After 10 years and £60m investment, five estates in Peckham, south London, have finally been transformed from pits of urban blight into shining examples of regeneration. Vikki Miller looks into the story of the Peckham Partnership and examines the problems that were encountered along the way

Ten years ago the area known as the Five Estates in Peckham, south London, was the epitome of urban decay. Its trademark post-war high-rises were home to shocking levels of poverty and crime that were well above the national average. If you had told the residents that in a decade’s time, some houses in the area would be worth more than £300,000, they would have laughed you out of town.

Today, those houses can be seen in the windows of local estate agents, who have no trouble shifting them. It’s taken 10 years, £260m and a large dose of diplomacy, but this small enclave of north Peckham has been transformed. The high-rises and covered passageways are gone, and in their place are low-rise, low-density houses with gardens on newly built streets. Between 1994 and 2002, unemployment and residents’ fear of crime both dropped more than 20% according to a survey conducted for Southwark council by Wavehill Consulting. The same research found that 83% of the residents of the new housing felt their quality of life had improved since moving in.

However, the path to this renaissance was far from smooth. Blunders right from the outset damaged relations with the community and led to a vicious bout of infighting; and in 2000, the brutal murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor on one of the estates in the area tainted the project with tragedy. So what did the regeneration team get right? And what lessons have been learned?

In 1994 the London borough of Southwark submitted a bid to the Government Office for London for single regeneration budget funding. At the time Southwark was the second most deprived local authority area in England, and Peckham was particularly disadvantaged even by Southwark’s standards, displaying all the symptoms of multiple deprivation with a quarter of the population unemployed.

Southwark was awarded an SRB grant of £60m, the largest ever in the six rounds of bidding, for a programme lasting from April 1995 to March 2002. The bulk of this grant – £52m – was ringfenced for demolishing the five estates and rebuilding them.

A partnership for Peckham

An organisation called the Peckham Partnership was founded to push through the project. At its heart was the partnership board, a 20-strong decision-making body. It comprised representatives of the council, statutory agencies, a consortium of housebuilders, the voluntary sector and local tenants.

The partnership had to take risks – and encourage others to do so – but it was this approach that led to some early successes.

An area that was 99% council owned was obviously going to need more private homeowners to bring in money, but housebuilders Countryside Properties and Laing Homes were worried they’d not be able to sell the 670 units allocated to them due to Peckham’s formidable reputation as a no-go area. The Housing Corporation made supportive noises, but would only fund the project on a year-by-year basis so it could judge progress.

But the fears turned out to be unfounded because local residents, as well as people from outside the area, snapped up the houses. Rock bottom prices were a compelling incentive.

Ian Jones, director of development at Family Housing Group and a member of the board of the Peckham Partnership for three years, says: “The housebuilders put their necks on the line and stuck with the project. Luckily, all the houses sold as soon as they were put on the market.”

Another success was the new homes themselves. “By and large the residents are happy in their new homes,” says Shirley Cole, community link worker for PECAN, a local unemployment charity. “Some complain that they are smaller and noisier, because the walls are too thin, but they are very pleased with the low-rise style of the buildings and their new gardens.”

The process of moving tenants into their new homes was, however, not so smooth-running. PECAN had to step in because Southwark council refused to provide any help with getting the tenants settled. “The programme wasn’t a disaster, but being uprooted is especially difficult for elderly or vulnerable people,” says Cole. “During one phase of the project, there were problems with toilet seats falling off and lightbulbs kept going out. Neither the housebuilders nor the council would take responsibility, so we stepped in. It was very stressful for the tenants.

“There was supposed to be a referral system from the council, so that we would know when the new buildings were occupied, but it didn’t work. In the end, we just waited until the net curtains went up and paid our first visit after that.”

Also, some of the new tenants weren’t as welcome as others – rats moved in. “Because the streets had been newly created, they had to be registered with the council before they could receive services,” Cole explains. “But during the time it took to process this, there was no refuse collection and vermin became a big problem at this point.”

Frustration, tragedy and anger

This lack of consideration of some of the details that can seriously affect tenants’ lives was to dog the project, and cause wider problems down the line. The partnership was founded in the days before terms like community involvement and tenant participation became the buzzwords they are now. The partnership board neglected to consult local residents while drawing up its masterplan; when they belatedly decided to do so, the plans had to be redrawn. Tenants were further angered that the original brief did not include more community development, particularly community centres and facilities for young people.

As time went on, locals felt that the partnership was out of touch and insensitive to their needs. Decantment, as the process of moving tenants into their new homes was known, dragged into its fifth year, and frustrations remained over the persistent high level of unemployment and poor health of the residents.

In November 2000, a tragedy turned this frustration into anger. Damilola Taylor, a local schoolboy, was found stabbed to death in a stairwell of one of the condemned estates. The murder focused national attention on north Peckham.

Jones says: “Damilola was murdered in one of the estates that was being vacated and then demolished, so the conditions there were appalling. Unfortunately, certain resident groups seized this opportunity to vent their frustrations about the failure of the project to provide economic and social regeneration and the situation spiralled out of control.”

Within days, a key tenants’ body passed a vote of no confidence in the Peckham Partnership management. Despite the fact that deputy prime minister John Prescott had recently called the project a “shining example” of what can be done to renew deprived neighbourhoods, representatives of the residents’ groups went to the national media, even appearing on Breakfast with Frost, complaining about the partnership’s inefficiency in areas of health and job opportunities.

Mike Rahman, development manager for the Peckham Partnership’s Tenants’ and Residents’ Forum (now dissolved), said on the programme: “I think the residents here would like total control and management of the scheme because it has been badly mismanaged by the local authority. As soon as the powers and control are given to the local residents I think things will change dramatically. The local authority has let the people down here badly.”

After the crisis

Allegations of corruption from both sides flew back and forth and relationships between the council and residents deteriorated to an all-time low. It was clear to the council and the partnership that the old model of how the regeneration was run would no longer work, and changes were made.

First among these was the appointment of a new leader, Russell Profitt, who was brought in by the council to save the scheme. As someone who was more sensitive to the needs of the community and more in touch with the residents, he managed to quell infighting and see the project through to the end – one third of the housing still needed to be built. “Profitt managed the political differences within the partnership with a lot of sensitivity – which is exactly what was needed,” says Jones at Family. “He had close links with the community and people respected him. He was a good politician and that’s what you need to lead a partnership programme.”

On the whole, the project was a success and Peckham is the better for it. But more consultation and greater sensitivity from the start could have saved all those involved a great deal of trouble. As Profitt himself admits: “After Damilola’s murder, the local community lost confidence.”

The partnership officially dissolved in 2002, but Southwark council is continuing the regeneration with a new project, the Peckham Programme, headed by Profitt. He maintains that the partnership was an overall success, but offers this advice: “You need a balanced set of objectives to pull off a successful regeneration scheme.

“We didn’t have enough community involvement from the start and that was a bad oversight. We’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, just how sensitive to the views and concerns of the stakeholders – particularly the community – you need to be.”