Google ‘Andover Estate’ and you’ll find a relentless list of negative outpourings about this sprawling but dense Council estate north of the Seven Sisters Road – police, assaults, witnesses, drugs, gangs, fear, murder. You might find that Ann Widdecombe spent a night or two on the estate in 2006 and didn’t leave it with a flattering opinion. You could stumble on something positive, but the chinks of light are hard to come by.
At the beginning of my career, in the mid 1990s, the most satisfying part of town planning was explaining the process of forward planning and policy writing to those who came to the office, usually because they’d found out that something was going to be built that would affect them. When people engaged directly with the process, they understood what we were trying to do; as important, if not more important, we understood what drove them and what their concerns were. Working with the public has remained the most satisfying element, and as ‘consultation’ became ‘engagement’, as coming to us has become going to them, and forward planning has become community led planning, it remains so.
On the first visit of a neighbourhood planning project on the estate in 2011, and with prior knowledge limited to that Google search, I struggled to find the way into Andover from the surrounding roads. It was forbidding, impenetrable. The estate was hard and harsh; there were no clear lines of sight; walkways criss-crossed overhead, external stairways rose up and twisted out of sight, lines of garages faced the roads, and each other, at ground level. People seemed suddenly to loiter, collect, watch, threaten. Trees and open spaces were worn, play areas cried out for attention and repair. I was daunted.
I was meeting Richard Schunemann, long term resident and campaigner on the estate and, as it transpires, all round inspiration. Fighting, yet accepting of, the negative perception of the estate, Richard and his colleagues running the community hub at the heart of the estate had achieved incremental and iterative improvement over ten years, including a beautiful community space right in the middle of the estate, complete with bespoke, artistic children’s play space. Still unwilling to give control to the Council, he put some trust in my organisation to deliver a plan to use left over space on the fringes of the estate more productively.
Richard himself was unsure of the feelings of the residents towards the possibility of new development on the estate, perhaps new people coming in. Gathering a diverse group of residents on the final day of the project, even he was surprised at the loyalty residents had towards the estate, how people liked the location and the sense of community that existed, but also at the severe problems of accommodation, maintenance, access and fear which was very real. As a resident, he was opened unto the stories the estate offered, to the experience of living there beyond the perception.
The bottom line is that the local people will always have a unique perspective on place. They live there, they use the spaces and buildings, and they’re there each day, day and night. It’s a perspective that planners, politicians, architects, funders and others cannot have. Naturally, residents usually don’t have the perspective of those trained to understand policy, financial and legislative context, but it is the reason why each should let the other in and allow trust to build. Any other way is ultimately flawed.