Castle Vale, Birmingham, 1994 to the present Maintaining positive change

Castle Vale, an extremely deprived and stigmatised neighbourhood on the outskirts of Birmingham, underwent a massive programme of regeneration from the mid 1990s. Early in the project plans were made to maintain improvements and the estate has continued to prosper since the end of the regeneration project.

Key Points

  • A regeneration scheme which has been able to preserve the improvements made through effective long-term stewardship.
  • Flexible management of the process of relocating tenants into new homes
  • A sensitive approach to engaging with a changing population
The regeneration scheme's scope

Castle Vale, on the outskirts of Birmingham, is home to around 10,000 residents. Over the past 15 years the estate has undergone a remarkable process of transformation, which has seen 32 of the area's 34 tower blocks demolished and replaced with low rise, mainly terraced housing. The reputation of the area has also improved dramatically, to the point where demand for housing is high.

The stigmatisation of Castle Vale

Before the 1960s Castle Vale had been synonymous with its aerodrome, the site of the later housing development, and many local people still refer to the role the area played in the development of the Spitfire in the Second World War. These positive associations eroded rapidly following the construction of the housing estate in the 1960s. Much of this new housing was built using pre-fabricated construction methods which resulted in poorly insulated homes, sometimes so badly put together that the outside world was visible though the gaps that appeared between wall panels.

Within a decade the area had become adversely affected by high levels of unemployment and crime; its wide straight roads were particularly popular with joy riders. The estate was described by some as a ‘hellhole' and many mention that the area's reputation was so bad that it was difficult to find a taxi driver who was willing to drive into the estate. The present situation is now markedly different. Castle Vale was victim to only 16 burglaries in 2007. For some, however, the negative perceptions have remained, proving that changing a place's reputation can be a long process. Castle Vale Community Housing Association (CVCHA), now the major landlord on the estate has been keen to encourage residents in Birmingham and surrounding areas to visit the estate and see for themselves the changes that have taken place. Over the past 3 years, over 100 such visits have taken place.

Transforming Castle Vale - Housing Action Trust 1993 - 2005

The process of regenerating Castle Vale began in 1993, when plans to create a Housing Action Trust (HAT) were passed by a resident ballot. Castle Vale was one of six HATs set up in particularly blighted areas of England in the 1980s and 90s. HATs were designed as public bodies that would oversee improvements to deprived neighbourhoods over a time limited period. Each was governed by a board which included active residents, representatives of resident organisations and members of the local authority.

The HAT existed for 12 years between 1993 and 2005, and was charged with a number of targets for the estate:

  • To improve and redevelop the existing housing
  • To improve quality of life for residents, including their economic, social, health and environmental conditions.
  • To provide wider choice of housing tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property
  • To be an effective landlord
  • To maintain these improvements into the future

Its initial focus was to remodel the estate's housing and the effect was dramatic. Almost all of the tower blocks, 32 of 34, were demolished and around 1,500 new homes were built in their place. As the estate began to become more stable the HAT established a community warden scheme, which came into effect in 2002. Five wardens now patrol the estate. Their role does not involve law enforcement, specifically reserved for the local police force, but they act as a community link, opening channels of communication between residents and service providers. This communication works both ways, feeding news of initiatives and events to local people and giving them an avenue to tell those managing their homes about any issues affecting them. The community warden scheme has been an important component of improving the safety and cleanliness of the public spaces on the estate.

Transition to long-term stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community

The issue as to what kinds of organisations would continue the work of the HAT was considered from early on in the life of the regeneration project, and English PartnershipsGlossary: English Partnerships was the national regeneration agency, which merged with the Housing Corporation in December 2008 to form the new Homes and Communities Agency was the official body responsible for ensuring that efforts to reach the HAT's targets would continue after 2005. A range of organisations took on the stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community of the neighbourhood, including:

  • Castle Vale Community Housing Association (CVCHA) - which was set up in 1997 to manage the new housing that was developed on site. A positive tenant vote in 2003 led to the transfer of 98 per cent of the HAT's housing stock to CVCHA.
  • A Neighbourhood Partnership Board - which brings together representatives from Birmingham City Council, the police, Primary Care Trust (PCT), CVCHA, Learning and Skills Council and the resident community to strategically plan and monitor Castle Vale's progress. It manages an endowment fund bequeathed by the HAT.
  • Merlin Venture Ltd - a community development trust which has predominantly focused on helping to improve employment prospects for people living in Castle Vale
  • Castle Vale Community Environmental Trust - which works with the community and local business to promote awareness of environmental issues.
  • A Credit Union - set up to ensure that local residents had access to affordable credit
  • Castle Vale Community Fund - which has provided almost £50,000 to support community orientated projects

During the period of transition, around 2004 and 2005, discussions were had as to the most appropriate form of stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community, particularly about whether or not to adopt a parish council for the neighbourhood. This was seen as a potentially effective way to oversee the long-term future of the neighbourhood but was ultimately rejected in favour of a neighbourhood managementGlossary: is a process of coordinating public service delivery at a local level approach, in large part because it was already well established and was working effectively.

Governance of Castle Vale

The two key organisations that oversee the stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community of Castle Vale, the Neighbourhood Partnership Board and CVCHA, concentrate solely on the progress of the estate. In effect, their approaches mirror the respective roles of a Local Strategic Partnership (LSPGlossary: A local strategic partnership (LSP) is a non-statutory body that brings together the different parts of the public, private, voluntary and community sectors working at a local level) and local authority on a much smaller scale, in that the Partnership Board decides the strategic priorities for the area into the long term and CVCHA manages much of the area's housing and community initiatives.

Both organisations have been able to maintain good relationships with local political processes, despite the fact that Castle Vale overlaps with a Birmingham City Council ward with its own governance structures. The fact that the organisations managing Castle Vale focus on one neighbourhood, coupled with broad support from local councillorsGlossary: Councillors are elected members of a local authority, has meant that they have largely avoided becoming associated with any political issues or agendas at city council level which could have potentially destabilised their progress.

Learning from experience - managing relocations

CVCHA has now overseen the resettlement of thousands of residents, from the housing that was demolished on Castle Vale and from other areas of Birmingham. Through this experience it has been able to adapt its approach to managing these moves to ensure that the outcomes for residents have improved. For example, in early phases of reallocating homes for residents, houses were filled to capacity. The new neighbourhoods could not cope with such a volume of young people, which led to dissatisfaction, disputes and anti-social behaviour. . Now homes are allocated so that they are not full from the moment a family moves in.

Initially, tenants moving into new homes were only informed three weeks before the event. Though the new homes were of a much higher standard than the old flats, the speed of the move left many tenants feeling dislocated and unsettled. More recently when CVCHA were developing new homes they identified future tenants from local authority waiting lists and internal transfer applications almost a year before they were due to move in. This allowed for future tenants to get involved with decisions over the specifications of their new homes, giving them a sense of ownership. It also gave the housing association a ‘captive audience' meaning it had a chance work intensively with future tenants. This involved introducing future neighbours to each other in advance, and including them in appropriate training schemes. This approach had to be negotiated with the City Council, which took time to agree but it ultimately worked well.

Future priorities for long-term stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community - education and employment

Since 2007 the priorities for the Neighbourhood Partnership Board have shifted from improving the quality and safety of Castle Vale's public spaces to improving longer term educational and economic outcomes for residents. Much of the HAT and later CVCHA's work has helped to tackle some of the barriers preventing residents from being able to work - poor quality housing, poor health and lack of childcare, and now particular focus is being applied to training and educational opportunities for local people. This is a difficult challenge. Many of the jobs available locally are low-skilled and employment schemes that have been active in previous years did not help all those deemed to be ‘hard to reach'. Much of the work that CVCHA is involved with is designed to improve residents' confidence and basic skills, not so much as a step into work but as the first step on a long journey into work.

Engaging with a changing community

CVCHA was set up as a community focused organisation and recognises that its ability to support Castle Vale's community comes from residents' involvement in decision-making and in communicating their needs and opinions to members of the housing association's staff. Yet as conditions on the estate have improved it has become harder to engage residents, and the CVCHA has found that many of those taking part in formal governance structures tend to be older, active residents. Though their contribution is greatly valued the organisation is conscious that their views do not necessarily reflect those of the wider community.

Around a quarter of the residents who now live in Castle Vale are under the age of 25, and engaging with this group has become a priority for CVCHA. The organisation has a youth team which hosts events for local young people but has found that demand has been too high to accommodate everyone who has wanted to take part. Youth engagement officers have been experimenting with different tools to communicate with local young people, including using text messaging. They have also supported the development of a youth council, whose members manage a small budget to finance and design their trips and activities, which helps them to develop their planning and management skills. CVCHA is keen to build on these initiatives and to develop their youth services more fully in the future.

Successful aspects of the work to transform Castle Vale
  • The focus of the Neighbourhood Partnership Board and housing association on one discrete geographical area has helped them to respond effectively to the needs of the community. It has also helped to distance them from any political issues that have arisen at a City or National government level.
  • The success of the regeneration of Castle Vale has meant that service providers have been able to move beyond a clean, green and safe agenda to a more long-term strategy to tackle worklessness and low educational achievement.
  • CVCHA has been able to improve its relocation procedure for tenants, and learn from early mistakes. Their intensive work with future tenants during the year up to their move has helped to make the experience more positive for those involved.
  • Giving people the opportunity to influence the feature details of their new houses has had an impact on the feelings of ownership that new tenants have of their homes. Planning what seem like small details can have an apparently disproportionate effect on the success of the move.
  • CVCHA now makes a surplus of around five per cent of its rental income each year, which it is then able to use to fund community wardens and other community focused initiatives, without being dependent on short-term grant funding.

Future challenges for Castle Vale
  • The 2007 Index of Multiple Deprivation showed that though there had been some slight improvements for Castle Vale, many people in the area were still affected by deprivation. Though quality of life has improved dramatically, particularly in terms of a reduction in crime, raising future residents' life chances will rely on improvements to educational achievement and access to fulfilling employment in the area. This is challenging and can not be successfully delivered by one organisation alone.
  • The programme of intensive community support that the original HAT undertook was extremely expensive, costing around £198 million of government funding over its lifetime. It is unlikely that in the short term similar funding would be available for similar projects in other areas.
Transferable lessons for new communities

Around 60 per cent of Castle Vale's residents socially rent their homes, and for that reason is unlikely to resemble the new communities of the future. However the area's dramatic success in regenerating what was one of the most deprived estates in England has some valuable lessons for those involved in building new communities.

The process of moving people into new homes is most successful when it is carefully managed, allowing residents to choose some of the features and fittings of their homes and giving them a chance to meet their future neighbours. This level of engagement is possible with future residents of all tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property types, particularly where owner occupiers have bought properties off planGlossary: refers to a property that has not yet been fully constructed. Private developers and social housing providers could work together to organise events where future residents can meet.

When a place becomes stigmatised it can take a long time to change perceptions to something more positive. While this can be avoided through effective stewardshipGlossary: refers, in this context, to the ongoing process of managing, maintaining and tending a community of a community, where it does occur, public agencies and service providers must respond quickly to stabilise the problem and do what they can to prove that negative connotations are not deserved.

There are various ways of managing a community, Castle Vale considered both neighbourhood managementGlossary: is a process of coordinating public service delivery at a local level and a parish council approach. The most appropriate option will be the one that works with the grain of any existing governance structures or neighbourhood-level initiatives.

Many new communities are likely to attract a high proportion of young families. In order for stewardship organisationsGlossary: are organisations, sometime charitable, that have a specific role to manage community assets into the long-term for the benefit of the local population as a whole and public agencies to provide them with the services they need, young people will need to be engaged. Traditional routes for this may not appeal and it will be crucial for such organisations to think creatively about how best to engage with them.

The safety and attractiveness of neighbourhoods are extremely important to residents' quality of life but people also need fulfilling jobs to access a more prosperous future. The role of local education and skills providers will be crucial to long term success.

To read more about Castle Vale see: CVCHA

Images: ©CVCHA