Throwaway society: What’s being cast aside in the quest for mixed communities?

ferrierestateOn one London estate communities built up over generations are being broken up to make way for an approach to regeneration that may not actually work. Clare Goff reports

New Start | May 2009

In the Holy Spirit church on the Ferrier estate in Eltham, south-east London, a group of residents are praying for humility. It’s the week before Easter and church community worker Nick Russell is leading the day’s prayers with a reading of the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before the last supper.

Unlike today’s corporate lords, he says, citing ex-RBS head Fred Goodwin, Jesus was both lord and servant, a man who humbled himself to wash the feet of his followers. Amid today’s rapaciousness and greed his is an example we would do well to follow, he tells the small crowd assembled in the hallway to his church.

It is a fitting backdrop to a story in which the humble have lost everything.

The prayers over, the congregation returns to their tea drinking and pool playing. It’s Wednesday morning ‘coffee stop’ at the church, an event where some of the most vulnerable people on the estate gather to share a cup of tea or coffee, meet with friends, get help and advice on dealing with social services, as well as to pray.

Many have mental health problems, or are current or former addicts. There are a number of teenagers who have been abandoned by their parents, as well as single mothers with their children. Nick Russell is in high demand and breaks off our interview to give advice to a young man on what to wear for an interview tomorrow or to listen to the latest hospital updates of a resident drug addict.

‘It’s always like this,’ he apologises.

The church has been a focal point for this deprived estate for 20 years. In 1999 Greenwich Council figures stated that 44% of estate residents were reliant on income support. The unemployment level was 14.6% and more than 53% of the community came from BME groups, the highest concentration in the area.

Mr Russell chooses his words carefully, conceding that ‘it’s bizarre that all the refugees and marginalised people in the area ended up there’. Others are less timid, claiming there was a deliberate policy to ‘dump’ people here.

Not for much longer, however. The people living on this estate are now being dispersed across the borough of Greenwich as part of a £1bn regeneration scheme, which finally got the green light last month.

Designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the architectural firm behind the Millennium Dome and the Oxo Tower development, the scheme is one of the most ambitious in the country.

While the need to improve the estate is not in doubt,

the resulting regeneration plans look more like a land-grab.

The entire Ferrier estate of almost 2,000 homes, library, shops and the Holy Spirit church will be torn down to make way for 4,000 new homes, a school, community facilities, sport and healthcare facilities, a new transport interchange and eight hectares of public open space. The Ferrier name will disappear. In its place will bloom the Blackheath Quarter – a nod to the upper middle class area just one train station away – Kidbrooke Village and Eltham Green.

Most significantly, the new homes will be mixed tenure, inviting new people to an area which has for many years been seen as a sink estate.

Peter Brookes, deputy leader of Greenwich Council, says the proposals will ‘create a new mixed community, composed of people who choose to live there, no matter what tenure they live in, rather than people who have ended up there as the only option. A mixed tenure community will ensure that people from all income bands and life situations will be able to take advantage of the new area’.

ferrier estate 2009

Yvonne Bonavia, who has lived on the Ferrier estate for 25 years, and whose house is now flanked by boarded-up home

‘Ten years of increasing despair’
Current Ferrier residents will not, however, be among those taking advantage of the new area. Of the 4,000 homes planned for the new development, only 437 will be built for social renters, the tenure of the vast majority of current residents. Since 2004, 1,000 residents have been decanted out of the estate to other parts of the borough and in the coming years the majority of those remaining will be forced to leave too.

Mr Russell and the residents of Ferrier have spent the last ten years fighting the council, which, he claims, has changed its policies and lied. ‘It’s been ten years of increasing despair.’

Plans for the regeneration of the area began ten years ago when the council applied for SRB funding to address the housing issues of the Ferrier and surrounding estates.

The area gained infamy in 1993 when the murder of Stephen Lawrence – which took place a few blocks from the Ferrier – highlighted the segregated nature of housing in the area.

Tim Oshodi, a community worker who has seen the rise of racial hatred in the area over two decades, points out the area in which Lawrence was killed as we walk through the Page and Brook estates, which neighbour the Ferrier and where Lawrence’s killers were born. He describes the two sides of Eltham – the posh suburbs with their golf clubs and the adjacent deprived estates.

In its original vision for the area, laid out in 1999, the council called for a programme of regeneration that would ‘promote racial harmony and enable social and physical barriers to be overcome’. It wanted a new civic pride for the area, which would be more integrated with its more upmarket neighbours. Ten years on, the reality of regeneration plans for the Ferrier are an almost total dispersal of the current community in order to increase land values on the estate under the vague premise of creating a more socially-mixed living environment.

While the need to improve the estate is not in doubt, the resulting regeneration plans look more like a land-grab. The poor are moved elsewhere, releasing the prime land on which their homes sit.

It is a situation that is increasingly familiar within similar estates across the country as the government’s mantra of creating mixed tenure communities pushes on. In the last five years there has been a deliberate policy to rid the country of concentrations of poverty by developing more mixed communities.

ferrier estate outside

The Ferrier estate in 2009

The case for mixed communities
In theory the policy appears to be a no-brainer: breaking up these concentrations will not only make our cities look better but will also create greater prosperity. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that people living in better, more mixed, neighbourhoods will have an improved quality of life. Mixed housing will enhance cohesion and end the segregation that has often blighted our cities.

In 2005 the government launched the mixed communities initiative, which includes 12 demonstration projects including the regeneration of Canning Town in the east end of London and Gipton in Leeds. They will be used to inform ideas about the processes involved in creating mixed income communities. The first results of the project have recently been released. Evidence so far suggests that there is not enough information to prove ‘mixed’ means better (see column, p20).

John Houghton, a principal consultant at think tank Shared Intelligence, carried out the research. ‘A lot more research is needed but it flags up the fact that there is not strong evidence for mixed communities as a tool for tackling deprivation. One of the controversies is that there is a very shaky evidence base,’ he says.

Residents in Gipton are struggling to see the improvements in their community so far. Having been moved from their homes some years ago, they are now waiting to be rehoused, while the only development to reach completion is a block of private homes, the majority of which are currently sitting unsold.

‘At the moment all we have are some homes for sale,’ says Terri Loney, chair of Gipton Together in Leeds. ‘A lot of money has been spent on consultation but we haven’t been listened to. If people are serious about changing large council estates they need to listen to what people say or 20 years down the line we will end up with another slum area.’

The process involved in creating a mixed community is vital to its success, according to Nick Bailey, professor of urban regeneration at Westminster University.

He has conducted a study into mixed communities and developed a good practice guide on their creation for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The design and layout of homes is important, he says, (‘homes of different tenures need to look the same’) and high level consultation and masterplanning is vital.

‘If people are serious about changing large council estates they need to listen

to what people say or 20 years down the line we will end up with another slum area.’

He is a supporter of the drive towards more mixed communities, based on his studies of socially-engineered neighbourhoods in Scotland and England.

‘The conclusion is that it’s not a panacea to all the world’s problems but it does tend to create more sustainable housing developments that won’t need redeveloping in 20 years’ time as long as they are well-managed,’ he says.

However, he admits the evidence for mixed communities is questionable and that a narrower range of income difference between people living in a community tends to create greater cohesiveness.

This corroborates initial findings of an ongoing study into income segregation by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Despite the recent drive towards mixed communities this has been increasing over the past decade in line with the overall rise in inequality.

‘Income segregation is the spatial manifestation of the rise in inequality,’ according to researcher Kayte Lawson.

If inequality in society is the reason housing tends to be segregated, will the creation of mixed living environments lead to a closing of the inequality gap?

Evidence from the US suggests not. A ten-year US based experiment, Moving to Opportunity, is the most carefully researched evidence so far on the creation of mixed communities. Set up in 1992, it helped move a number of families in very deprived areas to better off areas in five cities and assessed the impact on educational attainment, behavioural problems and other indicators. Its conclusion was that there were no significant differences between groups moved to better neighbourhoods and those left behind.

If there is little evidence for the benefits of mixed communities, why are they promoted so heavily? Paul Cheshire, professor emeritus of economic geography at the London School of Economics, published a paper on the subject last year in which he argues such policies are ‘based more firmly on faith than on any real evidence of additional social ills stemming specifically from geographical concentrations of poverty and affluence’.

Historically there has been a desire for more mixed communities in order to improve social equity, but with little success. In fact, we naturally fall into more specialist neighbourhoods in which we live alongside ‘people like us’. To some degree people’s welfare depends on their level of income compared to their neighbours. Living next to much wealthier people makes you feel worse about your situation than living next door to those on similar incomes, suggesting that a reversal of the mixed communities push is more beneficial in welfare terms, says Professor Cheshire.ferrier estate 11

That we naturally fall into segregated societies seems significant. The types of neighbourhood facilities and services required by people on lower incomes is usually different to those in higher income groups. The way we mix also differs, with higher income groups being more mobile and tending to mix away from their immediate neighbourhood. Both suggest that more specialised communities create greater cohesion.

A desire for a mixed communities feels like a good policy, but in an unequal society, evidence suggests changing the built environment will have little impact on improving equality. ‘Policies for mixed communities,’ argues Professor Cheshire, ‘treat the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty.’

In the meantime, the former residents on the Ferrier estate continue to make the bus journey to the church’s coffee stop event each Wednesday. But with demolition of the estate now in progress, Nick Russell wonders how much longer he will be able to continue.

The children’s activities he runs on Saturday mornings have seen a 50% drop in attendance since residents began to be decanted and in the next few years the church, along with the rest of the Ferrier estate, will be demolished.

‘I don’t know how much longer it will be worth staying when the people I want to serve have been moved away,’ he says.

Breaking up communities is one way to remove the blight of sink estates from our cities, but it has done nothing to improve the welfare of residents of the Ferrier. Poverty dispersed across a borough is still poverty.

ferrier regen signTerri Loney, chair of Gipton Together, Leeds

‘We’ve certainly not got what we were sold. This was sold as a mixed community, not just building new homes but building infrastructure too. People are disillusioned. Lots of houses have been pulled down in the last five years, some of which needed pulling down but a lot of good houses have been pulled down too and everyone has had to be rehoused. It was supposed to be done via consultation – we were asked what we wanted and we told them. We said we want homes for rent and equity release and good community facilities and infrastructure. At the moment all we have are some homes for sale. The houses were pulled down and some have been down for two or three years. People could’ve been living there while they’re still arguing about it. The very first consultation process was relatively good. They offered us all sorts of wonderful things. Once the houses came down the consultation became atrocious. It stinks. Consultation is only consultation if it’s acted on and if people are listened to.’

Azara Issifu, former chair of Ferrier Residents Action Group

Things we agreed to have been retracted. Where’s the consultation? We were told we would be consulted. Young people are being dispersed with no regard for community. Social networks are being smashed. When these homes were first built those living here had to be vetted, they had concierges and were well looked after. There were good social networks in place. This is my community – I’ve been here 23 years. I suggested we get rid of the tower blocks, take off the tops of the maisonettes, rebuild what we’ve got, but I got shouted down. It’s always been clear that it’s about raising land values from Blackheath. We’re sticking out like sore thumbs – if they get rid of us, they make money.’










Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top