Resident engagement is a vital part of regenerating estates, says Housing Forum chair Andy von Bradsky
One of the government’s key housing policy agendas is to throw a national spotlight on the much-needed regeneration of our run-down housing estates. In January, former prime minister David Cameron announced a bold programme to tackle post-War estates across the country that are ripe for redevelopment, as well as a new funding programme.
Alongside the housing minister, Lord Heseltine was made co-chair of the Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel, comprising a group of industry experts to help with the programme. In response, four experts from leading architectural practices, each with more than 25 years’ experience of working in the estate regeneration sector, including myself, published Altered Estates, which set out the principles of successful regeneration, bringing together their collective experience of previous government initiatives.
In particular, the report addresses the tensions that have arisen in recent times between landowners who want to optimise their assets to provide housing for a range of different needs in their area, and residents who believe the estate belongs to those who live on them, with accusations of gentrification and social cleansing owing to a loss of social housing.
The report contains some key messages for success.
At the outset, the landowner, whether local authority, housing association or other public body, should set out clear objectives for regeneration and be wholly committed to, and supportive of, exploring options for change. Political leadership and officer support is essential and will need to be sustained for the duration of the project, which will likely span economic and political cycles.
The landowner must engage with existing residents in a transparent and consistent way that builds trust and an open relationship throughout the process. It must be inclusive, demonstrable and reach all sections of the community, with a preference for hands-on engagement rather than tokenistic consultation and information dissemination.
A structured option appraisal methodology should be used to assess the favoured approach to regeneration by comparing financial, social and environmental benefits of different scenarios from full demolition to full refurbishment. It is important to measure this against a do-nothing approach as a baseline so that landowners and residents understand the economic and social implications in the event of not going ahead with regeneration.
Residents should be engaged in shaping and deciding upon the outcome, with a clear understanding of the quantifiable and non-quantifiable benefits of each option. A fair deal should be set out in a residents’ charter that covers issues such as the commitment to tenants in terms of recompense, replacement housing and level of service, as a foundation to a detailed offer. There should not be a presumption in favour of any one approach and the outcome from the process may lead to full refurbishment, infill and intensification or demolition and rebuild. There should be a mechanism for determining the majority preferences at key stages leading up to the submission of a planning application, whether through a ballot, referenda or other means of measuring community support.
A focus on design quality is vital in order to transform the perception and character of an area. Estates are often poorly planned, isolated and unsafe, cut off from their surroundings with a clear red line boundary that separates them from their surroundings, and stigmatised.
While appearing dense, land is often used inefficiently with leftover spaces found between some buildings. The housing stock also often performs poorly against current standards, leading to poor health and fuel poverty for the occupants and unsustainable management and maintenance regimes.
A placemaking approach to design that generates value and is set up with the full engagement of residents, can pave the way for long-term capital investment. It may draw from the heritage and history of an area in a narrative that resonates with local people, creating places that knit well with their surroundings. Increasing density by making more efficient use of the land must lead to appropriate buildings for the area and avoid what the authors describe as hyper-dense development.
The quality of public spaces, streets, squares, greens and lanes are as important as the design of the buildings, to create safe, healthy, green public spaces and routes that connect with the wider area. It is important to consider management issues from the outset, particularly on high-density developments, where service charges can be a significant cost and involve residents in the long-term management of the estate.
The preferred outcomes from estate regeneration are balanced and mixed communities, with new private sector investment that provides for a wide range of housing need and tenures including market rent and market sale that addresses local needs, as well as providing appropriate affordable and sub-market tenures for existing residents.
New typologies such as Build to Rent and specialist housing for an ageing population can offer a benefit to regeneration programmes by providing new investment and accelerating the rate of delivery of regeneration.
Partnerships between the public and private sector with joint venture vehicles are common and new local authority-led housing companies are being established to deliver regeneration vehicles. This can be extended to include other sites in the area to contribute to the regeneration model. New financial solutions will be required, particularly in low-value areas where increasing densities may not be possible and maintaining community support is challenging.
A more nuanced approach is necessary to address the differences between regions, towns and cities in England, and even differences within a region - no two projects are the same. And the savings from regeneration including health, crime, unemployment and other costs to the public purse should be factored into the financial equation.
It is also important to remember residents often serve as a building block to social sustainability, bringing knowledge of the area, social networks and valuable insights for designers and planners. They should be treated as an equal partner.
Above all, we need to offer an inspiring vision for the future and demonstrate how comprehensive regeneration will benefit them directly. We should dispel the notion they are all sink estates that should be demolished. Instead, we should value their communities and highlight their potential. Reusing our assets and maintaining community cohesion can work just as well.
Andy von Bradsky, chair, The Housing Forum, and consultant, PRP
This opinion piece was written independently, but first appeared in a chapter sponsored by United Living