Modern London has largely been characterised by its buildings and estates. Peckham’s estates are a personality in themselves on the gritty crime drama Top Boy, while music videos by artists as diverse as Janet Jackson and A$AP Rocky feature Brixton. What is London without the brutalist Barbican or architect Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower?
The results may be good for TV drama and music videos, but some estates seem more likely to see a film crew than a repair team. The 5,880 repair jobs left unresolved by Barking and Dagenham’s maintenance contractor illustrates this.
As the Grenfell Tower tragedy showed, while a number of London’s buildings have been revamped in recent years, many of the city’s estates have fallen into disrepair due to decades of neglect and a lack of proper property maintenance. The run-down and dilapidated environment is not only unsightly, it’s also dangerous.
The implications on people’s health from poor housing are now well understood. Two-year-old Awaab Ishak may have been living in Manchester when he died from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his flat, but London is host to plenty of similar stories, as social housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa has highlighted. From this neglect comes illness. The estimated cost for the NHS of housing-related illness already runs to £1.4 billion a year.
Then there is the impact on many Londoners’ mental health. The feeling of entrapment on a dilapidated estate can be overwhelming, reinforcing hopelessness and despair.
A lack of proper maintenance and upkeep can also create an environment that fosters crime and violence. Where there are broken windows, damaged doors, and poorly lit walkways, crime is more likely to flourish. Millard Terrace in Dagenham Heathway is a case in point. Residents are scared to use the lifts and to use the refuse room as drug addicts often use them as toilets. Low-income housing developments are of course not uniformly crime-ridden, but there is a clear correlation between run-down estates and violence.
Fixing this has to be at the top of London’s agenda. Many reforms, both big and small, are required.
Some estates just need to be torn down, as they are beyond repair. When the Larner Road Estate in South-east London was plagued by crime for four decades before a £120m community-led revamp. This high-density estate now has 80% less crime compared to the rest of its ward. No wonder 75% of Millard Terrace’s tenants are in favour of redevelopment.
Unfortunately, it is often too expensive to completely tear down estates and the impact on the climate is often also much greater than retrofitting or maintenance. London needs more immediate, cheaper answers.
Here we could learn a lot from Germany. There, each building has a resident property manager – a “hausmeister” – who is responsible for organisational measures and repairs within the community’s houses and the apartments. Hausmeisters live in the properties they look after, often for years if not decades. They know the building, the flats and even the tenants.
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A key benefit of a hausmeister is that they can help catch problems early. Say there is a leak from your shower – an on-site professional could identify and address the issue far quicker than a contractor, and without the extra charge. This would likely contribute to significant savings, preventing the need for you to pay for the major repairs needed to your downstairs neighbour’s flooded apartment.
As on-site observers, a hausmeister also helps prevent crime on housing estates. By monitoring and taking responsibility for communal spaces, they report suspicious activity to the police and even act as a deterrence.
With common areas reclaimed from anti-social behaviour and refurbished, hausmeister also work with residents to reinstate community programmes in estates, helping to reduce crime further. By taking a proactive approach to crime prevention, hausmeister make housing estates safer for all residents.
There are of course limits to what can be transferred across from Germany to the UK. After all there is no more comforting cultural trope than comparing liberal-minded Britons to rule-abiding, snooping Germans. But is evident that London would benefit from a version of the hausmeister system. Today, the responsibility for an apartment often depends on its tenure type tenure type – whether it’s owner occupancy (47%), privately rented (28%), or socially rented (23%).
Any myriad of people can be charged to fix problems within the same building, each with their own response times and incentives. The result can be a very variable quality of service. The tenants of London’s estates want front-line, estate based management in their communities.
Some areas of London are taking steps in the right direction. Lambeth’s Community Works taskforce is a new, directly employed communal repairs team which offers better quality, socially responsible and digitally driven services across the borough. 60% of the workforce is employed locally. This local scheme completes 500 jobs every month.
Learning from Germany, but also London boroughs like Lambeth, the way ahead would be to mandate that all buildings and estates in London over a certain number of apartments must have a hausmeister – let’s call them a Community Estates Manager – who can help tenants, manage repairs and liaise with the police and social services. Employing and accommodating local residents should be at the centre of the scheme.
If a city-wide mandate is too hard, local councils could commit to using Section 106 (S106) Agreements to ensure accommodation is provided. The salaries of Community Estates Managers could be covered by a London-wide Community Estates Fund set up by the Mayor’s Office and compensated by the savings delivered to property owners by preventative action. A capital facility developed by the City of London could help deal with financing.
Like matrons on a hospital ward or community police officers, Community Estates Managers will help provide local solutions, with action taken close to where problems lie and in concert with those most affected. In Germany, the hausmeister system has proven to be a successful strategy for managing residential properties. It could offer London a new way to address problems across the city’s estates.
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