Guest blog: Create Streets

What tends to go well when estate regeneration is a success

I’m the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise. We’re a fairly unusual organisation, because we work on the built environment in a wide range of different ways. We do a lot of research into the impact of the built environment on things like wellbeing and happiness. But we also do a lot of ‘practical’ work, advising on how to make developments, and the development process work better (advice that often comes out of our research.) For this we are normally hired by communities themselves. Sometimes local authorities or Registered Social Landlords (RSLs - what used to be known as housing associations) bring us in. As such we have an unusually broad perspective of the different ways new developments can happen, and what the pressures and requirements of everyone involved are. This extends to estate regeneration, on which we’ve spent quite a lot of time researching and advising.

What we’ve observed is that while some estate regenerations don’t go well, are not well managed and are not always fair to existing residents, there are many architects, social landlords and developers who are excellent at it. We’re passionate that this should be the case in all estate regenerations.

When we study estate regenerations, we evaluate how well different developments are likely to optimise resident wellbeing and long-term value. Our framework asks seven critical questions of a regeneration:

We believe that there’s frankly little point in changing the urban fabric of a place if it doesn’t pass all or nearly all of these tests. A development that fails several of these tests could well end up doing more harm than good.
Based on our experience best practice normally involves; engaging with residents early and when real decisions still need to be made, and working with partners who understand that this is not a ‘commercial’ deal with a social ‘cost’ but an act of social and housing policy which needs to work financially. We tend to only work with local authorities or RSLs that are trying to do these things.

It’s probably fair to say that not even the best examples of estate regeneration are ‘perfect’. Perfection is probably impossible in the necessarily messy and difficult process of estate regeneration. There will always be trade-offs. But the outcomes, we think, can be very worth the hassle.

I sat on the government’s estate regeneration panel, which looked look at how the layout of estates can be best used to deliver more quality homes. Along with a host of other figures from the industry, I contributed towards the creation of a national estate regeneration strategy, a document which aimed to ‘deliver more and better-quality housing, drive local growth and improve outcomes for residents.’ The panel’s discussions also led to a document outlining some case studies of where regeneration was done well.

It’s certainly true that there have been a number of high profile, highly controversial sites, such as Heygate or Earls Court in London, where a variety of mistakes have led some residents to campaign against the changes. This can lead to extensive media coverage. But for every one of these, there are many which proceed very well and to residents’ very evident satisfaction. As a resident at Myatts’ Fields North, in south London, told us: ‘It’s just great, so much better.’

It’s worth repeating that no one says that estate regeneration is easy. As former government minister Lord Adonis has said:

In my experience of public policy and government, big challenges do not always require complex solutions. Often the essential reforms are simple. I am also wary of the gibe: “If it were simple, it would have been done already.” This confuses “simple” with “easy”’.

Regenerating estates, sometimes knocking all or parts of them down should be difficult. Regeneration deals with people’s homes, after all. But sometimes it is right to ask how better homes can be built in better neighbourhoods, in conjunction with both current and future residents. We very much think it should be done well, and can be done well.

Nicholas Boys Smith

Create Streets, September 2017