Category Archives: News

Delays and disappointment

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 This has lead to a stop across the aboard with not only planning applications having to be resubmitted or withdrawn but also projects on site stopping and those with full planning approval not starting.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’!

Architects’ Dreams of Play

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.

No photo description available.

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

Moving Joe

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. February 016

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.
  • Follow-up regularly.

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.

Video killed the Radio Star

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”.

Regeneration in Lock-down

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 links Feel 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.

Our Best Wishes

Carol Rob & the Team

Homes fit for Heroes

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

“Achhh, ye can all go an’ feck yerselves.”

The voice 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.

However, a 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?

Of all 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 bay window.  

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.    

With a 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 the skipper.”    

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 succumb.

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.

Different times.

Social housing should not be viewed as ‘second class’ or an experiment

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

Democracy is Something to Embrace

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:

  1. Social housing tenants universally think that social housing is amazing and want is retained or increased within reason.
  2. Nobody wants to be shipped out of their community to make way for gentrification
  3. Leaseholders and freeholders want fair treatment with regard to value and the ability to remain in their home area.
  4. 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

The numbers still don’t add up

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.

Built to Perfection

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!