Project: Cleadon Park estate regeneration scheme
Organisations involved: Bellway Homes, Isos and South Tyneside Council
It's safe to say that demolishing and rebuilding council estates isn't the political flavour of the month. Responding last month to a damning Commons communities and local government select committee report on the government's regeneration work, housing minister Grant Shapps said: "It's certainly been tough picking up the pieces after Labour's disastrous attempts at regeneration, which amounted to bulldozing buildings and knocking down neighbourhoods in some of the most deprived areas of the country, while desperately hoping someone might come along to reorder the rubble."
But a project in South Shields demonstrates that knocking down and starting again does not necessarily lead to ruin. Ten years ago, the Cleadon Park estate had a reputation for antisocial behaviour and crime. Long-time resident Denise Graham says: "Drinking went on all night. When you took your kids to school, there were people still drinking from cans on their doorsteps at eight in the morning. It was that bad."
What's more, many of the estate's homes were in a poor condition, so when the last government introduced the Decent Homes programme, which required councils to bring their housing stock up to a minimum standard, South Tyneside Council faced a large refurbishment bill. "A survey showed that the council was going to have to put in a huge amount of investment, but it wasn't confident that would tackle the underlying issues," says Michael Farr, who worked in the council's housing department and is now development director at housing association Isos, which manages the estate's social homes.
As a result, the council decided to enter into a partnership with Isos and a private developer - ultimately Bellway Homes - to partially demolish and rebuild the estate, thereby introducing more private homes into an area dominated by social housing. However, after residents had been consulted and a masterplan drawn up, the council decided that a broader approach was needed. "The initial plan would have tackled some of the most difficult parts of the estate where the worst problems were found, but avoided affecting the owner-occupiers near the main row of shops opposite the estate," says Farr. "However, the council decided - in hindsight correctly - that the scheme was not a radical enough intervention."
The new plan, published in 2003, was to demolish the majority of the estate - 538 out of 950 homes - and replace them with 750 homes for sale and council rent. The plan also included a new doctor's surgery and library. It involved dealing with far more owner- occupiers than would previously have been the case. For a time, this proved problematic. "One day the owner-occupiers were thinking that they'd be sitting watching council housing being knocked down and new properties built and seeing the value of their home go up," says Farr. "The next day they're invited along to a meeting to be told that they're slap bang in the middle of the scheme."
In response, Farr says that the project team set up an office on the estate with a full-time member of staff to answer residents' questions. "That really helped us to understand the community's concerns," he says. According to George Mansbridge, head of housing strategy and regulatory services at the council, the process of trying to win residents round may have taken 18 months, but doing so meant that the estate retained its local spirit. "While there were problems, there was also a strong community," he says. "Often going down the compulsory purchase route doesn't help that. But the process of winning hearts and minds seems the most progressive way forward." According to Farr, the council didn't need to use its compulsory purchase powers.
With Bellway Homes signed up as developer after a tendering process, the project moved forward to demolition and rebuild. But concerns remained that the crime and antisocial behaviour would return. "We told the wider community that if you've been a good tenant, you don't have rent arrears and you don't have a record of antisocial behaviour, you'll be given first option on the new properties," says Farr. "If, however, you don't have that, don't bother applying. That message got out pretty quickly."
Of course, dispersing problem tenants is a surefire way to lower crime rates on an individual estate, but the tactic is accused of moving problems around rather than solving them. But Anne Connelly, strategic housing manager for the council, says that this didn't happen with Cleadon Park. "We tracked people who were displaced from the estate due to their previous behaviour and there is no evidence that we've displaced the antisocial behaviour to other parts of the borough," she says. "It's a myth that the people moved to other estates started causing antisocial behaviour there. I think that demonstrates that problems only occur when you have a concentration of certain types of people together."
Ensuring that criminality didn't return to the area was also crucial from a commercial point of view. Neil Turnbull, head of regeneration at Bellway North East, says: "The old Cleadon Park had an undoubted reputation and it was a real challenge to sell houses." But he says that crime rates in the area are now among the lowest in South Tyneside and that any lingering doubts about the area are quickly dissipating. As a result, he is confident Bellway will have no difficulties selling the last phase of private housing, currently under construction. "This isn't perceived as a regeneration site anymore, it's just perceived as a Bellway estate," he says. "We've had to build up momentum, but homes here are commanding the sort of market rate that we'd expect at a regular site rather than a regeneration one."
Second Opinion - Bob Robinson Senior partner, DPP
Q: What did you make of the quality of the urban design and build of the project?
A: I was quite impressed with it. One of the things that struck me was that there was no clear difference between the private housing and the housing association properties. The overall build quality, certainly externally, is consistent. Also, the idea of mixing the tenures around the development works.
Q: It was made clear to residents before the demolition that if they had been causing problems they wouldn't be welcomed back. Is it unusual for a local authority or housing association to be so candid?
A: In terms of management, many housing associations are tightening up on antisocial behaviour. It only takes one or two bad tenants to bring down the image of a whole area as they tend to have a disproportionate effect. It's something that goes on unofficially all the time with all housing associations and local authorities. But it's interesting that in this particular case, they actually came out and said: 'Look, this is going to be a new broom. It's a comprehensive redevelopment and we will be selective about who we invite back." That's sound management.
Q: When you've got private partners, do you have to protect their investment to a certain extent?
A: Of course you do. But I'm pretty sure that the process of losing the difficult tenants wasn't something that was driven by Bellway. It was the housing association that focused on that aspect because it didn't want its showpiece being damaged or lessened by having difficult tenants.
Q: It was quite obvious that Bellway was commercially confident about the project. What do you put that down to?
A: It's certainly a good location close to the local shops, so it is an area where Bellway knew houses would sell. Also, being based in northern England, Bellway has considerable experience of dealing with joint schemes such as this and investing on inner city brownfield sites. It brought that knowledge and experience to this particular project.
It struck me that the firm was very much one of the driving partners of the whole scheme.
Q: Did you think that the way the partners phased the project - with more social housing than private homes built in earlier stages - is sensible?
A: I do think that they are going about it the right way, because if you feed too much private housing into a scheme too quickly you are potentially going to end up having vacant units sitting around for quite a while. What they are quite sensibly doing is making the last phase of the project the only purely private one. The developer clearly realises that it first has to create a market for private housing on an estate that had previously predominantly consisted of social housing. It wants to create that private sector market before it commits to the purely private sector phase that will mark the end of the redevelopment.