One of the city’s most crime-ridden housing estates is being given a John Prescott makeover, complete with signature architect and PFI funding. We report on how Plymouth Grove is going from war zone to des res

If someone had told the residents of the Plymouth Grove estate five years ago that they would someday be the envy of the other council tenants in Manchester, they would have been greeted with derisive laughter. The estate was “a war zone”, says Frances Chaplin of PRP Architects. “It was a very unpleasant place to live.”

Five years on, Plymouth Grove’s reputation is beginning to change. Indeed, rumour has it that deputy prime minister John Prescott, hotly pursued by national television crews, might take time out from this month’s Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit to enjoy a photo opportunity on the estate.

The reason is that Grove Village, as the estate has been implausibly rebranded, was the first housing PFI in the UK to see action back in April 2003. That occasioned a long sigh of relief from the government, as the application of the PFI to social housing had become an intense embarrassment since eight councils were chosen to test the idea back in 1999. Four years of public squabbling between central and local governments then ensued, during which no progress was made and the suitability of the PFI for this kind of work became increasingly suspect. The government will be hoping that Manchester and Islington, the other area to start work, will prove that it was right after all.

Grove Village is a vast project. Over the course of 30 years, 430 properties in the 1090-home estate will be demolished, and 600 new homes will be built, many of which will be for sale to private buyers. It started on site in October 2003. A visit by Prescott would serve to highlight the transformation of this rundown, dangerous and disaffected area into a safe and welcoming community. But what exactly will be waiting for the cameras?

On a crisp, sunny January day, Grove Village is a surprise for the visitor expecting a deafening hubbub of building activity and thick dust clouds. Almost 200 workers are on site but, as this is the refurbishment phase of the development, few are visible. The quiet belies the hectic programme, which is being run by a consortium formed of Harvest Housing Group, Gleeson, the Nationwide and M&E contractor Powerminster: the 660 properties not being demolished have already been refurbished to the government’s Decent Homes standard. About 130 out of the 430 council houses to be demolished have been knocked down. Streets of gutted housing are set to undergo the same fate. Wide voids are already running throughout the estate, some of which will be filled by a “green route”, of new parks, a play area and cycle-friendly paths.

Residents have been involved from day one of the consultation process and the Grove Village Neighbourhood Association makes sure that they are regularly informed about the continuing works. It may not look much at the moment, but to many families Plymouth Grove has been home for decades and carries a lot of emotional attachment. Tom Roberts, the operation unit manager of Harvest’s subsidiary Manchester and District Housing Association which is subcontracted to manage the estate, says that a quarter of the residents have been living at Plymouth Grove for more than 20 years and it is not rare for three generations to live across the estate. “Despite the bad image, they didn’t want to move,” Roberts says and puts this reluctance down to the nearby amenities, hospital and schools and the city centre a mile away.

Central to the attempts to improve this negative image are the planned road works. The main weakness of the original Plymouth Grove was its layout, which was created safety and crime problems in a poorly lit network of back alleys. PRP Architects has redesigned the road layout, incorporating the green route, addressing issues surrounding parking space, and carefully filling the gaping voids of space. Gleeson is about to start the road works and is scheduled to complete by 2006.

In the same vein, reinforced security is at the heart of the regeneration process. Safety agents patrol the Grove Village 24 hours a day and CCTV will be installed in March. The integration of wider streets also adds to the feeling of a more secure place.

It was a war zone – a very unpleasant place to live

Frances Chaplin, PRP architects

As for the new houses, they will be integrated within the network of first-generation properties over the next eight years. “It was a bland estate without character,” says PRP’s Chaplin. With too many houses of similar types, too many one-bedroom flats, and too much yellowy colour, the estate was in serious demand of diversity. “We wanted to inject more life into the buildings,” says the architect.

A walk in the village already reveals the effect of new colours on the facades and the happy mix of materials such as wood and brick. “If we had painted the houses cream from top to bottom, it would have looked like a holiday camp,” says Graham Lee from Gleeson’s northern division. He points out the key features: for instance, for a number of blocks, the back door becomes the front door; garages are incorporated; and external insulation has been enhanced. Lee says that there will be the same number of parking spaces as previously, but they will be harmoniously distributed. “We don’t want it to end up like a massive car park,” he says.

Meanwhile, since no regeneration scheme would be complete without a shiny new retail outlet, by 2013 Gleeson will also have built a shopping centre to replace the existing stores, which are hidden inside the estate.

The construction work won’t stop once the bricks-and-mortar phase is complete. A whole new community is to be built, says Roberts. Once the new houses are built and bought, “we will have 600 new households on the estate. The challenge for us will be to gradually integrate them in the overall community,” he says. Roberts wishes to involve the younger inhabitants of the estate in the project through gardening and decorating training schemes.

“If the residents get used to seeing the young people working, they won‘t think of them as a threat any more,” he says. Moreover, being involved in their estate can only bring pride, Lee adds.

The future looks quite promising for Grove Village. “Despite the residual bad image, people express an interest in Grove Village.

It’s very encouraging,” Roberts says. Steve Rumbelow, Manchester council’s director of housing, says that the demand for accommodation was very low before the scheme started. “The demand has stabilised, and now that it is starting to improve we fully expect that it will increase further.” Of course, being in the television spotlight might help.

The view from- the housebuilder

People have started to understand what regeneration is. It’s not just housing; it’s about things like restaurants and coffee shops, building a community. The second phase of Woolwich Arsenal will have 3000 units, but before we build those we’ll spend £20m on infrastructure. Prescott said he wanted densities of 30 dwellings a hectare – credit where it’s due, he’s got that right. But he hasn’t gone far enough on planning. The need to speed up decisions has led staff to refuse permission

Tony Pidgley, chairman Berkeley Group

The view from- the academic

Since the urban summit two years ago there has been a shift by policy makers to make urban development part of the political agenda. Despite that, the quality is still too low and dominated by 1970s planning issues, such as car parking, roads and overlooking between housing. The government could do more to champion design as well as innovation

Professor Ricky Burdett, architectural adviser to London mayor Ken Livingstone; member of Lord Rogers’ Urban TaskForce.

Village people

Faye Henry has been living on the estate for 15 years, as have her two sisters who rent houses nearby. Faye had her house refurbished in February 2004. Despite complaining about the initial lack of communication with the construction workers, Fay loves her newly refurbished house. “Once I knew what was happening it was fine,” she says. The ceiling, wallpaper, windows, bathroom and toilets have all been changed according to her choice. “I had a nice house anyway, but now I look at it and at the others on the street in a nicer way. Residents couldn’t afford to do these changes. I come back from work feeling happy.” A council tenant, Fay is now considering buying her two-bedroom house. She is pleased with the fact that the dangerous back alleys have been demolished and has already noticed a clear decline in criminality.

The sustainable communities summit 2005