‘It can’t be sustainable’: The hidden costs of demolishing council housing estates

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On the western edge of the Central Hill housing estate in Lambeth, a temporary wall plastered with cheery posters greets visitors approaching the complex.

For more than five years, the 450 homes on this estate have been earmarked for demolition and rebuild in a process commonly referred to as “estate regeneration”. The posters, courtesy of Homes for Lambeth, promise an enticing future of “cleaner, greener” homes on the site, replete with photographs of smiling families, solar panels, e-bikes and bustling high streets.

Without further interrogation, these claims might seem to stack up. In 2019, Lambeth’s Labour council – sole owners of housing delivery group Homes for Lambeth – became the first London authority to officially declare a “climate emergency”, making an ambitious pledge to reach net zero in its operations by 2030.

The problem is, demolishing and rebuilding properties is far from sustainable. Construction, along with the energy required to heat, cool and power buildings, is estimated to account for almost 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Declaring a climate emergency but approving demolition is completely contradictory. Knocking down a major estate and replacing it just can’t be sustainable,” Will Hurst, managing editor at the Architects Journal (AJ) says.

Through its “retrofit first” campaign, the AJ has spent several years on a mission to alert policymakers, architects and the public to the shocking wastefulness of demolition and rebuild in the construction industry, a sector responsible for a third of the UK’s waste output.

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