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When organising our Housing in Crisis series I was directed to the housing association Poplar HARCA, and told what they were doing in Poplar was worth looking at. Despite ringing endorsements for their innovative work the prospect of a three hour tour of Poplar on a Monday morning was still not filling me with overwhelming enthusiasm. When I got back, the tour had been so interesting I went along and did it a second time, and arranged an interview with Steve Stride - the tour guide, HARCA's characterful chief executive, a man very much from the Bob Crow school of frank discourse and a lifelong Londoner.
What makes HARCA's work interesting is two things. Firstly, Poplar captures so many of the nation's problems in microcosm: unemployment, poverty, community tensions, health problems, housing pressures, inequality, education problems, Islamism... The second is HARCA's approach to dealing with them, and particularly in contrast to 'regeneration' as London tends to experience it. Considering the range of problems in question the idea that they fall under the remit of a Housing Association seems strange yet HARCA seems to get involved in every facet of the community; they see their role as transforming not just the housing but the locality and the local community as a whole - and that community seem largely behind them.
Poplar seems like at least one part of London where 'regeneration' is not simply a byword for dispossession and 'social cleansing'. HARCA gets schools built, medical centres, youth centres, public art, cafes, secures apprenticeships and training, it refurbishes thousands of homes as well as building hundreds of new homes, and it runs just about every sort of programme for local people that can be imagined. Walking around Poplar with Steve almost every building or initiative seems to bear HARCA's mark, 'that's coming down and being replaced, that was refurbished, that was refurbished, we built that park, we're taking over this medical centre, we got this built, we had all that built', and so on. HARCA seems to pick up bucket loads of awards and it's hard to recall a regeneration scandal from Poplar, despite their prevalence across London. But this seems to be the big question for regeneration - is it possible to reinvent a place, to plough in money and resources, to transform it so thoroughly for the better without succumbing to the usual problem: money moves in, the poor are pushed out or simply no longer recognise their locality or their neighbours. On all these issues Steve has plenty to say.
OH: HARCA is very active in the community, but how do you ensure the things you're building and providing are what residents want, and not what HARCA thinks they want?
Steve Stride: Very good question. We are a resident led organisation, so we have a resident majority board, we are run by our residents and our governance is by resident majority. There's four ways our community gets involved: firstly there's the governance process, secondly, there's our communities and neighbours process - 250,000 visitors a year at our centres, engaging in activities, so we engage with residents and find out what they need. A classic example is the community budget programme, where we said to them all, 'we're going to have a community budget - what's the top priority?' and they said 'diabetes'. The third thing is service delivery, they get involved in our service delivery, so we have resident inspectors that we've trained up and who are accredited. Finally there's partnerships, we are a partners organisation, often local partners and residents groups, and one aspect of that we have is an access programme - arts, culture, creativity, employment, training and so on, establishing independent community groups with the community, to be the voice for green issues and the built environment, for example. The community said we need more school places - so we're building a new school. The community and the NHS said we have some health issues in Poplar so we're building new health centres with the NHS.
OH: Are community tensions something Poplar struggles with?
SS: We've always had community tensions, that is one of the reasons why from day one, HARCA stands for housing and community regeneration, so we give more priority to community regeneration than any other housing association in the country. When we took over in the late 90s there had been a BNP councillor in the Isle of Dogs, but (they) didn't last a year. That stoked racial tension at the time. So coming in, community cohesion was a big issue, 50% ethnic minority, 35% Bangladeshi community, so we put a lot of effort into community cohesion and have been very successful, so it's now much less of an issue. Of course now we have the Islamist issue.
OH: Wasn't it in Poplar the ISIS flag was raised, and the old nun took it down?
SS: It was, Sister Christine. So there is that. But again, we have ten mosques within our stock, we are in partnership with all of them, and they work with us to ensure there is no Islamist type thinking. Clearly it's there, but generally it's not an issue and we have a great, cohesive community here.
OH: So what is your approach to the radicalisation of young Muslims?
SS: We work very closely in partnerships with mosques, and the local churches, we are actually replacing two of the old mosques and building new ones. So close partnership but also with our other partners, so the wider faith community in Tower Hamlets, we work closely with the police, the home office, the Local Authority, there's various programs, so a broad range. The most important thing we do is firstly the partnerships with mosques but also the community regeneration programme - we're engaging with the young people, so we're making alternatives for them. Instead of drugs, or Islamism, they're getting involved in a whole range of youth activities and training - not just young people but their families as well, so we're constantly working to get people to a positive rather than negative position and that reduces their vulnerability to exploitation.
OH: Which two things best demonstrate what HARCA does in Poplar?
SS: Firstly, infrastructure, for example the Langdon Park DLR station we got built, and the crossings across 2 motorways. Secondly, the St Pauls Way transformation project. This was the worst street in Tower Hamlets, worst health, worst crime, worst housing, and it's been transformed, not just physically - a new health centre, a brand new school, a new primary school being built - its also a new headteacher, a new trust and governance structure, with four top universities including Queen Mary and ourselves, and it's now getting 70% of kids reaching 5 A-Cs, including English and maths.
OH: Over last 10 years, what's been the most challenging social change, in terms of providing for a good community?
SS: There's two, one is mixed communities. We were predominantly a social rented area, and that has knock on effects - there isn't economic infrastructure in the area, in terms of jobs and facilities, the coffee shop we built is the first in Poplar. Secondly - crime and anti social behaviour, it's such a downer in an area like Poplar, it can have such an impact, we've had to have a real complex policy of carrot and stick - we're a national leader on that. We've made radical change, the amount of people 'feeling safe' has gone from 50% up into the 60s, 70s and into the 80% level now. We have the highest youth density in Europe here, which we see as positive but it's a major challenge, so we have major investment in youth, we're engaged with 2,000 young people, we work with the LA to deliver youth services, we built the Spotlight flagship centre, getting young people into positive activities. So these are carrots. And there's sticks - we have a good size anti-social behaviour team. We pay for our own police team. Every new initiative that has come out in the last 2 years we have led on, whether its shutting down a tenancy, restricting territorial gangs, we've led nationally and completely transformed the area, but it has to be carrot and stick.
OH: If you could repeal a single piece of housing legislation what would it be? SS: Strangely, I would say the Homeless Persons Act 1977, going back a long time.
OH: This is the one dictating homeless people must be housed as priorities?
SS: Yeah. Accidentally it made a statement that social housing is only for the most vulnerable, it's not about mixed communities and people from a whole range of backgrounds and needs, and that accelerated the residualisation of social housing to the point now where social housing is a dirty word with stigma attached to it. If Ken Livingstone says he grew up in a mixed community, on a council estate, when he was growing up in the 60s there was lots of people at work on that estate, and that's what it should be, a mix of people. And the homeless person legislation accidentally in a way accelerated that residualisation process.
OH: What's been your experience of Right to Buy (RTB) in Poplar, and how has it impacted on your work to get everyone into good housing?
SS: There's 2 completely different sides to this, which is why all parties support RTB, but clearly it does economically empower people who are in lower socio-economic income brackets. It gives them access to assets, control over their own home, so on paper there's a lot to speak for it. Again, going back to 1978-79, the RTB was actually a Labour party policy, it was included on the basis that for every home sold one would be built, which the Tories finally introduced recently but they haven't implemented it. So though they say they are building a new home for every one lost, they are not. If that had happened from '79 onwards I don't think anyone would be against RTB, but because they've just taken the money away from housing, you got a net significant loss to social housing and no gain. So it's great for the individual, and it could have been good for the community if it was a one for one replacement.
The other negative is when you come to do regeneration you've got to buy those properties back, and with values as they are now it's potentially stopping regeneration happening. So you get the ludicrous situation where you've got an area that desperately needs regeneration and has lots of problems but you can't afford to buy out the leaseholders, so you can't change it. So RTB has one big benefit, and one big disadvantage that could be overcome. If you know you're going to do a regeneration scheme you can already freeze RTB but you should be able to do that a lot earlier to stop regeneration being held back.
OH: What's been your experience of the current government's Localism reforms?
SS: We always say about Poplar HARCA that we were localists before localism. We were setup in the late 90s, the whole basis of our model was to experiment with a local model. So we've been doing a lot of localist approaches, not just housing but health and education. We're a pilot for the government's community budget program, one of their aspects of localism, we're one of ten partners nationally, we've done that on St Pauls Way where we came together in partnership with all local services, the police, the local authority (LA), and we decided to focus on diabetes, we had a whole programme on that and got excellent results not just in diabetes but economic empowerment. We are taking localism forward now, we strongly believe in the approach.
OH: And how helpful have the localism reforms of this government been?
SS: Well... We welcome national policy on localism, we think it's the key way forward. The previous government had the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, focused on neighbourhoods being renewed, and we were a key partner in that. So there has been changes, there has been devolvement of some powers to LAs, so we do welcome it but the impact is yet to be seen in many ways. Because when it's against a background of [austerity] then the ability to have that localist impact is, you know... As an LA we are very pro development here, they have done well on the new homes bonus, which is part of the localism agenda, and that's benefited the LA, so overall we welcome it but want to see a lot more.
OH: 'Gentrification', is this something that has touched Poplar yet?
SS: No, not yet.
OH: But you see it coming in? Well, we welcome mixed communities as long as a net increase in social housing is protected, we welcome mixed income communities. The danger is that social housing gets completely pushed out. Because we've historically had such high levels of social housing in Poplar it will be a long time before anyone has to worry about gentrification. The fact we now have a coffee shop - all of which we set up with social enterprise partners, the local community welcomed that - one could say that's a sign of gentrification but actually that's quite basic, to have a coffee shop. We want the benefits of gentrification but not the disadvantages. Linked to that is the whole question about rising property values, and that isn't just gentrification it's also about the property market and that's a big issue for us. We welcome high values in some ways because it introduces a mix and allows us to build more social housing, but clearly a lot of people can end up being pushed out the area. The 'squeezed middle' is a big issue, too rich for social housing, too poor for the private market - that's a massive issue, so needs to be much more around shared ownership and low cost home ownership as a better option.
OH: What sort of impact does big money have on what you want to achieve in Poplar, whether its City money buying up houses to let, or investors leaving flats empty, how does that affect what you want to do?
SS: Because it was such a deprived area, and social housing so predominant, it was at least bringing in value. So for us the fact we were getting that mix was good, but also you need economic power to drive change, so we welcome big investment and the higher values, but you've got to manage that disparity. At the moment, not just in Poplar but Tower Hamlets generally, I think there's a good example of where this is working well, you've got a complete mix of people, ethnic mix, mix of backgrounds, so its a success story, the infrastructure gets improved, facilities get improved. Just getting a Tesco Metro was for us a big step up, at least it was a reasonably priced supermarket selling decent stock. All we had was run down shops, overcharging for out of date products. People with no cars, elderly, vulnerable people, they were all stuck with it. Now they've got a Tesco Metro. And it makes them lift their game - there are now some really good Bangladeshi supermarkets. We didn't have cash machine facilities here and now we do. Generally it's been successful but you've got to watch it because it can marginalise people. On the Isle of Dogs, where I live, it's safer, more shops, better quality, but it could have been a lot better integrated, there's quite a few gated communities. So it's something you've got to watch. But generally here it's been successful.
OH: 'Regeneration' in London often means the displacement of poorer residents, or segregation where some level of social housing is retained - famously the "poor doors" or more recently the case of One Tower Bridge barring social tenants from the communal garden. How does HARCA's model differ?
SS: We were built on the premise that residents need to shape the regeneration of their local areas for any investment to make a real difference. Residents voted to transfer their homes to us because they helped us develop the ten year plan for their homes and community, they met the architects, they agreed on the design and scale of work and approved the costs. What we learnt is that some residents will always welcome the opportunity to get involved in regeneration and it's relatively easy to set up governance structures to make sure they're represented. The difficult bit was getting the other residents engaged, who were naturally cynical or not certain of their role in the regeneration process, and the answer was a community regeneration strategy working alongside our physical regeneration plans.
So our resident are actively involved in our regeneration and most importantly they trust us. This is because we have never seen community regeneration as a fluffy bolt on service. For us it’s integral to our engagement and long term regeneration strategy. When we first started many of our younger residents told us they wanted to leave Poplar and move to the country or Essex when they grew up. Now they see their future in Poplar, they want to stay in their area, get jobs nearby and build families in Poplar. You can only change a perception of a place in a generation if people feel they can influence things and are part of the change. We’re not alone in our community led regeneration approach, there are other organisations across the UK with a similar ethos, the Placeshaper network is a great example.
OH: And has HARCA ever done something which has caused a local backlash?
SS: There's only one that I can think of, a specific group of locals opposing us building a new primary school, saying we've built enough already, but there's a lot of specific political issues on that one, sort of "village politics".
OH: What is the single biggest barrier to social mobility, for want of a better phrase, in Poplar? The complication is that it's multiple problems here. Historically, educational attainment has been low, the LA has done very well but it's still a barrier. University take up was the lowest in the UK here for a long time, but it's changing now. And all this is coupled with health problems. Aberfeldy (the Aberfeldy estate) has the worst health in England except a place near Liverpool. So it all combines. It's about accessibility to opportunities, there's very little facilities in the area so that's why we're doing regeneration in Chrisp street, creating a new town centre is key to that, but also transport - we're sitting next to Canary Wharf, but it might as well be in a different world because of the barriers, physical barriers, this is why the new DLR station was so important to us.
OH: What about the barrier of expectations?
SS: There's been a massive issue of aspirations historically, we've done a lot of work on that, we've got a big project, a million pound project, called Raising Aspirations, especially for people who've got multiple barriers, so we're concentrating on families where there's young 'NEETS' (Not in Education, Employment or Training), the government calls them 'troubled families', so we have a family intervention project, focused in on those families facing multiple barriers, and we've had loads of success stories of turning people's lives around, as a partnership. So it's a combination of barriers that's the issue, and that affects aspirations, so once you start to remove each barrier aspirations start to rise. If young people come to our Spotlight Centre their aspirations are lifted straight away, the facilities are the best in the country, and we're getting some of the most elite national groups, whether its the National Ballet or Tate Modern, they're coming in and doing a lot of classes, so their eyes are being opened wide to these possibilities for them.
OH: What are your biggest concerns from an incoming government? Housing and regeneration have got a low priority. Health and education are up there, people's concerns might be immigration, whatever, so my big concern is to get housing and regeneration up the political agenda. I think regeneration has the potential to do that.
Poplar Harca is a partner and supporter of OurKingdom's Housing in Crisis series.
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