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  • Dickensian blocks:East London’s contemporary housing landscape
  • Stephanie Polsky (bio)

Charles Dickens would recognise many familiar features in twenty-first-century East London

In 1969, Charles Dickens House, a twenty-two-storey tower block on the Mansford Estate in Bethnal Green, stood at the pinnacle of both high-rise living and utopian council housing. Its subsequent fate is emblematic of the precipitous decline of investment in social housing throughout the period since it was built.

By 2003, Charles Dickens House had fallen into a state of major disrepair. Internal security was becoming a serious concern for it residents, as was the poor state of the interior of the flats and the dearth of proper insulation throughout the building. When residents approached the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for solutions to these concerns they were met with a serious obstacle. The council simply did not have the necessary resources to restore the block and to bring it structurally up to the Labour government’s Decent Homes Standard. The only solution they could offer was for residents to accept transfer of the management of the estate to Tower Hamlet Community Housing Limited (THCH), a not-for-profit housing association. [End Page 95]

The Council assured residents that transfer to THCH would be the best available solution to provide the level of regeneration and service that the Council and the residents desired. THCH promised they would have their homes brought up to an enviable standard, with new kitchens and bathrooms, and that leaseholders (those who had exercised their right to buy) would see their properties properly maintained and their investment protected. Because of borrowing restrictions, the Council could invest a maximum of £2.28 million into the regeneration of the Estate, whereas THCH was in a position to invest a minimum of £18.5 million, through their access to private lenders.1 The bottom line was that THCH, a private entity, would offer residents better value for money than staying with the Council.

Leaseholders were particularly concerned about the transfer: they were concerned that if it went through many of them would be facing bills of between £8000 and £30,000 in order to cover the considerable costs of these structural upgrades. For tenants the transfer was presented as a win-win situation: their homes would be improved, and their new landlords would be a housing association, a not-for-profit voluntary organisation that would continue to offer low-cost, secure housing. The transfer went ahead the following year.

Progressive government budget shortfalls meant that THCH, like other housing associations, was over time forced to raise housing costs for leaseholders, in the form of higher bills for block maintenance. This situation eventually compelled a number of leaseholders to sell their flats on to a more wealthy class of owner on the private market. Some of the building began to be gentrified.

On 21 August 2013, the website featured an advertisement for a new leaseholder for a 2-bedroom apartment in Charles Dickens House, under offer for £249,000. Its description appears to demonstrate the fulfilment of promises made to residents to upgrade the property, but omits the communal costs extracted to achieve such a rise in living standards:

Boasting unbeatable views of: Saint Paul’s, the London eye, the Gherkin, The Shard building and Canary Wharf is this exceptional 2 double bedroom apartment set on the 20th floor of a well maintained ex-local authority building. The property has been refurbished to a[n] extremely high standard and features 2 large double bedrooms, high spec kitchen with raised flooring to allow views with seating area. The [End Page 96] property also features a modern bathroom, plenty of storage space, large reception room with access to private balcony. The building has an added bonus of coming with a concierge service and is located just a few moments from Bethnal Green Tube and Columbia Road Flower market.

A similar two-bedroom leasehold property in Charles Dickens House had sold for £172,500 on 5 April 2007, according to information displayed on the website Zoopla. By 2015 the same kind of two-bedroom property in Charles Dickens House was featured on Rightmove...


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