Book review: Estate Regeneration and its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London

Book review: Estate Regeneration and its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London


Reviewed by Chris Hamnett

First Published:

02 Nov 2023, 2:03 am


Book review: Estate Regeneration and its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London

Paul Watt, Estate Regeneration and its Discontents: Public Housing, Place and Inequality in London, Bristol: Policy Press, 2021; 506 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-4473-2918-3, £80.00 (hbk), ISBN: 978-1-4473-2919-0, £26.99 (pbk), ISBN: 978-1447329220, £26.99 (Epub)


Paul Watt’s impressive book, Estate Regeneration and its Discontents, represents the culmination of his longstanding interest in, and involvement with, the rise and slow decline of social rented council housing in London: a subject he has been doing research on for over 25 years. It must have been a somewhat depressing journey for him as, for much of the last 40 years, council housing in Britain has often either been under direct attack from the right or suffered from benign neglect or worse from the left. This is a far cry from social housing’s rapid growth in the UK in 1920s and 1930s and its rapid expansion in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when it replaced run down and decaying private rented housing in many of Britain’s inner cities. This was the era of large-scale housing estate construction, either terraced or semi-detached housing in suburban areas but often high density, high rise, system-built estates as Labour controlled city councils competed to raise housing production. Britain’s rate of new housing production post war has never been equalled since, and council housing played a key part. This was not to last, however, and in the 1970s and 1980s the criticisms of social housing in general and of high-rise housing estates in particular began to strengthen, particularly on the right.

Like many major Northern European cities, London used to have a large proportion of social housing. At its peak, in 1981, just before Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’ for council tenants, it was a remarkable 42% in inner London and just over half that in suburban outer London, much of which was built for home ownership. Since then, the local authority rented sector has been in steady decline as a result of individual sales to tenants, a dramatic fall in new social housing construction, and to large scale transfers to other social landlords, mostly housing associations. In the latter case several Conservative controlled local authorities decided to divest themselves of all or most of their council housing by transferring ownership. In some cases, the rationale was primarily financial as central government had put in place increasingly tough decent housing standards but with little or no financial support to local councils. The result was large scale transfers.

What has developed in the last 15 years or so, however, has been the emergence of a new attack on social housing, under the label of estate regeneration, upgrading and improvement. It is this policy, its history, manifestations and impacts which form the focus of Watt’s book. The innocent observer may well ask what is wrong with ‘regeneration’– surely that has to be a good thing? Improve the estates and create a better social and physical environment for residents. However, as Watt convincingly shows, this is often very far from the case. The causes are complex, but often boil down to two or three underlying reasons: the pressure for local authorities to physically upgrade decaying estates but with no money to do so and government pressure to build more houses (densification).

Faced with this dilemma, and with increasing pressure from central government for higher levels of new housing construction, what many local councils in London have done is to decant tenants to other estates and then sell the estate to developers who promise to construct more new housing for sale (the source of profit) and to provide a small proportion of ‘affordable’ social housing for any returning tenants. The term ‘affordable’ is in parenthesis because it is not affordable in a real sense. What the term affordable now means is ‘80% of market rent’. But, in a city where market rents have risen dramatically in recent years and have reached £1600+ a month for a one bed unit, affordable rents are not remotely affordable for most tenants. The second regeneration option is to ‘densify’ estates by bringing in developers to redevelop low-rise low-density housing with higher density – basically cramming more people into the same area as before. Not surprisingly, although some tenants have benefited, most tenants do not want to see their estates regenerated, not least because they are often pushed out of a flat in an estate where they have lived for many years, sometimes to remote new locations. As one tenant Watt quotes put it: ‘I’m praying to god, don’t regenerate my estate’. And as part of the process, some estates have been largely cleared of tenants and left empty, sometimes for years even as the housing crisis intensifies. And for many estates in prime locations, such as central or inner London, regeneration has often meant gentrification.

In fairness to local authorities, some of them have found themselves between a rock and hard place. The estates need upgrading but central government ensures they have no money to do it which pushes them into a limited range of options. These councils and councillors would argue that they are trying to do their best in an impossible position, but some councils have embraced the regeneration option with considerable enthusiasm rather than reluctance. It offers them a chance to rid themselves of their relatively low income, sometimes socially problematic, tenants and replace them with shiny new homeowners – reworking and upgrading the image of their local authority in the process. It is a depressing saga for tenants and researchers alike.

As Watt notes:

The official regeneration discourse justifies demolition via the notion that estates are failed places with decrepit housing and populated by a narrow group of the socially excluded … From the standpoint of housing policy (build more homes) and urban policy (renew town centres), “failed” social housing estates stand in the way of progress. Knocking them down not only promises to release their enormous potential rent gap value, but also removes their abject stain on London’s emerging Alpha City landscape. (p. 416)

Watt’s very substantial book is divided into three main parts. The first is policy analysis and research context which examines the rise and fall of public housing and the emergence of estate regeneration policy as well as a discussion of the research boroughs and their estates. The second is an analysis of the estates before regeneration, looking at both marginalisation and inclusion, and their role as both valued and devalued places. The third and longest part is a detailed study of the regeneration process moving from the beginnings through degeneration, displacement, resistance and aftermaths. This is where Watt’s methodological strengths really show through. The book contains a wealth of detailed empirical material ranging from census and official government data to analysis of central and local government policy. The book draws on extensive in-depth interview material with policy makers and managers and, crucially, with tenants, giving voice to their experiences, their perceptions, their anger, their fears and their attempts to oppose regeneration. It is powerful but often depressing.

There is no doubt that opposition has been widespread, even though it has usually been unsuccessful. Regeneration is something which has, for the most part, been imposed on council estates from above rather than actively sought by residents. In the long running British TV Sci-fi series ‘Dr Who’ the evil, robotic, Daleks pursued their victims mechanically calling ‘Exterminate, Exterminate’; in London it has been ‘Regenerate, Regenerate!’ It is depressing because, given London’s current major housing affordability crisis, what the city needs is more social housing, not less. But the new owner-occupied apartments in regenerated estates, many purchased by overseas investors off-plan, sell for £500,000 or more which puts them out of the price range of most ordinary Londoners, let alone those living in local authority estates. A valuable, if depressing, read for all interested in affordable social housing.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Revitalisation gone wrong: Mixed-income public housing redevelopment in Toronto’s Don Mount Court by Martine August

This article challenges the presumed benevolence of mixed-income public housing redevelopment, focusing on the first socially-mixed remake of public housing in Canada, at Toronto’s Don Mount Court (now called ‘Rivertowne’).


The effects of social housing regeneration schemes on employment: The case of the Glasgow Stock Transfer by Meng Le Zhang, George Galster, David Manley and Gwilym Pryce

Meng Le Zhang et al find that the Stock Transfer had a positive effect on employment for Glasgow residents who were not living in transferred social housing stock.