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Regeneration is not a dirty word – improving housing doesn't always have to end with gentrification, writes Martha Grekos

From the 2020 edition of the Journal of The London Society - complete contents and details on how to get your copy can be found here. 

Gentrification is a divisive and tainted term. It was coined by UCL academic Ruth Glass in 1964 while studying the movement of people in Islington. In her work London: Aspects of Change she described how the social character of many urban areas of London has changed, as the original working class occupiers are displaced.  Projects that aim to deliver better quality housing are currently maligned by accusations of ‘social cleansing’ as original owner-occupiers get displaced. But regeneration does not have to mean driving existing residents out of their homes. Quite the opposite.

Regeneration is not just knocking down homes and rebuilding them but providing a better place to live, with more green space, leisure facilities, and increased safety – and part of the challenge is communicating that to residents. Regeneration has become the buzzword of politicians and professionals in the property and construction industries in more recent years. Regeneration is the attempt to address industrial and manufacturing decline by both improving the physical structure and the economy of those areas. When comparing gentrification to the process of regeneration one realises how closely related they are. Broadly speaking, gentrification differs due to its association with the displacement of people, but they both attempt to make areas better, whether that is physically, environmentally, socially, economically, educationally etc.

While it is clear that regeneration and gentrification are similar, the drivers for regeneration must be geared towards benefiting the existing communities. They are the very people who we build for. It is about building on the existing strengths of the area and addressing the issues that people live with. Our social mission is all about building homes and making places and about having aspirations. The buildings and places we develop must do more than simply provide a roof over somebody’s head. It is not just about building better quality houses. It is not just about what you live in; it is about how you socialise with your neighbours and having access to great communal facilities and open spaces and transport links.

The question is whether, through initiatives in equitable development, we can create communities that bring mixed incomes, mixed race and mixed age back together. Creating places with diverse cultures and incomes and a vibrant local character is good for everyone — including developers. In the long run, you create more value. There is no doubt that rising housing costs as a result of regeneration can cause problems for existing residents, who can feel they are being priced out of their communities, but it is essential we remember that investment in development is a sign of belief in a neighbourhood. We are now seeing an increasing number of developers shifting their focus from simply delivering a project to "place making", providing a mix of uses and creating sustainable development. Regeneration therefore has more to offer local communities than they may at first believe.

The idea of uprooting families and dispersing people who have built up a community and support networks goes against what most people believe in. But by introducing an increased variety of homes for sale and for rent we create a more balanced community and increase opportunities for existing residents who, for example, may wish to buy their own home. Similarly, we need to ensure that buyers are not priced out of the market when it comes to some of the more highly sought after locations. As Brian Ham, said when he was Executive Director of Development at social housing provider Home Group:  “Everyone has potential. Sadly, some are trapped in apathetic environments that inhibit this.”

Planning policy is all about balancing competing interests and how investment should be managed for the betterment of all and geared towards existing communities. Section 106 contributions and even community infrastructure levy all go towards community infrastructure such as education, transport, heath facilities, creation of open spaces etc. New or improved schools and doctors’ surgeries and other facilities that encourage community cohesion come forward, which local communities truly need. Socio-economic benefits are felt by all, as more job opportunities for example are created.

Regeneration of our estates is going to become a more urgent task as mid-century urban fabric needs upgrading to build homes fit to live in. It could also go some way to solving the housing crisis: property agent Savills has estimated 360,000 homes could be added to London by regenerating and densifying housing estates. To do this, working with private companies is crucial. The law brings forward regeneration schemes as it allows for public/private partnerships, joint ventures, contractual development agreements etc even though there will always be a balancing act between the wish lists of the contracting authority as land owner, the contracting authority as planning authority and the developer. Ultimately financial viability will always be a deciding factor. The public procurement process to appoint a developer is a long and costly one for all involved. What parties need to do is built in sufficient flex from the outset to allow projects to evolve as viable schemes whilst simultaneously protecting the community to ensure that the "place" that is ultimately created is for the benefit of all.

In order for the law and policy to be successful, the key ingredients to making regeneration an all- round success is early communication, meaningful consultation and true collaboration among the existing community and stakeholders, understanding and listening to the existing community, a balanced approach to wish lists and a tailored approach rather than 'one size fits all'.

A huge amount of research has been done recently on public participation (for example, in 2019, Centre for London’s “Strengthening public participation in London’s planning system” or Demos and Nationwide’s “How to get more people involved in planning in to get more homes built”) but what it all boils down to is trust. Harnessing that trust for people power to get more homes built and tackle our housing crisis. Closer and more creative collaboration between government and the real-estate industry is needed so as to grow the public’s influence and rebuild trust.

Bold public sector leadership is the starting point for success. We need place-making leadership from the public and private sectors with a compelling vision for growth, as well as an honest depiction of the trade-offs required to deliver it. It is about sustainable regeneration, not opportunistic gentrification. Regeneration is not simply a sugar-coated euphemism for gentrification with all the negative connotations of that term excised. It is about developing outward-facing schemes where bottom-up community involvement is as important as top-down investment strategy. It’s about leveraging localism to create a feedback loop with the local economy to ensure the future of the development.

Only by doing this can shareholder/developer requirements be aligned with social need. The task of regeneration requires “softer skills” of communication and empathy.

Martha Grekos is a barrister and Director at Martha Grekos Legal Consultancy Ltd (

image: CMGLEE  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license