How should we regenerate London’s estates?

London's Aylesbury Estate, mid-demolition. Image: Getty.

Given the shortage of housing in London, and his ambitious housing targets, it is of little surprise that the mayor of London is exploring available options for land. This week, it was the turn of estate redevelopment to come under scrutiny, as Sadiq Khan published his Good Regeneration Guide – marking the start of a public consultation on best practice in estate regeneration.

The production of a good regeneration charter is a welcome step by the mayor of London. But what do his current plans mean in practice? And what more could Londoners ask for during the consultation?

The real potential for estate densification

First, it’s worth noting that estate densification cannot solve the housing crisis on its own, though it could make a significant contribution over the long term.

Centre for London's recent report, Another Storey, estimated that across London, 4,000 and 8,000 homes could be added to London each year from redeveloping estates – up to 20 per cent of London’s annual additional housing target. However, it would take an estimated 10 years to start to tackle all the large estates, and a minimum of another 10 years to complete each project.

Funding transparency

Estate redevelopment does not come cheap, and ensuring sufficient funding is fundamental to delivering on promises made to local residents. After all, good regeneration is not just about good consultation, but delivery too, without overpromising, and without ducking commitments.

It is therefore good to see that Sadiq’s Good Regeneration Guide is rooted in the full and transparent costing of projects prior to the resident consultation process. This will ensure that all parties are entering discussions with as much knowledge as possible about the costs and benefits of estate redevelopment.

Our report argues that if estate densification is to both deliver additional units and ensure the continued provision of sub-market housing in such situations, more funding would be required to close funding gaps. This could require central government grant, as well as housing association cross-subsidy, private finance through stock transfer, and local authority contribution.

The mayor's Good Regeneration Guide also recognises the importance of looking beyond the red line of estate boundaries. We agree that it is vital that projects are carried out in a way that integrates the densified site with the surrounding urban fabric, adopting a mixture of block types and increasing in density nearer to urban centres and transport hubs.

The next big challenge is thinking about how the densification of estates can be combined with densification of other publicly held land such as car parks, as well as privately owned residential land (which we hope to investigate further next year).


Disrupted homes

When it comes to the important matter of how residents are compensated for the disruption caused by estate regeneration, our research found a significant discrepancy in how tenants and owner occupiers are treated. We found that displaced owners could expect to receive £25,000 by way of Home Loss Payment, whereas the displaced tenant only receives £5,300.

There is little in the current consultation document that tackles this discrepancy. While the mayor exhorts landlords to go beyond their statutory duty, we argue that Home Loss Payments should be increased to ensure the fair treatment of tenants in the demolition and densification process.

In publishing this Good Regeneration Guide, the Mayor openly acknowledges the challenges posed by estate redevelopment. The Guide has a welcome focus on opening up the financial intricacies of redevelopment projects to local residents, many of whom are better placed to understand the process than other Londoners. But this consultation must form just one element of wider conversation with Londoners about the type of development wanted in the capital, and the difficult choices that must be made in tackling London’s housing crisis.

Kat Hanna is Research Manager at Centre for London and co-author of the Another Storey report. She tweets as @HannaFromHeaven.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”