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Estate of independence

technical & practice

Sunderland council's transfer of its housing stock and staff to a social housing landlord has been a profitable venture

Sunderland is not to everyone's tastes, especially those who enjoy good football, but since becoming a city way back in 1992, it has certainly been improving as a place to live and work.

Unemployment rates in April (of those unemployed for over a year) fell below the national average for the first time in 20 years. The urban fabric is changing very noticeably over a relatively short period of time although it might be an over-statement to say that Sunderland is on the up.

No-one has made a big song and dance about Sunderland's 'regeneration' in the past decade, but slowly and surely, there have been major changes. Maybe because it has been piecemeal; or maybe because big schemes have snatched whatever plaudits have been due to the city.

Schemes like the National Glass Centre and the Winter Gardens which always seemed to smack of Lotteryfunded pointlessness - self-conscious attempts at getting tourists to go to Wearside. Others like the university's (Sunderland Poly) student accommodation on the north bank of the Wear, which was influential in its day, in its use of timber and its roof curvature, today look a little worn and dowdy - and dated. Then there's that football stadium and those awful Metro stations

So Sunderland's recovery from its post-industrial gloom has come, not from the current national fad for renewal through signature schemes, but from an organic development of localist political manoeuvres. It reflects, I suppose a vision of what happens when social policy initiatives (reflecting modern concerns about anti-social behaviour, traffic levels, etc) become key drivers in urban initiatives which then take precedence over - or dictate - urban, architectural and planning policy. The result is a radical programme of pedestrianisation and traffic restrictions in its centre and a steady sprawl of industrial units and business parks on the fringes. Life in the city is more subdued as businesses are being pushed out to the margins.

One such business organisation is Sunderland Housing Group which occupies a couple of huge blocks on the sterile Doxford International Business Park (home of Studio E's solar building). Formerly known as the snappily titled Sunderland MBC Housing Direct Labour Organisation, it was effectively the council. It now has swish interior décor, modern equipment and happy staff. The only miserable faces were those of a few Clerk of Works, but then again that's only to be expected.

Stick or shift

In March 2001 - after the government announced that council debts would effectively be wiped clean provided that council tenants endorsed transfer ofstock to a named housing association - Sunderland council completed the biggest single transfer of council housing stock ever. In one fell swoop, 36,000 homes were turned over to the newly formed Sunderland Housing Group (SHG). With about 1,400 staff and £480 million of borrowing (to purchase the stock from the council), it's plain that the powers that be think that somebody, somewhere, thinks that this is a worthwhile venture.

Proposals are already under way to pump £300 million into building 4,000 new homes in the area over ten years. This is the first time in a generation that housing has been built on this scale in the city - in terms of volume and capital spend. Not only that, but SHG has an ongoing modernisation plan to renovate existing stock at a rate of 3,000 every year (spending about £50-60 million per annum).

For the tenants, the stock transfer, while actually being a Hobson's Choice - staying with the council would have been unthinkable - has proved to be a cost-effective move.

With a commitment to keep rents low, the new build proposals are on average 20 per cent bigger on plan, and the refurbished properties are being leased for about £60 a week for a two-bed apartment. Still high in an area with some of the lowest annual household incomes and where 32 per cent of the local under-25 year olds are on benefits, but these properties, as far as the council go, are loss leaders.With such a powerful capital base, it can attract competitive, long-term interest rates, so the ex-council has sufficient funds to commit itself to a high level of finish and fittings for the 'social good' - reminiscent of the sense of duty in councils (and Housing Associations) in their heyday. Stuart Hutchinson, head of design and development and Geoff Prior, development team leader showed me around.

Onwards and upwards

Not only was the council stock transferred into SHG's ownership, so too was the majority of its design, construction and associated management/administrative staff. Departments where there was a clear relationship with the new company were absorbed and where there were council departments that were borderline, polls were carried out on who wanted to jump ship and join SHG.

Practically all services are now inhouse. Model contracts have been set up with a range of local contractors and, when outside assistance is needed, external architects and engineers are on the books. Building contracts are then let without the need for works-specific tenders, contracts and duplicated paperwork. Instead, contractors' submissions are cost controlled in line with their benchmark prices. The Housing Corporation, ever watchful for financial opportunities, notes that SHG's in-house building services provider actually reduces the risk of building maintenance cost inflation. Such contracts are let on a two yearly basis, but have worked well, with Hutchinson suggesting that it is as near as anyone gets to 'Egan in practice'.

SHG's emblematic refurbishment schemes are its tower blocks; austere concrete boxes which are getting a remarkable Changing Rooms makeover. The attention to detail is quite impressive and the blocks appear to be undergoing the process of gentrification - although no gentry are moving in. Instead, the original tenants are staying, with a nominal four or five pounds on their rents.

Whiter shade of pale

Zetland Square in Roker, an area of Sunderland made ever more devoid of life after the removal of the old football ground, is a good example of what council tenants should expect their housing to be like. Externally, the buildings have been given a facelift with cedar panelling framing windows on the south elevation and insulated render, graded in colour from dark to pale blue. In the southeast, tower blocks have been striped in magenta, apple white and dusky pinks. At Zetland, simple perforated aluminium parabolic 'aerofoil' protrudes from the glazed stairwell, which has been designed to detract from the different sizes of the two adjacent transom widths.

Securing the entranceway and providing concierge-controlled protected lobbies is fairly standard fare in council refurbishment schemes. This one stands out by the quality of the design, finishes, attention to detailing, material specification and workmanship.

Public launderette facilities are as attractively decorated as the rest of the public areas. Even the lifts have been relined and given timber handrails.

Communal spaces - glorified conservatories - with beech finishes, laminate floors and blue walls (getting rid of institutional Portaflek) may lose their pristine look over time, but are enjoyable and thoughtfully provided for the tenants.

The towers themselves are concrete panellised structures; wallpaper had been applied directly to the bare concrete panel wall finishes, which are remarkably even. The concrete panel floors, however, are rough and ready necessitating floating floors to be installed in all apartments. Rewiring, central heating (from a CHS) with radiator control valves to prevent wasted heat, new suites, doors, finishes and intercom, etc complete the make-over.

'In the past, ' says Prior, 'people moving up the waiting list might be knocked back if someone with more points effectively jumped the queue.'

In SHG's housing policy this can't happen. We do, however, ' says Hutchinson, 'reserve the right to kick people out who are behaving badly our ultimate sanction.' With Sunderland drawn up as a major trailblazer for Blunkett's recently announced anti-social behaviour action plan, authorities that play the game may get a slice of £75 million of government money.

With anti-social behaviour being a problem defined by the victim, rather than the perpetrator, tenants may need to be on their best behaviour in the new blocks. 'Nuisance families will be targeted in four areas: Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Sunderland.'

'Bad behaviour, ' as Sunderland City Council's Renewals Officer describes it (whatever that means), may result in SHG's tenants being disciplined.

A key, and somewhat polemical, objective for SHG is to raise the profile of the blocks - to fit in with the company motto 'Changing the Skyline'. The fact that the monstrous grey concrete blocks of old had faded into the background, but now have been done up in such a way as to return them to the foreground, is an interesting start.

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