James Bethell is the managing director of Westbourne Communications and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
The Prime Minister says he wants to bulldoze 100 depressing sink estates and build beautiful new homes with a strong sense of community where social mobility can flourish.
With unreasonable high energy in the New Year he announced a new Advisory Panel led by Lord Heseltine with £140 million of funding would “galvanize our efforts” by creating a list of post-war estates “ripe for re-development” and work with up to 100,000 residents to create regeneration plans.
Politically, there is an opportunity to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a statist dinosaur who wants to trap the poor in unpleasant tower blocks, a handy dividing line.
But hold the horses a second! Before Cameron sends the bulldozers in, he needs to think about what happens when policy dreams collide with political reality. After all, the romantic social policy ambitions of the Prime Minister have a habit of tripping up.
There is a ragtag army of small-c conservatives who oppose this idea which combines concerned residents, heritage quangos, reactionary inner-city Labour councils, the poverty industry, anti-gentrification protestors and anxious house-building CEOs. This seemingly innocuous motherhood-and-apple-pie announcement has the potential to become an ideological, cultural and grassroots elephant trap with vote-losing potential.
The high-profile battles in the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Elephant and Castle might be simply a taste of things to come. If Cameron is going to see his dream through and avoid a damaging inner-city conflagration, he needs to take people with him by building trust with people who matter and caring what local residents think.
Here are three high-impact suggestions for Heseltine’s 1950s-sounding “Estate Regeneration Advisory Panel” for its report promised by the 2016 Autumn Statement:
The intellectual case for redevelopment
Whilst the intellectual case for knocking down sink estates may be self-evident to the Prime Minister, he must keep winning the argument against opponents who conflate redevelopment with other arguments about neo-colonial social cleansing, gentrification, social housing and right to buy.
Already the intellectual case against gentrification (or “Airbnb urbanism” as detractors would have it) is gaining fashionability amongst zeitgeist-y city-dwellers, as witnessed when Class War daubed “Scum” on the windows of hipster cafe, Cereal Killer in East London, which sold £4 breakfast snacks. Anti-gentrification protestors in London already have a map of 53 different anti-development campaigns.
There are similar movements in cities around the world where the same urban pressures create flash-points – the battle between San Francisco’s hipsters against the tech billionaires is one of the most vivid. Unless this argument is won, there is a real prospect that these plans will light 100 local flashpoints which will aggregate into a grassroots bushfire with excitable, unflattering coverage of placard-waving, blue-collar grannies from Channel 4’s Paul Mason and Newsnight’s Chris Cook.
Engaging with local communities
When it comes to engaging with communities, Lord Heseltine’s crack team must establish a new benchmark for excellence. There is no point replacing one top-down, high-rise concrete vision with another top-down, low-rise neo-classical vision if it does not answer the community’s needs. It is tempting to hold box-ticking, superficial engagement. Resist this temptation. Central Government money should be made conditional on a thorough understanding of community needs. Local community groups are often disappointed by broken promises of successive grand schemes. They roll their eyes at “masterplans” and use glossy brochures to line the cat litter tray. They will quite naturally prefer the certainty of the known problems to the depressing hassle of broken dreams and the possibility that things might get worse.
There is a temptation to demolish homes and replace them with lots of two bedroom apartments available for private purchase. If the authorities want to maintain established communities in inner cities, they must insist on a range of tenures and housing types. This will be tough for the private sector which, naturally, wants to sell what it builds. But if they want to change the complexion of a neighbourhood, they need to be a conversation about where the residents will go.
Lord Heseltine has got the point. In a speech to the IPPR “Northern Summit”, he said, “People who live on these estates will define the solution”. Politicians must maintain this discipline.
Clarifying cultural priorities
The architectural heritage industry can complicate the Prime Minister’s plans with their defence of brutalist “masterpieces”. Of course, there are masterpieces that need protecting – I live in the shadow of Erno Goldfinger’s magnificent Trellick Tower in Westbourne Grove which is rightly Grade II listed. But not all ugly tower blocks are worth keeping. The lack of clear agreement on what represents our conservation priorities for post-war housing creates planning doubt, encourages spurious objections and leads to expensive tribunals and poor decisions. It is imperative to agree a consensus with the heritage industry on these cultural priorities before embarking on a development programme.