Aylesbury Estate

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The Aylesbury Estate is thought to be the largest public housing estate in Europe, consisting of over 2700 homes and approximately 7500 residents.

Building of the estate began in 1963, when the housing secretary Keith Joseph stated that the Conservative Party would create 400,000 new homes. His commitment to this figure established the political numbers game, in which governments document their housing vision by stating the number of homes that will be built. By 1977, major work ceased, though the estate would never look truly complete. It was designed by architect Hans Peter ‘Felix’ Trenton, who embraced modern urban planning theories articulated by Le Corbusier. These included ‘standardisation, free circulation of pedestrians and traffic and generous access to sunlight and natural ventilation’.

The reality was that the construction of the estate was poorly executed. Leaks, flooding, and pests were ongoing problems for many years. The 1980s saw the estate begin to significantly degrade, exacerbated by rising crime and fear. Many of the perpetrators of crime on the estate were not Aylesbury residents, but had found the infrastructure granted them the ability to carry out their crimes. Formed of narrow, elevated alleyways; such estates allow impropriety to go unseen.

In 2005, it was decided by Southwark Council that the £350 million improvement of the estate to a ‘basic living standard’ would be better employed through the demolition of the current dwellings. An already dense estate would be replaced with an increased amount of units. Many of the new properties will be sold to fund the cost of the scheme, reducing the amount of available social housing significantly.

Regeneration is rife across London’s social housing estates due to decades of neglectful policy making. The residents of this estate were largely satisfied with their accommodation in 2005; despite dissatisfaction toward crime, security and cleanliness of the blocks. The Liberal Democrat led Southwark Council, decided to pressure tenants with a campaign that suggested the blocks were ‘structurally unsound and of poor quality’.

This established a media rhetoric labelling Aylesbury a ‘sink estate’. Newspapers at the time called Aylesbury ‘one of the most notorious housing estates in Britain’. This became a damaging narrative, but increased the popularity of the regeneration scheme. When regenerated, many residents will be forced to move elsewhere, as the gentrification of London continues to displace the poorest in society.

Political parties have utilised Aylesbury for decades. It was Tony Blair in 1997, making his first speech after a victorious election campaign, who claimed there would be ‘no more areas of no hope and no more forgotten people’. Conservative leader Michael Howard would later use the estate as a backdrop, claiming new Labour’s policies had failed. At this time, the estate was commonly referred to as ‘hell’s waiting room’. Much like the early promise of Thamesmead, the new residents had a great optimism about this futuristic dwelling. The estate was established in the midst of a grand scheme of slum clearance. The vast improvement of housing provision required quality management. This never materialised as political parties have consistently misunderstood and generalised council housing and those who call the ‘derelict concrete’ home.

This abuse has taken many forms, Blair once claimed that the ‘drugs industry’ was the biggest employer on these estates. Such damaging theories overlook the complexity of the environment and simplify the lives of thousands. Communities thrive in this place; regeneration threatens to greatly displace residents. For now, the homeowners of Aylesbury live knowing their estate will change immeasurably in the coming years.

The discourse of the ‘sink estate’ supports the narrative of us and them. Southwark Council and the New Deal for Communities Group, formed by Labour, sought to persuade residents that the estate was a poor place to live. Importantly their campaign had to encourage a wider audience into believing Aylesbury was beyond saving. The ‘estate from hell’ was established.

The outside world began to see the tower blocks as a symbol of urban decay and blight. An ident for Channel 4 fueled this. As the camera pans from a dingy walkway, litter rolls across the image like an urban tumbleweed. The Channel 4 logo, superimposed alongside the blocks, holds a washing line from an adjacent balcony. This short clip was watched by millions and widely criticised. It continued to air for over a decade.

An abandoned section of the Aylesbury Estate, since demolished

The regeneration agenda has always been clear to the local people, but the rhetoric of drugs, prostitution and knife wielding gangs has damaged the estate beyond repair. The future of the Aylesbury Estate is troublingly uncertain. Gentrification, that ripples through London like a destructive wave, has been masked as regeneration to successfully oust communities from their homes. Developments at the Aylesbury Estate are of keen interest to anti-gentrification campaigners and political groups. Over the past 20 years, 15,000 council homes have been lost through Right to Buy and regeneration schemes in the city. Aylesbury was once neighboured by the Heygate Estate. Comprising of 1200 homes and also designed according to the principles of Le Corbusier, it was completed in 1974. As with Aylesbury, the estate was once a popular place to live. It also developed a reputation for severe dilapidation and criminal activity.

Residents of Heygate were decanted in 2007 with the promise of new homes. This involved significant displacement of the local people. The promise went unfulfilled, as the regeneration scheme involved the sale of all homes to foreign investors. Elephant Park now stands in its place, towering higher than its predecessor. The new development has been designed for modern communities; or rather, designed for those with a significant disposable income.

The future for the Aylesbury Estate remains uncertain, as social engineering to manufacture ‘mixed’ communities has become the goal of redevelopment. It is said that by achieving a mix of incomes, tenures and household types that deprivation and associated ills will be treated. The reality is that social housing is being lost and unaffordable private property gained, in a bid to attract middle class incomes.

Most are aware that the Aylesbury is already home to an impressive social mix. The price and opportunity associated with land in London has made it untenable for those seen as undesirable in the eyes of politics. As the blocks fall, the middle class will rise.

For those that manage to secure a new property, their voice could be drowned out as they lose what little power they had. Those that bought homes under Thatcher’s 'Right to Buy scheme' have been served CPO’s and face the most significant challenge of all. Their undervalued homes afford them little elsewhere in London. The uncertain future for the Aylesbury Estate continues.