Almost exactly a year ago, I was working on my laptop in the garden on a sunny blustery day. I went inside to make a cup of tea. Sudden onset of a monsoon rain shower…I rushed out…too late, the laptop was drowned, and the screen was flickering alarmingly.
Richard - the guy who came to rescue me and my computer - asked “Oh, you know about self-build housing, don’t you?”…which I certainly do, as was obvious from the pile of papers on my desk. Richard is also chair of the Finsbury Park Community Hub and on the board of the Andover Estate Tenants and Residents Association. Andover is one of Islington Council’s largest estates, with all the best ‘worst’ social and economic indicators you can imagine.
The Community Hub, however, is a highly proactive community organisation that has been at the forefront of the community’s own efforts to improve the quality of life and life prospects in the neighbourhood, with great success. They are coming to the end of a highly imaginative Decent Homes programme with the council. They have managed to create a wonderful civic square in the middle of the estate, which has become the focus for community events.
Since last June, Richard, I, an architect who lives on the estate, and a landscape designer have been working with the Hub, a residents’ steering group, and the council to identify sites on the estate that can be developed for more housing for people living on the estate who are overcrowded, or might want to downsize. We have been looking at the conversion potential for turning unused garages into new homes, and working out how to develop the new homes through a mix of direct council funding and setting up a new community owned housing body.
We have been talking to social entrepreneurs about the potential for food growing by residents and setting up small scale agri-businesses to employ local people. Dark and slightly damp old garages with a left-over district heating piping system seem to be the perfect place for industrial mushroom growing.
We managed to win the only Design Council CABE Neighbourhood Design Project grant in London, and have been supported by Open City to develop some land use studies and preliminary design options. The council, from the leader down, have been very supportive, as this fits well with their plans to build more homes at council rents.
This string of events, from the shower of rain and the chance question, has now led to an extraordinary partnership project, which, although still at a relatively early stage, could become a model for other partnership projects in the borough and for any council to work with its tenants and residents to provide more affordable homes, with active community support: an increasingly rare commodity.
For me, this has been a great opportunity to do my day job with the community in the place where I live. There probably is a more reliable way than waiting for a passing cloud to make this kind of connection between professionals and their communities. It’s called Locality Brokers!