Stop viewing estate regeneration as asset management, councils told

Friday 23 September 2016

Local authorities involved in regenerating London’s ageing housing estates must avoid seeing the process as ‘asset management’ and instead adopt sensitive and honest engagement with affected communities.

That was one of the points to emerge from a lively think tank discussion on ‘densification vs demolition’ at the NLA, attended by representatives from the National Strategy for Estate Regeneration (NSER), GLA, housing associations, developers, local authorities and architects.

The Lord Heseltine-fronted NSER, said Assael Architecture director and NSER member Félicie Krikler, has had 110 expressions of interest, a third of them from estates in London, all keen to get a slice of the £140 million set aside by former PM David Cameron to lever in extra investment.  The panel will come up with best practice guidance, and each estate must be addressed on its own merits, said Krikler.

But local authorities must get away from the town hall mindset of ‘doing things to residents of estates, rather than with them’, said London Assembly Member Tom Copley. The majority of successes in this area are where residents have led the process, he added, and it must be from the residents’ point of view or risk being blighted with conflict. The critical thing was to deliver something for the residents, added Westminster’s executive director for growth, planning and housing, Ed Watson – ‘there is an opportunity if you engage properly in a genuine way to take communities with you’, he said.

But LB Barking & Dagenham strategic director for growth and homes John East said that increasing numbers of authorities, such as Lambeth with Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill, are putting them up for sale despite their popularity. ‘That’s an asset management approach and a wrong approach’, he said, ‘and there is a collective failure of people like us not pushing back. We need to take responsibility on having a much more nuanced approach’.

It was also important, said Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Andrew Beharrell, to be sensitive to people living on estates who take comfort in their ‘estateness’ and are nervous about barriers being brought down. ‘The assumption that we de-estate places and normalize them has to be handled carefully’, he said.

Krikler said the role of the NSER is to help estates along the line of the three Heseltine ‘pillars’, ensuring local authority support and buy in to each programme, improving community engagement, and financial viability. A matrix being put together by ex-PRP’s Andy von Bradsky, who has been seconded to the group, will aid the way in which design will be incorporated. Copley said he didn’t like the ‘arbitrary’ number of 100 sink estates announced as the target by former PM David Cameron and residents are often very fearful of losing tenure when estate regeneration plans are mooted. But densification is important, and could be split into the three controversial options of densifying estates, building on the green belt or creating tall buildings.

Kat Hanna, research manager at the Centre for London, said her organisation had taken a sample of four boroughs to produce a density analysis from large estates of over 200 units. And part of the results had shown that estates are not at significantly lower density than their surroundings. ‘It is not saying that they constitute a great use of land, but actually to single out estates as being low density and therefore potential for densification…you can kind of see why that’s sometimes perceived as unfair when surrounding streets and areas are often at a lower density ‘. Getting the narrative and justification for this whole area in the light of the need to increase housing supply was important, she added.

For Levitt Bernstein director Jo McCafferty, the financial package for residents is important and should be pushed out at front – this is not just about design. And for Beharrell the conventional model for cross-subsidy is being stretched to replace gap-funding by the state – with more market homes subsidising fewer affordable homes -  and therefore the offer that is possible to make to existing residents has worsened. ‘That’s got to the point of extremely controversial and highly combative situations which is understandable’. The solution has been patient, thorough, honest engagement - of which there are lots of good examples - allied with a transparent examination of all the different options to get some kind of comparable criteria on ways forward, rather than presenting a fait accompli. ‘Be honest with people, tell them things they don’t want to hear, not bury them, and seek endorsement through a formal test of opinion.’

Countryside Properties new business director Michael Hill, however, disagreed that a reliance on cross subsidy from housing for sale or commercial development has worsened estate regeneration. It has enabled more to take place given the constraint on public funding, he said, although perhaps it has gone too far, and driven over-expectations on what private money can do. But, Hill asked, to what extent are pressures on local authorities to generate funding themselves leading to an asset management approach that will require them to look upon housing estates as opportunities to increase revenue streams?

LB Enfield assistant director of regeneration Peter George said his authority evaluates estates in terms of the extent to which the area in question is deprived, but also on the performance of the estate and to what extent it is a burden ‘on our already pressurized housing revenue account’ and to what extent the estate is ever likely to stack up financially. But it was not coincidental, said George, that the estate regeneration projects his borough had been involved with had thus far avoided too much in the way of protest. ‘Our offer to residents has always been fair and reasonable’. This has included all council tenants offered a replacement home with secure tenancy and a fair share equity scheme so leaseholders were not paying rent. Enfield also runs polls on development or refurbishment options, securing a 66% turnout and 86% in favour of redevelopment on one recent estate.

In the majority of instances where estate regeneration is seen as a positive thing, residents recognize a problem that could be solved, said Ed Watson. So the opportunity to present regeneration as an opportunity for communities, backed by good quality houses of size – in Westminster this is a particular issue – is key. But it is also important to start to win hearts and minds early by way of improving the employment offer, followed by the more complicated matter of demolishing and rebuilding houses. ‘There is an opportunity if you engage properly in a genuine way to take communities with you’, he said. Another powerful weapon is to show council tenants around already completed schemes.

The recent decision on Aylesbury (where government blocked a compulsory purchase order) is a game changer, said group director of business development at Pinnacle Group Jim Saunders, and a positive one at that. ‘We need to move away from this idea of displacing communities – it’s not about that. It’s about retaining the existing community’. The focus in terms of Haringey is on jobs and businesses as well as housing. ‘We should realize there’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done to bring that community on board’. They should be challenged, however, and we need to engage in the idea that mixed, sustainable communities are a good thing – maybe a way to do that is to look at community stakeholder models to bring about social dividends. With regards to the Aylesbury Estate, said Head of Regeneration North, LB Southwark Jon Abbott, the inquiry Inspector agreed with Southwark council that the proposals were in conformity with the local plan for the area, and that the scheme for the phase was viable, while the alternative solution of refurbishment was not.  The decision to refuse the CPO was primarily down to the Inspector’s conclusions regarding compensation for the small number of leaseholders who remain in the phase, a significant proportion of which are non-resident. The council is of the view that it provided substantial evidence to support its position that leaseholders were provided with reasonable alternative housing offers and it has announced that it will be seeking a judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision.

But we’re running out of the easy options, said John East, with a perception that “post-war housing estates bad, redevelopment good”, one that is too easy to fall into. Increasing number of authorities are making those asset management decisions. We all have to meet housing need, said area renewal programme manager - environment, housing and regeneration

Directorate at LB Sutton Sally Blomfield, and the estates are under pressure, and the pressure is regeneration, partly driven by the residents. ‘It’s not just the asset management pressure, it’s the housing growth pressure too’, she said.

For Metropolitan Workshop partner Neil Deely the key issue comes down to communication, with trust lost immediately if this is not excellent and if the local authorities fail to communicate the benefits residents are in line for. ‘But I think there is real danger around a borough-wide portfolio viability where it rules out at a stroke the individual approaches you might take to estates along the way’, he said.

Tottenham is made up of many communities, said director of regeneration, planning and development at LB Haringey Lyn Garner, with extremely vociferous residents, requiring intensive work and resources to engage the community. ‘With all the will in the world we’ll never have consent from all the residents’, she said. ‘One has to press ahead in the 80:20 world we all live in’. Fear of change is not unique to estate renewal, said head of strategic communications at GL Hearn Nick Jones, but the outside community must be remembered as well. There is a real problem with using the word ‘regeneration’ to cover all of this, said Director of Thamesmead Regeneration, Ken Baikie.  First and foremost is an asset management approach that keeps a roof over people’s heads before we start adding on other issues of additional housing supply by way of infill or redevelopment or wider social and economic objectives.

What is certainly needed from the start of this kind of project is a strong vision said Andrew Ogorzalek, director at AHR_PCKO, but in many areas it is lacking or an ad hoc activity, done as a feasibility study of some sort. Armed with a strong, funded and properly conceived vision, people can subscribe to it and see that ‘something fantastic is happening’.

‘It seems to me we’ve really got to think very hard about the estate regeneration offer going forward, and the expectation’, said Michael Hill. ‘That’s a huge opportunity, and a huge challenge. Ten, even five years ago the main challenge was to physically replace physically worn out housing, and that was generally the limit of expectation. I think there’s a huge change underway – and there needs to be in what partners can offer local authorities.’

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