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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 08:39 GMT
Ocean estate: New deal or old problems?
Ocean estate
A key meeting this week is to decide on regeneration plans
When plans to regenerate one of the most deprived housing estates in the country were unveiled BBC News Online talked to residents about their hopes and fears.

Now, three years on, Hannah Goff returns to investigate how it has fared.

In January 2001, Tony Blair visited the run-down Ocean Estate in Stepney, east London, and told the community it was getting 56m for regeneration.

But the government's flagship inner city scheme would achieve nothing if the funds were not matched by hard work, the prime minister warned.

Turning around such a huge estate, blighted by decaying buildings, drug dealers and crime, would be one of the biggest tests for Labour's New Deal programme.

However, things have not started well.

Three of the five organisations funded by the Ocean New Deal for Communities (NDC) have had their funding suspended because of allegations of fraud or mismanagement.

There are two police investigations into claims of large-scale misuse of public funds at Stepney's Youth Action Scheme (YAS) and educational project Dame Colet House.

Anti-drugs sign
It's a disaster...people are very angry
Janet Ludlow
Tower Hamlets Lib Dem leader
In both cases, auditors RSM Robson Rhodes said payments had been made to firms and individuals for services that may not have been provided.

And an investigation into allegations of mismanagement, this time by Tower Hamlets council, is under way into St Dunstan's Bengali Community Resource Centre.

The council says while "recent difficulties" are to be regretted, it is important to view the Ocean regeneration in the wider context.

But the backbone of the scheme - the plan to renovate the estate's crumbling and overcrowded housing - is running two years behind schedule.

It still has not been decided exactly which of the estate's 50 blocks will be demolished and which will be renovated.

Under the scheme's 200m housing masterplan 25 of Ocean's worst blocks were to be replaced with new housing.

Scaling back

But now there appears to be a major scaling back of the housing programme as the NDC team strives to draw up a "minimum sustainable option".

This could mean as few as 10 of the worst blocks being demolished and rebuilt.

Ocean NDC chief executive Matin Meah, who has been running the project since last October, says: "The masterplan represented the best aspirations of the local community.

"At the moment we are trying to refine that and find a viable and serious proposal.

"Even though it is not what was originally promised we hope it will still go far enough to convince people."

The basic problem is a massive funding gap.

Although Mr Meah would not give specific figures, he acknowledged that of the 200m needed to fulfil those aspirations only about 47m was certain - 20m from Tower Hamlets council and about 27m in capital funding from the NDC.

The scheme's chosen housing association partner, Sanctuary, could raise a significant sum borrowing from the private sector - something that local authorities are not allowed to do.

But for that to happen the tenants of the estate have to vote for the stock to be transferred to the housing association in a ballot next autumn.

The financial black hole has been caused in part by the cost of buying out leaseholders who bought their homes through the right to buy scheme.

Disappointment

Local MP Oona King estimated it would cost Tower Hamlets 18.7m alone to compensate the 156 leaseholders on the estate for knocking down their homes.

The chair of the Ocean Estate tenants and leaseholders association, Brenda Daley, said: "We knew there was going to be a gap but we didn't know how much.

"It looked nice at the beginning, but now we've got a lot of money that we have got to find.

"People are going to be very disappointed because of the state that some of the flats are in."

And Mr Meah, who is set to discuss the problem with the Government Office for London, admits some people are fed up.

"There are some frustrations particularly in housing. People want to see a lot of physical work."

Drugs treatment worker Zafar Ali
There are a lot of people going into treatment and we're working hard to raise awareness
Zafir Ali, drugs outreach worker

But, he insists, there is a lot of invisible work going on - the New Deal was never only about bricks and mortar.

It was a 10-year plan to regenerate an area blighted by crime, unemployment and poverty and poor educational achievement from the bottom up.

And there have been some real successes in these fields.

A team of eight highly visible wardens patrol the estate, escorting those scared to pick up their pensions or pop out for their shopping.

Unlike other areas of Tower Hamlets, crime rates are actually falling on the Ocean estate - once known as the cheapest place in Britain to buy heroin.

Drugs outreach workers have been tackling some of the estate's most hardened addicts.

Zafar Ali has seen five of 24 referrals go through treatment and begin jobs.

He says: "Things have actually got a little bit worse than before because there are new dealers arriving on the estate.

"But there are a lot of people going into treatment and we're working hard to raise awareness."

Ocean Estate surgery
One of Ocean's GP surgeries operates out of a converted flat
A new healthy living centre is being opened in March to replace two of the most shoddy GP surgery premises in the country.

And a Working Links scheme has enabled nearly 100 young people to find work over the past year.

But it is in education that Ocean has seen its real successes.

Tower Hamlets is the fastest improving local education authority in the country and educational standards are improving in the NDC area faster than elsewhere in the borough.

According to resident and NDC board member Alibor Choudhury, it is these "invisible improvements" that are important:

"It isn't just a massive housing programme - it's a comprehensive programme to improve lives. It has got people involved," the 30-year-old social researcher said.

"Physically people may not see anything but they know something is happening and that improvements are coming", he added.




SEE ALSO:
The Ocean Estate: Sink or swim?
15 Jan 01  |  UK News
Praise for anti-poverty progress
11 Feb 04  |  England


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