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Estate regeneration: why people power is forcing London to rethink housing

Marian consultation model

As London councils edge away from largely unaffordable developer-led schemes, the mayor’s plan to give residents a vote on redevelopment marks a new spirit of transparency, reports Adam Branson

It has been a volatile start to the year when it comes to council estate regeneration in the capital. In recent weeks several developments and announcements have followed in quick succession. Combined, they have the potential to fundamentally change how London’s housing estates are redeveloped.

First, the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham (LBHF) upped the ante in its hostility towards developer Capco’s enormous Earl’s Court project, which involves the redevelopment of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates. On 18 January, the council put out a press release stating that it ‘views the current agreed scheme as undeliverable and have called on Capco to return the estates to LBHF as this is the only viable way forward’.

If that wasn’t enough, on 24 January, Kensington & Chelsea council, which is responsible for part of the Earl’s Court site and had always supported the project, performed a remarkable volte-face. At a meeting of the full council, deputy leader Kim Taylor-Smith stated that the ‘facts on the ground’ had changed in Kensington since the Grenfell Tower tragedy and that he wanted communities to ‘take the lead in decisions affecting their neighbourhoods’.

He added: ‘We need to recognise that we don’t have the legal power to rescind our decision [to grant planning permission]. The application went through due process and was agreed by both boroughs. But, politically, I want to make it very clear that I do not believe the continuation of this development under the current terms is right. And, as a minimum, if this is to continue I want to see more social and more truly affordable housing included in this scheme.’

Then on 30 January Haringey council’s Labour leader, Claire Kober, announced that she would not seek re-election in response to a particularly vicious row over the proposed Haringey Development Vehicle, stating she had been the victim of both sexism and bullying. The initiative would have seen the establishment of a £2 billion joint venture with Lendlease, but was opposed by many on the left of the party, who claimed it would lead to ‘social cleansing’. 

City Hall funding would be withheld unless regeneration proposals that involve the demolition of homes gained majority support from residents

As a result of Kober’s decision, doubts are growing over the special purpose vehicle’s future, something that she clearly regrets. In an open letter Kober wrote: ‘For too many years in Haringey there simply wasn’t enough focus on providing better-quality safe and secure housing for residents. These are not easy things to deliver and rarely come without controversy. Political issues are rarely binary; solutions are not simply good or bad.’

In light of the developments at Earl’s Court and Haringey, it came as no surprise when, on 3 February, London mayor Sadiq Khan chose to confirm his intention to give estate residents a vote on whether regeneration plans should proceed. Under the proposals, which are currently out for consultation, funding from City Hall would be withheld unless estate regeneration proposals that involve the demolition of homes gained majority support from residents in a ballot.

In a statement, Khan said: ‘I want to make sure people living on social housing estates, who have the greatest interest in their future, are at the heart of any decisions from the outset. By involving residents and putting social housing first, we can make sure plans for estate regeneration help build a city for all Londoners.’

The idea drew a mixed response, with Ian Fletcher, director of real estate policy at the British Property Federation, claiming it would ‘put a significant limit on estate regeneration densification, thereby narrowing the options for housing delivery, while significantly increasing the number of homes he wants to see built’.

People are averse to change when there is a lack of transparency and honesty and things don’t seem quite right

That, of course, presupposes that residents would be inclined to vote against regeneration, something Assael Architecture director Félicie Krikler rejects. Krikler was a member of the Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel, which was jointly chaired by Michael Heseltine and the then housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis, and says that, if a project is good enough, communities will vote in favour.

‘People are averse to change when there is a lack of transparency and honesty and things don’t seem quite right,’ she says. ‘But if there was more transparency from the beginning then I think people would be happy to approve. So, it’s going in the right direction. I think it should only make [regeneration] easier.’

Quite apart from whether putting plans to a ballot is likely to lead to fewer projects going ahead, others point out that it is simply the right thing to do. Mæ Architects principal Alex Ely says: ‘I’m in favour. We’ve had a lot of resident support for all the projects that we’ve been involved in. You’ll never please everyone, but if you really engage in a transparent way and demonstrate how you can accommodate residents’ needs, there is no reason why it shouldn’t work.’

Karakusevic Carson Architects partner Paul Karakusevic is also in favour of the mayor’s proposals. ‘I’m in total agreement with the mayor on ballots,’ he says. ‘Obviously we’re also aware of what’s going on with some estates, where things are being handled badly by the council, or where insensitive schemes are happening top-down and residents kick back.’

Earls court model

Earls court model

Model of Capco’s estate regeneration proposals at Earl’s Court

Housing campaigner Jonathan Rosenberg, who has led the fight against the Earl’s Court project, believes that the politics of estate regeneration have shifted – and not just because of his campaign’s recent successes at Earl’s Court. ‘There is a sense of political sentiment,’ he says. ‘A lot of these so-called regeneration projects have basically just fucked up communities and caused an enormous amount of anxiety and worry.’

Rosenberg points to other factors that have also led to the shift. ‘It wasn’t long ago that we had Cameron and Osborne, who were effectively conducting a vendetta against social housing,’ he says. ‘That changed dramatically when they were ousted.’ He adds that the fact that the top end of the London housing market has bombed in the last year has made several high-profile regeneration projects unviable.

So what next? Many in the sector believe that the return to council-led housing development, led in London by Hackney and Camden, provides the way forward. Karakusevic Carson Architects is working with both authorities and Karakusevic believes the model provides an effective solution in most circumstances, citing, in particular, the King’s Crescent project in Hackney.

King's crescent

King’s crescent

King’s Crescent by Karakusevic Carson Architects, Henley Halebrown and Muf Architecture for Hackney Council

‘You don’t always need private sector involvement,’ he says. ‘That means authorities get maximum return on investment because all of it is being invested in truly affordable homes. I think that is truly remarkable compared with 10 years ago, when nothing was happening. Hackney is probably one of the biggest developers in the UK right now. I think they are trying set a very high design and quality agenda, rather than just building units. 

‘It should all be about quality. The days of the cheap and nasty contractor-led refurb are over. I’m hoping that cheap and nasty Design and Build is also over.’

The Maiden Lane estate project in Camden, designed by PRP, is also attracting attention. Senior partner Brendan Kilpatrick says that in terms of both its design and its execution it harks back to an era when it was the norm for councils to take the lead on housing provision. ‘The regeneration of Maiden Lane re-establishes the provenance of high-quality, social-led housing projects, creating a direct link with the council’s iconic housing estates of the 60s and 70s,’ he says.

‘Our design pays homage to the estate’s original character, providing the cityscape views and an intelligible public realm that were so central to the initial design concept of [original architects] Benson and Forsyth. We have extended and improved the network of private, shared and public open spaces, improving permeability and legibility for pedestrians and giving the estate the public face that it deserves.’

Maiden lane estate

Maiden lane estate

Maiden Lane estate, Camden, by PRP                        

For his part, Rosenberg points to a scheme currently being undertaken by Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, the community land trust he chairs. The £17 million project in north Westminster is adding 43 homes – all of them for social rent – to the existing stock of 650 through a mixture of infill development, adding an extra storey to blocks, and converting a former community centre to residential use.

‘Because we’re community-owned, we are the community,’ he says. ‘We’ve torn the whole estate apart and we don’t get any complaints. The point is you can do that when the people are in charge and when they are getting the benefits and feel that they’re in control. We want to do a similar thing at West Kensington and Gibbs Green if we can only wrest control away from the developer.’

Given that Capco is perfectly entitled to proceed with its plans at Earl’s Court, that won’t be easy. However, the era when a ‘knock ’em down and start again’ approach led by private developers was considered the norm for estate regeneration appears to have had its heyday. 

London mayor Sadiq Khan on estate regeneration

Sadiq khan at estate

‘Social housing has been central to making London the greatest city in the world. And now, genuinely affordable homes are more crucial than ever to making sure it remains a city for all Londoners, after decades during which the capital’s jobs and population have grown substantially but new affordable housing has failed to keep pace. 

‘We must not only protect but increase our social housing, and estate regeneration is a key part of this. 

‘When it is done well, estate regeneration can offer existing tenants and leaseholders better homes, more new and affordable housing, and improvements to the local environment. But when done badly, we know estate regeneration can result in disagreement, which can leave residents feeling they have not been properly consulted, social housing being lost, and displaced tenants and leaseholders getting a bad deal.

‘Although my powers to get involved in estate regeneration are limited, I will do all I can to make sure residents are at the heart of any proposals for regeneration on their estates. I want to support residents and good landlords in developing plans that command widespread support and trust, and which deliver better homes for local people.’ 

 This article appears in the North West Cambridge issue


Readers' comments (2)

  • to expand on my tweet @dieterkleiner

    . . . ensuring residents are at the heart of regen' is incredibly bold stuff by our Mayor. Hats off to @SadiqKhan for grappling with the thorny issue of ever-reducing truly affordable housing provision.

    It is a great opportunity for the GLA and LA's to lead by example, and importantly for architects to work with communities to create places with more relevance and resonance to those that use them.

    The profession should enthusiastically back this initiative to regain some of the ground lost to cost-focused consultants, who miss opportunities to realise the significant social and economic value of working with communities.

    Ultimately buildings should serve people and not vice-versa.

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  • About time too.

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