Woodberry Down: bright future, visible social divide

New builds on the north side of the estate. Pic: Koos Couvee

On Hackney’s Woodberry Down estate, old grey Soviet style blocks mix with the brown brickwork characteristic of post-war council housing. But on the west side of Woodberry Grove, three bedroom flats are sold for £700k.

For two years a regeneration process has been underway, but uncertainty reigns. The estate is being regenerated to benefit existing residents, however there is a newly visible social divide.

The plan for regeneration of the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney was conceived in the late 1990’s during a time of economic boom. Hackney Council decided that it was more economical to knock down the gigantic estate, home to near on 2,000 families living in large social housing blocks, rather than bring the homes up to the government’s Decent Homes standard.

Woodberry Down is one of London’s largest council estates, built by the London County Council in the 1940s as a utopian ‘estate of the future’. The estate was home to one of the country’s first comprehensives and the first purpose-built NHS health centre in London. A major traffic route, Seven Sisters Road, cuts the estate in half. Finsbury Park is located on the west side of the estate and on the south side, flats new and old overlook a large water reservoir.

In 2002, Hackney Council promised residents new accommodation on the estate or the option of moving into council properties elsewhere in the borough. But uncertainty reigns. Debbie Bussey, a long-term resident who lives in one of the old blocks on the east side of Woodberry Grove, works as a cleaner on the estate. Bussey applied to be re-housed into another borough in order to be closer to her stepfather, who was suffering from cancer, but her application was refused.

“We never know what is going on, things change all the time”, she says, “There are mixed feelings about the regeneration process. There’s damp in my flat in Selwood House and I have developed asthma as a result. I have no idea when I will be re-housed, they are going to build another private tower and sell those flats first.”

Old Soviet style blocks on the east side. Pic: Koos Couvee

The regeneration project has been delayed several times due to the economic downturn, and many residents have already moved away. In 2009, the Government refused Hackney Council a £40m grant to facilitate the transfer of the Council’s housing stock to Genesis Housing Association, for redevelopment by Berkeley Homes, a Surrey based house building company which specialises in urban redevelopment.

The project experienced a boost in January 2011 as a result of a cash injection from Hackney Council and the government’s Homes and Communities Agency: funding which was used for construction of social rented housing at Green Lanes, Woodberry Grove North, Horston and Sherwood, where tenants are expected to move in over summer. A total of 117 social rented flats, overlooking the reservoir to the south, were occupied last year.

Now government funding has dried up, further construction of homes for social renting and shared ownership are to be generated by the sale of over 2,700 private flats by Berkeley Homes. All council blocks and the terraced houses on the west side, totalling 1,980 homes, are being knocked down over the next twenty years, making way for a total of 4,600 new properties.

Despite the pressing need for affordable housing in Hackney, the regeneration process will not produce an increase in council flats.  The estate used to consist entirely of social housing. Before demolition began, 67 per cent of homes on the estate were social rented flats, whilst 33 per cent of Woodberry Down residents were leaseholders through the Right-to-Buy scheme. According to Hackney Council, all secured tenants on the estate will be offered new tenanted property on estate and of 4,600 new homes, 41 per cent will be affordable homes. This is however a higher proportion compared to similar programmes in London. For instance, the Grahame Park estate in Barnet and the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets will contain 35 per cent affordable housing after regeneration.

“The regeneration plan was conceived in the late 1990’s – the boom years”, says 53-year-old Jonathan Bevan. Bevan runs an electrical appliances shop on Woodberry Grove. He has been running the shop for over 33 years, having taken over from his father, who was one of the original tenants on the estate in 1953. “Obviously, the economy has gone into recession and that’s why the process has slowed down. But we have to accept that we can’t pay for something we haven’t got the money for.

“The estate has been in decline for years”, Bevan continues. “In twenty years time, there will be a real mix of people, a very different type of population, I think people will respect the place: it’s open and there are green spaces. If the project succeeds, it will be a fantastic place to live and we’ll be back where we were thirty years ago.”

Berkeley Homes confirmed that over a hundred of the private flats in the lavish Riverside building have already been sold and will be ready for occupation this summer. Buyers are Asian property developers, local downsizers, young professionals and wealthy foreigners buying a flat for when their children come to study in the UK. The glossy brochure advertising the private flats features adverts for Harrods, Louis Vutton, Selfridges, haute couture and West End cuisine. And a three bedroom flat can cost up to £700,000.

The private flats on Woodberry Grove pic: Koos Couvee

47-year-old John Cremin, whose mother has lived on the estate for decades, is somewhat cynical about Berkeley Homes’ marketing strategy, but welcomes the prospect of middle class homeowners on the estate. “The more owner occupiers you get”, Cremin says, “the more the estate will improve because middle class people tend to get more involved in the community and they do not put up with bad schools and other community facilities.”

“If you look at some of the estates in Haringey, built fifteen years ago, they are already slums. I’ve lived on many estates and it only takes two or three scummy families to ruin the place for everyone. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here.”

Reverend Tunde Roberts, vicar of Woodberry Down’s St. Olave’s Church and former chairman of the Association of Black Clergy in England, is not so optimistic: “The regeneration process was meant to create a mixture of locals and new people, but a lot of people won’t be able to afford it: most private flats are aimed at a different demographic. For example, car owners in the Riverside flats will have to buy a parking space in the garage for£30,000. Parking used to be free of charge. There is no way leaseholders currently living on the estate are going to be able to afford that, on top of the house price. I was here twelve years ago and people were being told that regeneration was taking place to benefit local residents, but now it’s really about how much the developer makes out of it.”

The scenario Jonathan Bevan hopes for may in part become reality. But in the here and now, discontent reigns among many residents about the uncertainty at the heart of the process. Furthermore, one cannot ignore the looming social divide that currently characterises the estate. New owners will move into the tower in the Riverside building in September, together with council tenants on the north side of the estate. But construction on the next private tower has not yet begun, and for council tenants in the old blocks no new council homes will become available until these flats are sold.

Just as in its birth, Woodberry Down is an experiment once again, and its relative success in improving local residents’ lives will speak volumes about the nature of government housing policy today.

One Response

  1. Emma April 11, 2012

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