Looking towards tower blocks and Richmond Park from the balcony of Binley House on the Alton Estate, Roehampton

Some very lazy blogging here, but below is an article I wrote for the LGIU’s C’llr magazine. It isn’t very profound, but when thinking about the subject a web-search didn’t find a single reference to the Kübler-Ross model of grief being applied to regeneration (other than regenerations in Dr Who which seem to provoke strong senses of bereavement among some).

Although written a few months ago, last week I was talking to a Roehampton resident who seemed somewhat depressed when expressing support for regeneration. I enquired further, and he told me why his words and demeanour didn’t match: “I’ve lived here since 1959. I know it will be better for my grandkids and their kids, but I’m losing my home for them.” However hard we try, there will be some human cost, in this case the resident saw it as sad but worthwhile, the challenge is making sure that cost is worth it for everyone.

However noble the intention regeneration projects sometimes seem to bring nothing but grief. From the big arguments over vision to the tiniest details that suddenly become all-consuming, it’s easy to sometimes wonder if regeneration is just a series of segues between tension, disagreement and frustration.

Any regeneration project will inevitably spend much of the process dogged by criticism. Aside from the human tendency to dissent vigorously but assent apathetically, is the simple fact that even well supported regenerations will still have been opposed by a significant minority of people: nine out of ten supporting still means one out of ten don’t.

In Wandsworth we are currently involved in three big regeneration projects. Nine Elms is the one that attracts the headlines: central London’s biggest opportunity area will see industrial land along the Thames transformed, creating over 20,000 new jobs, a revitalised Battersea Power Station and a new diplomatic quarter which will be home to the US Embassy. No less important are the schemes currently running in two of our most deprived areas which will see up to £100 million invested to transform estates that have, for different reasons, not aged well.

At first sight all three are no-brainers. Nine Elms transforms inaccessible brownfield sites and creates jobs and amenities while providing access to the Thames riverside. Our estate regenerations will see the creation of high quality homes along with the creation of new jobs and better communal spaces and facilities.

Yet for those directly affected, the benefits are not always that obvious. I have come to realise the process does not only cause grief to those of us involved in delivery, but also causes grief for the beneficiaries.

It is easy to be overwhelmed with the technicalities of regeneration: the homes standards and densities, phasing studies, the permeability of the new neighbourhood. But no-one lives technically, they live emotionally. They live in homes and neighbourhoods measured in memories, not by space standards.

These emotional aspects are not lost on the council. We try hard to engage whenever possible; community engagement involves the whole council, from housing to schools and even the council’s arts team. Despite that, there is a regeneration to deliver and residents sometimes can not help but think the council is doing, but not feeling.

Increasingly, I wonder if the classic Kübler-Ross model of five stages of loss can be applied to regeneration schemes. First is denial, a belief the council will not deliver. Second is anger, perhaps a suspicion that it is motivated by ulterior motives. Third comes bargaining; I met one resident who wanted their block demolished, but only if we kept and rebuilt around their ground floor flat. Next is the depression of residents thinking the council just will do what it wants.

Finally comes acceptance; and with it engagement, understanding and—hopefully—enthusiasm. Wandsworth’s experience may just mirror the regenerations seen elsewhere: but that should not detract from any individual experience, because once trust and ambition is shared, the magic starts to happen.

Residents understand, better than anyone, the problems we want to address, and are able to contribute to the process. They can see how their views and opinions are incorporated as regeneration plans take shape and, just as importantly, understand when they are not. When the plans start to become reality, residents start getting the tangible benefits: in Wandsworth the number of people getting jobs on the developments through the council’s jobs brokerage service grows almost daily. When they see the benefits residents can become champions for regeneration, as So Solid Crew’s G-Man surprisingly did in Wandsworth, and will undoubtedly influence some people who are unmoved by the council’s information.

It is when you see those unexpected contributions and realise that people’s imaginations are turning to the possibilities of the future, rather than the suspicions or inconveniences of today, that the grief is well worth it.

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. ↩