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Turn council estates into residents co-ops

Donnachadh McCarthy proposes that rather than demolishing estates, Conservatives should turn them into residents cooperatives.

Imagine taking out a mortgage to buy your home in the seventies. Then immediately taking out another mortgage to demolish and rebuild it. Then even before the original two mortgages were paid off, you decide to demolish your home again in 2010 and take out another mortgage to build another new home on the same site, but magnifying the design faults of the original new home. No sane bank manager would ever contemplate supporting such a mortgage strategy and very few if any private households could afford the insanity.

Yet this is exactly what is happening in Southwark and possibly in a local council near you, as many councils demolish the council tower-blocks built in the sixties and seventies. This month Southwark Council gave the go-ahead to the hugely expensive demolition and rebuilding of the 1970’s Aylesbury Estate at a cost of £2.4 billion, in addition to the already approved £1.4 billion Heygate demolition project. The very same week Southwark was applying to the government for a waiver on the interest it owes on the £750 million that it borrowed for building the Aylesbury and other council estates in the borough, some of which have already been demolished.

Aside from the eye-watering sums of taxpayers money involved, the proposals involve other immense costs. Supportive neighbourly relationships built up over decades will be destroyed, adding to social costs for the council. Some elderly people disturbed from their homes after 40 years will die earlier. The local park will be destroyed as the adjoining land will be dominated by new 15 and 20 storey tower blocks.  At a community meeting, a 37 year old resident told how he had been a council tenant all his life and this was the FOURTH time that his home had been demolished beneath him by the council. It will result in the net loss of over 700 social housing units, as well as the loss in rents from the existing properties and the asset capital of the buildings.

There are also enormous environmental costs. A Freedom of Information request revealed that the council did not know whether the CO2 emissions from the project were in the hundreds or millions of tonnes of CO2! An independent environmental expert estimated that the net CO2 cost of like-for-like building would be in the region of one million tonnes of CO2 and the additional buildings up to another half a millions tons. This is equivalent of up to THREE years of all CO2 emissions from every single household in the borough, destroying our ability to meet our 10:10 commitments.

Whilst the socialist housing policies of the sixties and seventies, succeeded in providing homes for millions of the less better-off, it has been done and continues to be done at enormous cost to the taxpayer and to the environment. The Sustainability Development Commission has calculated that refurbishing existing properties can reduce their carbon footprints by over 80%, at a fraction of the cost of demolition and rebuild.  Indeed the two current estates being demolished in Southwark are already having, under an excellent initiative by the Tory housing executive member, district heating systems that are being converted to carbon neutral biomass boilers which will also produce green electricity whose surplus will be exported to the national grid. This would make the existing estates potentially carbon negative, even before any refurbishment was carried out.

Interestingly the Lib Dem council leader in response to a deputation of local civic and residents groups opposing the demolition stated that they had no other way of paying for the backlog of maintenance on the estates. In other words, to only way to pay for the lift-repairs under the current Labour government’s funding schemes, was to actually demolish the estate and build new far-higher tower blocks, funded by a PFI initiative. The logic inherent in this is that every 30 years or so, we will have to demolish our tower-blocks to repair the lifts we have not been able to afford to maintain.  The insanity of what the government is forcing councils like Southwark to do is obvious. Seeing the repetition of failed social housing tower-block mistakes of the sixties, with even higher and more expensive tower-blocks, is heart-breaking for decent taxpayers. The two PFI projects mentioned will cost the equivalent of £37,000 for every single household in the borough.

But what does this mean for Tories?  Interestingly, I believe it presents potentially a fascinating opportunity for both Tory councillors in power and in opposition. For those in power, it provides an opportunity to be exemplars of how David Cameron’s announced Tory support for worker and resident co-operatives could work in practice for council housing. For Tories in opposition, it provides excellent Freedom of Information request opportunities on the debt and asset destruction implications for the tax-payer, involved in such huge demolition projects.

In addition, Freedom of Information requests on whether the council has calculated the embedded carbon footprint in existing buildings and those proposed to be built, could provide the ammunition to oppose huge new public spending wastage, especially if your council has signed up to any of the 10:10, 20:20 or 80:50 carbon reduction pledges.  If nothing else it provides excellent constructive news stories for your local press. Some Tory administrations have already applied this embedded carbon calculation to Labour’s Schools for the Future project and have found it made not only carbon sense but financial sense to refurbish many of their schools, rather than pursuing Labour’s profligate demolish and rebuild approach. Embedded carbon is that which is used in the manufacture of the concrete and fittings of a building.

Having council estates run by worker or resident co-operatives means that those involved will have a vested interest over the retention of the taxpayers invested capital and rent assets, something that is woefully missing from a system where the decision makers are elected every four years.

Nationally if successful, Cameron’s approach to co-operatives could in many cases avoid the wastage of literally billions of pounds of Labour’s currently planned demolition projects across the country and avoid the destruction of taxpayer funded assets. It could save millions of tonnes of unnecessarily wasted CO2 and cut thousands of building-waste truck journeys, a classic example of the green and blue agendas working constructively in parallel.

Maybe it is not a broken Britain that we have created but a repeatedly demolition Britain?  Would it not be nice to see Conservatives through such policies not only conserving taxpayer’s assets and rental income but helping to build those crucial but fragile inner-city social structures, rather than allowing Labour’s bull-dozing policies do so yet again?

Donnachadh McCarthy works as a freelance environmental journalist, is author of Easy Eco-auditing and runs the environmental consultancy 3 Acorns Eco-audits. He is also the founder of the charity


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