Redeveloping council estates has become a popular way for boroughs to build more houses in London, where land is at a premium, but it is a high-wire act, conducted over a shark tank, with volleys of custard pies being hurled from the sidelines.
Build at too low densities and the numbers won't add up; go too high and you create a lumpy enclave out of keeping with its surroundings. Spend too much buying out existing residents and you kill the business case; spend too little and you will have to resort to compulsory purchase. Build too much market housing and you're accused of driving poor people from their homes; build too little and you won't make enough to cross-subsidise more affordable housing. Offer too little to developers and they won't take on the risk; offer too much and you look like an easy touch.
One of London's largest such schemes began to wobble on Friday, when the Secretary of State turned down Southwark's Council's application for a compulsory purchase order to enable the demolition and redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate, planned to increase total housing numbers from 2,700 to 4,000. The scheme has been intensely controversial, with accusations of 'social cleansing', occupations and forcible evictions providing a stormy backdrop to the slow-grinding legalities of planning and public enquiries.
It is hard to avoid boggling at the politics of a Conservative minister seemingly siding with anti-gentrification protestors against a major development scheme promoted by a Labour council. Is this a sign of the May government's commitment to helping the poorest in society? Is this dismissal of the public-private partnerships that have dominated public projects for so many years another sign of the 'end of liberalism'?
You can imagine Conservative spin doctors savouring some of these interpretations, but the politics of this decision are probably fortuitous rather than intentional. The process of confirming (or not) compulsory purchase orders is a
quasi-judicial one, made on the basis of an inspector's report and carefully worded official advice, not for political positioning.
And, when you look a bit deeper, the decision is a very conservative one. It was not the rights of council tenants that were the central consideration, but eight remaining leaseholders, owners of property bought under right-to-buy legislation. The compensation offered to them was judged to be inadequate, and their human rights likely to be breached if their homes were requisitioned. It was actually the very conservative defence of private property rights, and the Conservative policy of selling off council housing, that has knocked the project off course.