This blog post was first published by the Housing Quality Network.
We’re based in Bath, a difficult place to live on a low income; the average home costs more than 12 times average salary. I believe that cities need all sorts of people; we can’t run a successful place with a population made up exclusively of lawyers, accountants and art dealers. We have to think creatively about how we maintain a broad social mix whilst finding the funding necessary to provide high quality, affordable homes – and housing associations are a key part of the solution.
Our work on the regeneration of the Foxhill estate has been long and complex; the neighbourhood of 900 homes is one of our least popular estates, with high levels of tenant turnover, anti-social behaviour and a poor reputation. The ONS identified it as one of the 11% most deprived areas in England; life expectancy is 9 years shorter than the surrounding area and levels of wellbeing, employment and educational achievement are significantly lower. These are startling facts that can be hard to comprehend in such a wealthy city.
When the chance came, in 2013, to buy the 48 hectare brownfield MOD site next to Foxhill we took it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the future of Foxhill – through cross subsidy – and improve both the quality of the housing stock and the life chances of the people who live there. By developing the MOD land, now named Mulberry Park, we could create brand new social housing as well as the profits needed to provide new modern homes in Foxhill, to replace the poor quality, post war housing which had, in the main, come to the end of its useful life.
Some local people asked what a Housing Association was doing building homes for sale. But as those within the sector know, a complete lack of government funding for new social rented housing means that if we don’t find ways to deliver cross funding streams, it simply isn’t going to happen.
Curo’s model means that, broadly, for every two homes we sell on the open market we can provide one brand new social rented home. Unusually, we’ve set up our own housebuilding division, with an aspiration to be building 500 homes a year by 2022 – delivering the end-to-end process entirely in-house, from land purchase, through planning and build to sales.
In Foxhill we proposed a redevelopment plan to transform the area and integrate it with Mulberry Park. All too often, ‘regeneration’ actually means gentrification; displacement as house prices rise, forcing people out. That’s wrong, and it’s why we guaranteed every Foxhill resident – both social tenants and those who had exercised their Right to Buy – a brand new home in the area. We explained that financially no one would pay more. We promised to put back, across the two sites, the same amount of social housing that we had at Foxhill. We promised also, if we could secure additional grant, that we would increase the affordable housing level from the guaranteed starting point of 30 percent.
However change is challenging. Despite extensive consultation, ‘housing zone’ status and a jointly signed charter created in partnership with the local authority, people were unhappy; the uncertainty of long time frames, and lack of consistent political, community and financial support led us – reluctantly – to make the difficult decision to change our approach.
We’ve now committed to a different sort of regeneration programme, focussed on investing in Foxhill through refurbishment rather than redevelopment. This will improve the stock for up to 30 years or so, but it will not achieve the same level of ambitious improvement for local people.
Regeneration isn’t just about housing. Our work is delivering significant benefits for local residents, including a brand new primary school, health facilities, a £10m community building, large scale tree planting, open spaces and the creation of safe cycle and walking routes. 183 jobs have been created in construction to date, and an extensive social and economic regeneration programme is in place supporting improved wellbeing, skills and employment opportunities. This is all in addition to the 700 high quality new homes, including 30% affordable, across the tenure-blind Mulberry Park development.
We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult regeneration can be, especially with the organised, politically-motivated anti-groups which swoop in from outside to help home owners who have already benefited from the Right to Buy.
There’s an apparent contradiction when owners, whose purchase has removed a home from the social pot, are using arguments about a reduction in social housing to oppose regeneration. Part of the solution would be for government to reinvest the proceeds they receive from Right to Buy sales into providing new homes – something that doesn’t happen at the moment.
We’ve learned a lot from this project. There are things we’d do differently now, I’d accept that, but what we wouldn’t change is our high ambition for what can be achieved; nor should we. Residents in some of the most deprived communities in the country expect their housing associations to confront these tough issues.
Regeneration is part of our DNA as a sector – if we don’t invest in improving our homes and our communities, who will? My concern is that the concept of regeneration has become ‘weaponised’. This has to be challenged, and we need to do it together – as a sector which understands the benefits it can bring to people’s lives. So, let’s reclaim regeneration and all the great things it has already delivered and, with actual government funding, what it will yet do for 100,000’s lives that rely on it happening. If we don’t, in the decades to come our residents will be asking why we didn’t look after their interests.