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The fight to repurpose – not demolish – Britain’s ageing housing stock

Central Hill, Lambeth

8 min read

Residents of London’s Central Hill estate have lived under the threat of demolition for a decade.

The leafy 1960s social housing complex in Crystal Palace was first earmarked for redevelopment by Lambeth council in 2014, but its future still hangs in the balance. “Everyone’s been living in limbo,” says Pete Elliot, a former Green Party councillor who lived there for seven years until March 2023. “It’s been so traumatic for people.”

Regeneration has long been shorthand for knocking down moribund neighbourhoods and starting again – think Tony Blair’s 1997 pledge to end “no-hope areas”, or David Cameron’s promise to rebuild “sink estates” – but that is starting to change.

In recent years, environmental concerns around demolition have bolstered the case for reusing existing structures and refurbishing them instead, a cause previously confined to anti-gentrification campaigners. 

Deep retrofitting is often greener than bringing in the wrecking ball because of embodied carbon. This refers to the emissions generated from construction – everything from fuel burned during the building process to extracting, making and shipping raw materials. The UK Green Building Council estimates that 25 per cent of the UK’s emissions are from the built environment, due in part to the vast amount of energy spent creating it.

“In the past, we didn’t necessarily think about the colossal amount of energy it takes to make architecture or housing,” says Phineas Harper, chief executive of Open City, an architecture non-profit which campaigns to make buildings more accessible. “But any serious conversation about how the UK will reach net-zero has to include reducing emissions from construction.”

Nonetheless, Britain keeps bulldozing homes. Between 1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023, a total of 3,224 social housing dwellings were demolished. That represents an increase of 11 per cent on the previous year, and reflects the significant hurdles to deep retrofitting. (This is related to, but distinct from, the mass retrofit of insulation and heat pumps needed across Britain’s housing stock to bring it up to minimum energy efficiency standards by 2050.)

One of those obstacles is money. Since 2020, six local councils including Birmingham, Nottingham and Croydon have effectively announced bankruptcy, in the form of section 114 notices. The cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, said in February that unless the government addresses an estimated £4bn funding shortfall in the next financial year, more will follow. 

Harper says: “A huge driver of demolition is councils looking around to see what they can sell, or see what they can get more money out of, because they’re not getting as much income from central government as they need.”

Meanwhile, some ageing estates are simply not suitable for repurposing, says Becci Taylor, who leads engineering consultant Arup’s retrofit-at-scale business. “I’ve worked on projects where the building was structurally unsafe, so you would need to put steel throughout it. Then the ceiling heights would have been two metres and it wouldn’t have been worth living in,” she says. “There are high-carbon retrofits and there are also low-carbon new-builds.”

To further muddy the waters, there is a drastic lack of housing supply in the UK. If retrofitting an existing block means having fewer homes on the market, that brings another element to decision making. “The built environment is a complex system and there are lots of things you need to think about,” says Taylor. “Carbon is obviously really important, but it’s not the only consideration.”

Lambeth council’s initial decision to demolish Central Hill was, according to a 2017 statement, driven by a combination of all of the above. It refers to the cost of refurbishing versus starting over, the need for more homes to help tackle the housing crisis, alongside “fundamental design issues of the estate”. 

central hill
Central Hill

However, a scathing 2022 review into Lambeth’s housebuilding arm, Housing for Lambeth (HfL), by the late Lord Bob Kerslake found significant shortcomings in its approach to redevelopment, particularly around how it treated residents. “[Tenants] spoke of inconsistent approaches, poor communications, delays, lack of consideration, and confusion of responsibilities between HfL and Lambeth council,” the review said. “As a consequence, levels of trust in the council are exceptionally low.”

The findings also underscore the social cost of bulldozing estates. Several academic studies have concluded that it can worsen inequality. Short term, moving people out of their homes can be “hugely disruptive to a community,” says Open City’s Harper. “It tears friendships apart, and can damage the social stability of a neighbourhood.”

The Kerslake review ordered a “fundamental reset” of Lambeth’s major redevelopments, including a policy of “only demolishing estates where this is more environmentally sustainable in the long term or where structural issues cannot be remedied”. Lambeth has since disbanded HfL, and is now consulting on what to do next at Central Hill which, according to deputy council leader Danny Adilypour, could be anything from “refurbishment, retrofit to full redevelopment”. 

Embodied carbon is a major contributor to a building’s overall footprint – cement production alone accounts for eight per cent of world emissions – but actually measuring it is a relatively new, complicated science. Carrying out a so-called whole-life carbon assessment (WLCA) incorporates not only the thousands of component parts of a site, but also their supply chains. Those are compounded by other factors, such as how long the structure will realistically last.

I think it would be difficult for somebody not to think about retrofitting as an option now

As a result, not everyone does it the same way, if at all, says Steve Beechey, public sector director at construction firm Wates Group. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, an industry body, published a framework for WLCAs in September 2023, which was “a step forward”, Beechey says. “But it’s early days, and there is a skills shortage in this area. We’re still in that zone where we’re trying to get people to do this consistently, and in the same way.”

There are further economic factors at play too. In 2022, Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew reintroduced a Private Member’s Bill to the Commons, proposing a new section of building regulations that includes measuring embodied carbon. But the government refused to support it on the grounds that it could hurt smaller firms of housebuilders. Since then, Mayhew and other MPs have lobbied for a pricing mechanism for carbon and a subsequent levy on UK carbon imports.

Mayhew says: “This is the next big thing to address if we’re going to reach our net-zero legal requirement by 2050. Carbon has a price. Once we’ve established what it is, the market can decide whether to knock a building down or retrofit it. But to have proper exchange, you need information. Currently that’s lacking.”

In the public policy sphere, there is evidence that attitudes are shifting in favour of retrofitting. Last year, Michael Gove banned Marks & Spencer from bulldozing its store on London’s Oxford Street on environmental grounds, in what has become a closely watched test case both in commercial and residential property circles. (M&S has since launched a legal challenge, calling the decision “laughable” and “utterly pathetic”.)

The Greater London Authority (GLA), too, requires developers of major schemes to report the carbon cost of their buildings. Demolition is, in most instances, now discouraged under the GLA’s 2021 London Plan. Arup’s Taylor says: “Things have completely changed, literally in the space of about five years. I think it would be difficult for somebody not to think about retrofitting as an option now.”

And yet, the demolitions go on. Harper says: “Most good architects will be looking for opportunities to improve and upgrade buildings, rather than knock them down and start again. The trouble is, there are a lot of bad architects that won’t do that, and will take pretty much any job.”

One easy win, suggests Harper, would be to change legislation around VAT, which applies to retrofit construction work but not to new-builds. This is designed to incentivise housebuilding, but the downside is that “if you have a perfectly good building that could be refurbished, the cost is artificially high compared to demolition”. 

In Central Hill’s case, at least, the recent shift in sentiment has been enough to give tenants a temporary reprieve. But for former resident Elliot, it has been “a nightmare” that underscores the social cost of Britain’s ongoing love affair with demolition. He too backs the introduction of a retrofit-first policy, along with unified standards for measuring embodied carbon. 

“We’ve been saying the estate should be refurbished, not demolished, for years, and the environmental impact has always been a part of that,” he says. “If these conversations had happened a decade ago we might not have had to go through this whole ordeal.”

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