How we did it: Designing out crime in estate revamp

Crime has plummeted on a London housing estate after security features were agreed in the design process, says Colin Marrs.

(Left to right): PC Mark Headley, designing out crime officer, Metropolitan Police; Caroline Field, regeneration manager, Orbit; Ted Welch, project manager, Wates Residential; and Sergeant Matt Coe, Metropolitan Police
(Left to right): PC Mark Headley, designing out crime officer, Metropolitan Police; Caroline Field, regeneration manager, Orbit; Ted Welch, project manager, Wates Residential; and Sergeant Matt Coe, Metropolitan Police

Project: Secured by Design on the Erith Park regeneration scheme

Organisations involved: Secured by Design, Metropolitan Police, Wates Residential, Orbit, London Borough of Bexley

The 1970s-built Larner Road estate in Erith, south-east London (originally built by the London Borough of Bexley) had suffered from crime problems over many years. But since the demolition of the estate’s eight tower blocks and their replacement by a low- to medium-rise development, crime has plummeted. So how did those overseeing the project – now renamed Erith Park – make such a dramatic difference?

Ownership of the estate was transferred to housing association Orbit in 1998, but after a consultation with residents and local businesses, a decision was made to demolish the blocks and replace them with a development of 650 new homes. The association selected developer Wates as its development partner in January 2012, with architect Broadway Malyan appointed the following month.

The scheme had already won £15 million of grant funding from the government’s Homes and Communities Agency (now Homes England). "Due to the history of the site, there was lots of scepticism about whether we could turn things around, and a condition of the grant was that we would build the new scheme to Secured by Design (SBD) principles," says Shami Kaler, technical director at Wates Residential.

SBD is an initiative that encourages design techniques and products to increase security and reduce crime in new building projects. It was established in 1989 and, according to the police, SBD developments are up to 75 per cent less likely than the average project to be burgled and generally show a reduction of 25 per cent in criminal damage.

The London Borough of Bexley’s protocol for estate regenerations meant that, before architects had set to work on the designs, planners sent a letter to the SBD team in the Metropolitan Police to ask for their input. "That is the stage at which we like to get involved," says SBD development officer Lyn Poole, who was seconded to the initiative from the Metropolitan Police. "We can give the architects a general guide as to what they should and shouldn’t put in, in terms of lighting, landscaping and natural surveillance of open areas from windows."

Orbit also worked with residents, both to draw on their experiences of what was wrong with the design of the old estate, but also to give them an understanding of how good design principles work, according to Caroline Field, the housing association’s regeneration manager on the project. "We worked with [government adviser] the Design Council to take residents round other successful developments and demonstrate the importance of things like seeing a front door when you arrive as a visitor, so you don’t have to wander around too much trying to find your friend’s flat," she says.

A degree of negotiation between the police and the housing association was needed to meet both parties’ needs. One particular point of compromise was over electronic gates that the police wanted to be installed on parking areas under the buildings. "We wanted these for security and to prevent fly-tipping, but Orbit said that gates on other developments had high long-term maintenance costs," says Poole. "So we had conversations that led to changes in the design, which meant that extra CCTV and more windows overlooking the entrances were installed instead."

The development design work also kept up with changes in SBD standards. "In the buildings within the first phase, once someone gets past the lobby doors, they are able to move around the whole building," says Field. "However, on the second phase, residents need a fob to get through a gate to get onto their own floor."

The development was the first in London to use a fob system that allows detailed logging of who is coming in and out of the building. "Whenever anyone uses a fob it is recorded in the system," says Poole. "In addition, if someone rings a doorbell, the system registers whose flat has been rung and if that flat released the door and let people in."

Combined with CCTV cameras, the technology allows the housing association to get video recordings when people enter gates within buildings. "This helps us deal with illegal subletting, drug dealing and homeless people sleeping in outdoor areas," says Field.

Other design features that were introduced were more subtle. "The general security environment we created was about creating good lighting and wide pathways which were overlooked by lots of windows," says Kaler. "It is far less intimidating to walk about at night compared to the old layout."

Construction on the project lasted from March 2013 until completion in December 2018. Figures for 2018 show there was not a single successful burglary on the estate, compared with 100 in the neighbouring council ward. "There was one attempt on a cycle shed on the new estate, but the locks held," says Mark Headley, designing out crime officer at the Metropolitan Police. "The door had been smashed, but the bicycles were all securely chained and they still couldn’t nick anything."

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