Inside Housing and Places for People bring together housing leaders to discuss how the sector can create sustainable regeneration through placemaking. Photography by Vicky Matthers
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There is growing consensus that breaking the housing supply logjam will require the kind of big and bold interventions which were last tried out in the post-War era.
However, some of the estates towns built in that era did not work well as places. To debate how the new wave of growth could be more successful, Inside Housing brought together housing experts for a round table event held in association with Places for People (PfP) at the Gherkin in London.
The ambition and drive to deliver new homes could certainly be felt around the table. But there are of course barriers to these goals, such as around funding.
Balancing quality and quantity
Joe Garrod, regional programme manager at One Public Estate, sums up the situation succinctly: “Funding allows local authorities to do projects they would not otherwise be able to do.”
He points to an example of a project in London where One Public Estate’s involvement led to a five-fold increase in the number of units in a scheme.
One council with ambitious plans is Bexley Council, which has been set a target of delivering 31,000 new homes in the latest London Plan. Gill Steward, chief executive of the council, says the programme will result in the biggest change the south-east London borough has seen since the 1930s when it was transformed by the migration of thousands of so-called ‘settlers’ from the inner city.
However, housing delivery must be more than a simple numbers game, says Ms Steward. “It needs to feel authentic; it’s got to feel like a sensible evolution.”
She is backed up by Barbara Brownlee, director of housing and regeneration at Westminster City Council, who says some of her most “robust” discussions with the Greater London Authority revolved around numbers.
Delivering successful places relies on getting the right tenure and size mix, Ms Brownlee says. “It might be more important for us to get slightly fewer properties, which are three beds at social rent, than getting 25% more one-beds. Just numbers don’t drive good growth.”
Creating successful places relies on jobs too, says Ms Steward. “[Placemaking] is about bringing forward housing but also bringing forward growth and opportunities for the people that live in the borough.”
In Harlow, where PfP is undertaking a number of big ticket schemes, Mary Parsons, group director of placemaking and regeneration at the landlord, says residents have not always enjoyed the fruits of its economic success. She says there is a “huge disparity” in the average incomes of Harlow’s resident and working populations.
One way of making sure residents enjoy the fruits of growth is to be certain that the growth and regeneration process itself creates local employment.
Carl Brazier, director of housing and customer services at Stoke-on-Trent Council, says the authority has prioritised local economic benefits from its regeneration projects.
Companies working on such schemes are expected to make sure they employ a minimum number of apprentices and that at least 70% of projects’ supply chains use local firms, Mr Brazier says.
“It may mean costs go up slightly but we are prepared to do that because people are paying council tax and buying things in the city: keeping the Stoke pound in Stoke. Regeneration is not just about buildings, but people as well.”
Philip Glanville, mayor of Hackney, says jobs are being factored in to efforts to plan the east London borough’s growth corridors. “Where growth is going to happen, it has to lock in that ground floor economic activity,” he says.
But he also says ensuring a good supply of affordable housing is important for economic growth. “Businesses can’t grow in the borough because they can’t retain talent. There’s a real fear among bigger businesses about where their staff are going to live.”
Securing community consent for growth and regeneration, however, is tough, Mr Glanville acknowledges. “It’s a tough time for the word ‘regeneration’. If you are doing stuff to people and not with them, you will have challenges.”
Ensuring the infrastructure is in place is not a problem for Transport for London’s (TfL) development arm, according to Graham Kauders, senior property development manager at TfL Property Development. “Every site we have interfaces with some sort of infrastructure, be it a bus depot or a station,” he says.
However, PfP’s Ms Parsons says a wider lack of upfront infrastructure is often one of the biggest factors driving opposition to new housing.
Councils therefore have a pivotal role to play in placemaking, says Natalie Elphicke, chief executive of the Housing and Finance Institute, who reviewed local authority housing delivery for the government alongside Keith House.
“Local authorities have a fundamental responsibility as housing delivery enablers and community shapers, articulating a future for the community, not just for this generation,” she says. “Place-based change is not easy or quick, but done well it doesn’t just create great homes, it also supports better outcomes and opportunities.”
Mr Glanville goes further, saying local government can no longer be content with merely an enabling role. “This is a golden moment for councils to take the lead and not just be enablers but direct deliverers and the lead party in joint ventures, locking in that sense of place.”
Local authorities are often in a better position to deliver place development than volume builders, partly because they are not under the same pressure to generate returns for shareholders, says Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA).
Ms Parsons agrees: “For a couple of generations we have relied on house builders to deliver places and they don’t call themselves place builders: their purpose is to deliver houses.”
Ms Henderson says: “You can create fantastic places over the long term: it’s in your interest to build something of decent quality so that the maintenance costs are not astonishing in 20 years’ time.” She cites examples of where councils were taking the initiative on housing delivery, such as the London Borough of Harrow, which is building on car parks and council land.
Ms Henderson says more than half of the councils surveyed by the TCPA were considering setting up local housing companies. And two thirds of the authorities were either doing private rented sector developments or were interested in it, she adds.
David Cowans, group chief executive of PfP, agrees that councils should be more robust about using their powers. “You are a planning authority, which gives you a position,” he says.
Local government also has to be firmly in the driving seat when taking planning decisions, says Ms Henderson. “Leadership is so important – being brave and bold and not being scared to intervene and say no and take control.
“If we say yes to things we don’t want, we are stuck with them forever. If we get it right at the offset it works,” she says, adding that getting the tenure mix wrong at the beginning of the development
process is a recipe for social polarisation.
Councils face significant hurdles when undertaking development. Ms Henderson says the TCPA’s straw polling showed a lot less appetite for setting up local housing companies in the North of England.
She argues, though, that even authorities operating in such apparently less promising markets should not be afraid to take control of the development process. “The idea that you have to take what’s given to you has to change.”
Ms Elphicke identifies senior council officer commitment and capacity as one of the key ingredients for successful housing delivery, alongside clear purpose, political buy-in and active resident engagement. But this capacity is severely constrained after years of cuts.
The planning discipline is “on its knees”, says Ms Henderson. “It is too regulated, too poorly resourced and not fit for purpose.”
Andrew Bramidge, project director at Harlow Council, says the deregulation of office-to-housing conversions has created big headaches. “We’ve seen huge amounts of employment space going to ill-thought-through, ill-conceived housing, largely for London boroughs using it for homeless housing.”
Businesses have been forced out by landlords in order to carry out money-spinning residential conversions, he explains. But these largely unregulated conversions have had a “huge impact” on the town centre, curtailing regeneration efforts and making a mockery of placemaking efforts. The problems were even worse in the town’s industrial estates, which had also seen a rash of permitted development right conversions, Mr Bramidge says.
“We have buildings on industrial estates that have been converted to residential wholly inappropriately and the conditions that young families are living in are horrendous: busy roads, no facilities and no public transport. We have no control over their conversion.”
Ms Henderson of the TCPA says changes of use of buildings could be a sensible idea but not if they were unregulated, stripping councils of any kind of democratic control over issues like affordable housing, play spaces and GP surgeries.
And Mr Glanville of Hackney says this “laissez-faire” approach to planning has not delivered the increase in housing volumes that the government had hoped to achieve. “The government listened
to volume house builders and changed planning a lot and there’s been no meaningful uplift in the numbers.”
Ms Parsons of PfP says: “The planning system was there with the NHS to create a better quality of life, but it’s been seen for a long time as a blockage.”
Another hurdle to effective placemaking which the round table participants discuss is securing access to sites. The tough noises from ministers about releasing public land for housing projects is not percolating down to the local level. Mr Glanville cites the example of a police station in his borough that was being sold off by the Metropolitan Police with little heed for affordable housing.
He also makes the point, which is widely echoed around the table, that the NHS has been “incredibly difficult to deal with”. He adds: “It’s not helped by the STPs [sustainability and transformation partnerships] thinking they can solve their entire funding situation by using assets.” Redundant sites, like hospital sites or schools, which are not brought forward for development can become a “visible sign of lack of commitment from the public sector”, says Ms Elphicke.
That in turn makes it hard to convince communities about the importance of delivering housing, she adds. Westminster’s Ms Brownlee is encouraged, though, by the level of senior focus on regeneration and placemaking, which is greater than she ever remembers. “This is a moment we should take advantage of,” she says.
However, a commitment to placemaking needs to be part of the entire organisation’s DNA, says Bexley Council’s Ms Steward. “If your whole organisation isn’t focused on making the place better, it’s not doing the right thing. It’s not just the regeneration and growth team, it’s everybody’s job. The most important thing we do is to steward a place.”
David Cowans, chief executive, Places for People
Kate Henderson, chief executive, Town and Country Planning Association
Graham Kauders, senior property development manager, TfL Property Development
Natalie Elphicke, chief executive, the Housing and Finance Institute
Joe Garrod, regional programme manager, One Public Estate
Gill Steward, chief executive, Bexley Council
Barbara Brownlee, director of housing and regeneration, Westminster City Council
Mary Parsons, director of placemaking and regeneration, Places for People
Andrew Bramidge, project director, Harlow Council
Philip Glanville, mayor, London Borough of Hackney
Carl Brazier, director of housing, Stoke-on-Trent City Council
Emma Maier, editor, Inside Housing