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Grant Shapps: We will regenerate deprived communities and inner-cities

"In 1994 I stood as a candidate in the council elections for the Borough of Brent. My ward was dominated by the notorious Chalkhill Estate. Built in the late 60's, the design was based on that of Park Hill in Sheffield. 30 high rise 'Bison' built blocks linked by 'Walkways in the Sky'.

Fresh faced and enthusiastic, I started at the very top of each tower and made my way down knocking on every door as I went. I don't think the tenants had ever seen a politician standing at their front door before - and certainly not a Tory!

One day I came across an elderly man who had lived in his sixth floor Chalkhill flat since it was built. "The milk float used to come up in that lift and then drive along this Walkway in the Sky to deliver bottles to my front door", he explained as we chatted in the draughty walkway outside his flat.

And there it was. For the briefest of moments I fleetingly recognised what the architect of the Chalkhill Estate must have had in mind as he sketched out his utopia in the sky.

Contented tenants, living in harmony with 'Walkways in the Sky' making it easy to drop in on your neighbour three tower blocks away for a cuppa, without even needing to walk down to street level first.  Heaven!

Actually, as we all now know, it was more like hell.

Those drafty 'Walkways in the Sky' quickly became convenient escape routes for criminals. The smell of urine in the lifts was sometimes so overpowering that it was preferable to walk up dozens of flights of concrete stairs. Anti-social behaviour later forced the open design and easy accessibility to be replaced by buzzer entry systems and walkway closures.

As I canvassed any resident not too nervous to answer their door, I was left in no doubt that this experiment in modern living had comprehensively failed. And by the eve of poll I was busily posting what might be one of the most unusual election leaflets of all time through one-thousand-nine-hundred front doors. It read, simply:

"Vote For Me On Thursday And We'll Begin Knocking Down Your Home On Friday."

This was one of Labour's strongest wards in Brent. No Tory had ever made inroads. I didn't win either. But, "I'll help demolish your home" turned out to be a surprisingly popular message. At the election count that night, I had missed out by just 100 votes.

<h2>Great design alone is not the answer</h2>

Those tower blocks have now been demolished, but the problems both there and in many neighbourhoods run much deeper than the architecture alone.

Our attachment to the place in which we live is - for the most part - guided by just two factors:

  1. The architecture of the built environment in which we live, and...
  2. The sociability, or otherwise, of the people we call our neighbours.

Combine these two factors and we can estimate - with some confidence - how you feel about the place in which you live.
Let's try this out. Ask yourself;

What does your house, your neighbourhood, your area look like?

And what are people who live around you like?

Good neighbours and a pleasant built environment leading to a high quality of life? Or anti-social locals, poor design and a miserable place to be?

The big problem is, for the most part, that these two factors have been dealt with in near isolation. And the outcome has contributed towards the construction of some deeply dysfunctional communities.

<h2>The role of design is now widely recognised</h2>

Of course many of you have been calling for a greater emphasis on design for a long time and more recently there has been a general recognition that design plays a major part in determining quality of life. A huge amount of work has gone into creating better housing and public space. Organisations like RIBA, CABE and others have often been at the cutting edge.

Indeed in 1997 Labour engaged some of the world's best designers and architects to improve the quality of public housing and public space. Lord Rogers and the Urban Taskforce brought out important reports detailing regeneration and rescue of our inner cities. And a small number of brilliant, glistening, new estates represented a new hope for future development led by great design.

Progress has been made and I've seen it for myself as I've toured around the country over the past two-and-a-half years visiting hundreds of different housing projects. Most have been impressive; introducing cutting edge elements to design out anti-social behaviour.

Ingenious architectural devices intended to remove opportunities for anti-social behaviour. Special materials which assist a zero tolerance approach to graffiti. Simple things like brighter lighting and strategically placed CCTV cameras have made a difference.

And as I walk around these 21st Century developments the creativity, design, thought and innovation that has gone into regenerating these places is certainly impressive.

<h2>But problems still remain</h2>

And yet I suspect that all too often these brave new estates and regeneration schemes may fail when the gloss comes off. Indeed on other days I visit places already displaying the tell-tale signs of neighbourhoods in decline. Broken beer bottles reveal the all too familiar story of the night before and create a hazardous path to the local shops.

Discarded shopping trolleys with their bent caster wheels lodged as an obstruction against the apparently forgotten recycle bins. And most worrying of all; a group of youngsters - no more than perhaps 13 yrs old - who should surely be in school, aimlessly hanging around as if waiting for something or someone to inspire them.

<h2>Complex, intertwined social problems</h2>

What all this demonstrates is that design - no matter how great - won't cut it on its own. That, unsurprisingly, some of the problems in Britain today are too deep and complex for architects to fix single-handedly. 

As my colleague David Willetts pointed out a fortnight ago - the number of 18-24 year old NEETs - not in Education, Employment or Training - has risen to a staggering 1 in 6. As Chris Grayling recently revealed, the level of violent crime in Britain has risen by 70 per cent. And as Theresa May warned just last week, Britain faces losing another generation to worklessness unless urgent action is taken to tackle youth unemployment.

These issues of social breakdown are enormously complex and it has perhaps been too tempting for previous Governments - including Conservative administrations - to try to generalise solutions; finding it easier to identify or even blame a specific group, than to propose solutions to complex social problems.
As the outstanding work of Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice has now proved beyond doubt, tackling these growing social divides cannot be done in isolation. So a progressive Conservative government will intuitively be driven by the knowledge that we can no longer afford to ignore the implications of Broken Britain.

<h2>The policy mistakes</h2>

And yet the mistaken belief that there is a single solution to complex problems has become a hallmark of the government's approach. If the health service isn't working, then the single solution is to pump in vast additional sums of money. Yet lack of reform has ensured that much of that new cash is wasted.

If education is failing our children a raft of targets is supposed to automatically drive up standards. But instead, the number of 16-year-olds leaving school without five good GCSEs since 1997 has reached a staggering 3 million.

So complex problems can never be tackled with one-dimensional solutions. And yet in housing the approach has also been to spend money, set targets and ask questions later.

A case in point is the Decent Homes Programme. Some £33bn has been spent on improving the quality of existing houses and we can all acknowledge that this has brought much-needed improvements to many.

But unfortunately this rather blunt, target-orientated approach directed by Whitehall hasn't taken account of what really matters to people on the ground. And so the programme relies on numerical outcomes rather than human ones. And these figures are popular with Ministers who enjoy boasting about the number of... new front doors fitted, for example. But a new front door won't improve life for families who are too afraid to walk out of it. And a new fitted bathroom is not going to clean up the local neighbourhood.

So the Decent Homes Programme has focussed on internal housing standards, but we've already demonstrated that what makes a place work is the quality of the overall environment which stretches well beyond the boundary of any property.

Progressive Conservative solutions to building decent places to live

So the direction for the next Conservative government is clear.

We understand that both the homes and the places we live in affect every aspect of our lives.

  • Our health and our children's health;
  • Our job prospects and our children's educational achievement;
  • Our chances of being a victim of crime or even committing a crime.

My experience in Chalkhill left me in no doubt that the quality of design and build of our homes is critically important. But I'm also clear that you can't 'do' great design to other people.  Instead we must find ways to empower local residents to exercise more direct and effective control over the decision-making process that builds decent communities.

Because all the evidence shows that when people have a real stake in, and take ownership of, the future of their neighbourhood - their community benefits and so does quality of life.

So we will encourage the kind of approach taken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, advocating the creation of partnerships with residential communities to create effective and lasting regeneration of disadvantaged housing estates - with the outcomes stretching far beyond each front door.

And we will work with pioneering Housing Associations and Local Authorities who demonstrate that they are not just in the business of building boxes for people to live in, but that they have a genuine appreciation of what it takes to regenerate a thriving community.

But perhaps more important still, we will send a signal to every struggling neighbourhood that instead of sitting tight and waiting for bureaucrats to come to the rescue, we will actively back local groups who demonstrate a vision to improve the place and community they call home.

So a Conservative Government will give local people unprecedented new power over the future shape of their own communities. We have already described how Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to grant themselves planning permission to enhance or expand their existing rural neighbourhoods.

Today I can say that where there is overwhelming support, we will provide the means for street level initiatives to be used to kick-start the regeneration of tired estates and inner-city areas, enabling people to take back control of their own communities.

Instead of regeneration flowing down through a series of complex quangos and layers impenetrable bureaucracy, we will encourage power to be exercised at the very lowest levels of local government, by which I mean Parish, Ward, but also street level in order to force faster change directed by the very people it will most affect.

The emphasis will shift decisively from just creating Decent Homes to generating Decent Places to live. With Enquiry by Design and Charrettes used to ensure that residents and designers work intensively to draft solutions which ensure that citizens 'own' their future neighbourhood right from the outset.

<orma> </orma> <h2>Conclusion</h2>

As a nation we can no longer afford to ignore the huge social divide that has built up between communities that function well and those where the inhabitants are struggling to simply survive.

But history has taught us that well meaning top-down solutions often take too long to deliver. And we don't believe that residents who are exasperated by the place they live in can wait any longer - so we'll provide the power and resources to effect urgent change directly to residents and communities to exercise locally - even at street level.

The next Conservative government will be impatient to see dramatic progress in transforming our deprived estates, and forgotten inner-cities.

Our belief is that local people will be instrumental driving that change.

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