From high rise to des res

Is it possible to convert dilapidated council tower blocks into functional, even inspiring, privately owned homes? One developer is making impresive efforts to convince us that it is, says Katy Pownall
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The Independent Online

The tower block has become the defining symbol of social exclusion and urban decay. Grey, sombre and uninviting, few would choose to make their home in such a building. Even local authorities have been eager to rid themselves of hefty high-ride maintenance bills, paying up to £300,000 to have them demolished.

The tower block has become the defining symbol of social exclusion and urban decay. Grey, sombre and uninviting, few would choose to make their home in such a building. Even local authorities have been eager to rid themselves of hefty high-ride maintenance bills, paying up to £300,000 to have them demolished.

In a surprising turn of events though, the fate of several of these tower blocks in the north-west has turned around. LPC Living, under the guidance of its chairman Warren Smith has embarked on a visionary quest to recycle these eyesores and turn them into desirable addresses.

"These blocks are untouched little gems," beams Smith. "Most are extremely well built, well proportioned, well soundproofed and often well located too. They've been around for 30 years so the settings are mature with well-established transport links and other services such as shops. Refurbished tower blocks provide high density, affordable housing which keeps both the local community and the Government happy. By regenerating the block, you help regenerate the area too."

The history of the tower block is a sad one. Once hailed as a Utopian-style solution for the straining welfare state, a staggering four million council housing units had been built within high rise by the end of the Sixties. In order to qualify for a flat within these ground-breaking schemes, existing tenants had to prove themselves model citizens. Early high-rise residents recall with pride being selected for the privilege.

But despite qualifying as one of the most iconic architectural products of post-war Britain, it took less than a decade for tower blocks to begin their spiralling decline into crime and neglect. By the late 1970s they had become vilified, condemned as a disastrous experiment. What makes Smith think he can turn around their fortunes?

"We did an awful lot of research before embarking on these projects," he explains. "We held consultation evenings with local government, local people and even former residents of the estates. The main problems with the old council blocks were security and finance, especially with all the local authority cutbacks in the Eighties.

"As a private company, LPC is able to invest more in the sites. We install CCTV and a 24-hour concierge in each development. There will also be a large fund for maintenance and repairs."

Having completed successful high-rise transformations in Southmoor, Manchester and Liverpool, LPC's most recent undertaking is in Blackley, north Manchester. Five dilapidated, vandalised 12-storey blocks are undergoing an £18m transformation. The formula is simple: one tower will be demolished to make way for car parking (a factor never considered by the original planners); the remaining four will be stripped back to the brickwork, redesigned where necessary, decorated, furnished and sold. Once complete, Lakeside will offer 210 one-, two- and three-bedroom flats with balconies, with 30 additional townhouse villas also due to be built on site.

The development is just four miles from Manchester city centre and amenities will include a communal gym, landscaped gardens and car parking. Amazingly, prices start at £59,950, peaking at just £120,000 for the eight penthouses.

"Even as a developer I have a social conscience," says Smith. "We work in close partnership with the local authorities on these projects and our aim is to create a sustainable community. In order to do this, we need to get a high owner-occupier ratio into the flats and so we put strict limits on investors. Another one of our aims as developers is to provide housing at a realistic price for those not yet on the property ladder. Our target market is first-time buyers, key workers and newly qualified professionals.

With each block we complete, we check our sales demographics to ensure we are reaching this audience - so far we are."

The statistics are impressive. At Lakeside, 60 of the first 120 flats sold or reserved have gone to first-time buyers with professions as varied as butchers, architects, plasterers, teachers, and nurses. Similar figures are quoted for previous schemes.

According to Smith, detractors of LPC's ambitions and approach are few and far between. Some local councillors in Liverpool originally slammed the apartments there as unaffordable for local people despite starting prices of £45,000.

Graham Stringer, the MP for Blackley, has no such worries regarding Lakeside. "Local people are buying them so there is no doubt in my mind about their suitability for the local market," he reasons. "Even for a couple earning around £12,000 to £15,000 the prices are in range and I'd imagine they'll retain their value too. "

Nor can the popularity of LPC's schemes with the public be denied. At Wythenshawe, 73 flats were offered to let and all were taken within 48 hours. When flats in Liverpool were released for sale, prospective buyers queued for 24 hours to reserve the apartment of their choice.

Similarly, the flats currently on release at Lakeside are selling like proverbial hotcakes. Alan Ward, 23, an engineer from nearby Prestwich, has bought a one-bedroom flat with his girlfriend, Rebecca Ross, a personal assistant. "The availability and affordability of housing in this area is pretty poor," he says. "We were genuinely impressed by Lakeside - even though we both knew it when it was a scruffy council block - it offers great value for money. "

By the time Lakeside is completed, LPC will have refurbished twelve tower blocks; its next project is four blocks in Knowsley at Merseyside. But LPC has ambitions further afield too; it is already in consultation with local authorities in Scotland and the south-east.

LPC Living - 0161 872 2622

For more information on Lakeside in Blackley, call 0800 587 8186 or visit www.manchesterlakeside.co.uk

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