Woodberry Down in Hackney: how ‘regeneration’ is tearing up another east London community


Koos Couvée looks at the social cleansing that has gone alongside the gentrification of Hackney

You take down the dwellings of the poor, build houses in their place for which only the middle classes can afford to pay the rent, and thus by diminishing the amount of cheap house accommodation, increase the rents and aggravate the evil you attempt to cure.

William Farr, 1841

A process of displacement and what I call ‘accumulation by dispossession’ lie at the core of urbanization under capitalism. It is the mirror-image of capital absorption through urban redevelopment, and is giving rise to numerous conflicts over the capture of valuable land from low-income populations that may have lived there for many years.

David Harvey – The Right to the City

On the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney, east London, old grey Soviet style council blocks surround the brown brickwork characteristic of post-war social housing. One of London’s biggest council estates, it was built by the London County Council in the 1940s as a utopian ‘estate of the future’. 70 years on, a brand new private apartment block rises above the old and the estate is once again being turned into a social experiment. Located north of Clissold Park, in close proximity to Manor House tube station, the area is regarded as deprived but with great local assets, and a regeneration project has been underway for a number of years. According to Hackney Council, Woodberry Down is becoming a ‘vibrant mixed community of choice’ – the existing council blocks are being knocked down and in their place a mix of affordable homes and private flats are being built.

On the west side of the estate, near Manor House tube station, are the low rises. These terraced homes and maisonettes are located next to the estate’s nursery and a stone throw away from an NHS building, the first purpose built health centre in Britain after World War II. You can still feel the warm atmosphere of what once was, and in part still remains, a tight-knit community in which everyone knows each other. But the houses have been neglected for years and many are standing empty, the windows boarded up with blue metal plates and gardens completely overtaken by weeds. On either side of Spring Park Drive on the west side, squatters have moved in. Spring Park Drive is located in phase II of the regeneration plan, an area with a lot of empty homes vacated mainly by council tenants who have been re-housed or have left the estate. Most people left in these blocks and houses, scheduled for demolition in 2013, are leaseholders who took up the right to buy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The plan for regeneration of Woodberry Down was conceived in the late 1990s during a time of economic boom. A structural evaluation report undertaken on behalf of the Hackney council in 2002 concluded that 31 out of 57 blocks were ‘beyond economic repair’. The report recommended all homes on the estate be demolished. Labour-run Hackney Council told residents at the time that it would be less costly to knock down the gigantic estate, home to near on 2,000 families, than to bring the homes up to the government’s Decent Homes standard.

As a result of funding restrictions on the construction of new council homes, Hackney Council agreed a deal with Berkeley Homes, a large Surrey-based house building firm, in which the regeneration of the estate is self-funded, with private housing cross-subsiding affordable housing and some community infrastructure. Although the number of units available for social renting will remain constant, the tenure mix is changing from change from 67 per cent social rented and 33 per cent leaseholders with Hackney Council, to 41 per cent affordable homes, with rented accommodation run by Genesis housing association and 59 per cent privately owned. In other words, an additional 2,700 homes will be built by Berkeley Homes over the next two decades in order to fund the programme, and ensure the developer, who noted annual profits of £96m in 2011, reach their target of 21 per cent profit as agreed in the deal with the council.

The options available to leaseholders, those residents who have bought their homes through the Right-to-Buy scheme, and many of whom have been living on the estate for decades, are basically twofold. They can either sell their homes back to the council, and with that money buy another property on the open market, or agree a new leasehold with the council on one of the new builds. For compensation for the loss of their homes, Hackney Council will pay leaseholders the market value of property plus home loss payment of 10 per cent of market value, plus a disturbance allowance of around £5,000. The idea is that residents take this money and buy a new property in the open market. But compensation – based on ‘real market value’ – is not enough to buy a similar property in Hackney, a gentrified inner London borough that has seen house prices increase dramatically over the last ten years. And most of the new builds sold by Berkeley on the estate, are twice, three or four times the value of the old council flats. Leaseholders simply cannot afford to buy them. They can also opt for the option of shared equity in one of the new builds, but for this arrangement to work the old property needs to be worth at least 70 per cent of the value of the new property. Only three residents on the entire estate have taken up this option so far – most leaseholders do not want to move from a house into a flat and/or find the new flats too small. They simply want to retain what they have.

The old and new on Woodberry Down estate

Many Woodberry Down residents believe that Hackney Council has left their properties to rot in order to bring down their value, and thereby the cost of compensation. The surveyor working on behalf of Hackney Council, Drivers Jonas & Deloitte (who are also working on behalf of Newham Council on the Carpenters estate in Stratford, also earmarked for demolition, very much a similar scenario), insists that the home valuations reflect ‘real market value’. But a single mother I speak to is being offered £205,000 for her three bedroom house, and an elderly woman has had her three-bedroom flat valued at £190,000. A young father living two blocks down is being offered £160,000 for a four-bedroom flat. It is highly unlikely these people will get anything near equivalent to what they have in Hackney. Needless to say the leaseholders are furious.

The Right-to-Buy policy, a brainchild of the Thatcher government, extended the option of home ownership to the working classes by allowing council tenants to buy their homes at a considerable discount. The idea was that home ownership equaled class ascendancy, provided a safety net for future generations, and would cement tight-knit communities of long-term residents. While only a third of residents on Woodberry Down have exercised their right to buy, the policy was hugely popular throughout Britain. In 2009, the number of council houses sold off to former tenants passed the two million mark. The political promise underpinning the policy was, in Thatcher’s words: “In about 25 years’ time there will be a lot of people who will be inheriting something, because for the first time we will have a whole generation of people who own their homes and will be leaving them, so that they topple like a cascade down the line of the family. That is popular capitalism.”

Popular capitalism, alas, is not proving very popular in Hackney. Suzy Nelson is a lecturer  in urban planning at Westminster University, presently carrying out a study of the regeneration process at Woodberry Down. When I meet her in her Baker Street office, she describes the leaseholders as the ‘squeezed middle’. The term, popularised by Labour leader Ed Miliband, refers to a trend in which middle class wages fail to keep up with inflation. It is used by Nelson to describe a situation in which leaseholders, who have bought into the Thatcherite idea that home ownership equals social mobility and financial security, are now faced with an inflated housing market in a gentrified area where they can no longer buy an equivalent property. They are forced to take two steps back, face having to move to the outskirts of London or out of the city altogether.

‘Woodberry Park’

Berkeley Homes describe the new private blocks they have called ‘Woodberry Park’, as “a mix of commercial, residential and leisure facilities make this mixed use development, built by leading property developer, Berkeley an ideal location to invest for the future.” Two-bedroom flats currently advertised in the new development start at £395,000, and a three-bedroom flat can cost as much as £667,500. The flat on top of the new tower is being sold for £1m. The glossy brochure advertising Berkeley’s private flats features adverts for Harrods, Louis Vutton, Selfridges, haute couture and West End cuisine:

The new apartments in the tower block, which can be spotted from as far as Finsbury Park, have not been sold in the UK. In fact, the typical buyer at Woodberry Down is a Hong Kong or Singapore-based investor, buying new-build properties with the aim of renting them out in the open market for a combination of income and eventual capital gain. The high prices of the new builds, the reputation of the Manor House area and the high density of residents on the estate means it is unlikely the properties will attract a great deal of local buyer interest. It thus appears that Woodberry Down will lose most of its leaseholders because of the unaffordability of housing in the area, and become a high-density estate of social and private renters. Needless to say from a sustainable community perspective, the plan is a complete disaster. Families and elderly men and women who have lived on the estate for decades, purchased their homes and played an active role in the community are simply told to pack up and go. 

State sponsored gentrification

You could say that Hackney Council, due to government funding restrictions on the construction and maintenance of social housing, have done their best to get a good deal for the residents. At least people have the option of being re-housed and are not shipped of the estate altogether. In fact, the council’s commitment to building 41 per cent affordable new homes is comparatively strong, as this proportion is much larger than elsewhere. For instance, at the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, also earmarked for demolition, plans for the construction of affordable homes have been dropped. In Tottenham there have been two recent occasions where Haringey Council have let a developer get away with a zero commitment to affordable housing. With property prices at an all time high, this amounts to nothing other than state sponsored gentrification; some would say social cleansing.

NB: ‘Affordable’ housing means housing associations can charge up to 80 per cent of market rates. With London rents ever rising and the government unwilling to impose rent caps, this particular notion of ‘affordable housing’ is hugely problematic.

At Woodberry Down, the close working relationship between Hackney Council, surveyor Drivers Jonas Deloitte and BerkelyHomes, reveal a sinister underbelly hidden beneath glossy brochures with smiling residents. It can be safely said that there is, in the engagement with leaseholders in particular, a strategy of deliberate misinformation towards residents, aimed at smoothing the process of demolition and keeping the cost of leaseholder compensation down. Residents on phase II of the estate were only called to a meeting after the deadline of the Compulsary Purchase Order (CPO) issued on their homes has passed, and there had not been a meeting for months prior to the deadline. Moreover, Drivers Jonas Deloitte actively discourage leaseholders to discuss their valuations with each other, and will only speak to residents individually. A divide and rule strategy aims to divide council tenants and leaseholders, as well as leaseholders from other leaseholders. 36 people have taken their compensation money and thereby lost their right to return to their area. The fact that these people have taken the money is used by the council as evidence of the fact that compensation reflects real market value.

Woodberry Down is quite a typical example of how urban regeneration works in post-Thatcher Britain. The ‘regeneration’ process is part of a wider process of state-sponsored gentrification, which amounts to social cleansing because of the displacement of working class residents. And it is not just the state sponsoring gentrification.

Most of the London and national media outlets have uncritically thrown their weight behind the Olympic craze, neglecting their duty of holding London politicians to account, and leaving it to countless independent local blogs, and sometimes the Guardian (Dave Hill’s blog is excellent), to expose the social cleansing that is going on in London under the banner of ‘regeneration’. The media’s bias was most blatantly exemplified by the London Evening Standard in the run-up to the mayoral election, when it reduced the mayoral race to a personality contest, and backed Boris without a mention of his abysmal record on housing, policing and other factors that underpin London’s most serious social problems. In the Standard, West End theatre reviews feature on a daily basis, but no ink is being wasted to reveal the extent of Westminster’s housing bubble, or the rest of London’s housing crisis.

The Standard’s Homes & Property section of course one big advert for gentrification and aspirational living. “The East End has turned rough and tumble into impossibly cool”, writes David Spittles. “Away from the gleaming towers of Canary Wharf, the arty lofts of Hoxton and gentrified pockets around Victoria Park, homes are still affordable enough to keep the property dreams of young Londoners alive.” Well, that is if you consider buying a window box in a 21-storey tower block for £200,000 attractive. And ignore the fact that another group of young Londoners is shipped out of London through a combination of rent rises and housing benefit cuts.

A call to arms

The London property market works as a safety net for a wide range of foreign investors, and with taxes on foreign purchase being the lowest in a world dominated by finance capital, will show no signs of abating. And there are tonnes of middle class folk from the Home Counties desperate to live the London life (can’t blame them really). This means that inner London gentrification will continue, recession or no recession.

As a result of my brief involvement with a number of campaigns in north and east London I have learned that regeneration projects are going on all over inner London and that in order to successfully resist them tenants and residents must be incredibly organised right from the start, and resist any attempt by the local authority or developer to divide them.

A recent TMP article entitled ‘The British Housing Crisis: A Call to Arms’, suggested the following:

“Some (broad and specific) demands which could or have been already formulated centre round anything that encourages de-commodification of housing, and anything that limits the ‘free market’ approach to housing provision, including but not limited to:

–          ending evictions, repossessions, compulsory purchases, privatisations, demolitions, and benefit cuts

–          rent controls

–          ending property speculation

–          new genuinely affordable new housing

–          bringing back secure council tenancies

–          reducing the price of land and taxing land value

–          reverse the criminalisation of squatting”

I am new to housing campaigns, but perhaps a pan-London conference must be called, bringing together a large number of campaign groups in order to share their experiences and strategies for resistance against regeneration in its neoliberal form. Residents facing demolition and regeneration plans would certainly be helped by learning from another community’s struggle for a type of urban renewal which does not lead to the bulldozing of social ties, local history, historic buildings and displacement of entire communities.

This article has been co-published with The Multicultural Politic 


Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans – http://www.facebook.com/carpvoice

Wards Corner Community Coalition – http://wardscorner.wikispaces.com/

Southwark Notes – Whose Regeneration? – http://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/

Heygate Estate – http://www.35percent.org/

Recent IPPR publication entitled ‘Affordable capital? Housing in London’ – http://www.ippr.org/publications/55/9064/affordable-capital-housing-in-london

Excellent article by UCL student on Carpenters Estate regeneration – http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/bloomsbury-olympic






  1. June 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm · Reply

    I remember Woodbury Downs from the 1980’s- a great estate and a real community. The old Communist Party use to get around 20-25% in local elections, as well as run the local community centre and have a big say in the Tenant’s Association.

    The top flats/roof of the towers was also a great place to broadcast pirate radio from.

    The Labour Council has been running the place down since I was in Rectory Ward (Next door ward), particularly the towers- Sharon Patrick was the Head of Housing at the time, I remember lobbying her along with the Tenant’s Association- her attitude at the time was that they, the towers, were half full of squatters. Turned out later that some staff in the housing department had been selling keys, and far from squatters the ‘unpaying’ residents were people that these council workers had put in and were reaping the rents. Butt lazy politicos and corrupt council workers played a key role in the decline of Woodbury Downs.

  2. June 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm · Reply

    Woodberry even, sound like bury with me Teeside accent!

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