Second staircase stalling
What feels like a lifetime ago in July, Mr. Michael Gove made the now infamous announcement about new buildings over 18 meters requiring a second staircase. The announcement also made reference to a transition period and help to ensure viability of building projects. Fast forward to November and little more information has been released.
Let’s be clear we welcome any movement to make improvements to fire safety and building regulations that will mean that residents of blocks feel and are safer. However, post the tragedy at Grenfell, the lessons learnt have led to little in the way of a joined-up and coherent package of steps that will ensure this. It has all been a bitty and released in dribs and drabs which sometimes feels like a knee jerk reaction rather than a well thought out approach. I’m also not entirely sure where residents fit into any of this…..has anyone really asked them about changes?
Anyway, back to the second staircase! So what has happened since July? Put simply, very little. Just from the work we are involved in we can see a wasteland of stalled projects; constructors and landlords are hedging their bets. What has made this situation worse is the mention of transition arrangements, with no details. This has lead to a stop across the aboard with not only planning applications having to be resubmitted or withdrawn but also projects on site stopping and those with full planning approval not starting.
So landlords and contractors are worried about viability what any changes to design may mean:
- Who exactly is required to add the second staircase? What if you’re on site now but won’t complete in 2 years? What if you have planning approval but have not started? What if you have approval for an outline masterplan but still need to submit detailed plans for later phases?
- What will adding a staircase mean to the foot print or height of the block and will the planners agree to changes?
- What do changes to blocks mean for mix of tenants, leaseholders and others? If you lose social units where are they replaced? When blocks have been designed to rehouse existing residents in a regeneration scheme what will happen to these residents ?
These are just a few questions facing those making the decisions and some answers will become available as announcements are made. There are however questions that residents want answering too! I am not aware of a single regeneration project that has actively had a conversation with residents about their view on what the changes mean for them. Any guidance when issued will still give a pass to some new buildings not having a second staircase. Residents we talk to want to know:
- What does this mean for me? Will there be delays in me being rehoused or getting a new home?
- Will the change in blocks design affect the design of my new home?
- What about blocks that are being built now? With no second stair case what alternative arrangements will be in place?
- Why are we not having a conversation about this? I have to live in the block!
Even Tenant Management Project I worked with in South London spent a lot of time negotiating with the Council so that they could have some control over any regeneration of their estate. They are now looking at a stalled building site where homes once stood with no idea when this will restart. Mr. Gove, ‘pull yer finger out’!
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
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
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 Government’s Green Paper on Social Housing came out promising four main items. One of the main items was to tackle “the stigma felt by residents”, to which the paper proposed the solution of “celebrating thriving communities”. And yet, two key questions that the green paper failed to address were “what is the stigma” and “what divides are there within estates and communities?”
Many regeneration projects involve creating new private blocks to be sold on the estates in order to pay for “new and improved” social housing. When talking to residents on a soon to be regenerated estate in Camberwell, I heard that one of their biggest concerns was the potential divide between the new block of private and the old close-knit community. Whether finishes would be completed to the same standard; whether they would be locked out of communal facilities aligned with private block as they’d seen in other estates; whether they’d be made to feel lesser by those living on the same plot of land that they had currently inhabited exclusively . The residents were sure this would exist, the so-called poor doors.
When presented with initial plans, some residents went so far as to measure the split of open space overlooked by blocks for existing tenants and blocks for potential private owners. They found inequalities and stigma.
If this is what “stigma” is, then it comes as no surprise, evident differences in the standard of living due to the difference of social and private housing which occurs even within the same estate. But how have we found ourselves at this point, where people expect this level of blatant stigma? I’m a linguistics student, so I cannot help but be drawn to the language. The terms “council housing”, “social housing”, “council housing residents”. Compare to other countries such as Singapore where “government built” housing is abundant and sought after, their “public housing” and its residents are not termed under “council” or “social”. Instead the acronym HDB (housing development board) is used. And the people? Just residents. They are residents of Singapore who live in their homes.
The very policy of determining residents of council and social housing as that seeks to establish their identity according to their place in society. They are not homeowners. They are tenants of the council, the society. When we seek to establish who a person is according to where they live, how can stigma help but exist?
So, if the stigma can be felt and perceived by residents in their own homes and then physically seen in the differences between private and social in their estates or within how housing associations treat the divide, then the problem with stigma does not exist solely within the public’s perception but rather within the estates themselves. We have ingrained stigma through language and so many other policies into the very people that are meant to be helped. And to now differentiate between the “thriving communities” and the communities that are struggling as a solution only isolates the latter. It may help public perception, but does it actually help the residents?
Some small things for consideration:
- Insist that architects propose tenure blind designs and finishes on all projects. (This should be a given).
- Share the amenity space equally between tenure types and avoid gating or segregating
- More housing association and council led inclusive events to bring the communities together. Or at least research on “thriving” communities to see what may help mend broken communities.
- Most importantly: Not further isolating struggling and stigmatized communities as a solution for stigma.
We recently completed a Test of Opinion for a large housing association to gauge support from tenants for a full estate redevelopment versus a refurbishment scheme. This consultation came at the end of a full options appraisal which had engaged tenants of the estate in workshop events and two exhibitions over 12 months.
A Tenants Steering Group has led on selecting us as their independent advisors, selecting architects and commenting on each and every option are they were presented. As it often the case, a number of tenants volunteered hours of their time, using up precious leave from work, sacrificing family time and calling in child-care favours to ensure that proposals were the best they possibly could be. The estate blocks are mainly heated by electrical night storage heaters and tenants report extremely high energy bills and lack of warmth and hot water. between 20 and 30 families are living in overcrowded conditions.
In the shadow of the Grenfell Tower fire, the refurbishment option excluded cladding as many tenants were fearful of this and similarly installing gas in the taller blocks was dismissed. However gas central central heating is possible for the lower rise blocks and this solution has already been applied to the ten town houses. There was proposed some small scale new build and garage conversions to create larger family homes.
The more radical and expensive option of complete redevelopment involved phased decanting of homes with 26 tenants required to move off the estate with a right to return. Tenants interrogated the architects about the extent of the disruption for those who would be living on a building site for several years so that tenants could realistically anticipate the pain.
The test of opinion took place over two weeks following the final design exhibition. There was a late campaign led by the tenants of the town houses to reject redevelopment and some misrepresentation of the facts were evident in this. However, in the main tenants participated with an 82% turnout being achieved by the deadline. We believe that this was because the test of opinion returns were confidential either on-line or by post.
The votes cast were split 50% / 50% for each option and only by analysing the results by household (very few joint tenancies) was identifying a marginal preference possible – our very own Brexit.
The landlord has decided to explore further the refurbishment option and to enhance the refurbishment “offer” in an attempt to win over those who expressed a preference for redevelopment. The outcome of the findings regarding cladding at Grenfell Tower and the outcome of the pilot renewal of an electrical storage system over the coming cold months will be pivotal.
One of the things we hear from residents who are facing the demolition of their existing social housing is the fear that a new build home will not are not as well built as their old home. It takes a lot to allay this fear including and many visits to new build schemes.
I was saddened to read the article by John Harris in the Guardian on 11th April about Housing Associations facing a storm of complaints about new homes. There has been a lot of articles both in the press and on the news about the Orchard Village scheme, which has got to the point where the housing association (Clarion) is buying back new build properties. I was also aware about the problems with Solomons Passage as one of my friends (a tenant) has been decanted so they can knock down the building that is 7 years old. This article implies that the problem may be wider.
So what is going wrong?
Working on large schemes I always say to residents and officers that a contractor will only be as good as the contract management applied to them. Lets be clear, developers and builders are in this to make money, whilst they do think about their reputations their primary focus is to make a profit. It requires good contract management by the client i.e. the housing provider to ensure that corners are not cut and that specifications are kept to. Quality control, checking, checking and independent testing are key.
We have seen an increase in building by social housing providers and this has not been matched by an increase in the right staff within Housing Associations and Councils who oversee new build from cradle to grave. At least one association I have worked with has seen their new build properties increase from just over 100 units in 5 years to nearer 5000 over the next 5 years. Whilst the teams overseeing the work have increased, its not proportionate and more crucially emphasis has had to be placed on slowly developing skill in house which is a very steep learning curve. All too often the focus is on design rather than good structural quality. Nice pretty apartments with lovely work surfaces may sell but are they liveable and sustainable, apparently not in some cases.
It is crucial that good technical advice is sourced BUT over reliance on external technical consultants is part of the problem. On the schemes mentioned where were the Clerk of Works and the Employers Agent?
Going forward there are a few options for social housing providers to think about balancing:
- Building up internal technical expertise not just project management and design
- Earlier involvement by those teams that pick up problems – the repairs and major works teams
- Accepting you don’t have the skills and passing the risk on to someone who specialises in building and will ensure they don’t carry a large defects cost
- Stop trying to be everything you do not necessarily have the skills to build on a large scale and manage social housing- something may have to give
- A good clerk of works is worth their weight in copper piping but the spec they inspect against must be right in the first place
Above all else, learn from your mistakes! A lot of landlords would not get away with this if they were working in the open market.
This week, I have been procrastinating over our response to the Mayor of London’s Draft Homes for Londoners consultation. We love regeneration, not just for its own sake but because done well it can genuinely improve lives. But so many landlords seem to be hungry to realise land values at the expense of carrying local communities along with their plans. That is my major problem with the Guidance – that it stop shorts of giving existing communities a genuine say in the future of their homes and estates. In fact it even shies away from a test of opinion in case some conscientious independent tenants and leaseholders advisor interprets that as a ballot. It’s extremely short-sighted to believe that gentrification can continue at the current rate and surely nobody believes that there is not a price to pay for clearing working class residents from high land value areas.
Affordable homes can be built with the approval of residents, it’s not easy but infinitely doable. What is required is for landlords and their consultants to listen as well as speak. To develop business plans and programmes which protect or enhance the lifestyle of existing residents and place value on protecting affordable low cost renting options in the Capital.
Recently, I have heard planners talk about existing estates not being “dense enough”; landlords contemplating demolition of perfectly good social housing to maximise land use; and architects report that the requirement to make play provision is challenging. No wonder residents are angry. With thousands of families in temporary accommodation, nobody can argue with the need for more housing, indeed I have never heard a council tenant dispute the need for more housing they are the sector’s strongest champions. But turkeys will never vote for Christmas and tenants and leaseholders will never vote for redevelopment unless they can see something in it for them and the next generation.
So landlords must present proposals which protect secure tenancy rights, do not disadvantage leaseholders and create great places for people to live in. There will still be painful choices but surely we can get residents to agree that:
- Some blocks are beyond the end of their useful life (if they are)
- Garages and car-parking are less important than new homes and open space
- Community centres don’t have to be single storey standalone buildings
Certainly a compromise can be reached, and tenants will (and have in Hackney) vote in a ballot for good regeneration.
Failure to provide appropriately priced rented housing for the families of bus drivers (Sadiq Khan please note) or shared ownership options to which teachers can aspire will have a catastrophic on London’s economy and therefore the UK.
My name is Jess Newcombe and I attend Kingsdale Foundation School. I decided to apply to do a week’s work experience as a housing consultant for Source Partnership in Hackney. Monday morning I didn’t have a clue of what to expect. I wasn’t sure whether I should be feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the upcoming week. I’d never before been given the opportunity to have such a detailed in-sight into the work of a housing consultant and into regenerating an area.
I wasn’t sure about the time frame in which regeneration projects took place (I was extremely surprised at how long and on going it is). I didn’t have a clue about the variety of tasks people working in this field would have to take on as a daily routine. They had all kinds of jobs to do, some correlated and others were completely different from the rest. The tasks allocated to me involved: designing publicity; scanning documents; observing meetings; Attending the building site and sales office; observing interviews to select architects to design the new homes and landscape, and even door to door, hand-delivery of leaflets on the estates. I also helped at a community coffee afternoon hearing residents describe their experience and problems. On the last day I attended a disused office which is to be turned into a new community facility and saw how the design of the conversion and future management was being developed.
These projects don’t only involve Hackney but there are also projects all over London boroughs like Tower Hamlets and Southwark. Not only are councils demolishing and then re-building social housing but they also re-vamp them and allow tenants to make improvements such as designing community gardens.
I wasn’t expecting the refurbished blocks to look just as good as the completely brand new housing blocks, but they did. This experience has allowed me to learn about the steps and guidelines that must be followed in order for these huge projects to run fairly smoothly.
My experience this week will unquestionably have an impact on the way I look at social housing and the kind of personal comments I might think of when viewing certain blocks and estates. I have learnt some of the adjustments which can bring improvements to social housing.