Westminster shows the way with WECH

S1_02[2].jpgMy attention has been drawn to an utterly commendable new scheme up at Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH), which was given planning permission (with some alacrity) by Westminster City Council last week. It is a clever refurbishment and infill residential extension of the old Elgin estate, a couple of Modernist blocks which were built up the Harrow Road between 1966 and 1968.

This planning deciC9[2].jpgsion comes after Westminster announced last January that £3m from its affordable housing fund would be used to fund the WECH project. There will be a total of 43 new homes created by this imaginative project; seven of which will be sold on the open market (it will be interesting to monitor prices there, given the circumstances, and I will try to return to this). The other 36 will be “affordable” and will be split several ways.  As well as new homes, the scheme includes the provision of new lifts for existing blocks, a new community hall (doubling the size of the existing one), a new under-fives facilities, a community office, as well as refurbished five-a-side pitch and other enhancements. Works are anticipated to commence in summer 2013 and will take 18 months to complete.

Regular readers of this blog (5th July 2010, 4th August 2010, 28th September 2010, 17th January 2011 and 12th October 2012) will know that I am rather a fan of WECH, as a model for community ownership of estates.  And that I am a huge fan of community ownership generally.  And, given the fraught history of WECH, and its old war of attrition with the local authority, going right back to the “Homes for Votes” campaign (and the very folk who saw off Shirley Porter), this latest development is also a dazzling object lesson in how serious healing can be achieved through working with the community.  Other local authorities, particularly in adjacent affluent London boroughs, should look and learn.  This project is an example of what the council are now dubbing the creation of “hidden homes” in Westminster, where new affordable housing is delivered through innovative infill developments, such as building in-between properties or adding additional floors, ensuring that the best use is made of council land.  Cllr Jonathan Glanz, Westminster City Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing and Property, welcomed the decision to award planning permission to the scheme. He said: “Housing is more than just bricks and mortar, it is about people, and it is about thinking innovatively to come up with solutions to deal with the shortage of homes that we have across the capital.  In Westminster, we need a range of new homes to ensure that we preserve mixed and vibrant communities and this project shows that in making best use of the land we currently have available, new homes can be created. The city will be getting 36 new affordable homes at a cost of just over £83,000 per property, which is not only excellent value for taxpayers, but crucially, it will see a number of Westminster families taken off housing waiting lists.” (We’ll have to forgive the use of the word “vibrant” here, whilst applauding these sentiments).

Architect for this scheme, Rosario Russo said: “We have a real opportunity to restore and enhance the original Modernist features… and introduce additional dwellings and amenity space without adding any further mass.  The regeneration project was conceived not as additions to the estate or embellishment, but as a properly considered reconfiguration of the estate as a whole responding to a community driven concept, which builds on the needs and aspirations of the residents.”

This is a brilliant example of how to work with an existing functional community. And I would certainly agree with Cllr Alastair Moss, Westminster’s Chair of Planning, who said that WECH’s Elgin scheme was a “model application, sensitively designed, a model for other schemes on council estates”.  Westminster provides exemplars of thoughtful stewardship these days; it sure has come a long way from the shrill war of attrition between community and authority that painfully categorised the 1980s, preceding (and informing) my own sojourn at Paddington.  This is a mode of behaviour that certainly befits a complex city authority, one which takes its responsibilities to its residents seriously, has learned from its mistakes, and has matured and mellowed.

But, notwithstanding Westminster’s sensitive response to the Elgin Estate (and its respect for the residents wishes at the Brunel Estate last year, see blog 10th June 2011), in the rest of London the debate about the future of existing council estates in areas of high-value land continues to wage (and even Westminster may not be completely exempt, we wait in some trepidation to see what will transpire on the Ebury Estate).  A series of five seminal blogs on this issue was published in the last few days on the Guardian‘s Dave Hill London Blog: starting with “Regenerating London: making bigger better” on March 25th.  And I would urge that you go to these immediately.  In these hugely researched and considered pieces, Dave Hill argues that the capital’s planning authorities should be keener on “building up what is good in areas they wish to improve and more cautious about knocking bits of them down”.  Regeneration should be the for the preservation of communities, while making more efficient use of urban land; Mr Hill is the authoritative word on this issue.

Westminster City Council is showing the way. Other central London authorities should take heed.  

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