Notes for presentation to the Housing Scrutiny Committee 7th December 2004
By Eileen Conn
I have been a local resident in the area for over 30 years. I am a member of the Bellenden Residents’ Group (BRG) set up about 3 years ago. I am speaking from my experience as a local resident in a street which had a facelift, and as the coordinator of the BRG. So I have come into contact with a lot of people across the area on a variety of matters, including the Renewal Scheme.
So many things have happened, over 7 years, I can give only an overview, and look for common themes. This is not a full appraisal of the Scheme. We are just residents with no resources and working voluntarily. All we can do is try to convey something of residents’ and traders’ experiences, and what kinds of lessons might be drawn from them. I hope this is helpful for you in your scrutiny. It is my first experience of the Scrutiny process, and thanks to the Chair and the Committee for making us welcome. In spite of that it feels a bit like an inquisition and maybe not the easiest of ways to deal with some of these matters perhaps.
There is no time to look at everything in detail. The Chair suggested we give a Timeline of events, which you have before you. This highlights some milestones just as reference points. But it might be useful to look at it in two different overlapping phases.
1. 97 – 99/00 - lots of activity: 7 newsletters, participation events, consultations, first works completed, others started. 1st visible signs of improvement.
2. By the start of 2000/01 - problems were accumulating, work continued, but information seemed to dry up.
Of course – we saw clearly from the Renewal Team’s presentation last time how successful the Scheme has been in some parts of the area, and how it has led to excellent publicity for Peckham and Southwark. So it is important to understand what was successful and why.
Unlike many public administration boundaries this one fell onto a natural enclave that only those who have lived there for a long time knew had an identity but no name. Now it has a name – Bellenden - a positive thing. Also because of the successes, it has improved the Peckham & Southwark images – this is excellent.
It did this because of excellent PR – it was an amazing achievement to get such wide coverage, & the Renewal Team are to be congratulated.
How was the PR so successful? – because of visual changes combined with famous public art and early participation events, all together telling a very good story.
WHY WERE VISUAL CHANGES SUCCESSFUL?
They were highly visible because they were in rows – houses and shops – AND public spaces were improved by attractive street furniture. So it was concentrated and very visible, and could easily be seen by all & shown to visitors. Good example of something only the Council could do because of the mix of private and public properties and spaces. But these successes relied on being visible. The problems were not so visible.
WHAT WERE THE PROBLEMS?
Whole range of different things – many individual cases, and some more general. Look at the problems in two ways – with the work, and with community relations. It would not be natural if there were no problems and of course the Council doesn’t want to publicise the problems. That is understandable. Unfortunately the residents and traders have had to live with the problems and have felt that the relentless publicity about the successes has drowned out their concerns. The only way to get a voice seemed to be through the Scrutiny, though it’s less than ideal.
PROBLEMS WITH THE WORK?
There was no Residents’ Group when the bulk of the work was happening, so only the Renewal Team have continuous records of who had problems and how they were dealt with. What we do know is that there seems to have been a variety of problems with very poor quality work – roofs off for weeks, windows not fitting, paths having to be re-laid, street walls being taken down and replaced more than once, railings and gates not fitting, very poor painting, shop fronts not finished properly, and so on. Also recurring problems in the way they were handled. Very difficult communications with contractors and Renewal Team has been a major feature, which of course then exacerbated the building problems. The numerous instances of work being redone several times, because of poor quality and wrong designs, added to the delays, unpleasantness, and disruption, and we were puzzled by the waste of all the work and materials, and how the cost was met.
Organisation & Management
This all made some of us wonder about the way the work was organised and managed. My own street, done in 2001, had the more simple operation of a facelift where just the fronts of the houses were cleaned and painted and the front paths and street walls renewed. Indeed the reason we asked the Team for a simpler scheme was that we heard such harrowing tales from the few streets which had gone before that we did not want to go for group repair where a lot of work would be done on the individual houses, as well as having a street facelift. Interestingly it is impossible to tell from outside which are streets with facelift compared with group repair. So the visible visual successes were not dependent on the expensive Group Repair but on the more superficial and less costly work of Street Facelift.
But even with Street Facelift there were problems. For example, in my street the design of the walls did not allow for the gradient in the street, leaving the tops of the house foundations in part of it above the new level of the ground. The workmen ploughed on without correction even to the extent of removing the tops of the house foundations to match the new ground level. There had been no discussions with the homeowners or authority to do this but no one intervened. I stopped it before it was completed on my house, but then it took two years to sort out the effects on my insurance policy because the companies involved in the work denied in writing that anything had been done to my house foundations. The finishing work is not yet completed. It was this awful experience which alerted me to what appeared to be organisational, management and communication issues in the Scheme and why I got involved in the BRG. I then discovered the underlying similarities in many of the stories that residents’ and traders had to tell but had no satisfactory outlet to say it.
One of the problems in my street seemed to be that there were several different agencies involved, so a very long communication chain which failed, and not adequate supervision and management. I know that the arrangements were not the same in each street so I can’t comment on the details in other streets. But residents’ stories from other streets have similar themes so there appear to be some underlying similarities. Another aspect which we experienced was that the resident was not viewed as the client by the several companies involved, and so the communications chain did not include them adequately.
Enough people were affected by the problems for them to continue to be a live topic of conversation in the neighbourhood. These problems we believe are not just because it was like living on a building site, which is what the Renewal Team attribute it to. It just feels that it was more than that.
There seem also to have been a lot of unfulfilled promises, made to groups of residents in streets or individual residents or traders for their own properties. These promises led to people re-arranging their lives to accommodate them, taking out loans & remortgaging, preparing for work which never happened, not hearing adequately what was happening, or suffering financial loss. It is a common theme across the area and so there seems to be something at issue here about the way it was handled. Whatever the cause of this, a lot of people seem to have been left thinking there were promises which were not fulfilled. Poor communication and follow up were factors here, though maybe it was more than that as well.
The Renewal Team say that they learnt lessons during the Scheme and changed contractors and practices to avoid the problems recurring. Unfortunately, the same kinds of problems have occurred in the latest batch of streets started just last year. One resident there has written to the Scrutiny saying:
“Whilst seeing that the Renewal scheme as a whole has been a benefit to the area, I feel that the Council has grandly promised benefits, participation, consultation and communication which just have not happened. I feel badly let down by the Renewal Team, who glibly encouraged us to sign-up, assuring us that their experience with the other parts of the project completed so far had enabled them to identify and eliminate all the potential pitfalls. They promised an uplifting personal and community experience. In fact it has been a nightmare, so far, without end.”
Independent support for people with outstanding problems?
During the preparation for the Scrutiny, we have become aware that there are a number of outstanding individual cases. These cause suffering for the individuals concerned and need to be better handled.
PROBLEMS WITH COMMUNITY RELATIONS? By 1999/2000
By 1999/00 – there had been a lot of activity and a lot of work was being done, but there was a lack of transparency in the decisions. Residents in some streets say they had not received any information and were unable to discover the criteria for selection of streets. Local artists were saying similar things about the way the arts works were handled. And the information was drying up – there had been 4 newsletters in 1998, one in 99, one in Spring 2000, and then nothing for 3 years. All the activity in 98/99 raised a lot of expectations, so the drying up of information was more noticeable.
PROBLEMS WITH COMMUNITY RELATIONS - 1999/2001
In 1999, the residents’ Management Board, later renamed the Advisory Board, was set up. The Renewal Team describe the Board as an excellent example of residents’ involvement. It certainly had promise, but sadly the promise for the community remained unfulfilled. Apart from a brief mention in the 2000 newsletter, no more was heard of it. Residents who tried to contact it were told they could not have the names of the members, and little is known of its operations, or what the experience was of the residents who were on it. We discovered it had ceased to function some time ago. The Review Report of September 2003 says that the Renewal Team will incorporate a new Bellenden Advisory Board into the ‘wider consultative structure’, meaning the Community Council, and the Renewal Team presentation at the last Scrutiny meeting said that the Community Council had replaced the original Advisory Board.
This indicates the Renewal Team’s approach to residents’ involvement: that they see the residents’ group they wish to work with as one which they establish and which is part of the Council’s own structure and not a free standing independent community group. By January 2002, there were such accumulating problems in the Scheme and lack of information and poor communications, including failure to have any contact with the Advisory Board, that residents themselves needed to form a group and the BRG emerged to fill the vacuum.
Traffic consultations 2001 The Advisory Board appears to have been involved in working with consultants paid for by the Renewal Scheme to develop traffic management proposals. Bellenden is a rat run between East Dulwich Road and Peckham Road, causing a high influx of traffic at rush hours, and some streets prone to speeding. The proposals were to close the area to through traffic. Getting residents involved in producing an overall scheme for the area was an excellent idea, but sadly little attention was paid to the community relations aspects, especially of proposals which were so controversial, resulting in heated debate and conflict. There were subsequent consultations by the Traffic Department but the resulting measures caused more discontent. There have been further measures recently which have also led to widespread concern that some are the wrong measures. Though traffic is not an issue for this Housing Scrutiny Committee, the original way it was handled under the Renewal scheme is. Not enough, if any, attention was paid to the sensitive community relations. This was especially sad as the initiative to get residents involved at an earlier stage than usual was highly commendable.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
How was it that a good start in consultation methods was not followed through? Was it perhaps that having got a lot of information from the community in the first few years the Team withdrew and did not feel the need for further involvement, other than with the small group of residents on the Advisory Board?
The Mid Term Review (MTR) reports a number of interesting community projects with disadvantaged groups but it is not clear if they led to anything sustainable. It is notable that local residents know little of these initiatives.
One of the things the BRG asked for when it emerged in 2002 was the resumption of newsletters but we were told it was too expensive. We asked for simple newsletters and not glossy publications as they had been, but none were forthcoming. The MTR reports in October 2003 that there had been no newsletters for 18 months, though by then it had been over 3 years without one. 2 newsletters a year were promised in the report, but a year later there are still no newsletters.
We have recently been told that the Council policy is not to allow anything other than glossy newsletters, which seems a perverse rule in communications with the community. The glossy newsletters seem more aimed at the media than the local residents, but there aren’t any now anyway. The BRG has issued 7 newsletters in 2 & half years, with next to no resources and no staff, and we distribute over 400 by email and by hand. It certainly seems to meet a need, and gets very positive feedback.
A recent Time Out piece on the Scheme says that it was “Consulting residents every step of the way”. This is not an unusual media comment about the Scheme. However, to a local resident who is starved of information, and no involvement for a long time, it sounds rather hollow. Moreover, a number of things in the Scheme could not have happened at all without the residents’ involvement since it was private property.
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT OBJECTIVE
“to involve the local community in the decision making process … and create a self sustaining community.”
At a meeting with the manager of the Renewal Team in March this year, he acknowledged failure to achieve this objective. He said that the Renewal Team could not deliver it and that he was discussing with the Peckham Programme them taking it over. We have heard nothing further.
SOME QUESTIONS TO ASK?
Here are some of the questions which the Scrutiny Committee may wish to consider.
From early 2002 we asked for information about expenditure. It was promised throughout 2003, and we were told it would be in the MTR report. We discovered in March this year that the MTR report had been to the Executive the previous September, but it does not give the information we had been asking for.
We just wanted to have a broad idea of how the money had been spent. We assumed there would be transparency in information about such public expenditure but there has not. We were told that the reason for not releasing the information was that it was confidential. Here are some examples of the kind of information we asked for. All of this can be produced without revealing confidential information:
Street facelift v group repair costs?
Management & consultancy?
Multiple repeats of work?
[Following the meeting we have sent in response to the Chair’s request a list of the information we have requested.]
Work Quality. The undoubted success of the visual improvements is one thing. Just as important is the work quality, which in many cases has been poor. Time will tell how long the improvements will last.
Community sustainability. While valuable in themselves, if community projects were one-off projects they will not have led to any sustainable improvements. The Advisory Board set up by the Renewal Team had residents on it, but it wasn’t rooted in the community and didn’t last. This was a missed opportunity to take forward the community development objective: the Advisory Board could have been seen as a step towards sustainable community infrastructure rather than just focussed on advising the Renewal Team. The BRG was set up by residents for residents, and has been partly filling the vacuum, though sidelined by the Renewal Team. As a fully voluntary residents’ group with no resources it has however created a substantial community network of over 350 residents, and is working successfully with the Peckham Programme on town centre issues which impinge on Bellenden significantly. It does provide a strong base for the future provided it can be supported.
Business sustainability. The Renewal Team has put a lot of work into attracting and encouraging new businesses, and their sustainability is critical for the success of the Scheme. But there is no information to be able to assess this.
It is excellent that Southwark Council is receiving all these awards, and it is of great value in improving Peckham’s image. But it is disappointing that all we know about them is when we read the press articles. Also while some are understandable others are more perplexing when we read in media articles things like “the housing team had involved the community closely in the whole process”. Living in the area it doesn’t feel like that. We would like to know what criteria have been used, the evidence required and how the judgments were made for the Awards. As they are public awards we assume this information can be made available.
SOME LESSONS – Renewal Team’s
As there wasn’t a handout of the slides from the last meeting, I had to rely on my brief notes from the previous meeting so couldn’t check the full list of the Renewal Team’s lessons. So these are not all of them.
Staffing levels? Clearly a large amount of work was handled by a small Council team, and it is important to learn the lessons from this Scheme about the right staffing levels. The Renewal Team presentation last time emphasised that the Scheme was run by 1.5 staff. But the MTR reports that it was two permanent staff plus 2 temporary staff. In addition there were consultants who were managing agents. These varying ways of providing the staffing and management need to be accounted for in assessing the costs and staffing levels of the scheme..
One “partnering” contracting agent. If this new arrangement gives more continuity and the development of expertise and better communication chains, this should be an improvement. It is not clear however where this ‘contracting agent’ fits in the chain of companies, which were involved in some of the Bellenden schemes, and if it addresses the patchy communication chains between them.
Information too costly. The reason given for the absence of newsletters since 2000 was that the residents asked for too much information and it was too costly in time and money. This seems to be connected with the Renewal Team’s need or desire to produce glossy newsletters. But it seems perverse to stop communication with residents in a neighbourhood subject to such a scheme because of this. If it is true that Council procedures are the reason for this, the Committee may wish to comment on it.
SOME OTHER LESSONS
Concreting over gardens. Most of the front gardens were covered over with paving. It is ironic that the MTR reports that “the condition of front gardens improved considerably” when it seems that they mostly disappeared. There seemed to be an encouragement to go for paving and even some of those who had said they wanted to keep their soil had paving laid before they could stop it. Recently in a very heavy rain storm the pavement in my street was a few inches deep in water in just five minutes – it was quite a mini flood with the water pouring down the front paths into the street. That is until I got to my own house where the soil was retained, and there was hardly any water running off into the street. It was a graphic example of the way in which concreting over front gardens is harmful in terms of flooding as all this water was having to be fed through into the drains and into rivers instead of running off into the land where it fell. I hope that the Scrutiny Committee will look into this and recommend that all regeneration schemes in future include guidance to minimise this loss of run-off for rainwater.
Middle class enclave? At the last meeting a resident raised the question of whether the Scheme had created a middle class enclave excluding other people. It is an important question, which it is too early to answer perhaps. The Committee may wish to consider recommending that the area be revisited perhaps in 5 years time to review its impact on this and other matters such as sustainability.
Style of Management. There was and is undoubted enthusiasm in the Renewal Team which has its obvious benefits, generating interest, ideas and activity. But sometimes the talking up, the scattering ideas and the promises, combined with poor communications and follow up, may have contributed to the raised expectations and unfulfilled promises.
Community liaison. There has obviously been a greater need for community liaison than could be provided by the Renewal Team. We consider however that this should be provided by community development resources located in the community and not in the Council, and that this should be one of the main lessons from the Scheme, and provided for by future Schemes.
There were missed opportunities for sustainable community development. These link with the new borough-wide voluntary sector Active Citizenship support project, and also the Civic Pioneer status which the Council is applying for in the Home Office Civil Renewal Programme which promotes community-led problem solving.
Agreed guidance is needed for both council and voluntary and community sectors on how these aspects of community liaison and community development should be effectively integrated into regeneration and renewal schemes. This should be developed as part of the council-voluntary sector Compact. Krystina Stimakovits from PVSF, and Gregg Hutchings from SAVO, will be saying more about this in their evidence.
There are two years left in the Renewal Scheme. We hope that an exit strategy can be developed to cover the remaining years and the actions which can lead to sustainability after the Scheme has ended, and that we can be involved in developing this with the Renewal Team and the Peckham Programme. This Scrutiny is very timely to contribute to what should be covered in the Exit Strategy. There should be elements in it relating to all the main aspects of work which the Renewal Scheme has covered.
On community aspects they would need to include at least:
* Future arrangements for managing and funding the McDermott Community Garden. This has been a very notable success of the Scheme and needs to be made sustainable. We are told that the prefab next to the Garden has been sold to raise money for the Garden. We need to know how much is being made available and what funding and organisational arrangements need to be made to manage this in the future.
* Independent community liaison with the Renewal Team. There are a number of outstanding cases in the Scheme where individuals need support to resolve the problems, and arrangements need to be made for this.
* Council support for Lane West?
Bellenden is only the southern part of the Lane West priority neighbourhood. The Council has tended to equate Bellenden with the whole of Lane West and assumed that the Renewal Scheme has satisfied all the neighbourhood regeneration/renewal needs, including community development. This has made it ineligible for Neighbourhood Renewal Funding (NRF), with no access to funding for community development support, even though it is a priority neighbourhood. This needs correction.
* Support for the BRG community development project. The BRG has been filling the vacuum of community development in the area, but as an unfunded voluntary residents’ group it needs support for the work, and to be recognised by the Renewal scheme.
We are going to be living and trading here in Bellenden long after the Renewal Team leaves the area. We hope you will agree that we should be fully involved in the development of the Renewal Scheme’s exit strategy and that we should be properly supported as active citizens to do this. With proper community development support, this would fill the gap in community development in Bellenden and the rest of Lane West and the adjacent town centre.