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The Regenerators #4: Miranda Plowden

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The nerve centre for the regeneration of North Sheffield is a tatty green, heavily-bolted, bunker-like Portakabin. This is also the home of Miranda Plowden who, despite her miserable surroundings, has somehow assembled an impressive line-up of both international practices and emerging talent to help with the £200 million transformation of two Housing Market Renewal Zones (Pathfinders).

Among those already working in the targeted South Yorkshire suburbs include Dutch-firm Meccanoo, Danish practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), landscape architects Gross Max as well as homegrown names FAT, Letts Wheeler, London-based Zero Zero and Fluid.

Plowden’s official title is the programme director for the strategic housing service and she has been specifically charged with regenerating the failing communities in Southey Owlerton and Brightside Shiregreen.

‘These areas are very, very depressed,’ says Plowden. ‘The actual appearance is quite deceptive. There is conventional housing here with gardens, green areas and friendly people – there are no graffiti-covered, concrete tower blocks.

‘Yet Southey Owlerton is in the top one per cent of the index of multiple deprivation. It’s cycle of unemployment and underinvestment.’

Plowden’s primary challenge is to increase housing demand and diversify the ‘residential offer’ in both areas, currently home to around 70,000 people. In Brightside the programme is about improving what’s there, including one of the first social housing estates built following an architectural competition in 1900.

However, for its western neighbour Southey Owlerton, regeneration means huge ‘transformational change’. Plowden describes the area as a ‘badly realised and half-heated’ attempt at an Ebenear Howard-inspired garden city with masses of inflexible, two bedroom pre-and post war semis.

She says: ‘It is effectively a large council estate, with no mix of type of tenure. A monoculture of semi-detached housing – the same designs built regardless of whether the plot was in a valley or on a hill.’

Of the 15,000 council-owned properties in the Southey area around 1,200 have been pulled down, a process which started in the late 90s following a dramatic fall in the demand for social housing in the area.

Although the anti-demolition clamour was not as vocal as in other Pathfinder zones - such as in the North West where large swathes of Victorian terraces were threatened with the bulldozer – there was still considerable local concern. Yet she insists ‘the argument for demolition was pretty clear cut’.

She says: ’The council just had too many outdated houses – most with real limitations on how they could be adapted. As well as making space for new homes, the demolition also helped address problems such as streets which turned their back on local parks.

‘But not everyone could understand or recognise that there needed to be change. And when it comes to knocking down your own house it becomes very personal. It’s terribly difficult.’

This was exacerbated, by what Plowden calls, an unhelpful ‘top down’ study carried out by the council which recommended widescale bulldozing. It was in response to this (in 2000) that Plowden first became heavily involved in north Sheffield, helping locals through a community-led partnership called the Southey Owlerton Area Regeneration (SOAR).

She says: ‘The community forum was too young as an organisation to effectively engage and hadn’t been strongly involved in the study. So we started drawing up a new grass roots-led masterplans.’

With the help of CABE, Grant Associates and the Sheffield School of Architecture, the ‘light touch consultancy’ slowly emerged as a set of detailed plans outlining an overarching vision for each of the nine neighbourhoods. These site specific documents were eventually adopted by the council’s cabinet in 2005.

At this point Plowden role effectively flipped from poacher to gamekeeper. Having worked ‘on the side of’ the community she moved into the housing service where she began the task of delivering 1900 quality new homes and overseeing the sale of sites to likeminded developers. This still occasionally raises eyebrows among some residents who once regarded the council’s housing arm as the enemy.

During her eight years Plowden has always professed a ‘romantic ideal for aspirational, high quality architecture’ and public spaces.

‘You only get one shot at this and if you mess up you’ve lost the opportunity, ’she says. ‘We have attracted some real talent to work here because of the quality of our early plans and our briefs.

‘It is clear from these document that there are real projects here with money behind them and a client that won’t throw design to the wall.

‘But we don’t just want a collection of fashion label architect.’

Among the most anticipated schemes is an ambitious 215-home development in Foxhill for developer Artisan, a library hub by SHL and a project being designed by Stephenson Bell which the council has unusually decided to take on as developer/client after Barratt Homes withdrew.

But progress has been ‘painfully’ slow though. To date only a few parks, including Bask Meadows, by Gross Max and Grant Associates and some community hubs by Bauman Lyons and Allen Tod have been built.

Plowden concludes: ‘Schemes like Foxhill mark a step change in quality so delivery of something like that isn’t easy. But if you asked if I’d rather things went faster but were done less well. I’d always say no.’

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