Friday, 19 December 2014

The quest to create great places to live and work must remain central to what we do, no matter what the future holds, says Sir Bob Kerslake

As I write we have just entered the second week of the new government. While the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition is moving quickly to establish its policy priorities, it is too early to say much about the implications for the sector in general or the Homes and Communities Agency in particular. What is clear, however, is that localism and making the best use of more limited resources will be dominant themes.

Until we know more, I would like instead to focus on something that I feel very passionately about - the importance of ‘place making’ and supporting strong communities in deprived areas.

For the HCA, this is a core role. We play our part, not by directly leading - which should be the responsibility of leaders in the local community - but by providing enabling support in the form of funding, technical expertise and leverage with other private and public sector bodies.

Acute need

Clearly there is a job still to be done. Despite the progress that has been made, there are still many deeply deprived and vulnerable areas. The need to build more new and affordable homes remains acute; the market remains fragile; and thriving communities where people want and can afford to live and work remain our ultimate aim.

Fundamental to achieving this combination is an understanding of how we create great places to live and the essence of a thriving community. My view is that to create successful communities we must tackle both the ‘fine grain’ local issues such as linking skills to local business and community activities as well as the big investment needs. Capital investment and support from the HCA needs to be meshed with strong local leadership and real community involvement.

Sustained local engagement combined with responsive and supportive public agencies are the fundamental characteristics of delivering great places and without both in place, it is almost impossible to succeed. Above all, national and local agencies need to approach their role with a sense of humility.

The reality on the ground is often that we are much less coherent and unified in our plans than we like to think.

Put to the test

I was inspired to write on this subject after a visit to the St Paul’s Way area of Tower Hamlets, in east London, last month where regeneration work being undertaken perfectly embodies a unified approach.

To the untrained eye or distant observer the community is being rejuvenated through major capital investment in three significant projects: a new school; a new health centre; and, through the HCA, new homes on the Leopold estate. Yet the reality is that St Paul’s is not three but one big project, joined up and made sense of by the involvement of those closest to it on the ground.

Indeed, Lord Mawson, director of St Paul’s Way Transformation Project, who showed me around the project, remarked that it is only those closest to the ground - families, businesses, health and education professionals - who can tell if a project is unified or not. He is right. Co-ordination through strategic partnerships is important and creates the right conditions for success. Making it a reality is a much harder test.

Doing so is the premise of the HCA’s single conversation, and of the Total Capital pilots, so the support and involvement of communities is vital to the HCA. We should not ourselves be leading the engagement, but we can make its existence a test of whether our investment is likely to work.
In Tower Hamlets, strong local leadership from the council and housing association Poplar Harca has led to a real desire to involve the community. And the community has responded in kind with its ideas and, crucially, its support. This has manifested itself through enthusiasm for the overall vision for the area and through little innovations; for example, children at the local school have contributed art work to decorate the development hoardings.

Small but effective

It is simple, but effective. And yet sadly, too often such examples are dismissed as ‘nice touches’ and get bumped off the masterplan by bigger and seemingly more important things. All of us involved in creating thriving communities would do well to remember that these are not merely ‘nice touches’; they are crucial.

The result in St Paul’s Way is that school children will have new classrooms built around a theatre, art gallery, library and sports facilities in an inspirational environment where they can flourish. Across the road, a new polyclinic provides a one-stop shop of medical facilities to the community with a GP surgery, dentist and pharmacy. And the Leopold estate is planned to be remodelled to provide 815 homes where currently there are 500. These developments make a real difference for local people.

And so, as we embark on the road ahead, our core remit of creating great places to live must remain at the heart of what we do. As a delivery agency, we must also recognise that while some neighbourhoods have successfully moved on, there are others that in the past have not worked as well.

It is always a learning process, but ultimately one that reinforces the importance of being a locally based organisation with a national remit.

Sir Bob Kerslake is chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency