On Demolition

by Ken Gibb

Anderston Glasgow September 1 2013

Anderston Glasgow September 1 2013

I was at a multi-storey demolition in Glasgow today (see story on BBC News page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-23921636 ). My housing association is redeveloping a large part of Anderston just west of the city centre and the M8 and key to the programme is the clearance of a large property in the middle of the estate. We watched it come down this morning from a hotel on the other side of the motorway.

It got me thinking about a lot of things, notably when and when not to demolish but also the realities and complexities of area regeneration, especially when you have a stake in it.

This is the third Scottish blow down of a multi I have witnessed as a board member or chair of the housing association. The other two were a few years back on the Ardler estate in Dundee. The Dundee case involved the transformation of an entire neighbourhood and the development of mixed tenure terraced and semi detached housing following a stock transfer and design competition for remaking the area. Not only has the Ardler been completely transformed physically, it is a great sight to behold, demand for its housing is now very high and voids are few and far between. Moreover, the owner-occupied segment works well.  While local residents do on occasion remark with some fondness about the multi storey flats, the new housing is extremely popular.

Anderston is a high amenity location with the housing originally split between council and the Scottish Special Housing Association (later Scottish Homes). Via Glasgow Housing Association, part of it is now managed by a local housing association. The rest was the last ever Scottish Homes stock transfer, sold to my association (Sanctuary Scotland) and was again organised as part of a regeneration programme to rebuild the homes of more than 440 tenants and RTB owners. In both Anderston and the Ardler there has been extensive local consultation on the form of redevelopment and this was intimately connected to the transfer ballots.

Anderston has several important features. One is that there is an effort being made to reinstate the original streetscape lost in the 1960s comprehensive development. Another has been the use of shared equity models to allow RTB owners to move into new homes in the redeveloped neighbourhood – an opportunity that they have now all taken up.

I was delighted that my mother was able to be present today and see the blow down. She grew up in St Vincent Street in Anderston between the wars and her parents were eventually forced to move as a result of the comprehensive redevelopment of the area in their retirement to a pretty dreadful interwar scheme in Yoker.

So should demolition be used as extensively as it is (particularly in Glasgow)? It is controversial and I have colleagues who are in general dead set against closing housing stock in a period of need and when socio-technically the properties have years of potential useful life ahead of them. It is also well-known that local politicians and community leaders can see symbolic political capital in the demolition of ‘notorious’ buildings (as was the case in my home town of Motherwell recently). These, of themselves, are not very convincing arguments though one can see how they can be seductive.

What are the issues? First, does the cost-benefit analysis that gives appraisal advice add up to a demolition and redevelopment decision, and, within that, does this take sufficient account of the interests and preferences of residents and the local community? Capital costs, expected life of the property, life time running costs, discount rates and many other factors have to be assessed as well as important intangibles. Of course, there may be straightforward financial reasons that make in some cases refurbishment and in others redevelopment impossible. Of course, the CBA may not stand up but it at least exposes the key assumptions and arguments.

Second, the loss of net social units is a material consideration i.e. where the redevelopment is mixed tenure, at lower density or reduced numbers. This does need to be put in a context of long term reduction in Glasgow’s high rise flats and disillusionment with what comprehensive redevelopment produced, as well as the city council’s and GHA’s long term plans to reduce provision overall over a now 30 year period. Some of this is really about gentrification and what goes in its place and the extent to which new and different households are able to earn capital gains from the regeneration at the expense of local residents being displaced  (as well as the controversy as to the necessity or sustainability of mixed tenure redevelopment).

It is worth saying however, third, that it is not necessarily the case that all of these high buildings are being removed. GHA have come up with an innovative affordable renting solution to an Ibrox multi-storey block and other buildings remain popular and successful across the city (e.g. Anniesland and London Road). Equally, agencies across the country are seeking to maximise the re-use of empty properties including offering homesteading packages.

As far as the high flats go – there is clearly nothing definite about their future (or lack of it). Where there are no technical problems and where residents are happy to live in such a way that seems eminently reasonable. We know well that it does not always work for young families, and that there may be inadequate or insufficient supporting community infrastructure, shops and services in some areas. But if people want to remain and to find solutions that do not involve demolition where it makes for a sustainable solution, fair enough. What has always seemed wrong to me is that professionals or local politicians determine what should happen without resident consultation or involvement in alternative solutions.

Clearly there can be technical reasons for demolition and replacement with new homes.  We should also be aware of the beneficial value of new supply. While there may be a debate about injecting mixed tenure into an area, it does seem to be stronger ground to argue that new high quality social housing does have a positive impact on residents and wider neighbourhoods – we have seen that very clearly in the Ardler and throughout the community-based movement in Glasgow.

I don’t want to get into architectural debates. For me the key issues are financial and economic on the one hand and, from within the set of feasible solutions, making sure that residents have real control over decisions made in their name and have a voice in design solutions that follow. Obviously, that has not always been the case but equally ruling out any demolition or saying it always makes sense cannot be right. In my pragmatic way I would suggest that these are and should be decisions based on the views of those who matter, the underlying economics, what is really sustainable and making sure there is a proper debate around the competing visions for the future of neighbourhoods in question.

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