Introducing the Alton area masterplan to residents
Introducing the Alton area masterplan to residents

The Alton Area Masterplan was launched at a public meeting in Roehampton at the weekend. And there was, perhaps predictably, a little controversy in the meeting. But not, perhaps, as controversial as it might have been.

Indeed, the complaints seemed to focus on one issue: the Danebury Avenue barrier[1].

Quickly looking through my previous posts on regeneration topics I’m astounded that I’ve not written something about seemingly small and tangential issues taking on new importance during the process. We are consulting on a major regeneration project, demolishing and creating hundreds of homes, but during the public meeting part of the session the barrier became the hot topic.

And for some people it is a hot topic. For a start it has the advantage of being something that is easily understandable and relatable: if you have a belief about the effect of a traffic barrier, you know what that barrier does. And that is much easier for anyone to comprehend and far less abstract than trying to re-think how people relate to an area.

Large blocks, in large spaces. The initial vision for the Alton was remarkably good.
Large blocks, in large spaces. The initial vision for the Alton was remarkably good.

It is also something of a lesson for those, like me, who are involved in an area in which, however deep our involvement, we do not live (I did hear a few mutterings about ‘outsiders’). Almost by definition we look at an area with a degree of objectivity, since we aren’t as emotionally involved, but also with views coloured by our own experiences. Personally speaking, I live somewhere that is almost the physical opposite of the Alton: small houses with small gardens on a traditional road layout, compare to the Alton’s large blocks of flats set in expansive green spaces that (should) relate to Richmond Park.

However hard I try I cannot remove my housing experiences from my memory and that’s why it’s important to give the due weight to concerns about the possibility of removal of the Danebury Avenue barrier. My experiences of living on streets that have varying levels of traffic, and different methods of controlling volume and speed, have not been shared by long-term residents on the Alton estate, where Danebury Avenue has only been open or closed.

Generally, though, the session seemed positive. Listening to various people afterwards there were concerns, but not negativity. People are naturally anxious about their homes and their futures, but equally pessimism and cynicism are giving way to optimism and ambition for the area.

There will undoubtedly be difficult times ahead, and we will never persuade everyone that the final Masterplan is the best way forward for the Alton, but strolling through the estate after the meeting, and seeing how large parts of the estate already work remarkably well (although I concede a blue sky always improves a scene) it was easy to be upbeat about the future.

  1. I should caveat my record of this meeting by stating the acoustics were bad when people were speaking without a microphone, and standing at the back (it was a standing room only meeting) I struggled to hear a lot of the debate.  ↩

Looking towards tower blocks and Richmond Park from the balcony of Binley House on the Alton Estate, Roehampton
The Alton boasts a remarkable setting

This week saw the start of the next stage of consultation on the Alton Estate regeneration. I’ve not written as much about the work of the council in improving the Alton estate in Roehampton as I have about the Winstanley and York Road work, possibly because of my proximity to the latter, possibly because the Alton programme is, to my mind, more subtle.

It isn’t the first time the council has tried to tackle the Alton. Though it’s the first time in my memory that we seem to have the support to see it through. It was interesting after the last Roehampton Partnership meeting talking to members who suggested they had felt a change: the partnership felt more positive, more professional even, and progress was being made. Pride may come before a fall (and I recognise we’re approaching a rather febrile election season) but there are reasons to be optimistic.

But why are the plans for the Alton more subtle than for the Winstanley and York Road programme?

To answer, you have to look at the Alton estate’s conception. It’s easy to look at council estates and assume they are, somehow, automatically dysfunctional. The original plans for the Alton, however, came some way towards the post-war Utopian vision for social housing. Modern architecture in a park setting: the blocks looking and feeling very much like they in an extended Richmond Park. Viewing the original plans, and hearing the original architect’s vision, I found myself finally understanding why so many long-term residents could speak of the jealousy they encountered from those who were not allocated housing there. Indeed, I had some of that jealousy myself.

Unfortunately the subsequent development took most of the shine off the estate. Later additions were, frankly, done on the cheap. They re-used designs from elsewhere, and built what could fit, rather than what should fit.

The masterplan option on which we are about to consult moves us back towards that vision, at the junction of Danebury Avenue and Roehampton Lane there will be new buildings that properly frame the estate’s gateway, the area behind providing new, higher quality homes that face the right way rather than having gardens on the road, Portswood Place will be revitalised to create new centre and through it all a central park will provide an attractive link into Richmond Park, creating attractive views and pathways.

And the subtlety? A lot of the buildings remain exactly as they are. The road layout will be unchanged. This is not like the Winstanley and York Road scheme that proposes a lot of demolition in the York Road Estate. It cannot be seen as purely physical regeneration[1].

It cannot be viewed just as shiny new buildlings, though there are some, but instead should invite you to imagine a new relationship with the area: from a new park area to enjoy, new shops providing not only retail, but employment and vibrancy, and new facilities for services and recreation. Fundamentally, it recognises that a lot of the original estate is good, it just needs the setting to make it work.

The consultation is just another stage of an evolving process, but the master planning exercise is drawing to a close and reflects a lot of the feedback that has been received. I think they are incredibly exciting and promising, and hope those responding to the consultation think the same.

  1. The Winstanley and York Road regeneration should not be seen as purely physical regeneration either, but if you choose to view it in that way it can still make sense, providing better homes and facilities close to Clapham Junction. ↩