Squaring the circle of regeneration

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on October 22.

When England’s most high-profile local authority calls the behaviour of the country’s largest housing association ‘morally wrong’ you sit up and take notice.

Clashes between the local priorities of a council and the organisational ones of an association are nothing new of course but this week’s statement by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) seems different.

Clarion is in its sights over rejected proposals for the regeneration of the Sutton Estate in Chelsea.

Council leader Kim Taylor-Smith told a council meeting last week:

‘HAs in the borough are, in some cases turning away from their core purpose and in some cases becoming all but private developers.

‘You will all know I am talking about Clarion Housing, the owners of my local and cherished Sutton Estate which they wish to knock down the estate with a loss of affordable homes We stand shoulder to shoulder with local residents in opposing this

‘I think we all in the chamber are untied. This is wrong.’

A discussion paper from RBKC also includes forcing developers to reveal their viability calculations if they cannot meet the council’s requirements for 35 per cent affordable housing on site, a more robust approach to empty property and potentially even changes to the right to buy.

This is all part of the council’s response to Grenfell and is informed by a determination to put tenants at the heart of decision making.

It is easy to be cynical about this. As with the social housing green paper, it may just be a PR exercise from a council that is still under severe scrutiny over its policies and could yet face charges over its management of the Grenfell refurbishment and response to the fire.

This, after all, is the same council that three years ago approved regeneration plans by a council-owned company that look very similar to the ones it now says are morally wrong.

However, the change of heart at RKBC is part of a much broader change of political climate on regeneration across London. To Grenfell-driven decisions in Kensington, add internal Labour politics and the rejection of the Haringey Development Vehicle and change of a change of political control and the downturn in the property market hitting the Earl’s Court redevelopment in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Add the London mayor’s insistence on ballots before major regeneration schemes can go ahead and the principle of resident consent is becoming established.

Cllr Taylor-Smith reiterates RBKC’s policy that there will be ‘no regeneration of estates, no decanting’:

‘We will refit and refurbish, but not remove and rebuild. We will consult with residents on how we can improve where they live.’

And the council’s beef with housing associations is not just about Clarion and the Sutton Estate.

The discussion paper also broadens out the criticism to include asset management policies by some associations:

‘As financial pressures have increased and central government grants to HAs have decreased, a small minority of HAs have relied more and more on private sales from inner London where land values are high, to fund affordable developments outside of the borough. The council believes that in these minority of cases, HAs have moved too far away from their core purpose.’

An approach to housing and regeneration that is locally led and focussed on the needs of existing residents is in stark contrast to the model adopted by some of the more ambitious associations.

Supporters would argue that this involves balancing social and commercial objectives by maximising the number of affordable homes for the broader community through cross-subsidy from open market development.

But critics see that as relegating local authorities to junior partners, bypassing the wishes of existing residents and aping the worst practices of private sector developers.

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle of a complicated circle that has to be squared by balancing the different and sometimes competing needs of existing tenants and leaseholders, local people who need homes and national policy.

The broader question is what this means for the future of regeneration policy and housing associations elsewhere.

Lessons from what happens in the wealthiest part of London with the highest land values may not read across to the rest of the country.

There are as many different sorts of regeneration as there are varieties of housing association.

Smaller organisations are already much more community focussed in their work and some have adopted approaches that are almost the polar opposite of those seen in London.

Some base their work on the principles of asset-based community development, working from the community out

Others see themselves as part of the foundational economy and regard the model of cross-subsidy, inflation-plus rent increases and unaffordable rents as broken.

As for national government, future policy on regeneration was in retrospect one of the most ambiguous parts of a social housing green paper that emphasised engaging with tenants on the one hand and maximising the supply of affordable housing on the other without seeming to recognise the potential conflicts between these two aims.

Only two paragraphs were devoted to ‘resident-led estate regeneration’ one noting concerns raised by tenants on consultation events that regeneration feels like something ‘done to them’ and the other refencing the need ‘to attract wider local public and private investment into estates’ as part of an Estate Regeneration National Strategy that originated in David Cameron’s notorious comments about knocking down ‘sink estates’.

The concluding statement – ‘We will work with public, private and community sector partners to better understand how public and private investment can lead to improved social and economic outcomes for the existing community’ – may sound laudable but it could mean practically anything.

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