East Thames Group, London, 2008East Potential's approach to sustainability

East Thames Group manages social and affordable housing in East London. The Sustainable Neighbourhoods team works with other parts of the organisation to look at ways of incorporating sustainability considerations into improvements to existing estates and into plans for new developments.

 

Key Points

  • A wellbeing approach to assessing the needs of existing residents
  • Incorporating sustainability considerations into the earliest stages of planning new communities
  • Using high-density design in new housing
  • Tailoring Section 106 contributions to the specific needs of the community
Sustainable Neighbourhoods team

East Thames Group has four subsidiaries and manages about 13,000 socially rented and affordable homes in East London. The Group also develops a range of new sites with homes for rent, part-ownership and sale. The Sustainable Neighbourhoods team looks at how best to ensure new developments are sustainable from the outset and how life in existing neighbourhoods can be improved for residents.

Assessing wellbeing in existing communities

In 2007, East Thames Group's Sustainable Neighbourhoods team piloted a new approach for working with existing communities based on assessing tenants' wellbeing. The organisation found this helped it to identify the priorities of the tenants and provided a baseline from which to assess any improvements made. These wellbeing surveys canvassed the opinions of between around 30 and 90 per cent of the tenants living on each of the six pilot estates. Many of the surveys were undertaken by 'community champions': East Thames tenants who were specifically trained for the role. Using local people seemed to be particularly successful, perhaps because tenants felt more comfortable discussing their neighbourhood with other tenants rather than members of staff from their housing association.

The results of the surveys showed that tenants' priorities were often different from those their landlord may have identified. In one example the tenants living on one estate were clear that they wanted to change the type of washing lines they had. Though not all tenants' priorities have been as easy to address, the surveys in some cases did highlight relatively inexpensive improvements that East Thames Group could make to enhance residents' experience of their local environment. Where solutions to issues were more complicated the Group looked at ways of working with partner organisations, for example, to improve street lighting.
Following the survey the organisation went back to each estate to host feedback meetings. This proved to be an effective way of engaging tenants in steering groups to oversee the estate's improvements, which were also able to attract residents who had previously shown little interest in being involved. East Thames staff thought this trust they were able to develop with tenants was due to the fact that they were honest and open from the start of the process, explaining how much budget was available and that not everything could change overnight. By coming back to the estate for feedback meetings East Thames Group was able to demonstrate commitment to improving quality of life on the estate.

Ensuring new developments are sustainable

East Thames Group currently has around 1,500 homes under development. The Sustainable Neighbourhoods team works in conjunction with Development teams across the Group to ensure that these and future projects are as successful as possible.

This process begins with a sustainability statement which reviews proposed developments against seven sustainability criteria:

  1. housing and the Built Environment - a quality built and natural environment
  2. social and Cultural - a vibrant, harmonious and inclusive community
  3. transport and Connectivity - good transport and communication linking people to jobs, school, health and other services as well as to the broader national and international communications network
  4. services - a full range of appropriate, accessible, public, private, community and voluntary services
  5. governance - effective and inclusive participation, representation and leadership from residents and other partners
  6. environmental - providing public amenities which support the community to live in an environmentally friendly way
  7. economy - a flourishing and diverse economy

Planned developments are rated against these using a traffic light system, where green indicates that the proposals would successfully meet these considerations, but red indicates they do not. Then the area and its existing facilities are mapped to identify what already exists and how far these facilities are from the proposed development. Before any final decisions are made members of the Sustainable Neighbourhoods team visit the area to make sure that the mapped facilities really exist and that they are as useful as they seem, for example, that local food shops stock fresh fruit and vegetables. The team consider whether it would be possible to access basic services from the new homes and, importantly, whether it is a place where they themselves would want to live.

Planned developments that do not pass these tests are not automatically rejected. The team will look at ways of mitigating any weaknesses in the proposals, for example, by incorporating space in the scheme's plan for local shops or by increasing the amount of public space. Where such changes are not possible developments will not go ahead. Finally, as developments are designed and planned in detail, the schemes are reviewed by East Thames' resident advisory panel and resident design panel.

‘Costa del Barking'

The 165 homes recently developed in Tanner Street in Barking have demonstrated the success of East Thames Group's approach to building new housing. The development is a mixture of one to four bedroom town houses, some built for sale, affordable ownership and some for socially renting tenants. The scheme's design with whitewashed walls and front doors opening directly onto the street has earned the nickname 'Costa del Barking' from local residents, and won a RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) design award in 2007.

The housing in Tanner Street is a high density development. With a growing expertise in this kind of development, East Thames Group has produced a 'High Density Housing Toolkit' which has become a recommended resource for other housing developers.

 

Tanner Street is also home to a centre called Starting Point, designed to foster local voluntary and community organisations (VCOs), built with the development's section 106Glossary: (S106) allows a local planning authority (LPA) to enter into a legally-binding agreement or planning obligation with a property developer for the benefit of the community contribution. In recent times many local people, including Barking's MP Margaret Hodge, have acknowledged a relative weakness in the voluntary sector in Barking, particularly in groups representing Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities. Starting Point offers IT facilities and capacity buildingGlossary: refers to assistance which is provided to organisations or individuals to help them develop a certain skill or competence. training for local groups, and demonstrates how section 106Glossary: (S106) allows a local planning authority (LPA) to enter into a legally-binding agreement or planning obligation with a property developer for the benefit of the community contributions can be carefully tailored to the needs of the local community.

The key benefits of the East Thames approach to sustainability in new and existing communities
  • The Sustainable Neighbourhoods team is able to work with a variety of departments across East Thames Group to ensure that consideration of sustainability issues can be integrated into the work of the organisation as a whole. Relationships between the team and other staff members have strengthened over time as the team has been able to demonstrate the value in working collaboratively
  • The Tanner Street development used section 106Glossary: (S106) allows a local planning authority (LPA) to enter into a legally-binding agreement or planning obligation with a property developer for the benefit of the community contributions to provide a much needed resource for local community groups. Thoughtful community provision, through section 106Glossary: (S106) allows a local planning authority (LPA) to enter into a legally-binding agreement or planning obligation with a property developer for the benefit of the community , can help encourage local people to walk through a new development and give them a reason to interact with residents in a new community
  • East Thames Group works exclusively in East London and Essex and often designs high density developments with a number of larger homes of up to six bedrooms. This is particularly important in meeting the needs of the community in their area, where traditionally large families have had difficulties finding large enough homes in the social renting sector
  • East Thames Group's developments are designed so that the different types of housing tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property can not be identified from their appearance. The Group's experience has demonstrated that owner occupier and part-ownership sales are not negatively affected in developments of mixed housing tenures
  • Wellbeing surveys taken of existing neighbourhoods can provide a helpful insight into the needs of residents already living in an area and can help engage them in the process of improving their local environment by building trust between them and service providers.
Understanding the community
  • Successful developments need to be designed around the needs of the community, and those needs are best assessed through meaningful engagement with local residents. East Thames Group has also been involved in a development at Harford Street in Poplar, East London. This development was originally led by a private developer and later taken on by the Group. By this point it was too late to alter some of the details of the scheme's design. This meant that some aspects of the development were not ideal for the new residents, for example, the ovens in the new homes had electric hobs. Many of the families that now live there are from the local Bengali population who have a tradition of cooking on an open flame, and in this instance, gas hobs would have been more suitable.
Transferable lessons for new communities

New communities will be built with up to 50 per cent of homes being affordable, a combination of socially rented housing and properties for shared-ownership. Housing associations will therefore be key development and management partners in new settlements. East Thames Group demonstrates how issues of sustainability can be incorporated successfully into new developments from the outset.

Social housing tenants moving to new developments are likely to be a group within the community that will need specific support from service providers. Some tenants might be motivated to move into a new settlement because it is an opportunity to live in a decent home rather than a strong desire to live in the area. Tailoring section 106Glossary: (S106) allows a local planning authority (LPA) to enter into a legally-binding agreement or planning obligation with a property developer for the benefit of the community contributions to provide community facilities that can offer enhanced services or support for new residents will be an important part of building stable communities.

Many housing associations have developed strong links with the local communities they serve and are able to respond to those communities' needs effectively. Housing associations should have a role in the development of physical plans and strategies for new settlements.

Housing associations themselves should incorporate sustainability features into any new housing they develop or will take management of these features in new settlements. Each organisation will have an individual approach to this, but it will be important that a sustainability approach is integrated into the work of the organisation as a whole.

To read more see: East Thames Group

top image: ©East Thames Group