Estate regeneration: how do you do it right?

by Dave Hill

The redevelopment of council-owned housing estates is perhaps the most polarising political issue in the capital. This has been so for a while, but the intensifying focus on housing costs and “affordable” supply has sharpened oppositions and raised temperatures. Even the language of what passes for a public debate is unhelpfully extreme. From one side comes demeaning talk of “sink estates“, from the other the ugly slogan “social cleansing”.

Conflicts over regenerations fuel a protest politics roadshow and are gifts for the media. But where do residents fit in? What do estate tenants and leaseholders want – really want – and how can their wishes best be assessed and met? What weight should be given to the housing needs of other local people, such as the homeless, those on waiting lists and would-be first time buyers on low-to-middle incomes, when decisions about estates are made?

We rarely hear about estate demolition-and-rebuild projects where most interested parties seem pleased with the outcome. That’s why the Packington estate in Islington is an interesting case study. Lynsey Hanley, author of the outstanding Estates: An Intimate History, has written that “residents have steered the demolition and rebuilding…to ensure that the new development is not only mixed tenure and mixed income, but treats social tenants as worthy of decent, secure, long-term homes”.

The Packington was featured in an exhibition at New London Architecture (NLA) I visited last week by housing architects Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), who designed the winning proposal for the Packington in 2005 (when the Liberal Democrats ran the council, by the way. The decision to redevelop was taken the previous year and the stock transferred to the Hyde housing association in 2006). One of PTE’s senior partners, Andrew Beharrell, is a co-author of a report published last year called Altered Estates, with the finger-on-the-spot subtitle How To Reconcile Competing Interests in Estate Regeneration.

Introducing its recommendations, the report asks and answers a central question:

Let’s be clear about the objective of estate regeneration: is it to improve the lives of those who live on or around existing estates, or is it help solve the housing crisis by making more effective use of public land? With care, patience and respect we should be able to do both.

You might not go along with all of it. But anyone seeking a truly progressive path through the political minefield of estate redevelopment should read the whole thing.

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