Can we get it right?
—— Opinion piece by Dave Hill, On London
The tensions triggered by redevelopment schemes in London can be toxic and extreme, none more so than when a housing estate is lined up for knocking down.
Estate regeneration, especially of council rented homes, has produced a string of high-profile conflicts between, on the one hand, borough leaders, social landlords and developers and, on the other, housing activists and their political and media sympathisers.
Each struggle has been emblematic of larger ones about the future of the capital, with its simultaneous needs to improve and increase its housing stock and to provide stability in a city in a constant state of churn. Strong emotions are stirred about power, progress and local attachment. What are the lessons of these stories for achieving the best regeneration outcomes?
One principle should be paramount. It is never, ever to push people around. Borough planners and politicians, mindful of the cost of repairing dwellings that are beyond proper repair and the queues for social and other “affordable” homes stretching round the Town Hall block, might be forgiven for surveying leaky, low density products of post-war municipalism done on the cheap and concluding that they are, quite literally, a waste of space.
Regeneration is often informed by a desire to facilitate “mix” and “connectivity”, which are fine, if sometimes over played. But estates critised as warehousing poverty can be, for those who inhabit them, havens of comfort and security within vital networks of friendship and support.
This is the bedrock stuff of social cohesion, an asset to be prized. When regeneration feels imposed, it’s not surprising there is resistance. Better to accept from the off that any proposal to tear down an estate is sure to be seen by some only as a threat.
At the same time, the law of averages alone insists that others will perceive it as an opportunity to solve some of the biggest problems in their lives. These are the silent majority that louder anti-regeneration groups, not all of them rooted in the communities they claim to represent, omit from the “social cleansing” narratives they provide for liberal journalists.
Imagine someone from the council rang your bell and said,
“We’re going to knock your house down, but don’t worry we’ll build a better one for you nearby.”
If you like where you live you might provide a dusty answer. Older people, understandably, are often the least receptive. But if you’re sick of damp and vermin and thin walls through which your neighbours can be heard and your 28-year-old-son is sleeping on your sofa because there is no bedroom for him, you might prick up your ears. A spectrum of sentiment is only to be expected and all of it must be respected.
Securing a critical mass of resident support requires transparency and candour, including about finance and land. Formal consultations have too often been easy to dismiss as the covert rubber-stamping of decisions that have already been made.
Might there be a central role for proper focus groups to gauge opinion more thoroughly? Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s new requirement that residents must approve regeneration schemes through a ballot if he is to help fund them, having previously opposed that approach, was seen by some as a capitulation to the anti-regeneration left. Yet the earliest ballots have produced resounding “yes” votes, including for schemes proposed by Labour-run Ealing Council and two housing associations.
The biggest problem with ballots is that they risk leaving those enduring the worst housing conditions as a defeated, stuck minority. But the need of landlords to win them has concentrated minds on serious engagement with tenants and with leaseholders too. The latter, as homeowners, often feel robbed by the replacement homes they are offered. There is a fairness case for more generous compensation – as there is for more public investment in affordable homes – but also for explaining that, sadly, a home owned on an estate is quite likely to have a lower market value than an equivalent street property nearby.
Regeneration in widest sense can improve lives in lots of ways, be that through employment support as provided by Notting Hill Genesis to people on the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, or by involving residents in the design of their new homes, as happened with the celebrated Packington estate in Islington. These are virtuous endeavours that build trust. This helps developers, councils and landlords, who strive to retain it. Political leaders should be active custodians of regeneration schemes, engaging closely with the people they are elected to serve and bringing them on board.
Good regeneration is the product of painstaking negotiation and all interested parties finding a shared, progressive path. All involved must eschew a bulldozer mentality that would crush the very people regeneration most effects. It might not the easiest way, but it will be the happiest one in the end.