Views from the top: Regeneration - it's always all about the people

11 months ago by Austin Mooney

Views from the top: Regeneration - it's always all about the people

Some flats, half with black bricks and other half with orange bricks.

My name is Austin, I manage the Social Housing Finance team at Goodman Masson. As part of our commitment to developing careers we will be talking with industry experts who have reached the top in social housing and want to give something back. 

The social housing sector is evolving and to understand what this means, this week I met with Jon Spearing, Poplar HARCA’s Director of Finance, to discuss East London’s regeneration opportunities and risks. 


I’ve been Poplar HARCA’s Director of Finance for 2 years. Poplar HARCA does things a little differently, so as well as managing the money, I am also the lead for Governance, and our award-winning socio-economic, cultural and environmental regeneration team Accents. 


I made the move to London in 2013 when I joined Poplar HARCA as Deputy Director of Finance. Prior to that I was Head of Finance at Rooftop Housing Group. Why is regeneration so important to Poplar HARCA? Cheesy as it sounds, it’s in our DNA. It’s why we were set up in 1998 by Tower Hamlets Council with the first stock transfer and it’s our mandate from the residents who voted for us. Our approach is to listen to our residents and stakeholders. We then distil what we are told into viable and sustainable proposals. 

What regeneration projects have Poplar HARCA recently undertaken? 

Aberfeldy Village is a flagship project – it’s 6 phases and a joint venture with Be Living Limited. The wholesale nature of the project will see over a 1,100 new homes, and new retail, community, health and faith space. 

Another recent example is Burdett where private for sale homes cross-subsidised affordable homes, re-providing a faith centre, green spaces and creating a much-needed first-form school. This typifies our regeneration approach – whole-community benefits. 

Why a joint venture? 

We’re a medium sized housing association. A joint venture means we share the risk and leverage the experience, skills and resources of a partner e.g. construction, marketing and sales. In terms of funding the development, a joint venture approach protects the housing association from cross default risk and limits our losses in a stress scenario. 

Regeneration often gets negative press, what can be done to avoid this? 

You can’t avoid criticism, and social media means it’s all very public and can feel very personal. And whilst it’s never comfortable, you have to listen. Analyse objectively for anything you missed, or that could (or should!) be changed. It’s also vitally important to seek out the views of the silent majority. Create and take opportunities to talk to everyone so you have a rounded view of what the people affected think and feel. Getting sucked into an argument with a loud, but inevitably small and vested interest group can undo the trust you have with the wider community who feel their views are not being listened to. 

We hear a lot about Gentrification and the damage this can have on communities, how do you tackle this issue? 

Gentrification is a term used to shut-down debate. It’s political. Ideological. Change is inevitable. East London is vibrant. Its success is driven by change. The difference we can make, is to ensure local people can influence the change, and take advantage of the opportunities change brings. By phasing the programme, Aberfeldy families and neighbours moved together into new developments. This is different to some of the criticised London schemes where communities have been dispersed. Residents are the start, the finish, and all points in between. 

We have a long lead-in to any project. Moving people from homes that many have lived in for 20 plus years has to be at a pace that allows you to build trust, understand needs and acknowledge fears. The overwhelming majority of tenants move to other Poplar HARCA homes – they wouldn’t choose to do that if we didn’t do all we can to safeguard the relationship. 

What should you be aware of if entering a joint venture partnership? 

Risk: A joint venture is commercial, and will involve borrowing outside of the usual treasury management area. Be aware of the LLP risks, and make sure you and your partner understand each other’s risk appetite. 

Shared Objective: It’s no secret that developers exist to make money. Choose a partner that is open to understanding your ethos, values and why community is important.

Transparency: Partners achieve most when they feel safe to share the bad as well as the good. 

End Product: Homes, spaces and infrastructure has to be world class. Not only to maximise sales, but because we’re in it for the long-term. In 10, 20 or 50 years we hope still to be here and will be held to account long after the developer has walked off-site. 

How do Poplar HARCA approach building a successful community? 

We don’t. That’s what the people who live, work, visit, worship, play locally do. Our role is to enable, to facilitate, to encourage. We create opportunities so everyone can benefit. Our regeneration starts from the premise that the community knows best. Our Director of Place Making, who leads our Accents Team, then aligns political, social and economic drivers. A thriving economy is also central to a thriving community. We identify, market and let our underutilised assets and spaces which come in all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes and sizes through our Open Poplar initiative. 

Why are some regeneration projects not successful? 

That’s a big question, and will depend on who is doing the asking, and what the aspiration for the project was. We listen to what all of our residents tell us, and act on it. We are open about our process, about what we want to achieve, and about what we can and can’t do. We are a little disappointed that the Mayor of London has introduced the requirement for a resident ballot as it should go without saying that the people most directly affected by change should be directing the change. 

What’s next for Poplar HARCA? 

It’s all about the next regeneration project. We are sat today in Chrisp Street Market. Without going into too much detail, this is a project ten years in the making that will transform the area. It’s challenging and exciting and we can’t wait to get started.