Blog Post

What’s holding back estate regeneration? Personal reflections and hopes for joined-up policy

Ben Ridley-Johnson works in policy and projects towards the goal of ending street homelessness sustainably. His experience includes Research and Policy Officer at Colne Housing Society and Operations Manager for London & South East at Sanctuary Housing. In this piece he reflects on how the difficulties in estate regeneration have caused him to lose hope in the housing sector.

I don’t know exactly when it started to set in, this pessimism about housing I’ve had lately.

If I had to put a date on it I’d say 2021, probably the summer, when I was working as a Housing Operations Manager, responsible for thousands of residents’ homes across different estates and schemes across London. I knew our plans for the renovation of 1940s walk-up blocks were held back again by failure demand, due to the mounting backlog of routine and emergency repairs to our homes and estates which stripped away our allocated maintenance routine and planned budgets. Inflation, to my eye mysteriously low until now at a headline level, could also go up at any time.

The Office for National Statistics Housing Construction output prices indices shows that between June 2018 and June 2020 the cost of housing repairs and maintenance rose from 104.8% of 2015 prices to 106.9%. Between June 2020 and June 2021,  it rose to 109.3%. Thereafter, the index spiked sharply, peaking at 120%) where it has stayed since. Our economic circumstances in housing and homelessness are now vastly different, just like those early Covid-predictions.

From my viewpoint, financial instability, deprivation and lack of clear national direction were already biting local communities, holding back housing reinvestment and regeneration and stressing our social housing workforce.

The national headlines about an exponential rise infood bank and emergency food relief usage were played out in the real world in front of our eyes as residents set up or expanded food banks and emergency food delivery schemes, which we supported financially and with our own system of well-being calls and free food deliveries for those who needed help.

While this was ongoing,  the pressure on our finances began to tighten with soaring maintenance and repair costs, cross-subsidy demands for new building, loan repayments, while our income was restricted by rent freezes, capped increases and constricting credit systems that usually serviced a 100,000 unit housing association smoothly but were starting to tighten as interest rates began to rise.

This meant residents and some frontline housing workers – many living in social housing themselves – were not only living through a pandemic but also an outbreak of delayed and broken promises of home and estate improvements.

Across the country, we knew from forums and Inside Housing, some of the most alert housing associations were scrambling to adapt to a new post-pandemic future – they didn’t expect much yet from the government given how little they were used to being guided on housing management since de-regulation after 2011 and 2015!

When Covid started looking serious in early 2020, we’d been so relieved both for our residents, and as a team,  that the first phase of the renovation plans were completed, not knowing how long or severe the disruption to housing services would be. Never had the phrase “fix the roof while the sun is shining” had so much relevance when storm clouds were gathering around again. 

This was work for me, but it was personal as well. As we discussed in the neighbourhood office every day, long-term plans for individual homes and whole neighbourhoods underpinned thousands of people’s lives. People who I quickly learned from doorstep conversations, in meetings and by email frankly didn’t care much about what their social landlord thought. As long as they could get on in life with their lives, education, work, personal challenges, life plans – they were happy to leave their social landlord to competently operate in the local economy and manage their home and neighbourhood in partnership with the council, social services, police, faith and charity groups.

Trust was fragile, and there’d been very little of it in the area when in autumn 2018 I was first set a very stretching target of implementing plans rapidly developed with residents to rebuilding trust with the residents’ associations and residents of several estates, all told it would amount to around 3,000 homes.

I was determined to rebuild that trust with my team and colleagues, by driving rapid improvements to estate reinvestment and regeneration locally, improving routine maintenance and delivering neighbourhood communication for the age of social media, enabling people to live in their homes without the need to chase their landlord or complain.

Trust needed constant work with a section of residents, many with lived experience of homelessness, with bad experience with private landlords or insecure housing in the past, as we understood from speaking with them.

From the many personal conversations I had with residents on the doorstep and in meetings, emails, Twitter and newsletter feedback received to our dedicated inboxes between 2017 and 2022, I also knew that some also felt that delay and disappointment from their social landlord meant they were reliving their own journeys of the insecure private housing, being asked to leave or being evicted and then approaching hard-pressed local authority housing departments, only to be advised of long queues to be offered the chance to bid on precious social housing flats. 

As a trainee, in constant dialogue with the residents’ associations and local Labour councillors, I’d drawn estate reinvestment plans for each of the big estates with an assembled taskforce of senior colleagues. 

These had focused on the basics, first cleaning and antisocial behaviour, then security and safety for the day-to-day challenges people faced: including stronger communal doors, new lifts, better lighting, roof repairs, water pumps. These plans were formed only in late 2018 in answer to and with residents’ associations and the local councillors, and were delivered just in time for the end of 2019/20. The next phase would focus on warmth, decency and efficiency: new heating and energy systems including heat pumps, more efficient boilers, solar panels (several residents’ associations had declared climate emergencies and were discussing community energy schemes), and communal cleaning. 

Now I felt sick speaking to my colleagues in the Repairs, Reinvestment, Neighbourhoods Department, as we looked at the plans for 2021/22 and realised how difficult it would be to deliver them. Inflation, already bad after 2016, was going south on ‘specialist’ parts for lifts, door entry systems and for window frames, certain heating system parts. Wages were increasing too. The cost of some maintenance projects had doubled, due to contractors being unwilling or unable to deliver work – they had plenty of quotes themselves. Even with an in-house contractor the same issues with materials and wages arose rapidly, and even our in-house team and trusted suppliers were unable to keep up by summer 2021.

The quotes we’d shared for full transparency with the residents’ associations would now be just promises we’d made standing up in front of a room of residents, that we’d written down and sent to our local councillors. 

Should I have felt so ashamed and angry about the prospect of my organisation, which I was proud to be the local face of for many residents, being unable to deliver everything we’d promised? 

Well, reflecting on it, the picture was more complicated. After all, successive Conservative Governments had caused a great degree of this instability, successive rent freezes and rent caps and with price shocks, material shortages, distortions in the skills and labour market, meaning that Maintenance and Planned Reinvestment and Regeneration budgets, often possible to squish together in the process of cutting them to meet straitened income was increasingly stretched or disappeared to build new homes, service debts or deal with other more pressing issues, especially fire safety checks and works.

Looking back, I can see from a policy perspective what I knew from a personal conversation with a resident talking to their housing teamthat each disappointment of a delayed repair, each broken promise to fix up their estates communal parts and gardens could seem to compound their history of bad experiences in their homes and with local public services.

But it felt like a betrayal, and we would do all we could to put it right. In the end we delivered almost everything in those neighbourhoods, a little late, to everyone’s relief by the Summer of 2022. But only after some very difficult financial decisions, including rearranging funding allocated to other high need, high priority neighbourhoods, and some brave communication with residents and their associations.

We kicked so many things down the road that residents told us would be needed which we could confirm from our stock data, and which I know will still be needed now.  Not least the local employment scheme, the solar panels, the heat pumps and the fundamental renovation of the fabric of estates and, where the residents and data pointed us, regeneration, things that my predecessors and colleagues had felt forced to push into the far future due to funding pressures and constantly changing political priorities. This showed the Conservative illiteracy of the basics of how social housing ‘worked’ on the ground.

We were far from perfect as a social housing provider, and we welcomed the new Social Housing Regulatory Regime that the Conservatives finally realised was needed, after scrapping consumer standards as a neo-liberal, austerity experiment, and yet we did try to keep up with everything and deliver new homes to boot.

One reply on “What’s holding back estate regeneration? Personal reflections and hopes for joined-up policy”

The basic problem is that social rented housing has been neglected and underfunded not just for 14 years but for over 40. Raising rents for already poor people is not the answer. We had a 7 per cent rise last year, and a 7.7 per cent this year. Landlords are asking the government to sanction even higher rent rises. Instead, we need huge pressure on the government to provide vastly more funding for social rented housing, upkeep and construction. And we need a future Labour government to commit to that too. There’s plenty of money about, but it’s going into profits not services to the people.

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