Interviewed shortly before his sacking from his government advisory positions, including on estate regeneration, Conservative peer and former deputy PM Michael Heseltine talked to Ella Braidwood about how new life can be breathed into the UK’s run-down housing estates
To the dismay of the AJ’s photographer, Michael Heseltine sits down behind his desk at the Department for Communities and Local Government, central London. The cameraman has painstakingly arranged his apparatus, including tripod, lighting, and a snake pit of wires, with the intention of photographing Heseltine on a nearby sofa. But, despite the photographer’s best efforts, the 83-year-old makes a beeline for his desk, where sit a copy of Call me Dave: The Unauthorised Biography of David Cameron and a bottle of Barolo.
The photographer suggests a move to the sofa. But Heseltine declines. He is fine behind his desk, thank you. The equipment will have to be moved.
Such bloody-mindedness shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is the Tory peer nicknamed Tarzan who went against his own party and opposed the government’s Brexit bill, an act of rebellion which yesterday (Tuesday) drew a swift and severe response from the prime minister: summary dismissal from his five government advisory roles.
Estate regeneration is very much locally led. It’s centred upon what the local residents find attractive
Today he is loyally dressed in party colours: navy jumper, blue tie and shirt. From February last year, working alongside the DCLG, he co-chaired a 17-strong panel, including RIBA president Jane Duncan, tasked with advising the government on former prime minister David Cameron’s ambition to regenerate 100 council estates in the UK. Its members also include Assael director Félicie Krikler and, Nicholas Boys Smith, founding director of Create Streets. At the end of last year the group published a new national strategy for the government.
‘[The estate regeneration strategy] is very much a locally led and inspired project. It’s centred upon what the local residents find attractive,’ says Heseltine, as the photographer frantically re-arranges his kit.
‘It’s all about thinking what communities are about – and no one knows the answer to that more coherently than the people who actually live in these places.’
Heseltine has long been at the forefront of regeneration policy. He championed the regeneration of Liverpool in the 1980s, defying the then chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, who warned Margaret Thatcher ‘not to over-commit scarce resources’ to the city. In 2012 he was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool for this work.
‘What I hope we will achieve,’ he continues, ‘is that one hundred of the more difficult estates will become places where the people who live there feel a proprietorial interest and a sense of pride.’
Alongside his work on the estate regeneration panel, Heseltine was also a commissioner on the National Infrastructure Commission and chaired the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission. He had had meetings with Farrells in recent weeks to discuss proposals for a series of low-level bridges across the Thames in east London.
The last scheduled meeting of the estate regeneration panel will take place at the end of this month, without Heseltine, when the future of the group will be discussed.
At about the same time, the DCLG is expected to announce the distribution of £32 million in grants, intended to kick-start regeneration work among those local councils and housing associations which have made bids. This process should identify the places Cameron spoke of. However, the DCLG has refused to confirm the exact number of communities which will be given funding until the announcement, nor indeed the number of bids received. As no definitive list has ever emerged, the whereabouts of Cameron’s 100 estates remains a mystery.
There’s no doubt there will be significant and appropriate architectural input into the projects
A further £140 million of recoverable loan investments will be distributed to private-sector developers working on the estates. The programme could well become a rich source of work for housing architects.
‘Each individual project will have to be designed,’ says Heseltine, ‘there’s no doubt there will be significant and appropriate architectural input into the projects as they come forward.’
Still, at least one council, Hackney, has opted not to bid for funding and has criticised the amount of cash on offer as too meagre.
Does Heseltine think there is enough money in the pot?
‘[The regeneration fund] is enough to initiate and facilitate,’ he says. ‘Of course it’s not enough to complete the schemes, but no one ever thought or claimed it would be. It was merely a facilitator.’
He is quick to suggest how estates can generate the required remainder of the funds.
‘It requires a partnership of stakeholders […] there has to be a package and the package can come from other housing funding and the public sector – from the Homes and Communities Agency or from the private sector, or from the resources of the local authority,’ he says.
Heseltine has some affinity for architecture; he has privately commissioned architects including Quinlan Terry and appreciates, he tells me, the work of Oscar Niemeyer. Years ago he even tried to buy the AJ for his Haymarket publishing business, he reveals.
But he has no qualms about the demolition of 1960s Brutalist estates admired by many in the profession, such as Robin Hood Gardens. ‘It’s a very simple view; I don’t like the look of it,’ he says baldly. ‘What else can I say? I just don’t find it sympathetic.’
When he launched the estate regeneration national strategy in December, Heseltine insisted the plans put ‘residents at the heart of reshaping their estates’. He says he intended to do this as a ‘condition of the bid’ for the funds.‘ The last thing I want is what might be called a “national style” for the estates,’ he says.
‘We ask the simple question: what do the residents think and have they been properly consulted? Is the scheme you’re producing to their liking?’
Heseltine’s ambition for resident-led estate regeneration essentially re-stated the Localism agenda pursued by the coalition government. But the picture on the ground often seems very different. Some former leaseholders of the Heygate estate in south London complain the sums offered to purchase their properties by Southwark Council were too low for them to buy a property nearby and they have instead had to relocate far away to more affordable places like Slough and Sidcup.
And the nearby Aylesbury estate is currently embroiled in a row over an attempt by Southwark Council to remove eight remaining leaseholders in one of the blocks using a Compulsory Purchase Order that was blocked by secretary of state Sajid Javid last year on the grounds that it breached the leaseholders’ human rights.
Heseltine says he is surprised to hear of these cases and will not comment until he has the details, which I duly email after our interview. Later, he wites in response: ‘It is clear that there are examples of estate regeneration schemes in the past that haven’t always given a strong enough offer to residents. This is why the Estate Regeneration National Strategy sets out guidance for landlords, housing associations and developers on how to engage with residents throughout a scheme and in terms of future management.
‘We want residents to be seen as key partners throughout the process so that the new estate genuinely meets the needs of those who live there, including giving them the option to remain on the estate.’
He declines to comment on Aylesbury specifically because of the ongoing legal proceedings, and avoids any mention of Heygate whatsoever.
Throughout the interview, Heseltine is good humoured but exceptionally stubborn. Asked for his opinion on Brexit, Heseltine, an ardent remainer, tells me to ‘go and ask [Brexit secretary] David Davis’. Only when I ask how leaving the EU might affect the quality of architecture in the UK does he offer a short answer – ‘Design knows no frontier. You can design whatever you like, wherever you like,’ he says.
And, asked for his opinion on Donald Trump, other than saying he ‘wouldn’t have voted for him’ – Heseltine briskly responds: ‘No architect gives a toss what I think on this subject.’
Devolution is important because you put the people who live and eat, breathe, dream, in charge
However, moving on to devolution of power from Whitehall, the subject of No Stone Unturned: In Pursuit of Growth, his 2012 report setting out recommendations for creating wealth in the UK, Heseltine’s answers are lengthy and impassioned.
‘[The devolution of power] is important because you put the people who live and eat, breathe, dream, in charge,’ he says. ‘They know more about the strengths and opportunities than any group of officials in London can ever know […] the local people should know the answers more effectively than anybody else.’
‘The city I know so well, Liverpool, is transformed. Manchester is a pace-setter, Birmingham – the West Midlands, the Midlands engine – is now fighting its way up. This process is unstoppable. It’s unstoppable because it has released the energy and the enthusiasms of the people who are there.’
He is similarly enthused by the Northern Powerhouse, spearheaded by former chancellor George Osborne.
‘It’s huge credit to the local people, who over many years worked patiently together to put the infrastructure in place. That helped to persuade George Osborne that he could back this, and this is uncharacteristic of a chancellor,’ he says.
Does he think Theresa May’s government is equally committed to the Northern Powerhouse concept? ‘There is no reason to suppose that [current chancellor] Philip Hammond doesn’t believe in it either,’ he says.
Heseltine also has views on the green belt, following secretary of state Sajid Javid’s comment in the Housing White Paper last month that the boundaries could be amended, but ‘only in exceptional circumstances’. He says: ‘Looking at the policy in detail on the ground is sensible, because lines on a map might actually turn out to be rather less than simply green fields. In practice they may be areas which are not really green belt at all. But there are arguments for looking at that and there are arguments for redefining or maybe even recreating the green belt.’
As our meeting draws to a close, I ask Heseltine if he has anything else to say about housing estates. Despite the clock nearing 6pm, he does.
‘[Estate residents] are the least privileged people. The present prime minister has talked about the JAMs, the people who just about manage. Well, there are a stack of them in these estates,’ he says.
‘Why I so welcomed the experience [of co-chairing the estate regeneration panel] was because so much has been done for these people, to these people – not with these people.’
At 83 years old, Heseltine remains a formidable force – and one of the few senior politicians widely respected by architects for his keen and active interest in design and regeneration. His community-led approach to development is a far cry from the top-down of the post-war housing drive. However – and despite his sacking – many will hope it will provide a successful blueprint for remaking estates today.
Reaction to Heseltine’s departure
Sadie Morgan, director of DRMM, who worked alongside Heseltine as a commissioner on the National Infrastructure Commission and is a member of the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission he chaired:
’The departure of Lord Heseltine will be a huge loss.
‘He’s one of those people who gets things done and is able to get the best out of people by inspiring them and showing real leadership, which is something that is few and far between on the ground at the moment, so I am really sad. It has been an absolute pleasure working alongside him and I’ll miss him.
‘The wonderful thing about Michael is that he has all that experience but he still has the passion and enthusiasm to make change and get things done. He’s able to cut through a lot of the politics that can hold things back because he’s very adept at stepping over them or moving around them in order to get a result.
’He’s definitely seen as a big political figure and somebody who’s hugely respected. If ever I’ve travelled with him around the country it’s like going with royalty. It’s extraordinary what an important figure he is.
‘He was very generous in the way he operated with people and open to ideas from everybody.’
Félicie Krikler, director at Assael, a member of the panel Heseltine launched to develop an estate regeneration national strategy, said:
’Him being sacked [shows the] incompatibility of long-term regeneration projects and the political world, which is really volatile and can change at all times. There’s a long-termness about regeneration projects which is really difficult to carry through when you have to deal with the political side.
’Regardless of anyone’s personal views of Heseltine, it is really a shame that his experience and his determination are lost because of political motivations.
’It is a shame his experience and his determination are lost because of political motivations.’
‘He’s a very good chair. He always made it quite challenging for everyone to answer precisely and bring their expertise. I feel like it’s been a privilege to meet him and be able to work with him, because of his experience. I think he will be missed.’
Nicholas Boys Smith, founding director of the built environment social enterprise Create Streets and a member of Heseltine’s estate regeneration panel, said:
’I am sorry to hear that Michael Heseltine has been fired from his regeneration and infrastructure roles where he brought enormous experience and judgement.
’Particularly, and perhaps to the surprise of some, Lord Heseltine was always admirably clear and direct that estate regeneration had to have local support and to be practically deliverable. He could not have been clearer.
‘It was a great pleasure seeing Lord Heseltine in action. You could see he knew his way round government intimately and had an expert and finely tuned sense for where power lay, for who made decisions and for why and how they made them. I never worked with him in his “prime”. Maybe the mane has faded a little with age, maybe not. I don’t know. But he still seemed a fairly formidable beast.’