Book Review: Community-led Regeneration by Pablo Sendra and Daniel Fitzpatrick

Published on July 7, 2020

Published on July 7, 2020

LTF Representative, Pat Turnbull reviews this free toolkit for residents and planners.

‘Community-Led Regeneration: A Toolkit for Residents and Planners’ by Pablo Sendra and Daniel Fitzpatrick, is published by UCL Press and is also available online in an open access version which can be downloaded for free.  It aims to offer a guide to the ways in which residents can influence developments where they live, particularly when they are affected by regeneration.

It presents seven London case studies of communities opposing social housing demolition and, in most cases, proposing community-led plans.  It offers a toolkit of planning mechanisms and other strategies that residents and planners working with communities can use to resist demolition and propose community-led schemes.

The case studies are: Walterton and Elgins Community Homes, West Ken and Gibbs Green Community Homes, Cressingham Gardens Community, Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood Forum, Focus E15, People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH), and Alexandra and Ainsworth Estates.

Drawing from the case studies, the toolkit covers the use of formal planning instruments, as well as other strategies such as sustained campaigning and activism, forms of citizen-led design, and alternative proposals for the management and ownership of housing by communities.  It is aimed at planning professionals, scholars working with communities, housing activists and residents resisting the demolition of their neighbourhoods and proposing their own plans.

It sets the scene: ‘London is distinctive in two main ways: it is a huge, unequal and expensive city to live in and it has a strong heritage of council housing.  As the largest city in Europe, the capital of one of Europe’s most unequal nations, London has a housing market with very high rents and prices compared with incomes.  It is often referred to simultaneously as a wealth machine and a poverty machine.’  It goes on: ‘The draft London Plan still implies a default position of demolition, and estate regeneration still seems to mean knocking down rather than doing up.’

The introduction emphasises the purpose of the toolkit: ‘Engaging communities in regeneration processes is vital both for avoiding a displacement of residents and for giving communities the opportunity to take the lead in their neighbourhood’s future…some communities encounter many barriers when attempting to influence meaningfully the future of their neighbourhoods, with local authorities often disregarding residents’ proposals.’

It summarises: ‘The communities in these case studies have used different strategies: direct action, occupation, legal action, neighbourhood planning, People’s Plans, co-design workshops and fundraising.’

One useful aspect of the toolkit is the detailed description of the legal framework and its history.  Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, for example, was able to make use of the so-called Tenants’ Choice legislation in the 1988 Housing Act to take over the management and ownership of 921 homes from the local authority.  This was in response to Westminster Council’s intention to sell the estate to private developers ‘for a dense rebuild programme’.  The transfer took place in 1992.  However, the so-called Tenants’ Choice legislation was repealed in 1996 following only a handful of transfers.

The West Ken Gibbs Green Community Homes campaign was a response to the council’s plans to sell the land where the estates stand for development in 2009.  The campaign aimed to apply for the Right to Transfer, enacted in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, but with no guidance published until November 2013.  The campaign hired community organising staff, and architects to draw up a plan for infill and refurbishment rather than demolition. A member of the campaign is quoted as saying that ‘their most effective strategy in the campaign by far is visiting people in their homes and maintaining close relations with individuals and households over time and building up trust.’

Cressingham Gardens Community started the Save Cressingham campaign in September 2012 to fight the council’s plans to demolish the estate.  They drew up a People’s Plan with the support of an architect.  A People’s Plan is not a statutory document but takes less time to draw up than a Neighbourhood Plan.  They won one Judicial Review but lost a second one.  The residents have obtained approval from central government for both the Right to Manage and the Right to Transfer.

In the case of the Carpenters Estate in Newham, the council first announced their plans to redevelop the estate in 2004.  In 2011 they announced an agreement with University College London to construct a campus on the site of the estate.  Carpenters Against Regeneration Plans (CARP) was set up.  Greater Carpenters Neighbourhood Forum was formally designated by the London Legacy Development Corporation in July 2015.  The Neighbourhood Plan of 2017 aimed to resist demolition and obtain housing refurbishment and sensitive infill.  Three towers still stand empty on the Carpenters and as of mid-2019 the new Mayor of Newham had still not met with the forum.

The writers of the toolkit summarise: ‘All these groups are in the middle of lengthy disputes with local authorities and developers.’  They offer this thought: ‘Even when such campaigns are not successful, they can result in lasting achievements such as creating stronger groups, increasing individual and collective knowledge, and broadening awareness and solidarity with a particular campaign or issue.’

The toolkit is useful in describing very clearly the options and challenges for resident groups who want to contest unwanted regeneration proposals.  For example, on the Localism Act 2011, which set up the option of drawing up a Neighbourhood Plan, the toolkit says: ‘Many doubts still remain about its effectiveness and capacity to empower communities, especially in urban areas.’  It explains: ‘The role of Neighbourhood Forums is to produce the plan; they do not have a formal role in its implementation.’  Also: ‘a Neighbourhood Plan needs to be in conformity with the Local Plan; it cannot contradict it.’  The council draws up the Local Plan.

The writers of the toolkit are critical of the Mayor’s London Plan: ‘There continues to be an explicit support for the types of housing, indeed for the sort of growth, that relatively few Londoners can afford. Even the way in which the term ‘affordable’ has now transformed into ‘genuinely affordable’, and is accompanied by a range of definitions for different rental levels, continues to complicate and obfuscate the underlying need and imperative to build social housing at rents which people in London can pay.’

On the London Housing Strategy, the writers say: ‘Although the strategy refers to the involvement of residents in decisions and the need to hear their voices, it is not specific on the mechanisms and requirements to achieve this.  Also, in terms of consultation, hearing is not necessarily listening to achieve this, still less acting upon.’

The section on Resident Ballots also offers a critical approach: ‘The Mayor did not make the Resident Ballot a requirement for getting planning approval of the redevelopment of an estate; it is rather a condition for obtaining GLA funding for affordable housing.’  It explains: ‘A Resident Ballot is a tool for the ‘Investment Partners’ of the estate.  They are the ones who make the decisions on when the ballot is held, what the questions on the ballot should be, the nature of the development proposal itself and the information the residents receive …The ballot is thus…not a participation process.’

Barrister Sarah Sackman has written a section entitled ‘Using the law and challenging redevelopment through the courts’.  She outlines the legal aspects of the regeneration process and explains the process of Judicial Review (JR), which is to seek a High Court decision that a body has acted unlawfully.  But she adds ‘even if a JR is successful and a remedy granted, that will not necessarily result in a different outcome from the original decision.’

The section on Informal Tools and Strategies lists: mobilising people; online presence; applying pressure; graphic design, communication and action; direct action; building alliances with other campaigns; getting support from organisations and politicians; and community and open events.

The picture faced by threatened communities in London will be familiar to many: ‘Consultation structures used in the past have repeatedly failed communities, which have become accustomed to failure and being lied to…repeated waves of regeneration investment, starting in the 1980s..led to embedded civic disenchantment, even trauma.’

The writers conclude positively: ‘The research demonstrates that campaigning does have an impact’ but add ‘Housing activism implies long-lasting campaigning which can be very tiring and energy-consuming for residents.’

If I had a criticism of the toolkit, it is that it places too much emphasis on the need for paid employees, architects and community organisers.  Certainly, help is welcome, but the people who know estates are the people who live in them.  Their knowledge should be respected and they should be supported in defending their communities.  In this context tenants’ and residents’ associations are the essential element, and it is disappointing that they are not highlighted more in the toolkit. It might have been useful to see examples of strong and united estate communities resisting similar threats to their existence – for example, estates which successfully resisted the pressure to transfer their homes to housing associations between 1998 and 2008.  Maybe the UCL team can look at that as their next project.