Volume 11 Number 2
The Battle of Castle Vale
01 April 1998

Britain, where more people are living longer and alone than ever before, may need up to 4 million new houses, prompting fears of rural destruction. But what about renovating existing housing stock? Michael Smith finds out how Birmingham's largest housing estate is being rescued from urban decay.

Across the main road from the Jaguar car plant on the edge of Birmingham stands Castle Vale housing estate, a sprawling mass of 1960s high-rise tower blocks and maisonettes covering 2.5 square kilometres and housing nearly 11,000 people.

The site used to be an aerodrome. During World War II, Spitfires were rolled out from the hangar where Jaguar now stands to be given their first test flights. From here they flew off to join the Battle of Britain dog-fights against Hitler's invading Luftwaffe.

Today Castle Vale residents are engaged in a battle of their own -- against unemployment, crime, drugs, poor housing, social deprivation and alienation. All the signs are that they are winning. Joblessness, once rife, is coming down, along with the high-rise flats that are being demolished to make way for homes on a more human scale. People on the estate are feeling more in control of their own destinies and there is a palpable community spirit.

Castle Vale, Birmingham's largest residential estate, was built by the city council during that era of social engineering, in the late 1960s, when high-rise was all the rage and thousands were being relocated from innercity slums. It was a time of full employment when getting a job in the factories of Britain's industrial heartland was no problem.

But no one foresaw the crises to come. The recessions of the Seventies and Eighties saw manufacturing decimated and unemployment skyrocketing. Poor quality tower blocks, built by new and untried 'system' methods, soon developed structural defects which caused severe damp and condensation. Communal areas on the estate were poorly laid out and the many alleyways encouraged crime -- and the fear of it. Drugs were on the increase and one pub on the estate was said to sell more drugs than beer on a Saturday night. By the late 1980s, Castle Vale was a no-go area.

Standards of education, despite teachers' best efforts, in the estate's five primary and secondary schools -- and prejudice from local employers -- did nothing to encourage job prospects. Unemployment on the estate was around 28 per cent and long-term unemployment was twice Birmingham's average. It was said that if anyone seeking work put Castle Vale's B35 postal code on their address the application would go straight in the waste bin. Such was the prejudice, says Castle Vale's Director of Economic and Community Development, Rod Griffin, that employers would regard anyone from the estate as 'nothing but trouble'. When one local employer reported the theft of his computers, the police assumed the robbers were from Castle Vale, without any evidence to prove it.

Margaret Thatcher once notoriously said that 'there is no such thing as society' -- only individual enterprise. Try saying that to the residents of Castle Vale today and they would laugh at you all the way to Westminster. In 1993, they voted 92 per cent in favour of handing over the management of the estate from Birmingham City Council to a Housing Action Trust (HAT), funded directly from Westminster.

HATs were the initiative of the then Tory government, as a means of getting direct funding into some of Britain's most deprived communities, as well as drawing on the management skills of local business people as trustees. Birmingham's Labour councillors were pragmatic enough to seize the chance of new money for Castle Vale.

Today the local Labour MP, Robin Corbett, is upbeat about what is going on at the estate. 'I would never have taken it out of local government control,' he admits. 'But what it does show is that it is perfectly possible to redevelop an area that had all the characteristics of innercity deprivation. It shows what can be achieved with imagination and partnership.'

Since their launch, six HATs have been set up, in Hull, Liverpool and three London boroughs as well as Birmingham. The Labour government will continue to fund them, but not start any new ones. Castle Vale is one of the largest with an anticipated lifetime budget of over £200 million -- £42.5 million has already been allocated -- drawn from central government, as well as the rent collected from the estate's tenants and some European funds.

The bulk of this is going on replacing the estate's 34 high-rise blocks with attractive, two-, three- and four-storey homes. The aim of each HAT is to work itself out of business and Castle Vale's is due to finish in 2005. After that, residents will vote on whether to come back under city council management or for an alternative structure more under their own control.

What most marks out Castle Vale is the residents' involvement in the estate's whole development. Four of the HAT trustees, or board members, are residents themselves, and an elected Estate Forum, composed entirely of residents, liaises with the HAT over community issues and tenants' concerns.

'We've tried to introduce the holistic approach to regeneration,' says Rod Griffin. 'In the past, urban regeneration was based on physical investment and it was believed that somehow the benefits would accrue to local people -- the "trickle down" effect. There's enough research now to show that that does not work. Here we have a bottom up approach, in building up the confidence and skills of local people.'

Corbett reckons that 600 to 700 people are now actively involved in development projects 'in an area where you were lucky if you got more than a 30 per cent turn out in a general election'. They range from health, school and training programmes -- including a Job Club to get the long-term unemployed back to work -- to a youth and community centre. Over a third of the staff employed by the HAT are drawn from the estate. Some residents have even been building their own new houses. School children have been involved in improving their environment, including planting crocuses around the estate. A popular draw for young people is to go on a training programme at Castle Vale's own FM radio studio. There are also stables for 20 horses at a knock-down rent.

At Saturday morning sessions, community council members -- part of the Estate Forum-- sit with architects, planning where new housing should go. 'It is really hands-on stuff,' says Corbett. 'More and more, people know this is for real and can have a positive influence on what is happening.' When the eight central tower blocks were demolished, 'the atmosphere changed enormously. It transformed the appearance of the whole estate. It really got people's tails up.' Tenants, he says, are 'over the moon' about the standard of their new houses.

Diane Carter, who chairs the Tenants' Representative Board, representing some 4,000 tenants, is not so upbeat. She says flatly that the tenants themselves are not as 'empowered' or consulted as much as others would like to believe. 'It has been an uphill struggle,' she says. 'One thing that gets in our craw is that we are never consulted on where buildings are going. We are on the road but there is still a great deal more that could be done.'

Carter, a former trade union activist, is a trustee of the local Citizens' Advice Bureau and president of Castle Vale's Credit Union Bank. This is being set up thanks to support from the HAT and will help residents get out of debt to loan sharks.

The prospect of new jobs is beginning to boost morale. Unemployment on the estate has fallen to 18 per cent. But this is still three times the national average. A 1995 survey showed that 16 per cent of the unemployed had never had a job, and 37 per cent had not worked in the previous four years. Most alarming of all, 45 per cent of 16- to 20-year-olds had neither worked nor been on a training programme. Among these, a benefits dependency culture was taking firm root.

Training Manager Julie Haywood says there has been such a turn-around in perceptions that nearby industries are now coming to her to offer to employ people from the estate. For instance, by the year's end, Jaguar needs to recruit 600 people to build its new mid-range car, the X200. Haywood and her team aim to give Castle Vale residents 'an edge on other city-wide applicants' by putting them through GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) courses in manufacturing as well as an intensive paint shop programme. So far 65 applicants have come forward. A new Channel rail freight terminal being built four miles away at Hams Hall is another potential source of new jobs. On the estate itself, Sainsbury's grocery chain is due to open a new store employing 270 people. And, says Griffin, the employer whose computers were stolen is now an enthusiast for the estate, employing residents himself.

At Castle Vale's Job Club, funded by the HAT, they aim to offer a 'gateway' back to work for the long-term unemployed-people who have been out of work 'for anything from six months to 35 years', says Job Club Manager Karen Mahon, herself a resident and 'work returner' after two years away having her two children. Each applicant is assessed for their physical and mental skills -- 'usually under-evaluated', says Haywood -- and given basic training in 'how to sell themselves'. This includes such basics as how to prepare a CV and how to look for jobs in the newspapers.

'It is mainly about motivation,' says Mahon. 'Many don't want to go to work at all. They get into such a culture of state dependency.' The government's new welfare to work programme, which aims to end such a dependency culture, will be quite a shake up, she says. The majority of Job Club applicants are over 35 and so far the Job Club has achieved a 50 per cent success rate in finding them jobs -- some 200 people in the two years since it was launched.

Rod Griffin points to other 'snapshot indicators' of the turn-around at Castle Vale: school numbers at the comprehensive school are 'going through the roof' because so many parents from outside the estate want to send their kids there. This is because Castle Vale's schools 'are achieving a year-on-year improvement in standards of literacy and numeracy that is quite outstanding,' says the MP, Robin Corbett. House builders who used to shun the estate are now getting more interested, says Griffin. Barretts have taken a plot to build 55 homes for sale.

Griffin stresses that there is still a long way to go and 'everyone is on a sharp learning curve'. Unemployment is still too high, and 'there are no quick fixes'. But last December Castle Vale HAT was awarded the prestigious Charter Mark at a ceremony at London's Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. The award goes to bodies which provide the best public services in the UK and Castle Vale was cited for its impact on the quality of life of its residents.

What happens when the HAT has finished its work will be a further acid test of its success. Despite his earlier reservations, Robin Corbett hopes that the residents will vote in favour of establishing some form of community housing association, rather than reverting to city council ownership. Businessman David Owen, Chairman of Rubery Owen engineering group and one of the HAT board members, stresses that the leadership qualities now being developed among the tenants are crucial. 'The whole ethos here is to sustain what is happening, to build a community infrastructure where people feel enfranchised and not disenfranchised,' he says. Diane Carter comments: 'It is time we tenants stood up and said, "Let us manage ourselves". I believe we could do a better job than any government body.'

Britain's urgent housing needs have led to public fears that her 'green and pleasant land' will be increasingly concreted over by urban sprawl onto 'greenfield' sites. Building on 'brownfield' derelict city sites and regenerating existing housing stock are keys to preventing this from happening. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who is also the Environment Minister, wrote in The Times recently that the government 'wants to see as many households as possible accommodated in areas which have already been developed. The vast majority of our people live in cities and towns. I want to see a renaissance of our cities.'

Castle Vale suggests that, given the resources, imagination and spirit of partnership, such a renaissance is possible.
Michael Smith

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