveloped in the last decade, and the GLA has identified only about 100 schemes under way (and some of these are ongoing projects included in the previous 50).”

Lord Adonis adds that “new city villages are not just about more homes. They are an opportunity to build better homes and mixed communities, learning from the mistakes of council house building in the 1960s and ’70s. ” This would include “creating – or, often in many cases, restoring – streetscapes is an important aspect of city villages.” He acknowledges that high density need not mean high rise and that “many of the higher density wards in London – including in Kensington and Chelsea – retain a large proportion of traditional grid street patterns regardless of social, economic or value status.”

The problem comes when he praises some of the examples of estate regeneration under way in London. It is true that they mostly provide more homes and better homes than what was there before. It is also understandable that Lord Adonis would wish to praise his Labour colleagues – especially those who have been good enough to send in essays. Thus we have Cllr Peter John, the Leader of Southwark, boasting about the Heygate scheme. Which, let’s face it, is just the replacement of one awful scheme with another.

So there is a missed opportunity. Even where tower (or slab) blocks are being removed and street patterns restored it is still very ugly housing being replaced by fairly ugly housing. That is not enough to inspire enthusiasm from residents who face the disruption of being “decanted” (sometimes twice due to being place in some interim temporary housing). Nor is it enough to win enthusiasm for those in the surrounding who put up with the noise and the dust for years while the rebuilding takes place.

If we want more estate redevelopment then it needs to be more popular – which means what is offered needs more than a concrete utopia Mark II.

There is even an essay included from that High Priest of modernism Lord Rogers – whose legacy is very much the cause of the problems Lord Adonis describes rather than offering anything by way of a solution.

unionpacklingtonEven the Packlington Estate scheme in Islington – which includes some attractive new housing (pictured on the right) could be much better. Most of the new housing is ugly (or at best bland). There is nothing inevitable about that. It is not cheaper, or higher density. It is simply a poor choice by the Hyde Group and Islington Council which accepted merely because it replaces something much worse.

As Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets tells me:

“Andrew Adonis is absolutely and 100 per cent right to be looking at the potential for regeneration of post-war estates. And we completely agree with him. The opportunity is enormous. On our estimates, we judge that there is around 20 years supply in replacing unpopular post-war housing with conventional streets and squares of terraced houses and medium rise flats. But, and it is a big but, the how and the what are crucial.

“Too many current estate regenerations give estate regeneration a bad name. Either because they are merely replacing one set of 1960s large buildings with no human scale or traditional street pattern with a modern set of large buildings with no human scale or traditional street pattern. Or because their process of ‘consultation’ is a fake post hoc exercise which hides community dissent and apathy. There are ongoing major disconnects between what we design and build and what most people want to live in.

“These disconnects are far greater than they need to be. And unlocking this would make “city villages” more popular, less resisted and more effective. Design and process are too important to be left to the professionals. The real answer to the housing crisis isn’t building more homes, it is making new homes more popular.”

“Clearly, housing in London is going to be the big issue in the 2016 Mayoral election. We’re pleased to see potential candidates on both sides of the political divide very clearly aligning themselves to a street-based approach to solving this crisis. This is quite right.

“Traditional housing on traditional streets can be high density, highly popular and a spectacular investment – particularly in the long term. It is also very clearly correlated with higher levels of wellbeing than living in the sort of very large buildings we too easily build at the moment. It’s great to see David Lammy, Ivan Massow and Andrew Boff all clearly backing conventional streets. We hope that Andrew Adonis’s important work will presage support from Tessa Jowell as well.”