Fresh approaches to regeneration in Nottingham North
This Article first appeared in Property Week
Fresh approaches to regeneration in Nottingham North
Shunned by investors, blighted by urban decay and blamed for riots, benefit bills and teenage pregnancies, the UK's "sink" estates have long suffered from negative stereotyping that is hard to shake off.
They came under the spotlight again in January when David Cameron outlined an initiative to‘blitz’ urban poverty through a new £140m programme to regenerate up to 100 of England’s most down-at-heel council estates. Launching the scheme, the prime minister said England’s worst estates suffer from the same problems: poorly built concrete edifices suffering from decades of neglect and social exclusion. For many, including Cameron, there is little to be done but to get in a demolition team, wipe the slate clean and start again.
But if recent cases in London are anything to go by, the results may be less than adequate for many of the existing residents. Woodberry Down in Hackney was hailed by the prime minister as a successful transformation of a run-down estate, but the redevelopment has left many of the original occupants unable to return, priced out by the new ‘affordable’ housing that replaced their homes. It’s the same story at Elephant & Castle’s Heygate estate.
So is there an alternative solution? And how might the fortunes of these vulnerable communities be turned around?
The prime minister has appointed an Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel, to be chaired by Lord Heseltine, to examine this question and advise on the distribution of the £140m fund. Last month the Department for Communities and Local Government published a call for expressions of interest from local authorities to “help inform” the thinking of the panel.
Recently appointed to the prime minister’s estates taskforce, Graham Allen - Labour MP for Nottingham North - has captured attention at the highest levels of government with his views on the issues and possible solutions, which are at odds with the government’s direction of travel.
For Allen, the way to enact change isn’t through the wrecking ball, but with an early intervention approach that would alleviate poverty and break the inter-generational nature of deprivation by enticing jobs to the area and rebuilding the community fabric from the ground up.
The challenge in Nottingham North is daunting. Over 46% of the working-age population have left school without five GCSEs or the equivalent, four in six of the area’s schools are in special-measures programmes and it has fewer people going to university than anywhere else in the UK.
Source: REX Features/John Birdsall
Under 60% of the constituency’s working-age people are in employment, and as of May 2015 nearly 15,000 people claimed out-of-work benefits - more than double both the regional and national averages, and 50% more than in Nottingham city.
Unlike many inner-city estates in Manchester or London, Allen says Nottingham North’s issues don’t lie with what Cameron dubbed “brutal concrete slabs dropped from on high”.
“My estates are no tower blocks that need blowing up; they are products of the garden city movement,” he says. “They are solid, well-built 1930s stock - big dormitory-style estates that were built to serve a manufacturing base that is now not there. Nottingham used to have mines, textiles, Raleigh bicycles. All those industries have now gone, and these dormitories have been left high and dry.
“My housing problem is that I have too much housing and not enough skills, training, jobs, education or leisure and culture.”
Unlike many of his peers, Allen believes tearing down the estates will achieve little in the long run, and is an option that doesn’t make economic sense.
As he points out, outside London, property prices do not allow for the mass-regeneration schemes that can revitalise poor communities. “Once you get beyond the M25, you don’t get decent value after knocking a property down. Our problems tend to be very different and arguably the reverse of those in London,” Allen says.
“Regeneration is not all about housing and rebuilding old stock. It is much more about early intervention, and getting into the cycles of deprivation and balancing communities.”
This view is supported by another member of the prime minister’s estates taskforce, Berkeley Group’s chief executive Tony Pidgley.
“If you look at places like Stoke and Nottingham, the heart has been taken out - and when you take the jobs out it takes time and effort to recover,” Pidgley says. “That’s where you need infrastructure, and also ideas such as George Osborne’s northern powerhouse, to revive areas including these estates.”
Pidgley hopes for lively debate about how to turn around deprived estates in regional cities and about what industries can be brought in to create jobs.
Whether it is the hutongs in Beijing, Rio’s favelas or ancient Pompeii, people want to live in streets, with local neighbourhoods - Yolande Barnes, Savills
For Allen, the answer, in part, is to lure the creative talent of Nottingham’s city centre out to the north to stimulate the local economy, with the aim of bringing city centre vibrancy out into what can be “pretty grey” estates.
In 2014, he set up the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation, a charity that aims to stimulate change by improving access to jobs, skills and training. In the 18 months the charity has been in operation, it has organised the first Nottingham North jobs fair, which saw 145 attendees secure jobs, saved the taxpayer between £430,000 and £570,000 and added £1.8m to the local economy.
“It’s about looking at the kids who aren’t going to get the five A-C grades, and letting them know that they are valued, right through to a disability conference to get employers to employ disabled people,” says Allen.
Allen says the initiative requires a lot of networking: “I have a huge sandwich bill, but it’s worth it. There is quite a thin community base but it’s important to have people come and connect.”
The charity’s partners include the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, Nottingham City Council, the Department for Work and Pensions, local community groups and contractor Carillion, which has seconded an employee to work on the programme.
“Carillion has been an incredibly supportive partner in terms of rebalancing the outer estates,” says Allen. “The guy I’ve got builds hospitals and bridges; he can get the job done. And it has asked for nothing in return. It’s about it proving its corporate social responsibility in an extremely practical way.”
Allen’s views on a community- and jobs-centred revival is backed up by Cabinet Office-commissioned research by Savills, the findings of which informed the government’s decision to launch the £140m estates programme.
Savills’ research director Yolande Barnes says the most successful communities are the ones where the locality delivers for its inhabitants. “We know that an average household generates one job through all the local services they demand in the year,” she says. “That ranges from a pub or a shop to a caterer, a solicitor, a florist - the list goes on.
“In high-functioning neighbourhoods, we find that they’re a hive of activity, and it’s extraordinary that we still zone areas for housing and don’t think to build anything else for people. Places where we live, especially with Generation Y, are also the places where we work.”
Finding new sites to stimulate local employment is important for Allen. With councils increasingly under pressure to find more space for housing, the MP warns the government’s drive to sell off public land for homes could lead to a loss of potential employment land. “To build a healthy community you’ve got to stop blanketing land with generic housing, and where there are precious land resources they should be used to get diversity and variety on estates,” says Allen.
He is wary of the effect that top-down directives from Whitehall will have, not just on Nottingham but also on many of the UK’s towns and cities. The government wants Nottingham to build houses, he says, but with no differentiation, so when a spot comes up, the council thinks: “Great, we can bung a couple of semis on there.”
Instead, he thinks that land could be used to build units where young people can be trained in plastering, brickwork or another skill so they can find their way to a career.
“As a charity, we don’t have the clout to build ourselves, but we have the ability to make partnerships. Would we like to see more small businesses and build more starter units? The answer is yes.”
Rather than meet what he calls “arbitrary” national housing targets, or keep a capital receipt and flog land to a speculative builder, using land to create jobs is his main aspiration.
Savills’ Barnes says the industry, and the government, needs to move beyond homes being defined simply as units. She believes that if all you think about is the maximum number of homes you can put on a site, all you will get is degraded environments. “Whether it is the hutongs in Beijing, Rio’s favelas or ancient Pompeii, one thing is clear - that people want to live in streets, with local neighbourhoods,” Barnes says. “This has been missed by the professionals, be they architects, planners or quantity surveyors. Somehow they can’t deliver places that people want to live in.”
Whether Allen’s message is picked up by Whitehall remains to be seen, but he says the limited amount of funding available - £140m is a small pot to tackle wide-ranging estate regeneration - which will come in the form of a loan rather than a grant, may be a blessing in disguise.
“People don’t need more money, but more sensible money, and to be allowed to invest more long term,” he says. “Also, if you have a relatively small amount, the fewer places you concentrate it on the better. You can have projects that demonstrate and pioneer new approaches. By narrowing it down to 20 or even 10 places, you’ll do more than trying to tackle 100.”
Allen would also put money aside to create a regeneration foundation with an endowment, aimed at redeveloping 10 or 20 estates, that would spread best practice. “It works by freeing up neighbourhoods and by having effective devolution,” he says. “We have just enough capital to allow development on a site that has lain vacant for 15 years.”
Allen is critical of Whitehall leading from the top down. “We’ve had a lot of Whitehall bright ideas - the brightest would be to get off the backs of local people,” he says.”We need a new vision as bold as the garden city movement but for today’s society. One which looks at healthy communities based on role models and the shop on the corner. Then we can rebalance these estates and alleviate the deprivation on their doorstep.”
Heseltine’s taskforce will present its review in the autumn and many hope that if the government can get the policy right, it could be among the best use of £140m it has ever spent.