Owen Hopkins at Architectural Review:
I was interested to read Owen Hatherley extolling the virtues of the Brandon Estate, not least because it’s where I’ve lived and been a participant-observer for the last six years…Hatherley describes strolling through the estate on a Sunday afternoon, when he encountered “people hanging around in the wide green between the blocks…the football games in the park, the families wandering about, the man selling a tupperware box of cakes to the football players”.
His observations, I’m afraid, betray the same superficiality and blinkered vision for which he criticises Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman’s influential take-downs of social housing in the 1970s and 1980s.
Moreover, his description contains basic inaccuracies: he miscounts the number of towers – there are six rather than the eight he claimed – fails to realise that the Brandon Estate extends much further and is far more varied than the area around the towers, that the football he saw was actually being played on the Kennington Park extension, which is not strictly part of the Brandon Estate, and that some of those on the touchline include the ever-present drug dealers congregating around an old sofa, rather like in the first season of The Wire.
It’s almost as if Hatherley, well known hard left ideologue, had made up his mind about the Brandon Estate before he arrived.
I gave a cheer when I read this. A depressing sign of our political times and the sterile polarisation of debates about the redevelopment or otherwise of London’s largely social housing estates is that the Hard Left’s contribution to it is so often as rigid and myopic as that of those whose stance on the issue it opposes – not to mention as blithely incurious about the lives, needs and desires of people who actually live on those estates.
Hopkins is a learned and genuinely progressive writer on buildings, their histories and their functions. The failings he has found in Hatherley’s account are particularly striking because he is a Brandon Estate resident, but his more general critique of an attitude Hatherley typifies is just as acute.
He damns the approaches of Hatherley – who would, it often appears, claim to have found Heaven in the worst slum in Hell as long as the slum had plenty of grass round it and was wholly owned by the state – and of Coleman and Newman alike as “determinist” and therefore predisposed to “ignore the complexities of individual estates and of the lives of the people who live on them.” Quite right: sentimental selectiveness is as misleading as any other kind of reductionism. And Hopkins adds: “The simplistic equation of council estate automatically equalling good and regeneration bad, which Hatherley has been peddling for over a decade now, helps no one.”
How very true that is – a truth, in my view, arising from values that should have been firmly applied across the London regeneration spectrum in recent times, from the scorched earth Tory bulldozer strategy that still threatens the largely successful West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates and has wrecked half of Earls Court, to the theocratic Corbynism that stopped the Haringey Development Vehicle, a joint venture approach that could, if handled well, have produced new and better homes for some of that borough’s worst housed people and many more, enjoying resident support along the way.
London’s current housing problems – many of them, though serious, not particularly new – are never going to be effectively addressed by top down theorising that presumes to speak for housing estate and other communities without wasting too much time on finding out what the desires and experiences of people in those communities might actually be. That is a big part of why London needs a truly progressive politics of estates.
LONDON AND BREXIT DEBATE: Will leaving the EU be good or bad for the capital? On London and the illustrious London Society have jointly organised a debate about this crucial question. Anti-Brexit campaigner Andrew Adonis, former Boris Johnson adviser Daniel Moylan, Lib Dem AM Caroline Pidgeon and Victoria Hewson from the Institute of Economic Affairs form an all-star line-up of speakers. Buy your tickets here.