Last year, the tenants of a bleak, run-down south London estate voted overwhelmingly against a proposal to spend £243m on building them new homes – and cast a cloud over the government's urban regeneration plans. Phil Clark finds out what went wrong
The 10,000 residents of the Aylesbury estate in Southwark, south London, were graced with the presence of Tony Blair in June 1997. The newly crowned prime minister was launching a cornerstone of Labour's policy for tackling poverty and social exclusion: the eradication of the "no-hope" council slums that blighted so much of the country's cities. And he was doing it at Aylesbury because it was the largest such estate in Europe.

The method to be employed was simple: public money would be made available for the demolition and rebuilding of the estate, which would then be run by a housing association.

The rest would be accomplished by the "will to win" instilled into the "empowered" residents. Four-and-a-half years later, the estate remains a cheerless maze of stained concrete – and a stark reminder to the prime minister and those involved in urban regeneration that delivering schemes can be a frustrating task.

The project could hardly have had a better start. A year after Blair's visit, it was assigned £56m by the New Deal for Communities, Labour's vehicle for rejuvenating estates, the third biggest award it has ever made. This was to be put towards a £234m, 10-year scheme to demolish 2000 of the 2700 properties and replace them with a mix of public and private housing.

And it could hardly have had a more ignominious end: just before Christmas, 70% of the estate's residents voted against it.

There were a number of deal-breakers, but the underlying problem seemed to be one of trust: tenants were worried about losing control of the estate because they thought that the public and private sectors were both, in their different ways, out to exploit them.

They were worried about the housing density of the new estate. They were suspicious of the motives of the Mace-led consortium – did the inclusion of houses for sale in the plans mean "our" homes would be sold to make a fat profit for developers? They were unhappy with the proposal to transfer ownership of the estate from Southwark council to Faraday Housing Association, a company formed by the Horizon Housing Group and the estates' tenants. And they did not want to put up with a 10-year rebuilding programme.

"It would have been a complete disaster for everyone in this community, not just for the people in the estate, because of all the disruption," says Julio Sarkany, a member of Worried About Tenant Transfer, a group that campaigned against the scheme. "It would have created a new type of refugee, a new type of homelessness in this area of London."

The protesters found an unlikely ally in Will Alsop, the architect brought in last spring to sell the redevelopment to residents. Alsop also took over as masterplanner from EDAW and HTA Architects, who were stood down early last year. He blames Horizon for not allowing him to do his job properly and opposes the demolition of much of the estate. "I was disappointed but not surprised [at the result]. I suspect had we done what we should have done, the response would have been 'this is the way forward'."

The residents' concerns could have been met: for example, the private housing element was included to help fund the regeneration. But it was the public sector that came up with the truly non-negotiable demand: that 1500 more houses be packed into the 24 ha estate. The plans put forward by the consortium proposed an increase of 1000 properties to 3700, in line with the government's encouragement of high-density development, but the Greater London Authority wanted it to contain 4200 properties.

An idea of the kind of political pressure the consortium was under is given by an unpublished GLA report, written last September and seen by Building. This points out that London is facing a housing crisis – 43,000 homes are needed in the next 10 years. Giles Dolphin, the GLA's planning decisions manager, wrote in a letter to accompany the report: "The mayor wants to stress that the redevelopment of this estate is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

But, the tenants pointed out, the mayor would not be living on the new estate; they would. Why couldn't the extra homes be built in Kensington? "This kind of regeneration is geared towards the needs of developers and Livingstone's strategic policy, not the good of the people who live here," says Ricky Rennalls, a campaigner who also fought against Project Vauxhall, a regeneration scheme in Lambeth that was rejected by campaigners in 2000. "They should be increasing density all over London, not just where you have tenants."

Were the tenants right?

Tenants opposed to the redevelopment felt that their cause was helped no end by a critical report on the masterplan from architectural watchdog CABE. The report, published last September, pointed to "fundamental flaws and weaknesses in the masterplan" and criticised its "rushed" development. The lack of time spent on the masterplan meant that it was insufficiently detailed: "There is a real risk that residents have been shown designs for buildings that do not sufficiently relate to the masterplan or offer document," it says. And even more fundamentally: "There appears to be a risk that the impact of high-density has not been sufficiently analysed and taken into account."

The criticisms are accepted in part by Ben Wilson, chief executive of the Horizon Housing Group. Although he insists that the components of the scheme were strong, he concedes that communication with the residents was a problem. "The masterplan was at a stage that was acceptable for a local authority or developer, but whether or not it was going to have the level of detail to satisfy the personal concerns of residents on the estate is another question," he says. And he concedes that the professionals have failed to win the trust of the tenants. "There should be enough certainty for the people so they can trust what you are offering," he says. "That's the fundamental problem."

The solution to CABE's criticisms is simple, says Wilson: more time and more money. "To get that level of details means the process is even longer. It means the residents would have to understand exactly what the properties look like, down to the bathrooms, kitchens and space for children. But at present the funding is not there to pay for it."

Bob White, chief executive of Mace, which was in charge of programming the redevelopment, says lessons will be learned from the vote. "Regeneration schemes of this type are still relatively new. Perhaps there is a learning curve for us to go through just as there was with the first PFI schemes," he muses.

The vote has raised concern over the £1.5bn redevelopment of Elephant & Castle. This immense – and immensely complex – scheme includes Southwark council housing stock at the Heygate Estate. One member of the Aylesbury team is sceptical that the Elephant & Castle scheme will get off the starting blocks. "We did a scheme that was fairly self-contained and relatively straightforward and that was voted off. With something as complex as Elephant & Castle, the mind boggles."

Nicholas Taylor, head of developer Southwark Land Regeneration, which is overseeing the regeneration in partnership with Southwark council, is confident that the plans will go ahead. However, he is aware of the impact of the Aylesbury vote. "The vote has undoubtedly consolidated a strong feeling that exists in the community against transfer," he says. Taylor is talking with residents and the council about options for the housing element, but still intends to press on with a transfer to the private sector: "The opposition doesn't rule out transfer. The message that comes out of Aylesbury is you have to allow enough time for people to understand what's being offered."

One predictable result of the vote is that Aylesbury and its residents remain in a state of flux. Southwark council has its £56m New Deal for Communities grant, but there is no consensus within that community as to how to use the cash. Those who oppose demolition want money poured into repairs and works on the present buildings, while others are bitterly frustrated. "We are waiting to see what the council does," says resident Brian Ware. "The people I speak to are fed up – we've waited four years for something to happen here." Perhaps it's time for Mr Blair to pop back and see how things are going?

The estate we’re in: what the residents say

“The council just wants to bring the rich in”
Julia Onley has lived as in the estate for 30 years. “I was the first tenant in my block,” she says proudly. The 81-year-old, whose garden has come second in the Aylesbury In Bloom competition, voted against the transfer. “The council used to represent the interests of council tenants. Now it’s only interested in bringing the rich in.” She is happy enough where she lives – “I could have done a lot worse” – and hopes the council will concentrate on sprucing up the estate. “The money should be spent on making it more comfortable.” “It’s got a terrible name”
Iain Colquhoun, who suffers from emphysema, fought for seven years to get a ground-floor flat on the estate. “It means I don’t have to use many stairs as my lung don’t work properly,” he says. He voted against the redevelopment, on the understandable grounds that his flat is in a block earmarked for private housing. He and his wife Maureen have brought up three children on the estate. “It’s got a terrible name, the estate, but I live here and I have never had any trouble here.” “It’s purgatory for the elderly”
Brian voted in favour of the transfer. The 63-year-old former pensions officer lives alone in a three-bedroom flat after the death of his wife last summer. As a leaseholder, the council offered to buy the flat from Brian, which suited him as he no longer needs the same size of property. “The flats are fine, it’s the walkways outside that are bad. We want them to be closed off because of the noise and the damage from the children running along them. There’s lots of elderly people along this block. It’s purgatory for them.”