Regeneration is not a dirty word – improving housing doesn’t always have to end with gentrification

24 Jul 2019

Gentrification is a divisive and tainted term. The phrase was coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 while studying the movement of people in Islington, London. She described how many urban areas of London had changed, as ordinary run-down mews and terraced housing were turned into housing for the rich. A key part of her findings was noting that “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed”. Projects that aim to deliver better quality housing have been maligned by accusations of ‘social cleansing’ as original owner occupiers get displaced. But regeneration does not have to mean driving existing residents out of their homes. Quite the opposite.

Regeneration is not just knocking down homes and rebuilding them but providing a better place to live, with more green space, leisure facilities, and increased safety – and part of the challenge is communicating that to residents. Regeneration has become the buzz word of politicians and professionals in the property and construction industries in more recent years. Regeneration is the attempt to address industrial and manufacturing decline by both improving the physical structure and the economy of those areas. When comparing gentrification to the process of regeneration one realises how closely related they are. Broadly speaking, gentrification differs due to its association with the displacement of people, but they both attempt to make areas better, whether that is physically, environmentally, socially, economically, educationally etc.

While it is clear that regeneration and gentrification are similar, the drivers for regeneration must be geared towards benefiting the existing communities. They are the very people who we build for. It is about building on the existing strengths of the area and addressing the issues that people live with. Our social mission is all about building homes and making places and about having aspirations. The buildings and places we develop must do more than simply provide a roof over somebody’s head. It is not just about building better quality houses. It is not just about what you live in; it is about how you socialise with your neighbours and having access to great communal facilities and open spaces and transport links.

The question is whether, through initiatives in equitable development, we can create communities that bring mixed incomes, mixed race and mixed age back together. Creating places with diverse cultures and incomes and a vibrant local character is good for everyone — including developers. In the long run, you create more value. There is no doubt that rising housing costs as a result of regeneration can cause problems for existing residents, who can feel they are being priced out of their communities, but it is essential we remember that investment in development is a sign of belief in a neighbourhood. We are now seeing an increasing number of developers shifting their focus from simply delivering a project to “place making”, providing a mix of uses and creating sustainable development. Regeneration therefore has more to offer local communities than they may at first believe.

The idea of uprooting families and dispersing people who have built up a community and support networks goes against what most people believe in. But by introducing an increased variety of homes for sale and for rent we create a more balanced community and increase opportunities for existing residents who, for example, may wish to buy their own home. Similarly, we need to ensure that buyers are not priced out of the market when it comes to some of the more highly sought-after locations. As one executive director of a social housing provider said, “Everyone has potential. Sadly, some are trapped in apathetic environments that inhibit this.”

Planning policy is all about balancing competing interests and how investment should be managed for the betterment of all and geared towards existing communities. Section 106 contributions and even community infrastructure levy all go towards community infrastructure such as education, transport, heath facilities, creation of open spaces etc. New or improved schools and doctors’ surgeries and other facilities that encourage community cohesion come forward, which local communities truly need. Socio-economic benefits are felt by all, as more job opportunities for example are created.

Regeneration of our estates is going to become a more urgent task as mid-century urban fabric needs upgrading to build homes fit to live in. It could also go some way to solving the housing crisis: a report by Savills last year found that by regenerating and densifying housing estates, an additional 360,000 homes could be built in London alone. Savills has estimated that 64,000 new homes need to be built in the capital every year just to meet demand. To do this, working with private companies is crucial. The law brings forward regeneration schemes as it allows for public/private partnerships, joint ventures, contractual development agreements etc. even though there will always be a balancing act between the wish lists of the contracting authority as land owner, the contracting authority as planning authority and the developer.  Ultimately financial viability will always be a deciding factor.  The public procurement process to appoint a developer is a long and costly one for all involved.  What parties need to do is build in sufficient flex from the outset to allow projects to evolve as viable schemes whilst simultaneously protecting the community to ensure that the “place,” which is ultimately created, is for the benefit of all. It will also be interesting to see how many local councils borrow money to build more homes given the Government’s announcement to lift the borrowing cap on local councils.

But in order for the law and policy to be successful, the key ingredients to making regeneration an all-round success are early communication, meaningful consultation and true collaboration among the existing community and stakeholders, understanding and listening to the existing community, a balanced approach to wish lists and a tailored approach rather than ‘one size fits all’.  Grosvenor, one of the UK’s largest property companies, published In July 2019 the results of research they commissioned on public trust in developers and in the planning system. Just 2% of YouGov’s representative sample trust private developers. 7% is the proportion of the sample who proclaimed trust in local authorities “to make decisions about a large scale development that are in the best interests of the area”. These findings confirm that public trust in planning is low and suggest that it will take a significantly different approach to cut through the lack of interest and likely scepticism that any new initiatives will face. I applaud Grosvenor and other developers and public bodies who are looking for ways to build trust in the processes that shape our public realm, housing and transport for decades. Trust rests on integrity and on communication. Virtually every development decision involves necessary trade-offs, at least in the short term. Indeed, much of the art of local politics is managing delayed gratification: after the disruption will come a benefit. Some people’s needs will be met this year, others may have to wait longer. With a decision, there are disappointed citizens who may feel ignored and disinclined to trust the system or engage with it. Trust is inexorably bound with transparency.

It is about sustainable regeneration, not opportunistic gentrification. Regeneration is not simply a sugar-coated euphemism for gentrification with all the negative connotations of that term excised. It is about developing outward-facing schemes where bottom-up community involvement is as important as top-down investment strategy. It’s about leveraging localism to create a feedback loop with the local economy to ensure the future of the development. It is about building a trusted platform for public engagement in processes that shape the public realm; one which provides opportunities for varied opinions to be expressed and to be seen and, importantly, maintain a clear record of the discussion behind the planning and development decisions. Only by doing this can shareholder/developer requirements be aligned with social need. The task of regeneration requires “softer skills” of communication and empathy.

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Martha Grekos


This content is provided free of charge for information purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on as such. No responsibility for the accuracy and/or correctness of the information and commentary set out in the article, or for any consequences of relying on it, is assumed or accepted by any member of Chambers or by Chambers as a whole.


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