London had a sub-prime housing problem. Now it has a super-prime crisis
Across London, social housing is being demolished to build luxury towers for global investors. Only eight years since the financial crash, Anna Minton marvels at how, once again, we’ve let the property market spiral out of control.
I recently took part in a gloomy debate about London’s housing crisis with the celebrated modernist architect Kate Macintosh. All the previous speakers had referred despairingly to the demolition of dozens of the city’s housing estates – a process described by the group Architects for Social Housing (ASH) as “the London clearances”.
Macintosh talked about her experience in the 1960s designing the south London landmark Dawson’s Heights, and the success of recent community projects at north London’s once-troubled Broadwater Farm Estate.
“Does she not know that Broadwater Farm is also under threat of demolition?” I wondered to myself.
It turns out she did: she broke down in tears while describing what the community, despite all their efforts, now faced. She composed herself and continued, but her response certainly underlined the impact of London’s housing crisis, which in the run-up to the city’s mayoral election has emerged as Londoners’ top concern.
For postwar Britain’s best and brightest young architects, like Macintosh, the hottest tickets were designing public buildings: modernist housing estates, Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre. Today, in a city with the second-highest house prices in the world (after Monaco), only listed status ensures these modernist buildings remain, with the housing estates themselves usually repurposed for a new world. In east London, for example, all of the flats in Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower are being sold on the private market, once each of the 146 interiors is stripped out and reconfigured to appeal to investors. Goldfinger presumably is turning in his grave at the idea of his spacious and light-flooded apartments converted into multiple bedsits to be sold at hugely inflated prices.
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA