By Dr Sarah Bell
Demolishing social housing to make way for higher density urban development has been presented as a simple, if difficult, solution to London's housing crisis. This line of argument is based on reasoning that London's social housing stock has not been well maintained and is expensive to fix, social housing estates account for large areas of land that could be better utilised, and along with the problems of social deprivation, it seems simplest to knock it all down and start again. Whether or not to demolish socially rented homes in London is an important political debate. It is a political debate which needs to be informed by rigorous technical evidence and analysis.
In 2014 the Engineering Exchange at UCL was commissioned by the London Tenants Federation and the Just Space Network to undertake a review of the technical evidence relating to demolition and refurbishment of social housing. The project addressed economic, environmental and health factors, with a particular emphasis on energy and carbon. The purpose was to synthesise the best available evidence of the costs, benefits and wider impacts of different options for the future of social housing. The project outcomes were delivered in a range of formats that could be used by residents, community representatives and other stakeholders to inform decision making about specific regeneration projects and the wider policy debate in London.
The review concluded that in general refurbishment of social housing is technically feasible and environmentally preferable to demolition. Buildings that are refurbished to high standards are capable of performing as well as new buildings in terms of energy and water consumption. Refurbishing homes reduces waste to landfill and has lower embodied carbon than demolition and rebuilding. Demolition and relocation can have detrimental impacts on residents' health, and refurbishing to good standards can have positive health impacts.
The evidence challenges the simplicity of the case for demolition. Refurbishing existing socially rented homes can deliver sustainable benefits as part of wider strategies for regeneration and house building, without the negative consequences of demolition. There are no simple answers to London's housing crisis. As alternatives are presented and debated it is important that they are informed by good technical evidence, and that evidence and assumptions are open to scrutiny from all sides of the argument.