To coincide with Peter Blundell Jones’ revisit to Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, featured in October’s AR, Silvana Taher speaks to Jan Fitzgerald, Interim Director of Community Services at Sheffield City Council
Silvana Taher It’s been said that the Liberal Democrats, particularly Paul Scriven campaigned vigorously for Park Hill to be demolished and replaced with new social housing. Would you say that today the city council is mainly satisfied with the outcome of the project, or would they still have preferred a scrap and build approach?
JF The Liberal Democrats did have it in their manifesto to pull down Park Hill. But this was not because they were against social housing. They argued that Park Hill, as a specific project was an eyesore and it no longer provided for the needs of Sheffield. They wanted to tear it down and build something more appropriate for the future.
However, once the Council started really examining the implications of knocking it down, it became clear that there would be significant costs associated with the demolition, both financial and environmental. Furthermore, discussions with the residents in 2001 showed that residents of the estate and within Sheffield more generally were keen to keep it. Bearing all those things in mind, we feel certain we made the right decision.
ST Having opted for renovation, how have you dealt with the existing residents?
JF The renovation is happening in a series of phases. The first phase, will only affect the Northern Block of the estate. So it will be affecting just under 300 of the total 985 flats. Within this first phase we have had to move people. We started with a door-to-door service in which we interviewed each of the resident.
They were told exactly what the situation was, and what their options were. If they were renting they were asked whether they wanted to stay in Park Hill or leave it after the renovation. A lot of residents wanted to stay and were simply moved over to the other side of Park Hill, which will not be affected in this phase of the renovation.
Other residents wanted to leave Park Hill altogether because their conditions had changed. Conversely, if they had bought their flat, the council has bought it back. We also set up a Resident Working Group and newsletter telling people what’s going on. It took 18 months to empty all the Northern Block.
ST How exactly did the process of buying back happen?
JF The council hired its own surveyor who undertook valuations of the properties to be bought back. Incidentally, this did not take account of the regeneration. The owners were also advised to hire their own independent surveyors. There was also a ‘loss-of-home’ allowance paid out. Aside from the residential properties we had to buy back, we also had to buy back about 36 business.
ST Of the 300 flats that were originally built as social housing only 1/3 will be left as social housing after the new refurbishment. Would the council have preferred a higher ratio of social housing? Or is this 1/3 to 2/3 ratio what they wanted?
JF The council always wanted a more mixed tenure in Park Hill. It’s not a natural condition of a city to have almost 3000 residents in just under 1000 flats all from one social group. So we wanted to create a more mixed neighbourhood. Furthermore, the area around Park Hill has got a lot of social housing. What we hope to achieve by changing the social mix of Park Hill is to create a greater social mix in this whole neighbourhood as a whole.
ST Does this change to only 1/3 social housing reduce the amount of social housing on offer in Sheffield?
JF There was actually an oversupply of social housing. In fact, just under 10,000 flats have been demolished in Sheffield, precisely because they weren’t needed. The problem is the type of social housing on offer. Most of the oversupply was in 1-2 bedroom flats. Conversely, we are still lacking bungalows and 4-5 bedroom houses, but this is not actually something that Park Hill was supplying in any case.
There is also another issue that social housing in Sheffield is clustered in such a way that there is a kind of divide across the city. The south-west is more well-to-do compared with the north-east, which is historically associated with steel works and mining. This division is so acute that the average life span of north-east residents is 10 years shorter than that of people in the south-west. We hope that by mixing the tenure in Park Hill, we will start to even out this difference.
ST As part of the new renovation, there will be 40,000 square feet of commercial space intended to attract the residents of Sheffield. How optimistic do you feel about this space working?
JF Previously Park Hill was serviced only by estate shops and there was no connection between the city and the estate. This was a failure mainly because it did not create facilities which the residents of Sheffield felt they could use, but also because the residents of Park Hill could not sustain such facilities on the estate by themselves. The renovation is targeting this problem by creating flexible commercial spaces for use by the public. This gives the residents of Sheffield a clear message that they are invited into Park Hill.
ST When Park Hill was first built, the council was much more involved in the provision of social housing. How would you say this has changed over time?
JF The council is now in an enabling role. Consequently, we haven’t built housing in over 40 years. What we have now is the ability to raise private finance and still get subsidies. This is a better position, and we wouldn’t want to go back to having total control over social housing. Under the new system there is a greater variety of housing being provided. It’s also important to have good relations with housing groups so we can still influence the type of housing stock being produced.