Saturday, 25 March 2017

Village vision

From: Inside Edge 2

Inner city council estates were once the solution to the housing crisis, then the problem. Now they could be the solution again. But for who?

There is arguably no more controversial issue in housing than the regeneration of existing social housing estates, especially in London. Schemes in boroughs right across the capital have hit the headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons.   

In a report this week, the Labour peer Lord Adonis and the think tank IPPR presents a vision for what they call ‘city villages’. The scope is broad, with town centres, private renting and the great private estates of central London discussed alongside some opposing views about new towns. However, the focus is overwhelmingly on the densification of existing council estates with mixed tenure development. If anyone attending the launch needed any reminding that this is controversial territory, tenants from the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith & Fulham were protesting outside. 

The vision is similar to the one put forward by Policy Exchange and Create Streets in 2013 for the redevelopment of low-density post-war tower block estates with far more homes. I was dubious at the time given Policy Exchange’s wider political agenda on social housing but the report was right to highlight the potential and this was backed in the 2014 Budget with a £150 million fund of repayable loans to kickstart regeneration.

The IPPR report makes a similar case without the ideological baggage. Even before it was published, it was the subject of fierce debate on Twitter about previous regeneration failures and what some people saw as the Labour party endorsing the same  ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’ as the Conservatives.  

In his introduction, Lord Adonis says that there are 360,000 homes in London on postwar council estates and that recent regeneration schemes have doubled densities while improving housing quality and amenities. He argues:

‘The vision behind these schemes is exciting. But the creation of new city villages, based largely on existing council estates, is a highly challenging task, which is partly why so few have been created to date. While the boom in land and house prices has greatly strengthened their viability, village by village a host of practical challenges need to be overcome beyond the obvious issues of planning and design.’

These challenges include community engagement, setting the right tenure balance (and especially the proportion of social housing), gap funding, unit size and local authority capacity. The report cites Hyde Group’s work on the Packington estate in Islington, L&Q’s partnership with Hackney and Peabody’s plans for Thamesmead as examples of getting it right. The chapters by Jules Pipe and Philip Glanville of Hackney and Stephen Howlett of Peabody in particular get to the heart of many of the issues about funding, social renting, resident consultation and the balance of profit and social purpose.

The final essay by Bill Davies of IPPR North says that previous regeneration projects ‘have been controversial, often for good reason’. He quotes an estimate from a report by the housing committee of the London Assembly earlier this year that estate regeneration schemes in the capital so far have doubled the overall number of homes but led to a total loss of 8,000 social rent homes. The committee set out a clear agenda for the future on issues including resident consultation and engagement, transparency and rents along with recommendations for action by the mayor and for central government.

However, there are some other things in the IPPR report that will set the alarm bells ringing for critics of regeneration. Former residents of the Heygate estate in Southwark may be surprised to learn that its demolition was all about ‘putting people at the heart of the design’. Several of the contributions seem to have far more to say about ‘crumbling mono tenure estates’ than they do about the people living in them or the fact that they stopped being mono tenure years ago thanks to the right to buy.

And the report also includes an essay by Gary Yardley, investment director at Capco, the company behind the regeneration of Earls Court and therefore the demolition of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. His short piece about the scheme talks of:

‘Working closely with Hammersmith and Fulham council to ensure all existing qualifying residents of the old estates will be offered a new home within the development. Such major regenerations may transform the landscape, but in order to retain the social fabric and history of places, ensuring the current residents have a place in the new community is critical for building new places around existing social infrastructure.’

All of which sounds great, but in that case why did the new Labour council try to halt the development and why were the residents demonstrating outside last night?

Adonis says in his introduction that ‘in many ways Earls Court is London’s next “great estate”, reinventing their legacy and approach for the 21st century’. He also quotes Gary Yardley as saying that ‘the “biggest opportunity” in the large Earls Court development “is to create a new model of social renting at scale”.’ Given that only 10 per cent of the 7,500 homes in the development will be ‘affordable’ this is a surprising statement. More surprising still, Gary Yardley doesn’t actually say this in his own piece.

These points risk undermining what is otherwise a major contribution to the debate about housing in London and beyond. Every estate regeneration project is controversial and has to balance different interests and every one involves compromises and depends on the financing available. The issues involved are complex but there seems to be no clear sense yet in the ‘city village’ of what is good practice in regeneration and what is bad. If its promoters do not make the vision clear enough to distinguish between them, should they be surprised if opponents lump them both together too?

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