The concierge looks at you through the glass door before pushing the buzzer to let you in. ‘Can I help you’ says the middle age black woman once you enter the lobby, a large wood and glass oval shaped room.
This is not some swanky Parisian apartment block but a council estate which used to have one of the worst reputations in Britain, Broadwater Farm in Tottenham because of the riot in 1985 which resulted in the death of a policeman. Now, the estate is being cited as a model of how to regenerate a decaying area by the government’s Social Exclusion Unit, the pompous name for the Cabinet committee examining policies on poverty.
Earlier this summer, the government announced a £1.5bn programme focussed on 13 local authorities to renew their council housing. It marked a remarkable U-turn in housing policy. Previously, Labour which had once been the party which sought to make us all into council tenants, was seemingly bent on its abolition, through the continuation of the right to buy and the mass transfer of the rest of the stock to Registered Social Landlords – who, in normal English, used to be called housing associations.
Now, though, the government has recognised that council housing is here to stay and has turned to estates like Broadwater Farm to illustrate how the money to improve them can be well spent. It is now precisely ten years since estate was granted £33m under the Tories’ old Estates Action programme and the fact that it is now a sought-after estate, with barely a handful of its 1,063 homes empty, suggests the money was well spent. Contrast this with 1976, when the estate was barely five years old and there were queues of tenants seeking transfers away from the Farm and over half of prospective tenants were turning down offers of accommodation, despite being desperately in need of housing. Now there are barely any empty properties and 40 residents have even felt confident enough to have bought their flats under the right to buy.
The estate is certainly something of a surprise to this reporter who was last there 18 years ago in the aftermath of the riots. A lot has been done to change the whole feel of the place and the thousand flat dwellers on the estate are fortunate in that the transformation seemsto have been well conceived and executed. One of the first things one notices on today’s Broadwater is that the car parks are full of functioning cars in running order – they may be mostly of R or even D reg vintage, but residents clearly feel confident enough to leave their vehicles in them. The fact that the car parks are usable may seem unremarkable, but you only have to look at similar car parks under estates all over London where vandalised wrecks and rubbish are the only occupants to see that it is a minor triumph for those who have brought about the transformation of the estate.
It is not only the big changes that make a difference. The housing has been individualised, not only with the concierge lobbies of varying designs, but also through the use of colour so that each block looks different from its neighbour even if the design is broadly the same. Interestingly, unlike on other troubled estates, there has been no demolition of any of the housing which, inside, as with most council estates which date from the period when the stringent Parker Morris standards were a legal requirement, offer roomy and pleasant flats. Indeed, there has been some additional housing built, run by a housing association, making the estate more dense.
However, as council planners now know, it is not density that is the problem, but flawed architecture which encourages crime. Much of the £33m has been spent on designing that out, bringing people back down to the ground level so that they act as unwitting crimestoppers.
Therefore the housing has been left intact and the biggest architectural change was the demolition of most of the walkways which connected the various blocks – only a few linking parts of the same block have been left and these have been covered and weather proofed. While the Le Corbusier idea of streets in the sky, leaving the traffic on the ground level, seems intuitively like a good idea, it creates a desert space underneath the housing that is a recipe for crime. Now there is remarkably little crime on the estate and people go about their business feeling safe. Now the work of design experts like Alice Coleman has shown that good design, avoiding hidden spaces and giving people a sense that their space is defensible can be a major factor in preventing crime.
Certainly this seems to have been borne out with the redesign of Broadwater Farm. Paul Dennehy, Haringey’s neighbourhood officer on Broadwater Farm points to the annual survey carried out on behalf of the council by a market research company, a 5 per cent sample of all the residents. It shows that a tiny 2 per cent feel unsafe in their homes, compared with 15 per cent of all Haringey tenants. Moreover, over half the residents have lived there for ten years, again higher than the local average, which adds to the feeling of stability and safety.
This is despite the fact that there have been successive waves of arrivals. Now, the estate has 70 per cent black and ethnic minority, but over the years the composition has changed radically. Originally white dominated, there were successive influxes of people from the Caribbean, mainly Jamaican, then West African principally Ghanaian, Turkish Kurds, Somalis and now French speaking Africans, such as Congolese. Dennehy, a realist, accepts that it is not heaven but reckons the diversity of the estate basically works.
One of the highlights of the transformation are the murals on the large windowless side walls, with the main one, at the entrance, showing a bucolic waterfall scene which seems incongruous until you realise the artist was making a visual play on the name of the estate. Again, one of the signs of a successful regeneration is that the murals are undamaged by graffiti and, indeed, there is very little sign of any vandalism on the estate. There is quite a lot of litter and the grassy areas look particularly desolate after being baked all summer and are badly in need of some tender loving care. According to Dennehy, the reason for the litter is partly that this is Monday morning and the two men sweeping up who can be seen sweeping in the car parks have not managed to get round all the estate.
But the rubbish flying about in the late summer wind is also the result of one those daft demarcation issues that smacks of less than joined up government. The council has been forced to put its estate cleaning out to tender and that is now the responsibility of a private company, Accord, over which the local housing neighbourhood management have no direct control.
Yet, the need for a strong neighbourhood presence, with local officers who have the power to make decisions without reference to the central council bureaucracy is an essential ingredient for successful regeneration. But a strong presence from local officialdom is not enough. Without community involvement, which is very difficult to stimulate from outside, money spent on physical regeneration can end up being wasted. Here, the very design of the estate, the fact that the lay-out is so different from the ordinary terraced housing around with a clear line that distinguishes Broadwater Farm from its surrounding area has been helpful in creating a sense of community. Indeed, similar regeneration measures on the nearby Tiverton estate have been less successful because there was not the same sense of community engendered by clear boundaries and the absence of main roads crossing the estate.
Paul Dennehy who, having been in his job for eight years, has overseen most of the improvement stresses that it was not the riots of 1985 which led to the improvements. He says that there was already a strong sense of community, with a local youth association taking an active part in trying to improve thelot of the estate. The riot, in fact, was triggered by the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid on a house near the estate: ‘There was a youth association on the estate and they wanted to go and demonstrate at the police station but the police blocked off the route and that’s why it happened on the estate.’ So while history suggests it was the housing conditions that led to the riot that resulted in the death of a police office, it was, in fact, the result of a breakdown in the relationship between the police and local black people.
Dennehy feels strongly that much of the improvement has come about because there is an active group of tenants who ensure there is a thriving residents association: ‘All the local groups, such as the community centre, have a strong input from the residents and without that things would not happen.’ However, it is a struggle getting people involved. There are, perhaps, only 30 active residents and many are elderly. Dennehy believes that is a strength, however: ‘It is great that older people are involved when many people of that age just spend their days watching day time TV. They are doing something very useful and important.’
Interestingly, not all the improvements are paid for by the council or the government. To have the concierge scheme, residents have to pay £7 per week extra on their rent, a not inconsiderable sum particularly for those whose rent is not covered by housing benefit. In a way, though, that is a blessing in disguise. It means that if the sophisticated entry phones, which include access to cameras overlooking play areas and other parts of the estate, break down or the concierge is not there during the 8am to midnight period when the service is provided, then they are quick to complain that they are not getting the service for which they have paid.
One other factor that Dennehy is too modest to mention is his own role in the transformation. With a gold ring in one ear, and a relaxed informal air, he does not seem like someone who has worked for the council for 24 years, but mention his name to others involved in the estate, and they will all testify to his commitment and passion.
Dennehy warns that the lessons of Broadwater Farm for the Social Exclusion Unit are not all transferable to other estates, particularly aspects like having a clear boundary and a strong community. Nevertheless, with visitors from across the world, including places such as Russia, Germany and the US coming to see Broadwater Farm, there is much to learn from an estate whose very name is still associated with the awful events of 15 years ago.