To Newham council it is the testing ground for an american-inspired mixed communities initiative … But will the impending £110m transformation convince tenants like Ray to stay in Canning town's area 3? …

… "We've had problems with abandoned cars. They get vandalised and all you're left with is a car skeleton," says Mabey. "If the area looked better, it might put off the joyriders."

He may get his wish. By 2011, if Newham's vision for this patch of east London becomes reality, the 3.3 ha site known as Area 3 will boast tree-lined public spaces, high-quality mixed-tenure housing and community facilities.

Ray Mabey
Photography: Tim Foster

The site is the first phase in the £1.7bn, 100 ha Canning Town and Custom House regeneration scheme ("Transforming Canning Town", right). It is an ambitious project. Canning Town and Custom House share a population of 11,500 and one local ward tops the government's 2001 index of local deprivation for London. More than 70% of the 1960s and 1970s housing in the area is council-rented.

Newham appointed architect Shillam + Smith to produce a masterplan in 2001, but the project gained new prominence in January of last year when the government included it in its US-style regeneration programme, the mixed communities initiative ("The MCI pilots", page 28). Newham chose Countryside Properties in partnership with William Sutton Housing Association to redevelop Area 3 in March.

The basic goal of the MCI is to increase housing choice, boost community facilities and create more mixed neighbourhoods in terms of tenure, property type and income. "It's about creating quality open spaces and facilities that will attract people and encourage them to stay," says Helen Fisher, Newham's head of social renewal. All eyes are on Area 3, partly because the MCI draws on America's controversial Hope VI programme, under which the worst public housing is demolished and replaced with homes targeted at all income groups. Will this initiative suffer the same problems, such as original residents failing to return? And just how radical is it?

A glance at the £110m plans for Area 3, designed by Maccreanor Lavington Architects, reveals admirable intentions but nothing extraordinary. Three tower blocks will be replaced with 610 mixed-tenure homes, 214 of which will be owned and managed by William Sutton - 107 homes for rent and 107 shared ownership. In the past 18 months, Newham has decanted 187 residents and demolished one block. Pre-application discussions are under way and construction work starts in 2007.

For tenants Ray Mabey and his neighbour Betty O'Connell, who co-chair the residents' steering group, change is necessary. But like many residents whose homes are subject to lengthy and large-scale transformation, they are reticent when asked if the plans will be successful.

Canning Town resident Betty O’Connell wants safer streets and more public space in her neighbourhood.
Canning Town resident Betty O’Connell wants safer streets and more public space in her neighbourhood. Photography: Tim Foster

O'Connell, 48, has lived in Canning Town for 25 years and rents a two-bedroom council maisonette near Area 3. "I don't like modern, industrial-style, glass and steel architecture," she says. "Modern homes have more rooms, but they're smaller. I want to fit in my old furniture." O'Connell wants private outdoor space, more public space and a safer street environment. Mabey, who lives in a three-bedroom maisonette nearby, hopes for a two-floor community centre "so one floor could be rented as offices and generate cash for the community".

On paper, the plans do match up to tenants' aspirations. Tony Lewis, new business manager at William Sutton, explains: "There will be front doors on to the tree-lined streets and the design will enhance safety and security with home zones and reduced speed traffic measures."

The design statement promises a tighter structure of streets, and terraced, contemporary, mixed-tenure, high-density housing with gardens or balconies.

I don’t like modern glass and steel architecture. Modern homes have more rooms, but they're smaller. I want to fit in my old furniture

Betty O’Connell, resident

The housing should include generous internal space for all housing types and tenures and a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom homes, regardless of tenure. There will be more road crossings and public spaces linked to roads to avoid the feel of communal estate land. The community centre will be redeveloped and the primary school redesigned with extra community space. There should be construction jobs for residents once building starts and William Sutton hopes to train residents in estate management skills.

The team is particularly proud of its housing management plan. "Management will be handed to residents through a management company, which will have a full remit to procure estate services," explains Lewis. The company will probably have six resident directors elected to its board, one director from William Sutton and one from Newham.

Michael Hill, Countryside's business development director, adds: "The ongoing estate management is one of the most critical aspects of our proposal as we don't believe that physical integration alone will be sufficient to guarantee a successful, sustainable, mixed-tenure community in the long term."

Compare the plans to the MCI wish list, and they fit most of the criteria. But how will the project avoid the pitfalls of Hope VI? "Our hope is that people will want to return once they see the properties," says Fisher. Lewis adds that some Hope VI projects concentrate on rental, but the onus in Area 3 is on sale: "The development has more of a 65% split for sale, 17.5% for shared ownership and 17.5% rent, which represents a more even spread. This mix will encourage families to stay."

Countryside Properties’ vision for Area 3 includes a new school and open spaces that people will want to use
Countryside Properties’ vision for Area 3 includes a new school and open spaces that people will want to use

The government stresses that the MCI is different from its American counterpart. "We're building on the experiences of Hope VI and other programmes," says a spokeswoman. "There are no plans to replicate Hope VI and the needs of existing residents in these communities remains paramount."

Breaking new ground?

The MCI might not be too closely related to its American cousin but mixed tenure is nothing new, so just how innovative is it? Fisher says: "What's different is the social agenda. It ensures that the neighbourhood renewal and social regeneration agenda is integral to successful place-making." Lewis adds that mixed tenure is often carried out through Section 106, which means the social homes are hidden away or built to lower specifications. "What we're doing is a real mix, it's very pepper-potted."

Countryside, however, does not consider the scheme unique. Hill says: "I don't think that it's very different to other regeneration schemes we've been involved in, other than in terms of scale and possibly the greater emphasis on the long-term sustainability of the community."

In wider housing circles, the MCI is not regarded as groundbreaking. Merron Simpson, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing, says: "MCI isn't that radical in that it's only being applied to a small number of the most deprived areas - admittedly some of those most in need of change." To be truly innovative, Simpson suggests, councils should have broad strategies to create mixed communities by buying land in neighbourhoods that are not mixed, with a view to building different types of property there.

So will the MCI actually work? Hill is frank: "We clearly cannot be absolutely sure that the MCI will work on Area 3. However, I and my colleagues are very confident that we will be able to successfully deliver the key features that the government expects the MCI demonstration programme to provide."

He's got a point - so far, the project is ticking all the right MCI boxes. However, the neighbourhood may not thrive unless tenants like Mabey and O'Connell return after redevelopment. Although Mabey is reserving judgment till he sees the first brick laid on the site of his joyriders' car park, he and O'Connell want to stay in the area. It's a good start.