Housing has loomed large as a political issue since the start of the year. The controversial Housing and Planning Bill has passed through the Commons and on to the Lords and the Government has grasped the nettle on another long standing housing issue by announcing plans to regenerate Britain’s run down areas.
It’s an emotionally charged theme that politicians return to repeatedly, galvanised by stories of crime, poverty and poor living conditions on so called ‘sink estates’. By setting out his stall to regenerate 100 estates in Britain, and replace the worst with new housing, the Prime Minister has backed an ambitious plan. The lesson repeated by numerous post war regeneration initiatives is that communication and community have to sit at the heart of such plans if they are to work.
Regeneration veteran Lord Heseltine has been charged with chairing the Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel that will flesh out the detail around the Government’s policy in the autumn. While the panel sharpen their pencils, and hopefully get into listening mode, here are five of the challenges they will need to address if the Government is to avoid the confrontation, cynicism and dashed expectations that has mired some regeneration schemes before.
- The objectives of regeneration need to be clearly defined. At the heart of this is a simple question. Who is regeneration for? Is it for the people who currently live on housing estates in need of radical change or the people who will follow after? If the former, how will real consultation and engagement set the right direction for regeneration and avoid an exodus of long standing residents? Community organisations and the political Opposition should be pressing the panel hard on this question and looking to see existing residents at the heart of new plans.
- The Government must decide how to prioritise investment, and be prepared to justify that decision in the face of anger from disappointed communities. Will investment be based on need alone or will there be contests for funding – a mechanism in which Lord Heseltine has previously placed much store? Will priorities be set on the basis of investment returns, which might mean tackling several estates with moderate problems rather than the most serious examples where difficulties are most expensive to overcome and the benefits hardest to realise?
- How will the interests of public and private sector be balanced in these new regeneration solutions? The Savills report commissioned by the Cabinet Office talks of a ‘complete streets’ policy, meaning in this instance a mixed use, terraced, mid-rise urban street scape in place of high rise blocks. But, private developers are alert to the uncomfortable truth that private housing values tend to come down when units are interspersed with social and affordable housing. That’s why developers fund affordable housing offsite through their planning agreements for new schemes, and why inner cities experience the social segregation of so called poor doors. How can this circle be squared?
- The issue of timescales needs to be confronted at the outset. A Government announcement takes a few weeks to create, but the regeneration of a deprived area takes years to deliver. Woodberry Down, which is cited as a success story in the Government news release on this week’s announcement, will take 25 years to complete and is hardly without its detractors. The Savills report talks about the better long term returns available to those who invest in ‘complete streets’. But politicians need returns in five-year electoral spans, while residents want change in their lifetimes.
- Finally there’s the matter of expectation management. The money associated with the announcement comes down to an average of £1.4m for each of 100 estates to be targeted. That doesn’t build a lot of housing. So while Government can talk about investing in regeneration and will look to claim political capital from the initiative it is private sector money levered in that will make change happen on the ground. With the Government now resorting to directly commissioning affordable housing for itself, there’s recognition that the private sector has pressures of its own to deal with and won’t, or can’t, just build at the drop of a hat. Consequently, people need to be engaged and enthused by a long term vision and a lot of hard work, not promised their ideal community by Christmas.
Good luck to Lord Heseltine and the communities who will be swept up in the drive for regeneration. Future generations will decide if it worked.