Continuing our series of revisits, Bernard Hunt, managing director of architect HTA, met resident Stella Isaacs to review the Waltham Forest Housing Action Trust, the pioneer of tenant-centred rebuilding that has transformed not just the estate, but a whole way of life.
To get to the Cathall Road Estate in Leytonstone, east London, you walk through streets of terraced Victorian houses, their fabric decaying, their paintwork neglected and their front gardens littered with sprung armchairs and other domestic detritus. The streetscene changes dramatically once you reach Cathall Road, becoming neat rows of newly built, ordinary-looking homes with the tidy, paved front gardens, hanging baskets and carefully curtained windows that are indicative of residents' pride in their environment.

It is hard to believe that not all that long ago this was one of London's no-go areas – its drab grey concrete low and high-rise blocks, threatening open spaces and burned-out cars were the archetypical picture of urban decay. What brought about the transformation was Waltham Forest Housing Action Trust, and the determination and hard work of the people who lived on the four estates that formed it. Homes took Bernard Hunt, managing director of architect HTA, which became involved in the whole of the estates' regeneration process, to meet Stella Isaacs. She is a long-time resident of the Cathall Road Estate, a campaigner for change and a member of the HAT's steering group.

Hunt first toured the four estates in 1987, four years before the HAT was established, when his practice was commissioned to carry out a study on the feasibility of knocking down the existing low-rise deck access and tower blocks, and rebuilding homes without decanting tenants from the estate. The idea of leaving the tenants in situ was proposed by Stephanie Al-Wahid of Waltham Forest council, who subsequently worked as development director of the HAT. Although the practice has become standard practice, at that time the idea was untested, and everything from safety to road access had to be investigated.

The estates' regeneration only became formalised and funded through the HAT after some confrontations. HATs were one of the 1988 Housing Act's proposals for regenerating rundown council estates. The idea was to take the money and responsibility out of the hands of local authorities, as was the Thatcher way, and centralise it in the hands of Department of the Environment management quangos. But when the first HATs were put to tenant ballots they were spurned because of fears that renewal would be accompanied by rent increases and that tenants would lose rights. The government, embarrassed that nobody wanted to wear its HAT, was prepared to be flexible by the time Waltham Forest's name came into the frame, and the estates' tenants battled to get the deal they wanted.

The result was the tenants' expectation document, which enshrined tenants' rights and gave them a level of power that is still regarded as exceptional today. Tenants sat on the HAT's main board and on steering groups where they influenced contractor selection, helped specify not only the interiors of their homes but also the bricks used to build them, and challenged the proposals of architects. The HAT winds up at the end of this month, but tenant involvement in the running of the four estates continues to be strong. Ten tenants sit on the 15-member board of the Waltham Forest Community-Based Housing Association which now manages the estates, and which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Peabody Trust. On completion, the whole project will have cost £225m in grant aid, as well as £64m in private finance.

Rebuilding on the four estates is now in its final stages, with Cathall Road's most obvious symbols of its past, two 21-storey tower blocks, soon to be demolished in the remaining deconstruction work. In all 2500 1960s- and 1970s-built large-panel system homes have been swept away, and some 6500 tenants rehoused in traditional brick-and-block homes.

The finished homes do not look innovative, but WFHAT did innovate in its rebuilding approach. The philosophy was to extend urban renewal beyond physical reconstruction to rebuilding communities, empowering tenants to generate community activity and pride, and creating training opportunities for local people with jobs at the end of them. It was a stakeholder community long before the term had been invented. WFHAT said in its mission statement that it would be "working with tenants and communities to bring about lasting improvement in the quality of life". In the honeymoon period of the mid-1990s, when the first homes were being completed, a tenant survey recorded 90% satisfaction. Even today, resident Stella Isaacs remains delighted with her home.

The campaign for change
Isaacs moved into the old Cathall Road Estate when it was first constructed and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in one of the low-rise, deck-access blocks for 26 years. For nine of them she had her name on the council's waiting list for a transfer; in the end, she realised that her only hope of a better home was to campaign for one. She found herself going on demos to shout for the estate's replacement and delivered a lump of gift-wrapped concrete that had fallen from one of the blocks to Chris Patten, the then housing minister. Her next move was to became a member of the HAT steering group, and today she serves on several committees.

She moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the rebuilt estate three years ago. This is at ground-floor level and was designed for disabled occupants, so has a larger than usual kitchen and bathroom. It has a front garden and, to Isaacs' continuing delight, a back garden.

Isaacs was determined that the old estate should be demolished. She says: "On the old estate the fabric of the building was going, homes had no curtains and there were cockroaches. We felt trapped.

"We were taught about tenant empowerment. We knew nothing to begin with, but we learned very fast. This took up 13 years of my life. I worked pretty well full-time on it. As our HAT progressed we went to visit other HATs and we were disgusted that the tenants had no say.

"We don't call this an estate now. We call this an area or a neighbourhood. Being an estate was something we had to strive against. When I bought furniture, store assistants' eyes would glaze over when I told them my address. Taxis wouldn't come on to the estate. There's been a lot of heartache along the way, but it has also been a lot of fun.

"Cathall Road's old tower blocks will come down next month – they are like two sore fingers. They are horrendous – the focus for all the estate's crime. Not long ago it was suggested that we should retain them and get professionals living in them, but we said no way. We had the power to do that because of the tenants' expectation document.

"The lifts in the old blocks were disgusting. For that reason we didn't want any of the new housing to be taller than three storeys. I wouldn't have wanted a clinical, modern looking home. These are homely. We said we wanted variety, we wanted different coloured bricks.

"The choice that we were given here was marvellous. I got a garden shed and a rotary drier. We could choose the carpets, the kitchen tiles and units and the bathroom tiles and sanitaryware. I chose my internal doors. I was also involved in choosing the ranges for the tenants' choices.

"There were defects – the knobs on my kitchen units fell off, but people came back and fixed them. My home's easy to look after."

She has no complaints with the end result. "Just doing this has brought the community together. In my old flat, I never knew the people who lived above me. Now I talk to everyone. The Epicentre [the community centre for the Cathall Road area] has been the greatest success of all. Everything happens there.

"Now we are living like human beings, not battery hens. I moved into my flat at around Christmas time, and one of the first things I did was buy a sun lounger.

"I wouldn't want anything done differently. I'm satisfied."

Designing for people
Architect HTA helped develop the initial scheme proposals, and is currently working as project architect on the final phase. Hunt first met Isaacs when she was one of the group of protesters for change. In effect, his practice worked for Isaacs and her fellow tenants – but he still does not agree with everything she says, especially on the design.

He says: "My feeling is that there's too much variety. Personally, I'd have liked fewer brick colours. I would have preferred longer rows of similar houses, some more three-storey blocks, a bit more density. But what's great is that it blends into the rest of London. "I didn't agree with knocking down the tower blocks, I thought that was throwing away an asset. A lot of 1960s ideas were not that bad and there was evidence in the tenant surveys of the estate we carried out to show that the towers were not as unsuccessful as the low-rise balcony-access blocks. But it was pretty obvious right from the start what people wanted: a front door onto the street."

He is impressed by the transformation in the people: "When I first saw the old estate, the area was bleak. The people looked grey and worn and extremely poor. The same people live here now, but you don't get the feeling that it is a poor area at all. It is unbelievable that a whole way of life can change.

"Because others rejected HATs, the tenants here were in a good negotiating position and they took advantage of it. More money went into this than any subsequent scheme, but nobody knew if it was possible to transfer tenants on the estate as this scheme did. We all spent time and money to see how it would work. The government was right to invest in this.

"This is not an architectural masterpiece. It is just what people would think of as family homes. What is great about it is that people feel it is comfortable. It is normal."

And the biggest lessons learned from the project? Hunt says: "Such a lot of work went in right at the beginning and the tenants were involved from the word go. We thought things through and debated them. We spent a lot of time working out the entitlements, how many bedrooms homes would have, because unusually we knew a lot about the people who would be living in the homes. The plans were then taken through by different architects, but the original plans have worked out.

"It was a brilliant project to work on. A lot of the time architects don't get to talk to their clients. We never had any fights, but we didn't necessarily share the same point of view to start with. Sometimes we didn't get things right and the tenants would say so, and then we worked at it until we got something that was acceptable to both of us. It was real tenant empowerment. Tenant involvement didn't delay things. It speeded things up.

"This isn't really about what the kitchen looks like; it is about the urban strategy, and that isn't given enough consideration. When that happens things go wrong."

Stella the resident

We don’t call this an estate now. We call this an area or a neighbourhood Cathall Road’s old tower blocks are horrendous – the focus for all the estate’s crime

Bernard the architect

Tenant involvement didn’t delay things. It speeded things up. This is not an architectural masterpiece. It is just what people would think of as family homes