Dutch housing executives taking part in a study visit to Staffordshire this month heard about the ‘patient capital’ and ‘placeshaping’ approach to regeneration led by we are aspire, and their role as a crucial community anchor in neighbourhoods hit by industrial, economic and social decline. What’s the best way to revive homes, communities and hope in a region faced with so many tough and intertwined challenges?
Behind Aspire Housing’s commitment to provide 1,800 new homes over five years there’s a complex web of obstacles to success in a local market where construction costs can often outstrip the value of finished properties, and existing neighbourhoods also desperately need support and reinvestment. With more than 90% of its homes in and around Newcastle-under-Lyme (to the west of Stoke-on-Trent), every decision has to balance the tight equation of site availability, building costs and housing products that local people want and can afford against the need to regenerate established communities.
Dan Gray, Executive Director of Property, explained the philosophy and practice behind Aspire Housing’s approach. “As a community-based, not-for-profit business, we represent and employ ‘patient capital’ in a way commercial providers just can’t do here. We don’t need to make immediate returns, so we can afford (and have) to wait until the right sites become available at the right price to make schemes viable.
“It’s a slow-burn approach that reflects our role as an anchor organisation capable of being the agent of change in neighbourhoods facing deep problems with education, health and employment as well as housing.”
This long-term mindset is typified by the regeneration of Knutton and Cross Heath – an area of around 2,500 homes close to the town centre, where Aspire Housing owned more than half of the total properties. Originally built to house workers in the adjacent steel and coal industries, the neighbourhood suffered as the jobs and prosperity linked to these activities disappeared. So at the end of the 20th century, it was an unpopular and stigmatised place, with increasing numbers of older people trapped in over-sized and poor condition family homes for want of any proper alternatives nearby. But since 2004, it’s been transformed by a succession of mini-regeneration schemes (in partnership with private housebuilders like Kier and Barratt) to take advantage of a great location near to jobs, transport, shops and services.
Apart from the obvious and visible evidence of a mix of bright, energy-efficient new homes for affordable rent and shared ownership, Dan Gray points to the softer outcomes in a community that’s stayed resilient through a period made even harder by austerity, public spending cuts and welfare reforms. “This area still has thriving local residents’ groups, busy community centres and positive, engaged local leadership from councillors and others. But if we’d done nothing and failed to bring new hope, I think people here would be living in a very difficult situation and we’d just be overseeing further decline.
“We weren’t prepared to let that happen, but this sort of regeneration is only possible with significant, up-front capital funding from the Government. So we’ve worked hard with Homes England to put this in place and unlock the potential for private sector partnerships to deliver homes for sale and more profitable ‘turnkey’ developments elsewhere. We get markets functioning again in ways that offer the region a brighter future.”
Alongside its work to boost skills and jobs through PM Training and its social investment Realise charity, this is how we are aspire delivers on its vision to build, train and support. An active member of the PlaceShapers network of more than a hundred community-focused housing associations across England, the organisation shares a common belief that doing nothing in areas like North Staffordshire is just not an option.
The price of failing to act is just too great, and the life-changing benefits of new building and investment for future generations are far too important to miss.
Hester van Buren, chief executive of Dutch housing association Rochdale, which owns 42,000 homes in and around Amsterdam said: “My organisation takes its name from the 19th century co-operative pioneers in Rochdale, so it’s great to visit and see how things are in Britain now. I’m impressed by the freedom and autonomy that UK associations have to contribute to health and welfare. I like the way it’s done here!”