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 This has lead to a stop across the aboard with not only planning applications having to be resubmitted or withdrawn but also projects on site stopping and those with full planning approval not starting.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’!
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
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 have recently introduced six or seven different demolition and construction firms to residents’ groups with whom we have worked for some time. What has really struck me is that the best firms have really upped their game in terms of talking and listening to residents.
Sure, most have all mastered the art of producing engaging PowerPoint presentations (or their marketing departments have) with images of actual built projects mixed up with computer generated images of projects on site or still in dreamland. However, the people talking to these slide shows have developed a real understanding of their target audience and how to draw parallels between the glossy pictures and the estates they about to start work on.
One tenant recently said to me that she wished they had met the builders before they met the architects because only when the construction company came along did they feel they feel that a resident friendly scheme could come out of the upheaval that is estate regeneration. That firm had listened to over an hour of complaints about potential management issues in the new scheme; anti-social behaviour; and pigeons. Clearly, they could do no more than empathise and suggest secured by design solutions yet they won the residents group over through listening.
Residents feel that builders understand buildings and what it is like to live in social housing. Probably many of them did as children. Interesting as most landlords (including hers) spend a fortune on protracted design-led consultations to nail down every single thing it is possible to specify ahead of a planning application. Landlords have rightly wanted to rely on good design to protect the end product from short-cuts and costs saving substitute materials The bad old days of design and build contracts which delivered quickly but to questionable standards.
The best firms are those who work closely with architectural practices to achieve great design features alongside practical niceties such as supply-chain availability, buildability and durability for the end user. Those schemes shine through, they may not win awards but they do deliver fabulous homes that the people, who are living in them, love many years after the grand opening.
Our hot tips are to ask:
- Whether the builder and architect (pre /post planning) have worked together before.
- How they will agree and communicate any design modifications
- Whether you can visit a scheme which has been occupied for more than 1 or 2 years
Well done, you all know who you are, as do those who are more old school.
Last Saturday a small enthusiastic group of resident volunteers from Kings Crescent Estate in Hackney, their newly re-elected ward councillors and some of their children made the short journey to the Redmond Community Centre at Woodberry Down. This was intended as fact-finding mission as we seek to inspire residents to look at ways in which the proposed community centre to be built in the final stages of the regeneration might bring a new vibrant social and community life to the area. The Redmond Centre is managed by the Manor House Development Trust (MDHT) which has operated for almost 11 years at Woodberry Down.
The lovely temporary Vince Murrain Centre is under-used which is a shame and a cause for concern for the Council who have committed to reprovide the facility. It will be removed to make way for the construction of the next phase and replaced in the ground floor of one of the new buildings.
We had struggled to get volunteers to attend but were grateful that a few people showed interest and gave up their morning. The first thing you notice about the Redmond Centre when you enter is the high ceiling, the next is the mass of activities taking place and being advertised. The map on the floor reminds you that you are just less than ten minutes walk away from Kings Crescent, not in another world. The children quickly realised that the more interesting feature of the Centre is not the building but the linked yet separate play area. The parents quickly realised that they could relax and absorb the presentation and tour feeling their children were occupied and safe.
As ever, Simon Donovan (CEO of the Trust) spoke passionately about the model he has established to ensure that the Centre is viable and how the business relies not just on a paid team; but draws volunteers from corporate and student organisations. The things that impressed residents in the tour were the small and simple things: the community fridge which has given away 300kg of food; the recycled wood used for the ceiling and shelving; the communal growing area; and the open design of the entrance.
Lessons learnt from the visit are:
- Community is more complex than just an Estate
- Linking indoor and outdoor community space works really well
- Running a centre has to be treated like running a business
- The building is just a platform for developing and implementing ideas
We hope to develop more ideas through visiting other centres and talking to more social enterprises over the coming months . Although Kings Crescent’s Community Centre won’t have the back-drop of the reservoirs to frame their environment, there is already a playable street to which will be added high quality landscaping. Just add Community.
In the early part of this century even before the halcyon days when there was a Tenants Services Authority ( who remembers them?), the customer or tenant or leaseholder were King and Queen. Landlords were keen to find out what their service users thought of them!
I spent a lot of time training both residents and landlords in the fine art of Mystery Shopping and getting them to ask meaningful questions that would actually deliver real opinions. Fast forward to today and very few landlords are using this tool or even worse are using a version that is so antiseptic it tells them nothing.
Why is this happening? I have a few theories.
Good Mystery Shopping actually tells you.in real time, what your customers are experiencing. This can often at first be unpalatable. I spent many a feed back session, gently explaining that the written testimonies were what residents were actually getting when they phoned the call centre/used online services/visited the office. With support most landlords could learn to use this as a tool for improvement. Over time staff change and the skills atrophy so the strength and opportunity that ‘shopping’ offered got lost.
As the housing sector has become increasingly deregulated then there has been an associated reduction in the time and money dedicated to seeking resident’s views. Good Mystery shopping which resulted in change was real plus point for audit and could lead to better satisfaction ratings. Neither of these two carry anything like the importance they used to.
Almost always the first thing to go with cuts (or the rent reduction which is the same) is any form of resident involvement. Unfortunately, Mystery Shopping was seen all too often as an involvement tool. In reality, Mystery Shopping is cheap and effective quality assurance and service improvement.
Landlords, don’t be shy find out what your customers think by testing your service! With the increasing move into new sectors Mystery shopping offers real feedback. Some of the targeted ‘shops’ we have developed include:
- The experience of new home owners, share owners and tenants when they move into new homes
- How was the regeneration for you – learning lessons for new developments
- Channel Changing – our experience of moving it all online
Any Mystery Shopping needs to be bespoke to the landlord and residents and will tell you how it really is!
Last year, for almost 6 months we tried to appoint a young person based in Hackney as a paid intern to gain experience of housing regeneration and community work. As we love our work, we naïvely thought that this position would attract plenty of school leavers or graduates keen to get some practical skills to add to their CV.
Careers in housing seem to be reached almost entirely by accident, yet the range of skills that can be acquired and the diversity of areas you can work in means that there are very, very few boring jobs in the sector. The sector needs to do more to attract bright compassionate people to want to work in housing and community work.
Eventually we recruited Lydia through word of mouth and it was a successful six month internship on both sides. Lydia enjoyed the wide range of tasks we gave her and the chance to follow her own interests too. We appreciated having an extra pair of hands. She has gone on to be successfully accepted onto a masters degree in Urban Regeneration and follow her dream to work abroad. Read her blog of December 2017 to learn more about how she felt.
This year we are busier than ever and hope to give another enthusiastic graduate or school leaver the chance to find out how fascinating working with a community as they face major changes to their homes and community can be. Our advertisement is on the Graduate Talent Poll website and www.indeed.com. We also will accept CVs via e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Just before Christmas the Mayor of London issued a draft Good Practice Guide for Estate Regeneration (Homes for Londoners). Whilst the guide contained nothing earth shattering, it was an attempt to place residents back at the centre of regeneration.
In a previous blog, I spoke about the long term nature of regeneration programmes meaning that the community changes over time. However, there are a really stalwart group who will soldier on and who are involved from start to finish. They also tend to be the most forgotten and overlooked group.
The residents who want to exercise their right to return can easily be forgotten or become a list of names that ‘have to be consulted’. People, and by people I mean officers, often tend to forget that these are the original residents that are giving up their homes to make way for the bright and shiny new homes for sale and it is they that are helping housing providers meet their new build targets.
Here is a special plea to go with the Guide. These residents should be cherished and treated with the utmost respect. All too often they are the older residents who never wanted to move in the first place, they are more vulnerable and it is them hold the history of an area. These residents are often living in half empty buildings that are no longer being kept up or they have been moved off to a decant property where they know no-one. Those who hold their fate in your hands, because things are being ‘done’ to them, should think about making some simple pledges and checking how well you are working against them:
- Don’t let buildings and communal areas become run down and ensure occupied properties, often in half empty buildings, are in the same state of good repair as you would for any tenant
- Work to support a community who has been dispersed and don’t just check box consult with decanted residents, they are still the residents of the future estate
- Recognise how hard this is for some people who are losing their homes , they will be resistant, they may be curmudgeonly and they are upset. You have no project without them.
Remember, regeneration is first and foremost about people.
Well, not per se. It’s the words and what they imply.
I was walking past a well respected community building last night and noticed a sign saying ‘Council Community Involvement unit’. This made me realise how much the word involvement implies a really unbalanced power relationship.
Don’t think so? Can you imagine a Community or Resident Control Unit? No council or housing association would countenance that combination of words because they imply either residents in charge or more likely being controlled. A very wise man once said that language structures reality. The use of the tepid ‘involvement’ real suggests that any organisation is being rather gracious and letting you be ‘involved’. Given that residents of a council or housing association, by the fact they live there, are already involved this seems just a wee bit paternal (or possibly patronising).
Of course, this is being simplistic because what most organisations probably intend with the word involvement is involvement in decision making and shaping services. However, this still does not signpost a more equal relationship. For quite awhile organisations played with the idea of a ‘menu’ of involvement. Maybe we should take this further with a little chilli like warning symbol to imply how much power you are given:
Resident Survey – 1 Chilli (you maybe listened to)
Mystery Shopping – 2 Chilli (they can’t really ignore the comments)
Scrutiny Panel- 3 Chilli ( you get to ask the awkward questions)
So what’s the suggestion for a better approach. Well, it would help if your landlord or service provider could be honest about what you really can have power over, what you can have a say on and what you can comment on. By being upfront this can at least open the dialogue on where the influence / control line sits. Are you viewed as a customer, a shareholder or an owner? See language does imply different power levels!
And yes I know we use involvement on the website, it’s the current jargon. Let’s change it.
Consulting residents, service users and communities is second nature to us, we do it daily in our work. Yet increasingly the landlord organisations, architects and developers we come across seem to be reticent in engaging with the recipients of housing and regeneration services. It’s not rocket science, people are much more able to accept and support decisions (however difficult) if they have been party to the discussions leading to them.
Recent proposed landlord mergers appeared to have been led by the business case or a corporate vision with very little regard for the impact upon residents who ultimately pay for the service. As Carl Brown observes in Inside Housing, the National Housing Federation’s voluntary merger code failed to refer to a role for tenants. Following the collapse of the high profile mergers, twelve landlords are exploring an alternative code which we await with interest.
Statutory ballots always carry the risk that residents will reject a strong and coherent proposal, however with this as a true test of opinion landlords were diligent about involving residents in the details of the decision and providing reassurances. How else were so many voluntary stock transfers and regeneration schemes achieved in relatively short timescales? Residents have much to offer when developing options for saving money or improving service delivery.
On a smaller scale, several times over the past year we have been asked to mediate where a resident has raised a serious and formal complaint with their landlord regarding a decision that has been taken which affects their home. Without exception, these complaints have arisen because residents have felt dis-empowered by a seemingly high-handed attitude from their landlord. In each case, consultation has been one-way; telling and not listening, imposing a solution without a discussion regarding the alternatives. Housing staff were well-meaning and professional but had failed to take the residents along as they developed proposals. Once a meaningful discussion was imperative, compromise and consensus was achieved – a successful outcome.
Sadly, consultation techniques are not taught to project managers, housing officers, architects and employers agents when clearly the people demonstrating excellence have these skills in spades. The traditional consultation meeting is now only one tool in the kit to engage people, when people are time poor, less formal events, capturing views through conversation and social media provide an opportunity to hear what residents say. three things:
- Resident consultation is not a new thing and it works.
- Listen as well as talk.
- Top-down approaches or imposed solutions are fraught with difficulty and often fail.