Delivering estate renewal in the real world

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In the face of reduced public funding, escalating land values and increased pressure on assets, estate renewal has become an increasingly important option for meeting housing need across London. This kind of regeneration must be economically viable, socially and politically attractive, deliverable and sustainable, or it risks perpetuating a cycle of inward-facing estates and divided communities that don’t deliver on their potential.

Future of London’s November 2014 conference took a two-pronged approach to identifying effective ways forward: the event and upcoming January 2015 report focus partly on strategic issues such as funding, planning and delivery models; and partly on front-line issues such as integration, phasing and CPOs, density and space standards. Community consultation factors into both themes.

Both themes also highlight where and how estate renewal is working; where the pitfalls and unresolved issues are; and how this renewal and infill approach can be maximised to provide quality housing for Londoners – urgently and into the future.

In the conference plenaries, which focused on aspects of partnership, regeneration and housing leaders agreed that London’s property values, while hampering housing delivery at the social-rent level, do allow for rare levels of cross-subsidy. They also agreed that vehicles such as joint ventures can provide capital, land and skills, and that the level of activity across London depends in part on borough politics, capacity and relationships.

The sector is also finding its way through broader questions on estate renewal partnerships. Here are just a few, to be expanded upon in our main report:

Timing: At the current speed of planning and delivery, we will be hard-pressed to produce enough homes for current Londoners, let alone the expected increase, and several speakers called for the process – or at least parts of it – to move much faster. However, others pointed out that successful projects, where there were fewest planning or community challenges, built meaningful consultation time into the pre-application and application process. A timeframe like 15 months to approval may feel long, but it’s faster than five or 10 years mired in the courts.

Skills: A huge range of skills is needed to deliver estate renewal partnerships; does each party – especially the borough – need to ‘skill up’ to safeguard its interests and be a full player? One speaker pointed out that with “everyone trying to do everyone else’s jobs” it might be better to focus on sector expertise, but given the concerns Future of London has heard about viability understanding and negotiation skills in the public sector, there are clearly areas of shared expertise to focus on.

Goals: Signing an agreement doesn’t automatically produce a shared view of outcomes. Influential parties who aren’t signatories often raise red flags, and even proactive partners can clash when they do not or cannot fully acknowledge their (legitimate) different goals – mandated affordable or total housing numbers, re-election, short-term return or long-term revenue stream, community-strengthening urban realm, project viability, 20% profit or 25%, market rents in A to build affordable housing in B, and so forth. This is one of the benefits of having vehicles like joint ventures separate from councils, with their own agreed teams.

What and for whom: There are a raft of issues around density and space standards, especially as they relate to resident choice v. the greater good of housing Londoners, ideally within GLA boundaries or at least close to transport nodes and/or jobs. Employment – whether through construction jobs or training for outside work – and increased tenant support are welcome priorities, as is the focus on creating spaces that will strengthen a community and make the overall place viable and harmonious.

There are also clear obstacles. To name a few:

Local authorities are struggling on several levels with the pepper-pot landscape created by Right to Buy properties interspersed with social-rented homes. There is also the frustration of having to buy back these properties or rent from their owners to house social tenants and homeless households displaced by welfare reform or the bedroom tax. Are Right to Buy covenants an answer, or will central government act? What’s the best use of this funding?

Land is an increasingly heated point of contention, with public landholders called on to release their assets for housing, and private owners periodically threatened with use-it-or-lose-it stipulations for undeveloped land. A starting point would seem to be cataloguing these assets and sharing that information.

Construction capacity – there isn’t enough. Not enough bricks, bricklayers, contractors or even space to build. There are construction academies in London and organisations such as Sanctuary are developing in-house teams, but the materials shortage must be addressed. Future of London will be following this up in 2015.

Future of London’s January 2015 full report will also feature:

An update on Housing Zone roll-out, and an expansion of the conference break-out topics:

Planning: How do we balance intermediate and social rent provision? What are boroughs doing to cope with staff and funding shortfalls? How do we broaden understanding of what density can look/feel like? Should we have more pan-London planning models, and if so, how do we safeguard local needs?

Funding: New institutional funders such as the European Investment Bank; asset optimisation; and alternative models from Real Estate Investment Trusts to bonds and buy-back arrangements. This will include the update on London Housing Zones.

Alternative delivery models: Working with the community to sell the concept; working with investors and elected members to overcome uncertainty; highlighting best-case work from London boroughs and builders.

Homes: Opt-in or mandatory space standards: preventing abuse v. stifling creativity? In terms of public space, what are its “best” uses? How do we usefully involve existing residents in design, and/or anticipate the needs of the ‘new’ communities created by estate renewal?

Integration: Aspects of physical, transport and community integration, all requiring a common vision from stakeholders – borough, GLA, TfL, developer and housing association at the very least – plus research and in-depth consultation. This segment will be linked to a Thamesmead visit in early 2015.

Process: The process of estate renewal is painful for all involved – risk management, phasing, decants and CPOs “all seem to need re-assessment” according to one speaker. This section will look at cases from Greenwich to Ealing and include “golden rules” for CPOs.

See our three-part briefing with Urban Design London and New London Architecture here [PDF], and watch for the full report, including an introduction to the first Housing Zones, in February 2015. Future of London’s Nov 6th Delivering Estate Renewal conference and the report are co-sponsored by Lend Lease, GVA, Countryside, London Communications Agency and Pollard Thomas Edwards with support from Lovell and Lewis Silkin. To see the full speaker list, visit the conference post here.