Architects have often found themselves caught between residents and development teams when trust breaks down on estate regeneration projects. London’s new ballot policy will tip the balance of power in residents’ favour, Ella Jessel reports
‘Architects must work with residents in order to gain their trust,’ Nicola Curtis says from her kitchen on the Central Hill Estate, a 1960s low-rise estate built into a steep slope in south London’s Upper Norwood.
After a six-year battle to stop Lambeth Council demolishing hers and the other 449 homes on the estate, Curtis’s patience with design teams, outline studies and consultations is wearing thin.
But London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new estate regeneration ballots, brought in last month, could offer a way forward for this and other schemes in the capital. ‘If residents have had a ballot,’ Curtis says, ‘[architects] are going to have a much better relationship with residents and end up with better designs.’
From 18 July, schemes in London that require the demolition of 150 or more council homes (like that at Central Hill in Lambeth) have for the first time required a ‘yes’ vote from residents in order to receive mayoral funding.
Haringey Council’s axing last month of its controversial and widely unpopular housing deal with Lendlease underlines the importance of getting estate regeneration right. The launch of the mayor’s ballot process suggests a change of direction for estate regeneration in the capital that tips the balance of power in residents’ favour.
But will these local referenda create Brexit-style division, or present local authorities and, by extension architects, with a more meaningful form of community engagement?
The ballot policy was first announced by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last year. Khan subsequently introduced them in London after 88 per cent of respondents to a City Hall consultation backed the move.
Central Hill Estate in Lambeth
But ballots have their detractors. Critics say complex regeneration schemes cannot be reduced to a yes/no poll; that ballots can be swayed by outside influences; and that pre-procurement is too early a stage for them to take place. Developers have also argued that they present an extra hurdle in the way of housebuilding.
Estate residents, on the other hand, have hit out at the major ‘loopholes’ in the proposal, including how delays to the policy’s implementation mean a large number of contentious schemes will not get the chance for a long fought-for veto.
Attrition of trust
Prominent architects in the public housing sector have echoed residents’ concerns that the way major estate regeneration projects have proceeded in recent years has resulted in a breakdown in trust.
Kate Macintosh, well-known for her design of 1960s social housing schemes, including the listed Dawson Heights in Dulwich, is backing the ballots. She says: ‘If [regeneration] is well and honestly handled it should result in only the least well-loved and less successful estates coming down. But it is difficult to ensure that outcomes are not distorted by years of neglect of maintenance and promises of something shiny and new.’
Jo McCafferty, of Levitt Bernstein Architects, says the introduction of ballots will allow residents to have a greater voice. She says: ‘There has been a rapid attrition of trust in the benefits of regeneration from a resident’s point of view over the past five to 10 years. Ballots should help recalibrate this relationship between community and landowner or developer and empower residents to set the agenda for development.’
While architects have broadly welcomed the new policy, they have also raised concerns that the vote will take place before a ‘development partner’ is procured, ‘and/or prior to finalising the precise specification of works’. Most feel this is far too early.
Brendan Kilpatrick, who leads PRP’s London studio, supports ballots but says the mayor’s policy is weak on timing. He says: ‘I can see situations where a successful ballot has occurred on the basis of outline proposals being achieved, which then changes after a procurement of a development partner.’
Other architects with regeneration experience warn about the dangers of ballots becoming a proxy for wider housing debates. Pollard Thomas Edwards senior partner Andy Beharrell says that, while voting on proposals could provide ‘valuable feedback’ if well conducted, it could also be ‘hijacked by special interest groups, which might not represent the views of the majority: those who want to resist change tend to have louder voices than those who desire change, or at least accept it.’
Sanctum ephemeral by mark aitken tunnel 1
Roland Karthaus, of Matter Architecture, says a stock transfer ballot that took place while he was working on the Clapham Park Estate regeneration in Lambeth in 2005 became ‘a focus for national movements against the loss of council housing’.
He adds: ‘Regardless of the pros and cons of these wider arguments, it created local tensions and divisions.’
But other architects disagree. ‘When local authorities say “interest groups or political activists” they usually mean a group of concerned residents who do not want their house to be demolished,’ says Pablo Sendra, an architect and lecturer at The Bartlett, adding that, when genuine co-design is implemented, local authorities stand a better chance of having a positive ballot returned.
The effectiveness of ballots will be tested over the coming months as a series of major schemes move forward in an already politically charged environment.
Khan provoked fury from Conservative-run Westminster Council by immediately applying his new policy to its Ebury Bridge and Church Walk regeneration schemes, withdrawing £23.5 million in funding unless the council holds a second ballot on its revised proposals.
But, while some estates have had GLA cash clawed back, critics such as Green Party London Assembly member Sian Berry have accused Khan of ‘rushing through’ funding agreement on 34 estates, involving demolition of 9,000 homes, since the initial consultation closed in March 2017.
Khan has insisted he is ‘encouraging’ all landlords to hold ballots, whether or not the funding condition requires it. In Kingston, the newly elected council cabinet has announced plans to voluntarily hold a binding residents’ ballot for its 2,000-home Cambridge Road scheme.
Funding for the regeneration of Cressingham Gardens, near Brockwell Park in Lambeth, was signed off in December 2017, but residents say plans are at an early stage and they should still get a vote. They argue that Labour Party divisions have cost them a say on the future of their homes.
‘We’re in the crossfire of the Labour Party civil war,’ says leaseholder Gerlinde Gniewosz. ‘On the one side, they want ballots; but here in Lambeth they don’t. Sadiq is trying to look like he is following the party line but on the other hand approving [GLA] funding through the system.’ The mayor’s ballot is ‘not worth the paper it’s written on,’ she adds. ‘It’s a joke. Why is he funding the demolition of a community when he knows it has no community support?’
The sensitivity of estate regeneration projects poses huge challenges for architects, who often find themselves caught in the middle of sometimes long-running conflicts between landlords and residents.
Roland Karthaus was commissioned by the council to undertake a co-design process with residents on the Cressingham Estate and spent, he says, ‘a great deal of energy’ exploring its complex conditions. ‘Costs and viability were difficult to agree at such an early stage and the lack of sound information meant collaborative design wasn’t achievable in the end,’ he says.
There was controversy, too, on Central Hill after architect PRP, appointed to draw up options for the redevelopment of the estate in 2014, tweeted a photograph of a walkway, asking: ‘Would you walk down this alleyway?’
Lambeth estates campaigner Joanne Parkes says the incident was interpreted by residents as a suggestion that the estate was unsafe and that it ‘reinforced a really tired narrative that doesn’t reflect people’s lives’.
PRP’s Brendan Kirkpatrick says he can not comment on the incident, nor on Central Hill, but adds that there has been strong resident representation on the panel that chose the successful design team. Parkes says architects can regain trust by simply refusing, on principle, to work on estate regeneration projects where residents have been denied a ballot. Gniewosz adds that a good start would be to improve communication and, like the original Cressingham architect Ted Hollamby, ‘think about how people live their lives’.
‘People come home with the shopping; they don’t want to carry it up a big stairwell. So we have small sets of steps, and kitchens situated next to the front door so you can dump the bags. That’s the level of thinking that went into the design,’ she says.
Architects often visit Cressingham and Central Hill to examine their buildings as interesting examples of 1960s social housing. Gniewosz went to a second-year students’ presentation exploring design ideas for the Cresingham site.
‘All the students said they had gone in thinking about demolition – but then they got to speak to the people on the estate and all their projects radically changed,’ she recalls.
Profile: Cressingham Gardens
- Not eligible for ballot
- Existing homes on estate: 306
- Proposed homes: 464 +
- Development management team: Mott MacDonald
Cressingham Gardens, a low-rise 1960s estate that runs along the edge of Brockwell Park in Tulse Hill, has faced demolition since 2012. Designed by Lambeth’s director of architecture Ted Hollamby, the estate comprises 306 homes interspersed around a series of connected walkways.
The estate still has a striking amount of green space, plenty of trees, well-tended patios and grassy expanses that blend seamlessly into the neighbouring park. But residents, well-used to visitors sizing up their communal gardens, rush to point out that their estate ‘meets density targets’ and is home to over 1,000 people.
Architect Roger Bicknell, 78, designed the estate’s sunken rotunda, a nursery described by The Architectural Review in 1979 as having ‘fairground overtones of merry-go-rounds and bandstands’. Bicknell recalls the council moving people out of overcrowded properties in Brixton to new social housing in the 1960s. Back then, the estate’s ‘gentleness’ and its spaciousness were its strengths.
Today however, the drive to ease pressure on Lambeth’s 28,000-strong waiting list means its openness works against it. The costs of refurbishment are too high, the council says, and is pushing forward with plans to demolish all 306 homes, and rebuild with a further 252 homes.
Residents argue all that is needed is proper maintenance and new roofs but, despite two judicial reviews and a six-year fight, the council is forging ahead with its plans. With GLA cash signed off in December 2017, calls for a ballot on the demolition of the estate have fallen on deaf ears.
Profile: Central Hill
- Eligible for ballot
- Existing homes on estate: 450
- Proposed homes: 960 +
- Development management team: Mace
Central hill estate
Central Hill, a meandering bus-ride from Cressingham Gardens up to Gipsy Hill, is another Hollamby-era estate built dramatically into a steeply sloping site near the former Crystal Palace.
Designed by architect and town planner Rosemary Stjernstedt, it was described by Historic England as an early exploration of Le Corbusier’s ‘hill town’ concept in England. It, too, is facing demolition.
But Central Hill has not yet received GLA funding, meaning the council will have to hold a ballot if it wants mayoral cash to rebuild the estate.
Optimism, however, is thin on the ground among residents, who say the estate is already emptying out. Nicola Curtis lives in one of the top tiers of stepped blocks, her balcony overlooking the tree-covered Gipsy Hill with views of the City of London in the distance.
‘I’ve got three empties around me. I saw another two tenants with the moving vans go this morning. It adds to our misery and makes us want to leave quicker,’ she says.
The once secure community now feels more transient, says Curtis, a feeling compounded by the council’s decision to fill void properties with homeless households on short-notice lets. As for the ballot, Curtis said she thinks Lambeth will eventually hold one, but only when it’s already too late.
‘At this rate we’re down to 360 original residents. If they get rid of another 100 in a year, they pretty much know they’ll win,’ she says.
A Lambeth spokesperson said it was considering how to respond best to the mayor’s new ballot rules ‘where a decision to rebuild the estate has already been made’.
Photography by Anthony Coleman, Mark Aitken and Ella Jessel