The Aylesbury Estate has a unique presence both in its local area, and, over the past decades, within wider discussions and debate around housing policy. In late 2020 and the spring of 2021 we spoke to people living on the estate, local agencies and community organisations. We wanted to find out their experience of the changes in the area, and of living through the pandemic - building on research we carried out on the estate in 2014-15.
We heard a story of how the particular process of the Aylesbury regeneration and the crisis of the pandemic have undermined many of the protective factors that have supported local communities in the past. But, in spite of this, we found that some of the estate’s assets remain: its services and facilities, and some of the neighbourliness and sense of belonging that we saw when we first spent time in the area.
This is the second stage of our research for Notting Hill Genesis to track the impact of the redevelopment of the estate, which is being incrementally demolished and rebuilt. The Aylesbury Estate is iconic within Walworth, its slab blocks demarcate a particular geographical area and community which became synonymous with inner-city decay, poverty and crime from the 1980s onwards. In 1997 it was the venue for Tony Blair’s first major speech as Prime Minister, announcing his new administration’s approach to deprived neighbourhoods and to welfare reform, and describing Aylesbury residents as among “the poorest people in our country [who] have been forgotten by government.”
Over the five years different factors have taken their toll on everyday life: increasing disrepair and dissatisfaction with housing; the weakening of stable social networks as longer standing residents of blocks due for demolition move out; the delays in the regeneration which mean that homes wer emptied long before demolition is planned, and the associated arrival of vulnerable people on temporary tenancies (moving into the homes that secure tenants and leaseholders have left). Alongside this, people have moved into newly built homes, some are private renters and home owners from more affluent backgrounds.
Images: new homes built by L&Q and one of the older "red brick" blocks on the estate
In 2020-21 we heard how strong social relationships, social networks and the work of local agencies have helped people get by in difficult circumstances, but how these were put under strain in the pandemic. We were told that residents’ sense of voice and influence is very low, that people often feel powerless and that they have little control over what happens in the area. This seems to have been exacerbated by the visible decline of the condition of the older building and a feeling that the council have been unable or unwilling to manage its upkeep. The increasing number of residents in temporary accommodation (many with vulnerabilities and difficult life stories) who have been housed on the estate by Southwark often feel they have very little say or feeling of investment in the estate.
Satisfaction with housing is very low. The physical condition of the estate, and the lack of community spaces and facilities, is not supportive of residents’ individual and collective wellbeing. People told us they felt safe overall, however the blocks that are emptying are becoming serious magnets for anti-social behaviour and crime. In spite of this, good public transport, schools, health services, Burgess Park and other green spaces, as well as strong and active third sector organisations continue to be local assets supporting resilience.
There are very mixed feelings about the regeneration. As residents see blocks coming down, there is a sense of inevitability that they will have to leave their homes. Residents can see new housing being built, but is not clear to them when they will be able to move in. Most council tenants want to stay council tenants despite many having animosity towards the council for the poor condition of the estate – earlier this year it was announced that 581 homes on the first redeveloped site will be council housing.
Our first benchmarking research in 2014-15 found a place where, although many were living precarious lives on low incomes, a number of protective factors were supporting residents and helping them cope with difficulties. These included some of the same local assets that we found in 2020-21. We found social solidarity and tolerance between different groups, and neighbourly and often friendly relationships between people living in close proximity. Residents we spoke to told us that they felt comfortable living there, they felt they belonged. Most newer residents described a welcoming place, accepting of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Many people also described significant problems with the physical condition of the housing.
We used our social sustainability framework as the starting point for our assessment in both rounds of research. This captures four dimensions that we see as being key to a thriving place: Voice & influence; Social & cultural life; Adaptability & resilience and Amenities and social infrastructure. Looking at the change in scores over time reveals how the estate has changed. Between 2015 and 2021 scores fell across all dimensions except for adaptability and resilience.
The Aylesbury regeneration has been deeply contested and controversial. Our work shows the difficult impact of the last five years, of the regeneration programme and of the pandemic, on the local assets and protective factors that have supported residents in the past. We saw how the impact of the regeneration has led to an increased in the number of people living in precarious situations at a time when the same process has reduced social supports.
The COVID-19 crisis exposed the extreme poverty and the difficulties many residents face. As new blocks are built and new facilities like the community centre and library open, we hope that they will be able to support the community to recover, against the backdrop of continuing regeneration and change.