Estate regeneration vision will be hard to realise, by Chris Brown

The government's recently published Estate Regeneration Strategy and Good Practice Guide is a fascinating melange of ideology and experience.

It was was written by an independent advisory panel, chaired by former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine and planning minister Gavin Barwell. It starts with an idea that comes from the days when Heseltine was environment secretary and which was turbo-charged under the Blair government – mixed communities.

The aim of the strategy is to produce "balanced, inclusive neighbourhoods that meet diverse local housing create enduring places that are popular with those living there, with those in the immediate vicinity and with visitors".

Placemaking features strongly, but so does the idea that estates can be put on a brownfield register and so automatically get ‘planning permission in principle’ for housing.

Three principles for approaching estate regeneration are offered:

1. The community should be engaged as partners
2. The support and leadership of the local authority
3. Willingness from the regeneration leaders to work with the private sector to access commercial skills and lever in investment.

However, it is clear from the guidance that the assumption is that the landowner, usually the local authority, is in charge and it is their objectives, rather than those of the residents, that will drive the process.

The document also suggests that community-led development is an alternative approach, on the grounds that it is:

• Innovative, built to a high standard and often environmentally sustainable
• Related directly to local housing need and affordable
• Subject to smaller overheads and offering increased local accountability
• Attracts long-term investment in the project
• Able to create locally-owned assets, jobs and economic improvement
• More easily engenders support from residents and the wider community

And while the possibility of local authorities doing estate regeneration themselves (through wholly owned companies with development managers) is acknowledged in the document, the assumption is that private sector partners will be brought in, potentially using an investment plan to be repaid from rent over several decades.

The strategy doesn’t highlight that many estates’ problems derive from poor maintenance by their current owners or that retail parks and industrial estates offer much better potential for increasing housing numbers than existing housing estates.

Nor does it come down firmly in favour of former London mayoral hopeful Zac Goldsmith’s promise - to tenants set to lose their homes as part of regeneration schemes - of one move, to a new home on the same estate in the same tenure, though it gets pretty close.

The most interesting part, and the element that seems to most fire up Heseltine, is the idea, some would say the regeneration holy grail, that the costs to the state of deprived neighbourhoods, including publicly owned housing estates, are considerable and mixed communities would dramatically reduce these costs.

This theory turns on the idea that mixed communities can reduce some burdens on the state, for example by being self-policing, by improving educational quality, by providing informal social care and so on. This may well be true, though the right wing economists would disagree, but there is little academic evidence, and if it is true it is only likely to be so in well-established neighbourhoods, not ones artificially created by estate regeneration, at least not immediately.

The conclusion of all this is that in reality few estates will be viable to regenerate (those that are will tend to be low density estates in high value areas) and few organisations are likely to have the skills to achieve best practice regeneration of the ones that are.

Chris Brown is executive chairman of developer Igloo Regeneration.

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