Residents’ involvement the key to successful housing schemes

In March, the last tenants in the Waltham Forest Housing Action Trust were finally relocated to new housing, a decade after the creation of the HAT. It is a remarkable and largely unsung success story of a controversial housing policy that could point the way to similar schemes across the country in Tony Blair’s drive to end social deprivation in the poorest parts of the country within 10 to 20 years, a promise he made in January 2001 when he launched the government’s National Strategy Action Plan.

HATs, you may remember, caused a furore in the early 1990s when they were created by the Tory government to tackle some of the worst estates in the country. They were widely opposed by local councillors and some tenants even voted against their creation, as they were seen as a way of privatising council housing. While tenants around the country rejected the HAT concept, the Waltham Forest tenants cannily pushed the Tory government into offering them one. Their judgement has proved to be the right one and the doubters have been proved wrong. But the HAT ended up as a very different beast from the one envisaged by the Tories.

When Mrs Thatcher popped her head out of the window of Conservative Central Office after her third election victory in victory, she said the focus of her government would have to be on the inner cities. The aim was to make much greater use of the private sector in those areas and one of the results was the 1988 Housing Act which inter alia created the idea of HATs. The idea was that an estate or group of estates would be created into a Housing Action Trust that would receive a large grant from the government to transform the area completely. However, clearly the Tory ministers who conceived the plan were confident that the housing would ultimately pass to a private landlord although once the point was conceded that tenants had to be consulted over the decision, this was always going to be unlikely.

The history of housing is, however, littered with examples of legislation that has unintended consequences. Note, for example, the use of the same legislation by the residents of the Elgin and Walterton Estates in West London who used the provision of the Act intended to encourage the sale of council housing to private landlord for their own ends. Instead, the residents formed an association, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, to take over the housing. Moreover, they demanded – and got – a massive dowry to fund the improvement of the housing, demolition of the worst parts of the estate and the removal of asbestos.

Similarly, the tenants of Waltham Forest, after 10 years spent working on the redevelopment of their area, were not going to hand over their new housing to some profit-making private landlord. Nor, though, has it gone back to the London Borough of Waltham Forest as tenants voted by an overwhelming majority – just 40 tenants voted to go back to the council – for the housing to be owned and run by the Waltham Forest Community Based Housing Association, a subsidiary of the Peabody Trust with 10 tenants on its 15 strong board.

But the key lesson from the amazingly successful story of the Waltham Forest HAT is that refurbishing housing is not enough. As many housing associations and councils have discovered, new housing can become as awful as the homes it has replaced within a couple of years unless there is an overall improvement in the lives of the residents. As the pamphlet on the history of the HAT says, ‘it is generally accepted that it is a waste of money to rebuild unless all the underlying causes of neighbourhood decline are dealt with together.’

In terms of physical improvement, the Waltham Forest tower blocks with 2,500 homes have been replaced by 1,500 terraced houses and flats. Although normally natural wastage would have been sufficient, in this case, as so many tenants wanted to move into the new housing, that some tenants were given grants to help obtain mortgages and 100 extra homes had to be obtained through a PFI deal.

In addition, some £9m has been spent on creating training opportunities for residents and throughout the scheme jobs created by the regeneration have been, where possible, offered to people living in the HAT area.

All this has come at a substantial cost – £227m, about £35,000 per person which, in retrospect, is remarkably cheap at the price. In terms of any cost benefit analysis, it is a fantastic deal because not only is the housing so much better, but many of the residents are now much more employable and have useable skills. And, of course, the housing, designed to last for 80 years, will long outlive them.

The lesson from both Waltham Forest and Elgin and Walterton is that empowering tenants is an unpredictable game for local and central government, but one that can have truly worthwhile results. The widespread distrust of local authorities, as demonstrated by the mixed results of ballots in recent large voluntary transfer schemes, could be reduced if some of the methods of ensuring real involvement of tenants and residents – not just token ‘consultation’ – gleaned from these stories are learnt by councillors and officers.

A fascinating CD-Rom showing the history of the Waltham Forest HAT together with very moving accounts of residents experiences, From Terraces to Towers and Back Again, and a pamphlet, History of WFHAT 1991-2002 are available from: Nicola Goom, O-regent, Kirkdale House, 7 Kirkdale Road, London E11 1HP. Email: ngoom o-regen.co.uk A pamphlet on Elgin and Walterton Against the odds, is available from WECH, 416 Harrow Road, London W9 2HZ, price £5.

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