How regeneration should be done

Experts at a recent roundtable stressed the need for proper community engagement

May 23, 2018
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Prospect and Home Group, one the UK’s leading providers of social housing, recently convened a roundtable to discuss the role of regeneration in providing solutions to the housing crisis. With housing once again rising up the political agenda, the event brought together policymakers, academics, politicians with private and third sector experts to discuss the relevant challenges.

It is now widely recognised the UK is suffering from a housing crisis, with an increasing share of household income being swallowed up by housing costs and—in some places—a marked decline in quality. The failure to build enough housing units over the past couple of decades has contributed to this. Whilst the nature of the housing problem varies around the UK, few locales are unaffected.

Whilst much of the public and political debate has been focused on brown and greenfield building, the regeneration of existing housing estates has the potential to both improve the quality of existing dwellings and to increase housing density by adding vital new units.

Home Group CEO, Mark Henderson, opened the meeting by explaining the background to Home Group and noting some of their recent projects. Not shying away from the issue, he described how much of the debate on regeneration often lapsed into criticism of gentrification. The line between regenerating an estate and gentrifying a community can be a fine one but, for Home Group, successful regeneration is driven by the active involvement of existing residents. The community should ideally feel like they are working with a developer to regenerate their community, rather than it being something done to them by developers and the council.

He argued that, if done well, regeneration is a long process—community engagement has to be far more than just putting up posters with notices of planning applications and a few (often badly attended) meetings.

Gentrification is a controversial area and it is notable that, whilst successful regeneration projects rarely receive much national press attention, poorly done ones (which are often accused of being acts of gentrification) usually do. Richard Blakeway, a former Deputy Mayor of London for Housing, argued that the public debate often lacked nuance. He noted that, in many areas, change was almost inevitable and the real question for public authorities was “how should they plan for it?”

It was widely agreed by participants that regeneration had a role to play in increasing the UK’s housing stock—although it was not in and of itself a solution to the wider crisis. Clare Coghill, the leader of Waltham Forrest council, said that in her area, there were simply no fresh sites to build on and all efforts to increase the number of homes either involved brownfield sites or regeneration.

One frustration she faced was that developers would often provide a plan which failed to engage the wider community or think through the effects on neighbouring communities. Paul White, a councillor in Wandsworth and a member of that borough’s housing community, shared these frustrations.

Both Lucian Smithers, of starter home developer Pocket Living and Andrew Dixon, policy head at the Federation of Master Builders made the case that small developers were often better suited to taking forward some of the projects that involved smaller redevelopments of parcels of urban land.

Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn, the MP for Greater Grimsby, noted that there was still all too often an issue with policymakers supporting the need to build more in principle but objecting to building in their own areas. In Grimsby the potential change to a roundabout—just outside her constituency—has been a major issue in the local news. As she argued, the fact that a potential change to a roundabout could provoke such strong feelings showed that local residents often care deeply about potential developments.

Clare Melhuish, of UCL’s Urban Laboratory, argued that the existing planning system often did not work for local residents. She and her colleagues had worked with residents on a regeneration project in Brixton South London, many members of the community had simply not had spare time to attend area planning committee meetings or to deal with the bureaucracy involved. Carole Bell, a former lecturer and a long-term resident at the Rayners Lane estate recently redeveloped by Home Group, praised Home Group’s approach. She described how the community had been actively involved in every step of the regeneration from the architecture and building design to the timetabling of the project.

Davina Imbuldeniya, a regeneration manager at Home Group, explained the group’s approach to managing community engagement and how they provided expert advice to residents.

One recent area of controversy in regeneration has been the proposal to hold ballots of residents before beginning works. James Clark of the Greater London Authority explained the background behind the proposal. One concern has been the question of “who gets a vote?” There is the risk that existing residents may reject schemes which increase density to avoid disruption and change but those on social housing waiting lists are not included in the franchise. However, Sophie Barnes of Inside Housing noted concern over “insider/outsider” splits could be overstated. Existing residents were often as concerned about the nature of the housing crisis as anyone else and keen to help.

Summing up the discussion, Henderson argued that regeneration would continue to play a part in the UK’s response to the housing shortage. But if it was to play its full role—and avoid the negative stories around gentrification—it would need to have more community engagement, and community engagement which moved from box ticking a few meetings to fully involving the existing residents.

Read more: My journey through regeneration