Estate regeneration comes to terms with challenges across many fronts

Project researchers tasked with identifying estate regeneration lessons to help shape future communities had to deal with changing sector trends, a housing market collapse and the recession, Jon Morris reports.

We live in interesting times. Almost two years ago, when I was asked to join a project led by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) to learn from recent estate regeneration practice, there was an accepted paradigm on its overall approach.

Nearly topping the list of "musts" was the need to encourage private developers to invest in new houses for sale, use the uplift in land values to create a tenure mix and help fund wider local investments. Any successful partnership was expected to involve a wider range of delivery agencies and get residents to produce a delivery plan to tackle social and economic problems.

Since then, we have seen the credit crunch and collapse of the housing market. There has also been the Policy Exchange report Cities Unlimited, which argues that because investment in regenerating poor areas has failed to change the geography of inequality the UK should focus on more successful areas.

Paul Cheshire's report Are Mixed Communities the Answer to Segregation and Poverty? for the Joseph Rowntree Trust points out the lack of evidence to show that mixed communities benefit poorer people and limited evidence suggesting it actually harms their life chances.

Meanwhile, original project funder the Housing Corporation was merged into the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), with a wider remit. There was plenty for the steering group to sink its teeth into. The researchers had chosen a methodology based on a literature review and four detailed case studies that all fitted the paradigm but differed in duration, partnership structures, ratio of public and private money, how they engaged residents, areas' specific problems and funding sources.

Perhaps not surprisingly, their report finds that lessons are more about how best to make the current paradigm work rather than what to do if it breaks. Current case studies and literature show that successful projects should be of a sufficient scale with strong, clear delivery plans and strong long-term local leadership to attract both private and public investment.

They need to be flexible enough to cope with changes in the market, public sector structures and funding mechanisms and losing key local leaders, while also being able to tackle specific local problems and deal with issues raised by residents. The success of the long-running Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association project seems to relate to its ability to bite off smaller chunks and deal with them as the opportunity arises without losing its long-term vision.

The most recent North Solihull project was initially intended to be fully financed privately from increased land values and higher-density building. This has now attracted HCA funding, directed through the local authority, and is likely to change the future dynamics of estate regeneration partnerships.

In all four cases, the public sector role was seen as crucial to the process and increasingly vital during the recession. At the same time, the private sector role was also seen as important, bringing in varied expertise and funding and helping to achieve a wider approach to regeneration.

It was revealing that routes to funding are not always planned and logical. In all the cases, the strategies and objectives go beyond measurable outcomes. It is too early to tell whether current changes in the housing market, wider debate on estate regeneration approaches and the current enthusiasm for cutting public expenditure will bring fundamental changes to how we work.

However, some aspects will not change. One will be the need to have apparent certainty of future action and to achieve measured targets and goals. Another is a more flexible approach that seeks out and uses changing opportunities and also achieves intangible aspects crucial to success on the ground.

The published report will provide valuable insights for network members and others working in the area on how to deliver estate regeneration through interesting times. It will also provide some insights into current HCA thoughts on the topic.

- Jon Morris is an RTPI member representing the RTPI-CIH planning for housing network. Transforming Estates was published by the CIH last week. Network members are invited to join in discussions at www.planningforhousing.org.uk


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