Someone comes to your door and says: “We’re going to knock your home down, but don’t worry because you’ll get a better one.” What might you say in reply? Two words, the second of which is “off”, come quickly to mind. But maybe you don’t much care for where you live. Maybe your home is tatty, draughty or too small. Maybe its surroundings depress you. Maybe the thought of a brand new place in a nicer setting holds some appeal. So if you haven’t told your visitor to go away, your reply might well be “that depends”.
Sadiq Khan’s draft good practice guide to estate regeneration is at pains to address the “that depends” end of such an imaginary doorstep exchange. The 38-page document, aimed at London’s local authorities and housing associations, stresses the mayor’s wish for the support of residents to be secured for any plan to demolish where they live and build something else there instead; or to “infill” spaces around or between the exisiting homes; or, at the least radical end of the regeneration scale, to refurbish and repair them.
The mayor’s foreword frames his favoured approach to estates in terms of conservation and upgrade. “We must protect and improve estates,” he writes, setting this goal in the context of maintaining neighbourhood diversity: “The social housing they provide is a foundation of our mixed city.” The introduction repeats his manifesto pledge that demolition of estates should only occur if all other options for fixing any problems and enhancing them have been exhausted.
Chapter One, entitled the “aims and objectives of estate regeneration”, points out that demolition and rebuild is “a time-consuming, expensive and highly disruptive process” and says alternative ways of achieving the project’s desired goals and objectives should be considered before this most drastic route is taken. It adds that it should only be taken “where it does not result in a loss of social housing” and that “this principle will apply” to schemes looking for funding from City Hall. In other words, London councils and housing associations, if your regeneration plan involves rebuilding with fewer social rented dwellings than there were before, you’ll get no money to assist you from the mayor.
Chapter Two looks at consultation and engagement with residents in depth. Unsurprisingly, people become angry and upset if they feel their wishes and fears about their homes and estates are not being respected and that consultations are meaningless formalities after big decisions have already effectively been taken, or even covert ploys for neutralising opposition. The guidance, recognising this, says that consultation and engagement “should be a process, not an event” and begin “at the earliest stages of a project”. Potential costs and benefits, financial and social – a kind of regeneration balance sheet – should be set out in transparent detail from the start, including “the cost of doing nothing”. Everyone affected should be engaged, including temporary tenants and owners of small businesses on estates, and that engagement should be ongoing. The drawbacks of one-off ballots are highlighted: “They can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people in different ways in to a simple yes/no decision at a single point in time.”
The third and final chapter looks at the vexed issue of the rights of tenants and leaseholders. What exactly is a fair deal and how can these be guaranteed? Residents have legal entitlements to financial compensation, though there are well-documented cases of leaseholders discovering that these fall well short of what they need to buy a new home in the same area. There’s not much the mayor can do about that, other than urge landlords to be as generous as possible and to negotiate before resorting to compulsory purchase. The draft guidance says that social housing tenants should always have a “right to return”, with overcrowded households offered a larger dwelling. The mayor acknowledges that many councils and housing associations offer these terms already.
City Hall is emphasising that the draft guidance, which is out for public consultation for three months, aims to “put local people at the heart of estate regeneration in the capital”. As you would expect, its default reluctance to favour wholesale demolition is very much in line with the approach preferred by his housing deputy, James Murray, when he was housing lead at Islington Council. Other Labour boroughs have had a big input too, notably Lewisham, Ealing and Hackney, whose own mayors or leaders have endorsed the draft. Like Khan, they argue that estate regeneration of whatever type done well and with the backing of residents can viably maintain and increase the supply of “genuinely affordable” homes of various types, improve the quality of housing and enhance neighbourhoods without betraying residents or harmfully disrupting communities that often have far more going for them than is appreciated by politicians who believe council estates to have become inherently undesirable, “sink” entities, both socially and economically.
This draft guidance won’t satisfy everyone. Those who advocate a massive estate development programme across the capital will think it far too conservative. They, perhaps, should bear in mind that a recent Centre for London report found that most of the larger Inner London estates have already undergone some form of regeneration and that the theoretical potential for “densification”, though significant, is not as vast in London as is sometimes claimed. Champions of stock transfers from councils to bespoke, community-led housing associations may be disappointed that their regeneration recipe is not acknowledged. The driving impulse of such campaigners is to align the evolution of estates, including any redevelopment of them, with the wishes of their residents. “Involving residents at the start helps build trust in the [regeneration] process,” writes Khan. “It also means residents can help shape the options that emerge”. It is a good principle. The success of future estate regenerations will depend heavily on its being honoured.
Sadiq Khan’s draft good practice guide to estate regeneration and ways to respond to the consultation can be read here.