Colville Estate — lessons in building a new community

In 2021, after eleven years, I stepped down as Chair of the Colville Estate Regeneration Committee.

With the new year being a time of reflection, I wanted to take this chance to look back over what we have achieved at Colville over the past decade, and celebrate what I think is an extraordinary story of urban renewal in the face of what often seemed like insurmountable challenges.

Here are the headlines: over 25 years, Colville will see 432 existing homes replaced with over 900 brand-new homes in the heart of north Hoxton, one of London’s most economically-deprived communities. The full cost of the regeneration — well over £100 million — will be self-funded through the sale of new, private homes. All 340 existing social homes will be replaced with brand new homes for social-rent, alongside hundreds of new shared-ownership homes. Every existing social tenant has the right to return to Colville in a brand new home. All types of homes are mixed together on the estate, and all are built with the same materials and design.

With the local council acting as the developer, every single penny raised from the sale of the new private homes is reinvested in the estate. This means the new homes can be built with the best materials, and the highest quality design — here’s a picture of some of them.

As of today, we have built 110 social homes, 10 shared ownership and 35 homes for private sale. The proceeds from the sale of a further 198 private homes are ready to use for future phases. The construction of the next phase is due to begin imminently which will have a further 52 homes for social rent, 19 for shared ownership and 22 for private sale, alongside a new community centre. All of this sits alongside a brand new secondary school and public leisure centre which have been built just across the road.

The project has won awards from RIBA, the Civic Trust, and the GLA, and has been adopted by others as a model in many ways including how it’s funded, how the community is involved, the development model used, and its use of high-quality design and materials.

I am proud of what we are building at Colville — a new community at the heart of north Hoxton, where people of different incomes and backgrounds live alongside each other in homes build to the highest-standards, with new homes built close to workplaces, and alongside brand new public services and public spaces. I am also proud of how we are building it — with the deep involvement of local residents, with public assets used for public benefit, and quality sitting at the heart of everything we try to do.

I have learnt many things along the way — including the importance of public ownership, of taking action, of involving local residents, and of knowing where you are starting from — if you’d like to read any more about those you can see them below.

I wish all those taking Colville on the next stage of its journey all the best. I will be supporting from the sidelines as it continues to show how communities, local government and responsible businesses working together and sharing their expertise can change the lives of individuals and communities for the better.

Here are some lessons I am taking away from my time with Colville:

Public ownership matters — this regeneration is only happening because Colville’s land is in public ownership. This means that the value of the land can be used to build new social and affordable homes. Public bodies — like Hackney Council who own the land which Colville estate is built on — are democratically accountable, rooted in their communities, and have the ability to borrow the amounts of money needed to make this sort of ambitious socially-minded scheme happen.

To private developers social and affordable housing is simply seen as a cost. At Colville social and affordable housing is seen as a benefit — if not the main benefit — of the project.

If you wait for perfection, you risk waiting for ever — over the past decade central government has provided almost no funding for new social housing. In 2010, one option would have been to wait to start Colville’s regeneration until there was new funding for social housing paid for general taxation. If we had done that, we would still be waiting. What we have achieved at Colville shows that it is possible to do great things in imperfect circumstances.

Participation is really important — the Committee I chaired was made up both of expert professionals and Colville Estate residents. This created an ongoing conversation between the professionals working on the project — architects, clerks of works, builders, financial modellers, planners, project mangers — and the people who lived on the estate. This means that there are constant conversations between residents and professionals about how the project is being realised, and the progress that is being made. Residents are also the institutional memory of the project — professionals come and go, but for residents Colville is their home.

This process has sometimes been difficult — the language of professionals often seems designed mainly to communicate with ‘their own’ and therefore to exclude. We had had to learn a new way of communicating. When it worked this has been brilliant, at other times it has been tough.

Expertise is important too — I have seen repeatedly how the expertise of different specialists — from architects, to clerks of work, from financial modellers to acoustic designers — made the project better, and when it was absent the project was worse. Equally important, and often under-recognised, is the expertise of those who live on the estate, some for over 50 years, who know how residents currently use their homes and the spaces between them, and keep the professional’s ideas grounded in reality.

Make sure you know where you are starting from — the new homes we have built are as least as big and often bigger than the historic flats they replace, and exceed even the most stretching space standards for modern homes. However when existing residents moved into their new homes some felt their new homes were smaller than their old ones. It turns out this is because new flats have to be built as lifetime homes (which is a good thing!). This means building wider corridors, and bigger bathrooms and kitchens, and therefore relatively smaller living rooms and bedrooms.

A closer study of the existing Colville flats before the new ones were designed would have picked this up at the design stage — as it was, by the time we worked this out, the new flats were already built and occupied. I think this learning can be applied to thinking about all sorts of change — people see the future through the window of their present and past, and being careful to understand that current reality is really important.

Change is hard — having been part of trying to create change in many different settings, it feels particularly hard in housing regeneration where the timeline for everything is measured in years. In the early years, the progress was slow and frustrating. Hackney Council — who were acting as the developer — hadn’t built new homes for many years and needed to build a new team. The approach to redevelopment, with people moving off in phases, means the timeline to complete the project is measured in decades.

Far better to act, than to critique — I have lost count of the number of people who don’t live on Colville who have shared their criticisms of the project — some of them loudly and publicly. Whilst they were shouting, we were working hard building a new community made up of modern, decent homes that people can genuinely afford. I am more sure than ever that it is better — for you, and for others — to spend your time making things happen, rather than critiquing others who are trying to do a good, if imperfect, job.

The world keeps changing — when we designed the masterplan for the new Colville Estate the reality that the construction of new buildings is a significant contributor to global warming was not something that was in our minds or part of the public debate around urban regeneration. Though the scheme has and is trying to do things that will reduce its carbon footprint — including a cross-laminated timber building in its first phase, and air source heating for its upcoming one s— the balance between the benefits of building something new and the benefits of re-strengthening the existing have changed since we set our course in the early 2010s. If we were designing this project again today I hope this consideration would have been at the heart of our decision making.