Public Services Management: HAT points the way ahead for housing: Rachel Lipman on Housing Action Trusts, a new and radical way of improving council homes using government funds

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The Independent Online
Where there's a HAT, there's a home - or rather 2000 of them, on a former council estate in Hull that has become the site of a pioneering pounds 90m housing project.

The driving force behind the scheme, which aims at refurbishing more than 2,000 former council houses and so completely regenerating the estate, all within five years - leaving behind 'a community equipped for the long term with viable and sustainable housing, social and economic infrastructures' - is the North Hull HAT, the UK's first Housing Action Trust.

HATs are a new and radical way of improving run-down English council housing areas using government funding. The trusts, established by the 1988 Housing Act, are run by a board appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment; in the case of Hull, this includes members of the city council as well as residents of the estate and local business people.

Stephen Brindley, chief executive of the North Hull HAT, says: 'Part of the reason for setting up the HAT was to create an operation that could be run like a business, to remove it from the local authority arena and try a new approach, very much based on partnership, but also based on sound business principles.'

Moves towards a HAT in Hull followed city council estimates that it would take at least 20 years to complete the remaining half of the estate's total of 3,800 properties which had not already been refurbished by the council itself. Attempts to set up HATs in other parts of the country had failed in the face of local council opposition, but in Hull the city council decided to give its support and encouragement to the HAT. In doing so, it successfully insisted that the DoE agree to a key condition - that when the scheme was completed the residents would have the choice of becoming council tenants again.

Other options open to residents at the end of the scheme include buying their homes, forming a community- based housing association or tenants' co-operative, or joining a shared ownership scheme. Guarantees were given that rents would be frozen during the period of improvement, and after that increased only to the level of equivalent properties in the city. In July 1991, following a 69 per cent vote in favour by the residents, the North Hull HAT was formally established.

The estate has been split into five areas for the refurbishment work. Each house is being completely modernised in a programme that provides new fitted kitchens, central heating, bathrooms, doors and double-glazed windows. 'We have now completed more than 100 houses in the first programme and the reaction from the tenants is that it was hell while it was being done but absolutely superb now. We are now up and motoring, and during the next 12 months we will be improving a further 700 houses, and building another 100 new ones,' says Mr Brindley.

To avoid the numbing house-to- house uniformity that has characterised post-war local authority (and indeed private) housing estates, tenants are given an allocation of points on a menu of features from which they can choose to personalise their homes. The choice includes patio doors, higher quality kitchens, and an extra lavatory or shower - or all the points can be spent on a home extension.

A HAT's work is not meant to be confined to refurbishing and rebuilding houses. One of the four aims set out in the 1988 Housing Act on Housing Action Trusts was 'improvement of housing, social and environmental conditions', and in addition to the programme of refurbishment the HAT's plans include initiatives to assist the local community and create new jobs and skills.

In a significant development last month, the HAT opened a Job Shop on the estate, where unemployment is running at 20 per cent - 4 per cent higher than the rest of Hull, and almost twice regional and national levels. Lynn Holdridge, the HAT's director of community development, says: 'The prime role of the Job Shop will be to channel HAT-funded jobs and contractors' vacancies to the estate's residents, to ensure that more of these jobs go to local people. With the Job Shop as a focal point we are confident that 200 more jobs can be found for residents in the coming year. These will cover unskilled and semi- skilled jobs with contractors as well as non-construction industry jobs.'

The HAT is also helping to fund new housing projects in the area in partnership with housing associations. The schemes are enabling elderly people in family housing on the North Hull estate to be rehoused in more appropriate accommodation, at the same time releasing properties for re-letting after refurbishment.

A report commissioned by the DoE, written by Mr Brindley with Professor Peter Arnold of the University of Humberside, concedes that there have been difficulties - 'in communication, staffing, negotiation with central government and aspects of service delivery' - but is positive about the HAT's 'sound record of achievement', speaking of 'a new confidence among residents'.

With all of this, the North Hull HAT has provided a blueprint for other HATs to follow, and trusts have since been set up in Waltham Forest and Liverpool, with a further three being considered in Brent and Tower Hamlets in London and Castle Vale in Birmingham. 'Because we were the first we have had to pave the way - many of the rules governing how we perform were unwritten, so in many ways we had to write the rule book,' says Mr Brindley. 'When the HAT ceases to exist in four years we will have improved all the houses to a high standard, built over 200 new ones and radically improved the environment, the open spaces and shopping areas. We will have put a great deal of money and effort into economic development, jobs and training.'

But he adds: 'The time to really judge whether the HAT's work has been a success will not be in four years, but in 10 or 20 years from now. That is when we will know that the local community has maintained and sustained the improvements that have been made.'

(Photograph omitted)