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The regeneration of Ashford's Stanhope estate and the impact it has had since


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As plans emerge for the demolition of a notorious section of homes in Maidstone, reporter Charlie Harman looks back at a similar effort that happened in a part of Ashford 20 years ago.

When you walk through Stanhope today, you may not realise that a lot of the houses you are walking past are in fact less than 20 years old.

A small shopping centre served as a hub of activity in Stanhope before supermarkets took control of the market. Picture: Steve Salter
A small shopping centre served as a hub of activity in Stanhope before supermarkets took control of the market. Picture: Steve Salter

As the 21st century approached, the Ashford suburb had something of an image problem.

Stanhope was built on the site of a prisoner of war camp as a response to the increasing London overspill in the wake of slum clearance.

Hundreds of homes were hurriedly built by George Wimpey in the 1960s as families poured into the area from the capital.

Now mostly populated by newcomers to Kent, a strong community formed interlaced with clubs and social activities.

Cllr Brendan Chilton, who grew up in Stanhope and now represents the ward on the borough council, said: "In the centre you had a shopping centre where there was a butcher - my uncle's in fact - a baker, a grocer and all the other shops you had before supermarkets.

The blocks of flats were an imposing feature of the Stanhope estate before their demolition. Picture: Steve Salter
The blocks of flats were an imposing feature of the Stanhope estate before their demolition. Picture: Steve Salter
The Stanhope shopping precinct, seen here in September 1982, was a centre for commerce in the estate
The Stanhope shopping precinct, seen here in September 1982, was a centre for commerce in the estate

"You had the blocks of flats, which are gone today, but they were much bigger than you'd find now - essentially they were houses in the sky.

"Everyone on the estate would meet at The Nelson pub, and all the wakes, receptions and celebrations happened there."

Among those who might remember Stanhope is Oscar winner Gary Oldman, who went to the Duncan Bowen Secondary School, now The John Wallis Academy.

It is thought the Hollywood star - best known for his roles as Sirius Black in Harry Potter and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour - lived on the estate between 1970 and 1973.

It is thought Oscar winner Gary Oldman – originally from New Cross in London – lived in a flat in Otterden Close, Stanhope, between 1970 and 1973. Picture: Matt Crossick/Starmax
It is thought Oscar winner Gary Oldman – originally from New Cross in London – lived in a flat in Otterden Close, Stanhope, between 1970 and 1973. Picture: Matt Crossick/Starmax

The estate's layout was based on the Radburn principle, where houses face inwards with small communal areas in the hope of promoting a sense of community.

Unfortunately this design, used for many of the overspill sites, was seen to cause a rise in anti-social behaviour due to small, dimly-lit alleyways and a lack of security.

Stanhope soon cultivated a reputation for crime, meanwhile the open spaces and quickly-built accommodation were rapidly deteriorating.

Terraced housing remains a mainstay of the estate's architecture
Terraced housing remains a mainstay of the estate's architecture

Some, including Cllr Chilton, felt this reputation was misplaced. The Labour representative said: "As someone that's always lived here, I've never personally felt this area to be unsafe.

"I've never felt it to be a crime hotspot, but perhaps because of the appearance, the layout, blocks of flats, it gave an impression it was unsafe.

"Some negative coverage in the press, including calling it 'a notorious area', fostered this idea it was a war-torn and derelict area when it simply wasn't."

Another person who felt the reputation was false is Palma Laughton, who was the ABC councillor for Stanhope when the plan first came to fruition and saw the project through.

The Leaveland Close resident said this week: "Someone told me the reputation came from people not wanting houses opposite - for the area to remain as fields - and that they didn't want people coming from London.

Standardised terrace housing - as seen here in the early days of the estate - is still prevalent across much of the estate. Picture: Steve Salter
Standardised terrace housing - as seen here in the early days of the estate - is still prevalent across much of the estate. Picture: Steve Salter

"Some said it was a bad place without even having visited, but I know that these are some of the friendliest people so I told those people to visit and by the time they'd walked down a street they'd have made a new friend because everyone is so chatty.

"However Stanhope did become quite deteriorated, with fences hanging off of brackets and the blocks of flats looking very outdated.

"At the time it was understandable as the council didn't have the money."

With the reputation at breaking point, the council noted with concern an increasing isolation from the rest of the borough.

Paul McKenner, then-strategic housing and property manager of Ashford Borough Council, noted a large segregation in house ownership.

A boom of people entered the borough during the late 50s and 60s as Stanhope became a London overspill site. Picture: Steve Salter
A boom of people entered the borough during the late 50s and 60s as Stanhope became a London overspill site. Picture: Steve Salter
Pictured in October 1982, the estate soon filled up with residents new to Kent
Pictured in October 1982, the estate soon filled up with residents new to Kent

He said: "Of the 1,300 properties, 60% were sold while 40% housed tenants who were mainly based in the 400 flats. Unfortunately there were very few who were prepared to buy into the maisonettes."

So, in 1999, it was decided an overhaul was urgently required which would see the demolition of all nine of Stanhope's flat blocks to be replaced with 442 new houses and apartments.

The effort would also comprise refurbishments to 323 council-owned properties, including the addition of new kitchens and bathrooms.

Following public consultation, Chrysalis Consortium - made up of Gleeson Homes, Moat Housing and Nationwide Commercial - as well as Denne and Lovell were picked to deliver the project which began in 2007.

ABC then entered into a 30-year, £200m Private Finance Initiative (PFI) regeneration contract with Chrysalis Consortium.

Palma Laughton joined a crowd of onlookers as the first block of flats was demolished in 2004
Palma Laughton joined a crowd of onlookers as the first block of flats was demolished in 2004

Mrs Laughton noted: "I have to give credit where it's due, as the first attempt at getting a PFI fell through and they really worked hard to get the second contract worked out with Chrysalis."

Work began apace, with some experiencing disruption while others said there was none.

The former councillor, who received an MBE for her efforts in improving life in the community, remembered: "It wasn't too disruptive really, there was a lot of work inside of the houses but the girl next door had hers done and no disruption at all.

"I was a councillor at the time and no one complained to me, in fact everyone gave credit to the workmen as they got on with their jobs and made the area so much better."

Meanwhile, Cllr Chilton recalls: "Of course it was absolute chaos when it was going on - every road had diggers and lorries on them, builders buzzing all over the place and mud everywhere.

Mrs Laughton was in the cab of the excavator, controlling the vehicle as it started knocking down The Nelson pub in 2007
Mrs Laughton was in the cab of the excavator, controlling the vehicle as it started knocking down The Nelson pub in 2007
The Nelson pub halfway through its demolition
The Nelson pub halfway through its demolition

"But it was a regeneration so we knew we had to just suck it up because of the sheer scale of the work.

"When it came to the refurbishment of households, there were some issues there because people's entire lives were disrupted.

"They'd be in their house when all of a sudden a team of 12 builders, electricians and plumbers would turn up.

"People had to move all their possessions into the middle of the room if their walls were being painted for example.

"While it's not perfect by any means, on the whole it's certainly better than it was."

The old Stanhope Community Centre, pictured in February 1981
The old Stanhope Community Centre, pictured in February 1981
The Stanhope Centre was built to promote community engagement with clubs and social activities
The Stanhope Centre was built to promote community engagement with clubs and social activities

Valerie Homewood, a Stanhope resident of 43 years, said she didn't mind how the area had been before the regeneration, adding "to me there wasn't anything wrong with the maisonettes as they were".

"I used to walk the dog in the evening and not worry at all - I'd still do it if I had a dog," she said.

"The problem was people were getting away with not keeping properties and the surrounding area in a good condition, but now the issue is being cracked down on more which is great."

An important amenity brought into Stanhope during the works was the Stanhope Centre, responding to calls from the community for a sense of place and balancing of the community.

The centre houses Stanhope Library - currently closed due to the pandemic - as well as the estate's parish hall and Moat Housing's resident office.

Stanhope's former police station was transformed into a community and youth hub as part of the regeneration
Stanhope's former police station was transformed into a community and youth hub as part of the regeneration

Cllr Chilton said that while it's a small building, it's the host site for many of the area's clubs and that the library is the second-most used library in south Kent after the main Ashford Gateway facility.

Opposite the centre is the former police station which has now been converted into a community and youth hub, which the councillor says "beautifully reflects the changes which the regeneration project brought to the area".

The regeneration project was ultimately completed five years later in 2012, a remarkable speed considering it was carried out during the recession.

It was heralded as a massive success, with ABC's then-portfolio holder for housing Cllr Aline Hicks saying at the time: “This is a fantastic time to acknowledge what has been achieved on Stanhope.

"This project has been innovative from the outset and we are delighted that Stanhope has a renewed sense of optimism.

Demolition of The Nelson pub in 2007
Demolition of The Nelson pub in 2007

"In the initial consultation residents told us they wanted a better quality of life and these positive changes will only help to make that a reality.”

The project inspired interest not just in the UK but across the globe, with Brazil's Housing Secretary Ricardo Pereira Leite visiting the town in 2011 to survey the effort.

After he was toured around by key shareholders, ABC's head of housing Tracey Kerly noted the senior minister "was very impressed" and how they were "delighted" to show him the progress that had been made.

Speaking this week, Ms Kerly - now ABC's chief executive - said: "Stanhope has seen a remarkable change as a result of the investment that happened over a decade ago.

“The physical change has without doubt been delivered and along with the physical demolition and new build, many of the more challenging softer outcomes have also been achieved, such as improved skills levels, reduced anti-social behaviour, and reduction in graffiti but still retaining the real community of Stanhope.

Some of the new builds which replaced the even taller flats
Some of the new builds which replaced the even taller flats
Stanhope's shopping precinct
Stanhope's shopping precinct

“The residents of Stanhope were always key to the success of this project. They embraced the changes and we spent many hours working with the community to make sure that what we delivered worked at a very local level.

"For example, how play should be delivered and how access arrangements could be changed, how we managed the home improvements and defined the management of the whole area.

“This has been a major success for the borough of Ashford, and Stanhope is now a desirable place to live as part of the thriving South Ashford community, with great access to a whole host of excellent community facilities.”

One of those facilities is Pitchside in the centre of the estate, which recently underwent a £100,000 upgrade scheme.

New floodlights were installed on the 3G and grass pitch, new goals, resurfacing, landscaping, fencing and a new boiler installed in the changing rooms.

Stanhope's Pitchside boasts new and improved features to encourage nearby residents to get active as the country leaves lockdown. Picture: ABC
Stanhope's Pitchside boasts new and improved features to encourage nearby residents to get active as the country leaves lockdown. Picture: ABC

The £100,000 investment took place in the spring while the national lockdown continued.

Unfortunately the regeneration scheme hasn't fully eradicated Stanhope's problems.

Statistics released by HMRC show that in 2016, 35.1% of the estate's children were living below the government's standard poverty line.

"When you hear about crime in Ashford it's rarely here..."

This was more than double the 2016 figure for the wider Ashford borough of 15.5%.

However Stanhope was far from the most deprived area of Kent in 2019, coming 37 places above Sheerness - the most deprived of Kent's 902 districts.

This week, a Luddenham Close resident, who wished to remain anonymous, questioned the current upkeep of the area, saying: "It's got worse since all the work was finished.

"Moat was supposed to keep everything tidy and manage the place.

"They might do the ring-road but in the middle of the estate there's a ton of rubbish and bins are overflowing - there's one near me that hasn't been emptied for weeks.

An arcade of shops was introduced to Stanhope Court as part of the regeneration work. Picture: ABC
An arcade of shops was introduced to Stanhope Court as part of the regeneration work. Picture: ABC

"I think the problems it had were teething problems. I've been living in the same house here for 50-odd years and I know it had a bad name.

"It got sorted by the project, but then Moat came in and it got worse. We just don't see them in the community and a lot of people are talking about it."

Despite these statistics and observations, many of the families of those first residents still remain and have an undying love for the estate.

Mrs Laughton, now 85, said: "We've had a lot of people move in here since and they say they never realised how nice it was before coming here and that they'd never leave.

"There's also a lot of people who have left before moving back. You'll find many of the residents have been here for decades and wouldn't think of leaving - Stanhope is just such a great place to live."

Cllr Brendan Chilton staunchly defends Stanhope against its bad reputation, saying "it's a truly lovely place to live"
Cllr Brendan Chilton staunchly defends Stanhope against its bad reputation, saying "it's a truly lovely place to live"

Cllr Chilton concluded: "The one thing that's been constant throughout the whole history of the area is the strong sense of community, people looking after one another and being a tight-knit and supportive area.

"In my opinion the unfair negative reputation the estate once had is gone - when you hear about crime in Ashford it's rarely here.

"We have a very diverse population here, a lot of private ownership and a fantastic assortment of clubs - it's a really good place.

"Even though that community has been locked down in a sense over the last year, already it's springing back with activities and club meetings being organised. It's truly a lovely place to be and an exciting time for Stanhope."

Park Wood in Maidstone was also rebuilt as part of a plan to regenerate the area. Liane Castle went to find out if people living there thought it had been a success.

Read more: All the latest news from Ashford

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