Walker Riverside, Newcastle, 2003 to 2018 Benefits and tensions from working with existing communities

Walker Riverside is an ambitious regeneration project which aims to transform the existing community in East Newcastle. The project has demonstrated a clear and committed approach to working with the area's residents and to involving them in shaping the future of their area in a meaningful way. However, the project has also been affected by local political tensions and delays to its progress.

Key Points

  • Managing complex relationship between different public agencies
  • In depth consultation process
  • The importance of social infrastructure

Walker Riverside is 15-year long regeneration project to transform the Walker district of Newcastle. The project began in 2003 and will involve the demolition of around 700 existing homes, the majority of which are flats, and the construction of 1,600 new houses. Alongside this, plans are being developed for a rejuvenated centre of Walker, with new shops, leisure facilities and a new building for the local primary school.

The need for regeneration

Walker, located in the East of Newcastle on the banks of the Tyne, was the traditional home of the ship building community. When the dockyards in the city declined, the neighbourhood experienced a significant economic and social downturn. The area's population fell to around only 60 per cent of what it had been in the late 1960s, and by the turn of the millennium life expectancy in the area was 10 years lower than the city average. The residents that remained were affected by high levels of worklessness and other indicators of social deprivation.

In the 1990s, Newcastle, like many cities in the North of England, experienced a collapse in the local housing market. Property prices plunged and there were high levels of abandonment in many areas, including Walker. The situation was so severe that in the late 90s the Labour-controlled City Council adopted a strategy of 'Going for Growth', which, despite the name, involved a large-scale programme to demolish properties across the city. Further measures were taken to stabilise the housing market when in 2003 'Bridging Newcastle Gateshead' was created as one of the Market Renewal Pathfinders by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). ‘Bridging Newcastle Gateshead' identified Walker as a priority area for support.

At this time, around 80 per cent of the existing housing in Walker was socially rented, the majority of which was managed by the City Council, and after 2004 by the City Council's ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) 'Your Homes Newcastle'. There had been almost no new house building in the area for nearly 40 years, meaning that there were few opportunities for local young people to return and settle in the area as adults.

The Walker Riverside project is a partnership between Bridging Newcastle Gateshead, Newcastle City Council, Places for People (PfP), Bellway, English Partnership, local councillors, the community and voluntary sector and residents, designed as a catalyst for the creation of a socially sustainable community. The scheme includes new transport, education and leisure facilities, and the development of a range of housing tenure types with the ultimate aim of a ‘mixed community' with a diverse range of incomes enabled through an increased choice of housing for sale or shared ownership.

Marketing Walker

The project from the outset was carefully marketed as ‘Walker Riverside' and each phase of the development, irrespective of which partner had funded it, has been consistently branded. Those managing the development were conscious that with so many partners the central message, that this was a joint initiative to regenerate the Walker neighbourhood, could potentially be lost.

Working with the Walker community

Since the birth of the initiative in 2003, its project partners have been committed to working with the existing local residents. Various estates within Walker have their own Tenant Resident Associations (TRAs) which meet regularly with officers from the City Council. The area had also long been represented by local councillors from the Labour party, and has been seen by many as a Labour heartland. These councillors have been strongly committed to the provision of social housing in the area. Some residents, whilst recognising the need for investment and new facilities, have likened the plans for the demolition of social housing to socio-economic cleansing.

In 2004 the local elections saw the Liberal Democrat party overturn the city-wide Labour majority and take control of the council. By this stage community consultation work in Walker was already underway. The election decision meant an end to the 'Going for Growth' strategy, which had not proved popular. Initial plans for the number of homes to be demolished had been scaled back prior to the change in political control, and the Liberal Democrats were keen to look again at the project's consultation strategy. These delays to the project were further compounded by a change to the national planning system at this time. In total the project was held back by around 18 months.

PfP, a property management and development company, was selected by residents as a project partner and has led the initiative's community consultation work. Following the delay to the project PfP developed a consultation programme based on the principles of 'Arnstein's Ladder of Participation', which clearly differentiated between occasions where residents were being informed, consulted and were invited to participate. This has included:

Informing:

  • Through quarterly newsletters, updating them on the progress of the development, delivered to every home
  • Publicity about the project has been displayed in public buildings throughout Walker.

Consulting:

  • By inviting them to take part in regular community meetings to discuss the project. Each house was invited by letter. Low levels of literacy has been an issue in engaging all the residents and the project partners have also tried to make use of local media and word-of-mouth to highlight consultation events.

Inviting residents to participate:

  • In the most recent phase of development, the 'Heart of Walker', planning exercises took place over the course of a week, facilitated by Places for People and four national architect firms. Residents drew up their own plans for the scheme which will be incorporated into the final statutory plan for the mixed use centre.

The Chief Executive and Board Members of PfP have also made a strong personal commitment to the project and have attended many of the regular community meetings in Walker, despite not being based in Newcastle. The level of consultation that has taken place, though slow to bear fruit, has encouraged support for the scheme within the community. This despite, at times, significant tensions between the City Council and the local Labour councillors.

The Walker Promise

In 2006 the project partners, working with local residents agreed the 'Walker Promise'. This document was aimed at reducing concerns with the local community and made a commitment that all existing residents would be able to stay in the area. It also included a commitment to allow residents to remain living close to neighbours and in existing social networks where possible, and that many people, such as the residents on the Cambrian Estate, would be able to move to new homes before their existing homes were demolished.

High quality design

High design standards were adopted by the Walker Riverside project partners as part of the scheme's design code. Walker was one of CABE's design code pilots in 2004 and 2005, and the City Council adopted the Walker Design Code as a Supplementary Planning Document in 2007. All homes meet Eco-homes 'very good' standard and are lifetime homes. Along with Walker's proximity to Newcastle City Centre and views across the Tyne, these make the homes already developed desirable, and play an important role in changing people's perceptions of Walker. However, as the recent credit crisis and collapse of Northern Rock have taken their toll on the local housing market, there are concerns that these high standards will make building in Walker less attractive for developers in the short term and may further slow the project's progress.

In early 2007 community consultation and planning began as part of the development of the 'Heart of Walker' scheme, intended to provide new shops and leisure facilities for the community. The scheme will also include a replacement building for the two existing local primary schools, which at present have significant number of surplus places. Its relaunch will be crucial to attracting young families. Some of those involved in the project admit that it would have been desirable to have begun this phase at the project's outset so that the new facilities were complete at the time when the first families were moving into new housing in the area.

Stakeholder relations

Over the course of the Walker Riverside scheme the housing market within Newcastle has experienced a reversal of fortunes. House prices have risen along with demand for social housing, and 'Your Homes Newcastle' the city's ALMO has found its properties in Walker popular once again.

'Your Homes Newcastle' is not officially a project partner in Walker Riverside, despite the large numbers of homes it manages in the neighbourhood. The initial plans for demolitions in the area would have had a significant impact on the number of homes it was able to provide, and development plans did not include new homes to replace those lost by the ALMO. Though the number of homes to be demolished has dropped, discussions are still taking place as to the future of some of the tower blocks in the area. These house hundreds of people and if they are demolished it would not be possible for the ALMO to build enough houses on the same site to rehouse all their tenants. These pressures have been added to by the need for 'Your Homes Newcastle' to meet the Decent Homes Standard. The ALMO has received some support from the Walker Riverside partners in upgrading the appearance of the local environment, particularly to front gardens and boundaries to homes on prominent routes through the area, but has had to invest in the upgrading of homes despite ongoing tensions over whether they should remain standing.

Ultimately, both the change in Newcastle's political leadership and the growth of demand for social housing in Walker have lead to a reduction in the number of homes to be demolished. This has led to financial consequences for the project as a whole, which was based on projected sales of new housing and rising land values owned by the City Council. Furthermore, misunderstandings developed between English Partnerships' representatives and other partners over what specific infrastructure work could be funded by the national agency. The financial plans have been corrected but a gap in the project finances still exists.

The board overseeing the project, which includes all the project partners, local councillors and local resident representatives, was established on the basis of it operating until 2018. More recently the City Council has undertaken a review of governance and changes are envisaged. At present, plans for a long-term stewardship strategy have not been developed beyond the principles recommended from the outset by Places for People due to political concerns over accountability and alignment with Citywide policies.

Successes for Walker
  • PfP's community consultation strategy has been extremely thorough, and has made a clear distinction between mechanisms of engagement, when residents are being informed, consulted or asked to participate. This has helped to build support for the project despite local political tensions
  • The project has been imaginative in including residents in designing parts of the scheme, and these exercises have made a meaningful contribution to the shaping of the development
  • The high design standards adopted by the project partners have delivered high quality desirable homes, which will help change perceptions of the area
  • Consistent marketing and branding of the project has reinforced a message of local people improving their area rather than organisations promoting phases of development individually.
Challenges for Walker Riverside's partners
  • Tensions on a city level between the Labour and Liberal Democrat policies on housing and community consultation meant that the result of the 2004 election led to a re-evaluation of the plans for Walker. This caused a delay to the project as a whole, and the reduction in planned demolitions led, in part, to a hole in the project's financial plans
  • The Walker Promise, though crucial in gaining the confidence of many existing residents has added to complications in planning the phases of development and rehousing residents. Whilst overall the Walker Promise has enabled a smooth rehousing process for the majority of residents affected by demolition, a number of households feel that they have been misled in to believing that they would be offered a brand new home, when in fact the certainty of being rehoused into an existing property in Walker was both the spirit and intention behind the Promise
  • The ‘Heart of Walker' will be able to provide much needed social infrastructure to the area. However if work on it had begun at the project's outset it might have added to the appeal of the newly created housing in the area
  • 'Your Homes Newcastle', the city's ALMO, has been expected to have a large number of its properties demolished at a time when it is under pressure to find social tenancies across the city to meet high demand, and invest many millions of pounds in upgrading its housing stock to meet the Decent Homes Standard.
Transferable lessons for new communities

The Walker Riverside project involves the regeneration of an existing area and community, and though new settlements will be built in different contexts, there are valuable lessons to be drawn from the intensive consultation work that has been a feature of the project but also over managing political tensions at both a city and local level.

Many new communities will be built near to existing neighbourhoods and some of those will have thriving local political traditions. Engagement with such communities is possible and can help build support for a project but will only do so if the people involved feel a genuine ability to shape their local area. It is important to be clear when residents are being informed, consulted or are participating in decision making in order to reduce possible frustrations.

Most large-scale regeneration or new build developments take place over 10 to 20 years, and over this time it is highly unlikely that political parties will remain wedded to the same policies throughout or that the same party will maintain political leadership in an area. Though all successful projects are championed at a local political level, any perceptions that they are intrinsically linked to particular party or national policy may backfire in the long run.

High design standards will help ensure that all the new homes will be of good quality. These may increase financial pressures in the short term, but will be part of a strategy to maintain the desirability of an area over the longer term.

Sustainable communities are resilient to change. Part of building resilience comes through a community having a sense of itself and people having strong social networks in the area. Local schools are important hubs for families to interact. Where desirable homes are built but local schools are not of an equivalent standard there is a risk that some new families might chose to send their children to other schools in the city. This could potentially limit the building of social connections between existing and new residents.

To read more see: Walker Riverside and ‘Walker Promise'

Second & forth image: ©PfP