Beware new housing traps for the poor

No one seems to have remembered the lessons the tower-blocks taught us

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Tower blocks may be a thing of the past, but tragically most of the disastrous mistakes of 1960s social housing have been made all over again this decade. Despite so much evidence, the human and social lessons of the past have been ignored.

How do you make a housing estate work? It is a fascinating human puzzle that excites social engineers. How can these artificial "communities" of the poor be made bearable? The evidence was all there, had they chosen to heed it.

The Government, loathing local authorities, put its faith in housing associations. But several reports - one from the Audit Commission, another from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation - show they have now created another generation of human dust-heaps. How did it happen?

Trying to kickstart the housing market, under intense pressure from building contractors stuck with unsaleable private houses, in November 1992 Norman Lamont suddenly released a lot of money for housing associations to buy off-the-peg private estates. The catch was, they had to borrow half the money and they had to spend it all within four months. It is hard to imagine a better recipe for disaster. In those four months, 18,433 units of social housing were acquired. (In all of next year only 20,000 social housing units will be built).

No one knows the recipe for the perfect housing estate. But there are well-known recipes for disaster - and they were followed by many in 1993. Not designed for the poor, they were often in remote places far from transport or work. Most were packed with the neediest families straight off the waiting list, creating dangerously unbalanced communities. While no estate should have more than two children to every three adults, children outnumber adults on some, storing up even more trouble for later. Housing associations should have insisted that councils transfer some older tenants on to the new estates, scattering the poorest, youngest families around the old and new.

Because they borrowed so much, housing associations have to charge very high rents. That means tenants can never take a job because they can never earn enough to pay, say, pounds 75 a week out of their post-tax earnings. Once they take a job, housing benefit is withdrawn at such a steep rate it creates an effective 80 per cent tax on their earnings. That guarantees that these estates will only ever be inhabited by the "underclass".

Housing associations were supposed to be better, more idealistic managers, but many are not. Greedily, many of them competed for the avalanche of money in 1992, buying unsuitable estates with a quick-fix lettings policy. All institutions have a tendency to empire-build and in the stampede, many forgot their true purpose - to do it better.

No one expects more money for housing. Managing existing housing better is the name of the game - and that means managing the people better, which gets harder as they are now mainly the poorest. But if those who run housing associations pay so little attention to the plethora of research, how can they improve?

Surveying this calamity, one of the great social engineers of our time is bidding to build a new small estate - a little Utopia in Bradford. Within the next two weeks Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington), together with social housing consultant, Gerard Lemos, will learn whether they have won Housing Corporation funding.

The tenants will be selected in clumps of people who are either related or neighbours who already know each other: no more decanting of total strangers and expecting "community" to flourish by magic. Most revolutionary, tenants will have to sign social contracts not only to behave well, but to contribute to the community, helping one another with gardening, babysitting or plumbing. Unless they sign up, they don't get to live there. There will be no sanctions against contract-breakers - only intense peer pressure. The idea raises eyebrows among some in this field. One said wryly, "What are they going to call the place? Zero Tolerance?" But it captures the mood of the moment - and all eyes will be on it.

There have been model estates before - I briefly lived and worked in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral. But the greatest social experiment is New Earswick, built by the Edwardian philanthropist, Joseph Rowntree. Just outside York, its 1,000 dwellings have been the social laboratory for hundreds of experiments by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Here they have forged evidence to show what works.

However, when I visited last week, there was much frustration that despite vigorous dissemination of its work, so many housing associations this decade have ignored it - at a high human cost. On a bright crisp morning, the trim houses with their gardens and beech hedges please the eye. Sceptical visitors assume more money is spent here - but the point is to spend exactly the same as most other housing associations, showing what can be done within budget.

The emphasis is on the people - a council of tenants and managers run the place. A Folk Hall stands at the centre, home to a multitude of groups. They have kept shops on the estate by reducing their rents, while a family support worker and a community development worker are paid from the management budget.

Yet the cosiness of the place masks many of the same social problems as elsewhere. This is no Utopia. Unemployment is high, tenants complain about young tearaways causing trouble. Crime, they say, is only lower than on council estates because of better management. They have striven to keep a mixed community, pioneering flexible tenure which means some homes are owner-occupied, some rented, but all can increase or decrease the amount of the house they own as their financial circumstances change. They have proved flexibility works financially.

However, a tenants' survey reveals something that should hearten other estate managers depressed by tenant apathy. It does not take the active participation of many to make the place work: 77 per cent never join in activities in the hall. Only 9 per cent attend Village Council meetings and 88 per cent say they do not wish to be more active. Yet 87 per cent feel New Earswick is a good place to live.

Most of us, after all, do not join in community activities. New Earswick managers, when asked whether they participated in neighbourhood groups at home, admitted they did not. Often communitarians expect extraordinary feats of organisation from those with the fewest resources - and amazingly desperation does drive a handful of people to do it. But they need constant support and help. People cannot be dumped and left to organise themselves - and as the New Earswick researchers keep saying over and over again, investing in people matters most - community workers matter more than bricks and mortar.

Now we wait to see whether Young and Lemos's more authoritarian plan wins approval. Can social contracts dragoon tenants into a higher level of communitarian behaviour than most of us choose left to our own selfish devices?

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