With the toughest challenges to the Decent Homes programme still to come, the pressure is on to find ways of meeting the 2010 deadline - including a bigger role for the private sector. But the 1980s regeneration of the Redriff Estate in London Docklands may already hold the answer.
Peeling plaster, empty homes, discarded drug needles: these are problems that afflict many social housing estates across the country as they wait for the arrival of the government's knight in shining armour, the Decent Homes programme. The programme aims to have every home brought up to a decent standard, with such features as central heating, new kitchens and new bathrooms, by 2010. So far just over 1 million council-owned homes have been done up, but a similar number remain to be tackled, and many of these are the most problematic estates. Time is running out.
The remaining legacy of poor housing estates has sparked debate as to whether the relatively modest changes made under the Decent Homes programme go far enough, and whether the private sector should be encouraged to play a bigger role. Consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers has organised a series of events to discuss such issues over the first half of the year. But some answers may already be under our nose in the form of a regeneration scheme from the 1980s, long before the principle of decent homes had been formalised into a government programme.
The Redriff Estate on the fringe of London Docklands had all the problems of a typical rundown estate - and worse. When even squatters abandoned the derelict estate in the early 1980s, the alarm bells rang. Built around the perimeter of the Rotherhithe peninsula in south-east London in the 1930s as model local authority rented homes for dockers and their families, the Downtown Estates, to which Redriff belongs, were in a dire state 20 years ago, little more than a collection of burnt out shells. The decline of this part of the London Docklands after the Second World War was such that its only claim to fame was being used as a setting for war films such as Full Metal Jacket.
Today, as Regenerate revisits the estate with Alastair Baird, the Barratt East London managing director who project managed the refurbishment, Redriff's three-storey access deck flats and maisonettes built in the Art Deco municipal style appear pleasant and family friendly. There are no signs of the area's less happy past. The makeover, completed in 1992, was the sixth scheme in Downtown on which Barratt East London had worked since the mid-1980s.
In the 1980s these flats were derelict, burnt out shells. We created new homes in them and in 2006 they still look good
Alastair Baird, Barratt East London
Looking around at the yellow and red brick walled buildings from the neatly landscaped courtyard, Baird recalls how Barratt East London was one of the first private companies to get involved in regeneration schemes. Redriff was a pioneering project, he says. "It was refurbishment which nobody had done before. These flats were totally derelict. There was nobody living here. They were burnt out shells which we created new homes in. That's where it was groundbreaking." Baird won a special National House Building Council regeneration award for his work on Downtown. He points out, with some pride, that "in 2006 the flats still look very good".
Redriff illustrates how the private sector can contribute to and benefit from the upgrading of social housing. It also shows that refurbishment may be more appropriate than demolition. Barratt was fortunate with Redriff in that the buildings are traditional brick, rather than the sometimes more problematic system-built concrete. Also, there were no structural problems to contend with. Baird points out that all the original external features remained: "You've got character here. We've kept the character of this. It's better if you can keep the original features."
What Barratt did was to salvage the flats from years of neglect and upgrade them to contemporary standards. Baird describes the refurbishment process: "We cleared the wreckage, from burned out cars to discarded drug needles, and then stripped out the shells, including all walls that were not load-bearing, which gave us the chance to reconfigure the flats. They were then re-roofed, re-floored and totally refurbished to provide modern conveniences such as fully-fitted kitchens and en suite bathrooms, increased levels of thermal and sound insulation, full heating, modern integrated wiring, and disabled facilities and access where required."
Bow-ended balconies were added, outside areas landscaped and parking space created or reorganised. Baird is aware that the refurbishment might not conform to today's Decent Homes standard, established long after Downtown Estates were upgraded, but much of the work was similar to that being undertaken now, and it did change the estate for good.
The refurbishment of the Downtown Estates might have started some 18 years ago, but the housing has aged well and doesn't pale in comparison to the more recent surrounding developments. This is attributed to the forward-thinking agenda behind the regeneration of the Rotherhithe peninsula: to create a multi-tenured partnership development with rented, shared-ownership and owner-occupied homes side by side, all created to the same quality and indistinguishable from each other.
We cleared out the burnt out cars and drug needles, then stripped out walls to reconfigure the flats
Alastair Baird, Barratt East London
In the 1980s the dramatic juxtaposition of new upmarket private housing in London Docklands with the obvious poverty of the other docklands boroughs led Southwark council to transfer its vandalised squats to the London Docklands Development Corporation. This allowed the LDDC, local housing associations and the private sector to create a major mixed-tenure scheme. The amount of money poured into the project revealed the faith in the area's potential. The £55m Redriff Initiative on the Redriff Estate benefited from the largest ever single grant from the Housing Corporation - £22m. The rest of the funding came from the LDDC, a combination of public and private sector investment and Southwark council. A client consortium was set up comprising six locally based housing associations (South London Family Housing Association/Crystal Palace HA, Shackleton HA, Wandle HA, Housing for Women, Carr-Gomm HA and Peckham and Dulwich HA) together with Southwark council, the Housing Corporation and the LDDC.
Under the scheme the housing association consortium bought and renovated the Redriff Estate to provide 86 new homes for affordable rented accommodation and 106 for shared ownership. A further 269 new homes, for affordable rents, were built by the consortium on three prime LDDC waterside sites nearby.
Barratt East London, established in 1983, had been a partner of the LDDC since building the first 1000 homes of a large regeneration scheme in Beckton in 1981-82, along with developers Comben, Brosely and Wimpey. The re-instatement of the Downtown Estates was seen as a priority to kick-start the regeneration of the entire Rotherhithe and Surrey Docks area. Regeneration projects involving different partners are the norm nowadays, but in the mid-1980s, the collaboration between Barratt, the LDDC and SLFHA was deemed innovative. The government and LDDC grant was used to pay for the social housing at a heavily discounted rate, most of which was then offered to Southwark council nominees. Barratt was able to sell a proportion of the flats on the open market to claw back some of the discount and make the job profitable - though Barratt won't disclose what its return was on the project.
As Baird walks through the estate, he nods approvingly at the well-maintained general appearance some 14 years after its completion. He says Barratt achieved a lot with this contract: "It was great. It was putting back properties to what they were before they went derelict." As a trailblazer, there were useful lessons to learn from the project, Baird says, especially "how to work in multi-way partnerships with development corporations, local authorities and housing associations".
One of the residents who moved into Redriff when it was first refurbished in 1993, Terry Michel, agrees that the estate has been a success. Standing in front of the flat he was E E able to purchase through a shared ownership scheme with SLFHA/Crystal Palace HA, Michel says Redriff was a real chance for his family. "I had always lived in south-east London and I was looking around the area to find somewhere to live. If we didn't get a property at that particular time, then we'd be stuck in rented accommodation. Like a lot of people, we were looking to get onto the housing ladder, to buy a property. Shared ownership was a stepping stone for us," says Michel.
The properties here are reasonably large. Unless you’re paying millions, you can’t have this space now
Terry Michel, resident
Now that Michel is the full owner of his two-bedroom property and the father of a teenager, he would like to be able to move to larger accommodation. But "there is nothing in this area at the moment which offers adequate accommodation and room size," he says. In retrospect this makes him even more content with having been able to move to Redriff. "Properties [in Downtown Estates] were reasonably large, because they were refurbished old properties. Unless you're paying millions, you can't have this space now. And Redriff is one of the better kept estates," he says.
Michel also appreciates the community life the estate has fostered. In the last dozen years or so a lot of people have come and gone, but the intimate scale of Redriff allows everyone to know their neighbours, he says. He is certain that the success of the housing redevelopment has been in part down to the larger regeneration project that followed it. The Jubilee Line is a few minutes away, schools, hospitals and shops are in the close vicinity.
Since the Downtown Estates were completed, Barratt Group has continued to work on regeneration projects, becoming the UK's largest provider of social housing, and is now preferred developer for the regeneration of the Welsh Harp Estate in Hendon, north-west London, which will include at least 1200 homes. The Downtown Estates project has informed Barratt's approach to regeneration and looks set to bring lasting change to some of the country's worst estates.
Photographs by Julian Anderson