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Actioning housing change hats provided the opportunity for innovative design and gave tenants real power - using government money

On with the new. Top left: hta Architects' masterplan for Waltham Forest. Top right: prp Architects' brick housing in Cathall Road, Waltham Forest. Above: the Chingford Hall community centre, also designed by prp

Housing Action Trusts almost came unstuck before they started, says a surprised Bernard Hunt. The hta director was thrown not so much by a government desperate to lavish hundreds of millions of pounds on the fledgling initiative as by the fact that nobody wanted the cash.

hta, then Hunt Thompson Associates, was keen enough to masterplan four of the worst 1960s estates in London's Waltham Forest. The project was to be overseen by a limited-life board of tenants, councillors and government officials. After the 2500 high-rise and deck-access flats had made way for low-rise homes, it too would make way - for a private-sector landlord.

Council tenants were having none of it, nor were those in the other areas penned for trust status: North Hull, Liverpool, Birmingham's Castle Vale, Tower Hamlets and Stonebridge. This was 10 years ago, the time of Margaret Thatcher, the Department of the Environment's Nicholas Ridley and of tenants who feared that the private sector would yield anything but a promised land.

However a last-minute rule tweak, allowing tenants to vote ownership back to the council, swung it. The money flowed and tenants and architects on hats have rarely had it so good, says Hunt. 'hats were and are a brilliant proposition: there was lots of government money and because you don't set up a trust unless a majority of tenants want it, it puts a lot of power in their hands.'

Tenant power goes beyond the ballot box. 'Making the opportunity for residents to be board directors was hugely beneficial and did not hinder design. The truth is, as designers we tend to be more conservative than tenants force us to be.' Greenwich Millennium Village could learn from the 'power to the people' practice preached by hats, with them taking responsibility for big decisions on design, he says.

The knock-on effect of this was felt by prp Architects, which has designed latter phases on the Waltham Forest hat. It dealt with tenants who had more design savvy than most lay residents. Associate Ian Chown says the onus on tenant involvement was more marked on hats than on other initiatives.

'Before we became involved, residents were sent to the National Tenants' Centre in the Midlands and trained in reading architects' drawings. They were very articulate about the design process and there were steering groups on all four estates.' This made working with them run smoothly and gave focus to a process that could so easily become a token question- and-answer session, he says.

Waltham Forest hat chief executive, Mike Wilson, says the government recognises hats 'have got it about right'. When John Prescott launched the New Deal for Communities, he used them as a model for regeneration. Their success lies behind the scheme's 'holistic' approach to building communities.

'The difference between this and other initiatives is that the others were not very serious about employing people. We have put 1200 people in work and 2500 on training. hats have a massive impact on people and are not just about nice homes. Put an unemployed person in a new home and you haven't tackled the problem.'

Wilson's colleague Stephanie Al-Waheed, director of development and a trained architect, says hats are more focused and concentrated, with a fixed amount of money and a given time period. 'If a council is refurbishing an estate it has an accountability to the entire population and resources get spread more thinly across the whole area.'

There was another problem. 'We had to find a way of closing down the operation without compromising efficiency,' she says. 'If you know you are to lose your job in a year's time, you may be focused on that not on finishing the hat.' The trust and Peabody set up Community-Based Housing Association with a majority of tenants on the board that will carry on long after the hat winds up.

However another architect, Gordon Almond, tempers optimism for hats with frustration at the bureaucratic paper chase. His firm, Brock Carmichael Associates, is one of several to work closely with Liverpool hat, taking in all but four of the city's tower blocks. The £260 million project to flatten 47 blocks and refurbish 20 is expected to end in 2005, and leave a high-rise pile of red tape.

'The sad part of the process is it's long and drawn out in terms of government controls in the system,' he says. 'These seem way in excess of housing associations. hats have had to reinvent the wheel as client bodies with their own standards, desires, aims and design requirements.

'They are answerable directly to the government. All they do is vetted and agreed with the departments, whereas the mechanisms for social housing are already there with local authorities and housing associations.'

Though Almond points out the irony that hats have been delayed from acting because of government controls, he has no doubt they are good for a housing stock in crisis. Like the trust's chief executive David Green, he emphasises the onus on innovative design. Liverpool has launched a competition for work at Knotty Ash and two years ago was involved in the Europan competition with Dutch firm, biq Architecten.

Almond is not so sure the scheme would stand without such a heavy state handout. 'I believe the council decided the only way money would be directed at buildings was to persuade the government to pay up. The hat was the vehicle of the day politically. Whether it would work without the government is another matter. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need a Housing Action Trust; things would not get so bad.'

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