Back in 2019 , I was recommended to visit an art exhibition at The Wellcome Collection “Living with Buildings”, surprisingly entertaining. One of the stand out messages for me was how many buildings and estates were described as architectural visions or dreams.
Black and white pictures of “play-decks” created on the Pepys Estate between 1966 and 1970 depicted what with hindsight seem to be very bleak landscape for imaginative play and certainly would put most millennial parents’ and the health and safety brigade’s teeth on edge.
Many landlords have repurposed or demolished play-decks, seeing them as opportunity sites and designers sure like to design child-friendly amenity space or opportunities for informal play. Ask a child to draw a play space and the ideas range from what they know (swings, footballs) to the fantastical (space rocket a particular favourite) but without fail the draw space is full of – well, children. It’s the space to be children together that is important not what is in it, hence the concrete play-decks are remembered fondly.
Lots of our work is alongside architects. All of them tend to be talented designers, some a bit bonkers, some great at community consultation events, but only a few are good at listening to residents and hardly any give credence to the views of children.
Fast-forward 50 years and the creation of a “play-street” which won many plaudits in Hackney with large boulders, logs, a water feature, and a hammock along with some bespoke planting and equipment. (Health and Safety experts divert your eyes).
“Yes but what is it for?” questioned a persistent six year old when the architects unveiled the equipment. A workshop on play was included in the grand opening of the scheme and the same child remained unconvinced. 6 years on and the space is imbedded in the central part of the estate but many of the features have been removed due to safety concerns. A lovely space nevertheless. The persistent six year old now an early teen walks through on her way home from secondary school where the puzzling item once stood “I told you so” she said. From the mouths of babes…….
A few learning points for consulting about play:
A child does not need to be taught to play, they just want opportunities for play
Think about the management of your grand designs, who will be cleaning it, how are the materials when wet/ gritted / frozen / under a heatwave?
Really listen to tenants and their children what they are saying about your designs for their estate
We are all aware of sensationalist media reports depicting hoarders as freaks or health hazards but not many of us understand the extent of hoarding within the population or the complexity of this condition. Working on rehousing projects in inner-London over the past 20 years has given me an insight into hoarding and the complex people who hoard. My experience indicates that 10-20% of people living in social housing have a hoarding issue – they are primarily but not always single.
Joe was not my first hoarder or indeed the worst, but probably the most memorable and certainly a “text book” example of the complexities of the compulsion. Joe was 80, born on a small Mediterranean island, he recalled traumatic childhood memories of WW2. How he ended up in social housing in London is unclear. Joe lived quietly, until the day that regeneration arrived on his estate, resulting in the need for him to move to make way for demolition. Joe had no interest in improving his housing conditions, he believed that he was being systematically poisoned by the authorities, agents and persons unknown. He had created a makeshift bunker within his flat in which he felt safe, he was surrounded by his huge collection of useful things. Every ache and pain he put down to substances to which he had been subjected; he believed he was being followed daily and photographed the people he believed were responsible sharing these photographs whenever we met.
He traveled all over London to shake them off, he was forever on the move on some self-set assignment to get copies of documents and request that records held about him be destroyed. Joe was constantly surprising he visited book shops and knew all the latest titles, he spent afternoons at the cinema, he knew every bus route and public building in London He remembered the name of every council officer and had a clear view whether they were “part of it” – the conspiracy that is.
The day came when, supported by the excellent decant team at Hackney Council, a new home was identified for Joe and the long process of gaining his trust and relocating his bunker began. We started with single carrier bags, and odd things taken to charity shops; then boxes passed through the door; larger items too precious to be entrusted to strangers pushed on a makeshift trolley (sometimes under the cover of night); and occasionally via the boot of my car. Finally he trusted me enough to let me into his home and we could accelerate the process.
Almost two years later, having checked his new home daily for “substances” and people getting in while he was not there; thanks to extremely patient council officers; the removal contractor who staged a phased removal; and repairs operatives – the longest running decant move in the history of social housing was completed. Joe took me to breakfast to celebrate and paid me a touching compliment ” I have spent years running away from people because I had been in their home but couldn’t ask them into mine. Now you have been into my home – you are in my heart”.
Joe isolated himself from his brother and sister, he never married believing that contact with him would put others in danger. His delusions made him believe and say strange things, he lived a desperately lonely life and sadly died alone only six months after moving. Now he is in my heart too.
From my experience with Joe and many others like him – here are some tips for dealing with hoarders:
Most hoarders with them.
Hoarding is a compulsion not a lifestyle choice, professionals should not be judgemental, there are often other mental health issues at play.
Action should be person-centred, constant and at a pace comfortable for the hoarder, I recommend little steps daily.
Intervention should initially be limited to health and safety concerns
Be prepared for set-backs, major de-cluttering rarely works and generally results in compulsive re-collecting.
If you would like advice or practical support with a hoarder we are happy to help, we can agree strategies engage hoarders and provide support workers to do face-to-face support.
Or rather the resident consultation process. Oh the heady days of early 2020 – when residents flocked to events to see what their landlord has planned for their futures, when they could look architects in the eye and touch drawings and models, even point their fingers and shout a bit.
Since the end of March we have become slaves to our laptops, our phones and tablets. We have learned the best place in our homes to get good light (so people can see us look interested but not the increasing grey wild hair) and the best angle for WiFi connection to enable to us to do part of our job.
Finding it fascinating that as we (mainly professionals very few residents are engaging this way) are talking amongst ourselves about whether tenants displaced by demolition should get built in wardrobes or not – we can see colleagues with very nice custom built book shelves in their home office. On an untidy day I can put myself a minimalist background or even claim bandwidth failure and appear as a talking emoji. We have become acutely aware of the challenges facing families on lower incomes cooped up in small flats with limited outside space – a great time to consult about improved public realm if only we could talk to residents.
A Facebook group established on one of our projects has attracted more residents than come to the average drop-in event and the views from lock-down have been revealing and sometimes poignant. Here are just a few highlights:
“My priorities for all residents is to treat the exterior spaces as they would their living rooms. Inject some pride in the shared environment”
“Oh to have trees and to be able to look at it through my window”
“Next to the home we live in, I would like to enjoy as much peace and quiet as possible and see grass and trees instead of parked cars.”
“How about a pantry? Would that be something to think about too. From going through this pandemic virus. I’ve learnt a lot about food storage, and it is definitely handy to have.”
“We live in a busy city so home is more for relaxing. That’s my view”.
We all are more intimately acquainted with the joys and short-comings of our homes having spent an unprecedented amount of tine there, never will residents have more ideas about inproving their spaces.
Other platforms hosting virtual planning consultations and chat boxes opening when a resident logs in have been less successful with only the most determined residents being prepared enough with their battery of questions. Most just leave the site, perhaps feeling intimidated or watched? And telephone consultation? A tenant recently confided that she felt uncomfortable being cold-called by a landlord representative or consultant and felt that her views were being recorded and personalised and she wanted to know what her neighbours thought too.
Certainly every single project has lost resident momentum since lock-down began and when we can eventually face our public again – we’ll need to build up bridges again. Beware the clients who have moved design proposals forward in their Microsoft Teams Bubble you need to take residents on the journey.
As Fat Larry’s Band would sing “Oh zoom, you chased the day away”.
Up until 20 working days ago, we wondered how we would manage to speak to so many people about so many projects and ensure that at least 7 projects would get through the ballot and planning processes this year.
With some of our clients, this push took on a life of its own driven by balancing lots of proects, staff and venue availability and stretching everybody’s resources to the limit. Our last public event took place on the second Thursday in March and it was clear the next day, when the football season was suspended due to risks presented the Covid-19 virus, that our industry would need to think again.
We have shifted to virtual consultation and communications; taken our computers home and rationalised what can be done without resident input. The truth is not very much can, and I am sure that other partners in our projects are realising just how pivotal gaining the the trust and belief of residents is. Nothing can proceed to ballot or planning applications without residents seeing, hearing, touching plans. A timely reminder of where the power should rest, within the community.
Communities need to be supported to adapt to the new normal; to put themselves and their loved ones first; and lost of all forget the worry that regeneration brings with it as well as the advantages. Whilst we can’t meet face-to-face we are keen to keep in touch and alleviate any worries people may have. Even if you are feeling stir-crazy and just want a chat, give us a call or drop an e-mail.
We have made is a list of resources for families cooped-up at home and wanting a way to keep brains going Lockdown linksFeel free to ask for a copy and share this widely we all need all the help we can get. The advice from an experienced home educator is to choose just one or two activities each day plus the PE class if your family is not active otherwise (walking / cycling / playing outside), rather than attempt a home education. If nothing else, it limits screen time. If we come across more we will send them on.
We really hope you all keep healthy and well and that we see you all at a community event before too long.
As a bit of a distraction from our current woes, here’s a piece I produced for a creative writing class recently. All my classmates found this opened up a whole new world for them – none worked in social housing! However, I imagine this is a story many reading this here will be familiar with, but I offer it as a perspective on what our our profession was like 35 years ago. Feedback welcomed! John
Homes fit for Heroes
can all go an’ feck yerselves.”
was unmistakeable. A slurred Derry accent, full of phlegm and fury, lubricated
by strong alcohol and a raging grievance. I turned away from my desk to look
out of the office window. Bridie bumped out of the door and took a long, deep
breath and lifted her head in order, it seemed, to adjust her vision from short
to long sight. Her fuddled brain was making the calculation of distance,
orientation and velocity in order to negotiate her way down to street level.
more urgent bodily need suddenly overtook these advanced calibrations. To my
amusement (but knowing I should also be horrified), she unbuttoned her tatty jeans,
crouched down, shuffled down whatever underwear she had on and started to pee.
It seemed to go on for minutes; a steadily increasing torrent of piss flowed
down the path to where it joined the public highway. Finally, she was done. She
stood up, hitched up her jeans, nodded to herself as if in satisfaction for
rounding off her earlier outburst in such spectacular fashion, swayed slightly
and, locking on to a point somewhere in the middle distance made her stately
way down the street. I could hear the clatter of buckets, mops, hot water and
disinfectant being fetched from the cleaner’s cupboard.
I had been
working for the housing association for a year and was keenly, probably naively
committed to making sure that the
colourful array of individuals who lived in my ‘patch’ were able to retain the
security of a home however addicted, troubled or ill they were. The area was
variously known as North Paddington, West Kilburn, Queens Park or Maida Hill
depending on whether you were a local estate agent with a sharp suit and what
passed for a ‘mobile’ phone in those days or a second generation West Indian
immigrant family on benefits whose parents experienced at first hand the
Notting Hill riots and the overt discrimination of twenty years ago. This was a
time of ‘yuppies, ’ a nascent property boom and politically motivated housing
policies. A popular poster seen around the streets pictured a bowler hatted
civil servant with a fiercely-toothed digger for a face and the caption “We are
a little worried about our landlord.”
But under these
big issues, there was a community like any other, of individuals,
personalities, mostly good people with some rogues and chancers. But many
pursued lifestyles you would not stumble across every day. I could only speculate
how they got where they were but judging was neither in my job description nor
in my nature. How could I even begin to understand why Mary was so obsessed
with keeping her home clean that she had completely washed away the bottom 3
feet of plaster on her flat’s walls, leaving exposed the lathe that held the
rest of the wall together and an ever present pond of soapy water on her
kitchen floor? Or why Christopher huddled into a panicking ball whenever there
was a thunderstorm? Or why old Mr Grayling dressed in an ironed, smart shirt
and clean socks and kept his boots immaculately polished by his bedside but
never wore trousers?
these, Bridie was someone I treasured. Because I was closer to understanding
her behaviour? There but for the grace of God etc.? She was in her early 50’s and
bore the scars – literally and psychologically – of what must have been innumerable
abusive relationships. Her broken nose sat flat in the middle of her florid
face, her wary eyes were a watery brown, her hair roughly chopped short. If you
met her walking down the road, you would notice the deliberate, slightly stiff-backed
gait of a serious drinker that suggested that, regardless of her state of
inebriation, she had to concentrate on holding head and body upright in order
to propel herself forward.
She lived in
a basement flat, sparsely furnished, with a stuffing-haemorrhaging sofa, three discoloured,
ratty chairs and a wooden coffee table. Although judging by the rings stained
into the surface and the streaks of stale beer, it had not borne a coffee cup
for many years. A print of the Virgin Mary looking mournfully across the room
at a faded-to-blue photograph of a lough with a mountain in the background were
the sole items decorating the walls. Curtains with a complicated brown pattern,
probably of their time in the early 1970s, were usually drawn across the front
One of my
jobs was to call round every fortnight to collect the rent. There were four or
five regular fellow drinkers who would invariably be at her flat. Providing I
arrived before mid day, I could have a coherent conversation with Bridie and
the boys, catch up on their news, find out who was ill, who that week had had a
problem with their benefits. Her regular companion was Gerry who once could
have passed for Gene Vincent but now had slicked back, greasy, thinning hair,
the deeply lined, outdoor face of a rough sleeper and an emaciated, puny body. These
days, any rock ‘n’ rolling he might still have aspired to would have been
severely hampered by the fact that he only had one leg. Often, when settling in
for a session, he would take off his prosthetic limb and stand it next to his
chair and the six pack of extra strong lager.
drunken inevitability, he would row with Bridie and the other men would take
sides depending on who was fuzzily perceived as the victim and who the
aggressor. Bridie told me that she had become so angry with Gerry on one occasion
that she had swiped his disconnected leg, taken it outside and “chucked it in
Over time I
was gradually welcomed into this half lit environment and graduated from
appearing at the door as the Rent Man to regularly being offered “a wee brew”
and a fried egg sandwich. At 11.00 in the morning, initially at least, this was
not hard to turn down. But such was the strength of a personal bond and, to my
young mind, the importance of sustaining a trusting relationship, that I did occasionally
At the time
it did not seem extraordinary that I walked the streets of North Paddington
with a few hundred pounds of other people’s rent money, maybe after a few sips
of drink and was required then to add up the takings back at the office.
How I behaved probably stood contrary to common sense and rules were bent. But they were warped out of shape to keep families together in decent homes and to play the welfare system so they could pay the rent. It was important that Bridie had somewhere to have her drink-fuelled arguments, somewhere to go to the toilet that wasn’t a public thoroughfare, that the heroin addict in the next street had somewhere safe to self medicate and the young ‘mad’ boy had somewhere to shout obscenities at his voices.
I was at a workshop on building new homes and we got to a contentious point about what was being planned. I asked the room (mainly architects and regenerators) if they would take the same action / design they were planning if this was not social housing. There was silence in response because most recognised the likely answer was no. I then asked if they personally would live next door to or above the facility they were planning and again the answer was silence.
Why oh why do Councils and Housing providers still persist in designing things into new social housing and estates that they would not dream of placing on a ‘private’ estates? The answer clearly comes down the fact that this would result in a reduction in sale price whereas it is not seen as an issue in social housing. All too often there is still this unconscious perception that it does not matter with social housing because ‘they’ don’t own the property.
I grew up on a council estate and am all too familiar with the snobbery and patronising behaviour that can be directed at social housing. Anybody who knows me will be aware of my complete antipathy for murals and mosaics which were the universal panacea for all ‘deprivation’ ills between the 1970’s and 1990’s. ‘These poor people are deprived, lets give them a mural (and let them eat cake too)’. Don’t get me wrong I am big supporter of public art, but I’m talking quality and well thought out work, not something bad that marks you out as a ‘deprived’ area. How many murals and mosaics do you see on new ‘private’ estates …mmm… none! I like graffiti and a nice Gaudi mosaic but not as a marker and I mean you too Banksy.
All too often on mixed new build estates I hear the term ‘tenure blind’ but it never is, the quality of the work surfaces, tiles and finishes is always just that bit cheaper in the social units.
A few things to consider:
Rent covers all costs in the same way as a mortgage does so stop treating different tenures differently
If it is not alright where you live why do you think it will be alright in ‘social housing’
By putting a different financial value on social housing you are also putting a lower social value
We have been quiet on the social media and blogging side since December, been busy supporting residents through ballots and other regeneration consultations.
A couple of years ago we wrote about a test of opinion that was too close to call (50:50 by voter and 52:48 by household) and the landlord decided they did not have a remit to pursue their proposed regeneration.
Since then our clients have been upping their game to develop proposals which, whilst they do not get universal support, are clear enough and beneficial enough to gain the support of the majority of those eligible to vote. These despite noisy minority, external and political opposition. The process has been challenging for regeneration partners who have become used to imposing their professional judgement on what is needed to regenerate neighbourhoods – the “we know best” designers, builders and officers. For residents and other community stakeholders the process has been genuinely empowering.
Schemes that are developed in genuine consultation with residents are better, it was ever thus. The Greater London Authority’s ballot guidance which also gives those waiting for housing a chance to vote (primarily homeless families in temporary housing and hidden households or adult children of tenants) discourages communities from voting for the status quo. However, regeneration schemes still need to be attractive and sustainable.
In our experience, there are some key factors to developing a scheme that will get a positive ballot:
Social housing tenants universally think that social housing is amazing and want is retained or increased within reason.
Nobody wants to be shipped out of their community to make way for gentrification
Leaseholders and freeholders want fair treatment with regard to value and the ability to remain in their home area.
Most people understand the broad economics of getting some new homes paid for via grant and the need to build for sale
For no voters, it is disappointing to learn that their neighbours do not agree with them and maybe they are personally not gaining anything
One or two landlords are thanking their lucky stars that their schemes fall outside the ballot guidance so that they can push through schemes which residents would never support. In the light of recent ballot results which demonstrate that communities can be trusted to make good decisions that affect their futures, those proposals’ days are numbered
In one of my blogs last year I raised the issue of how often the numbers don’t make sense when talking about the value of social housing. Recently a couple of studies have thrown up even more food for thought.
Local Government Association commissioned research has shown that if the government(s) had been more consistent and persistent in their approach to building social housing over the last 20 years , £7billion could have been saved in housing benefit. In addition the residents housed in the new homes would also have benefited with an increase in disposable income of £1.8 billion. When you factor in the knock on effect from expenditure on construction or increased disposable income the the potential advantages to the local economy is great. Building social housing is not throwing money down the drain as some seem to believe.
However, a recent Chartered Institute of Housing report has found that in eight years between 2012 and 2020 just under 200,000 units of social housing will have been lost. This is mainly through right to buy and demolition. In addition, the CIH analysis found that up to 2020-21 of the government funding for housing 79% is directed at private housing and just 21% at ‘affordable’ housing.
Despite the governments much lauded plans for building more social housing we are still looking for clear commitments and targets to be met.
Still not convinced about building social housing? A GLA assembly member FOI request produced the information that London Councils are spending £22 million, annually, renting back properties that were sold under right to buy.
Architectural models have always held a fascination for me especially because they are a great way of creating a perception of a place using unique objects and materials to illustrate character and activity. On top of that, it is impressive to see large urban communities captured in their miniature form and just like the development of real urban environments; the production of architectural models involve a similar process. This process includes initial planning, scaling, a building strategy, identifying suitable materials and phasing. I like to apply these processes when making my own models as it allows production to run efficiently and also highlight any restrictions that may need further modification.
While working with Source, I have had the opportunity to view a variety of models and their effect on residents at consultation events. One thing I observed was that if residents were struggling to understand a concept drawing or written proposal, models always helped to ease understanding and spark their imagination. It also allowed viewers to be very interactive particularly if the model had movable parts just like the one shown in the image below.
Residents are always drawn to models, they are particularly effective tools to illustrate complex design ideas to people who have difficulty understanding plans. At consultation events at Kings Crescent in Hackney and the Riverside projects in Lambeth and Bromley, a crowd always gathers around the models. Recently our clients have asked architects to produce 3-D scale models of typical flat and maisonette types to demonstrate the generosity of the London Plan room sizes. Residents have described these as “the doll’s houses” and who doesn’t love a doll’s house?
Source Partnership will continue to use models in consultation our on-going regeneration projects and I am happy to build these whenever I get the chance!
The countryside. What is it? The green bit outside of the city… right? It’s the bit where we can see and commune with nature, where we can frolic about in meadows and get away from the grey oppression of the city and urban sprawl. This traditional idyllic perspective has been embedded in my psyche from an early age. However, having explored the data on the recent birdlife and other natural losses in the UK, I now realise the error of this innate conceptual view.
Let’s dig into the thin descriptive veneer of ‘countryside’ and look at the shocking reality beneath. If we take out the 12 per cent of land use considered to be urban and developed land in the UK (i.e. where most of us live and work), we are left with nearly 80 per cent of our so called countryside being used for farming; to put this in context, less than one per cent of land use in England is set aside for Nature Reserves.
With the increased pressure on farmers to produce cheaper and cheaper food alongside advances in bio-technology, most of our countryside is nothing more than an open air factory. Here is a quick rundown of some of the things that have happened to our countryside since the Second World War and have accelerated since the 1970s: reductions in mixed farming, increases in monoculture farming, a rise in the use of fertilisers and pesticides, the drainage of wetlands, hedgerow removal, loss of hay meadow and destruction of scrub and heathland.
Not to mention our internationally important moorlands where we intensively farm red grouse to the detriment of other wildlife – and then we go and shoot them! The most nature found outside of urban areas is now often found on motorway verges and railway cuttings. Stand back from that bright yellow rape field and consider that building a housing estate would almost inevitably increase the biodiversity.
It is no wonder that of all our bird population indices it is farmland birds that have suffered the greatest reductions, with populations falling by more than 50 per cent in the last 40 years, while 67 per cent of the UK’s birds are now species of conservation concern. Who would have thought that the one time pest the starling would now be a species of concern.
Lest I be accused of being too aviancentric, consider these other examples of UK’s nature loss: a 45 per cent decrease in invertebrates, 66 per cent decrease in common toads and 75 per cent decrease in common hedgehogs over a similar period. Adding to and reinforcing these unfortunate statistics is the recent revelation from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that there has been a 60 per cent reduction in global wildlife populations in the last 40 years. Grim reading indeed.
So what does this have to do with regeneration?
London’s green space is surprisingly rich in wildlife and has the potential to be richer
So what about our cities – they are just as bad, aren’t they? Hardly havens for wildlife? Well, let’s start off with the striking statistic that 47 per cent of our biggest urban area, London, is green space, with a commitment to making more than 50 per cent by 2050 as part of the London Environment Strategy. This large green area consists of parks, playing fields, railway cuttings, brownfield sites, gardens and local nature reserves (of which there are over 140). Furthermore, it is not intensively farmed or managed, is surprisingly rich in wildlife and has the potential to be richer.
Of course, this urban environment has its own pressures. Loss of garden area is the greatest erosion of London’s green space with the continued rise of hard surfacing of front drives, the encroachment of patios and the increased use of artificial grass. We really should be having a word with ourselves when we are concerned more with the protection of a lump of inert metal than we are of our natural landscape.
There are also losses due to the development of brownfield sites, traditionally and incorrectly considered poor for wildlife, whilst we still retain a tendency to over-manage and manicure parks and gardens. The mantra should be scrub is good.
But why should we care anyway? We are already in the so-called Sixth Extinction, there’s not much we can do and the younger generation never knew paradise before they put up a parking lot, therefore they don’t rue nature’s losses. Well, I believe this so called ‘extinction of experience’, particularly amongst urban millennials, can and importantly should be overcome.
Urban areas are where the majority of people live and work (82 per cent in the UK) and urbanisation is a global and national increasing fact of life. Most of us recognise and qualitatively pronounce the beneficial feelings of getting out of our stuffy office or house into natural spaces but there is also plenty of scientific evidence to say having access to nature, interacting with nature and being proximate to nature is good for our physical and mental well-being, aids recovery from severe illnesses and reduces stress, crime and anti-social behaviour.
We can’t get away from nature; it’s all around us, it’s the air we breathe and the food we eat. The abundance of nature is an indicator of the health of our environment and, indeed, the health of us. We city dwellers need to recognise the growing importance of our natural surroundings over the so-called countryside and understand it is incumbent on us to engage more with our surroundings and protect and enhance what we have. The more we engage, the more pleasure we get, the more we communicate and the more we care – and, importantly, the more nature has a chance.
So when planning regeneration, make space for the butterfly friendly plants, the meadow borders and the trees to make space for nature.
Dave Clark is an ornithologist and environmental campaigner with a particular interest in the interactions between birds and humans. With an MSC in Ornithology from the University of Birmingham, he is awaiting publication in the academic press of a study into our motivations for feeding wild birds. Dave is keen to spread the word about the importance of urban areas for wildlife and improving our engagement with nature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org