23 January 2020 - 08:09 PM

To Meridian Water…and beyond

‘The capacity of local authorities has been dramatically reduced. Places like Enfield need to have a stronger voice. We’re going to up the ante, and at pace. It’s a new political direction.’

Nesil Caliskan”—”LSE-educated ‘Nes’”—”who was elected as the first female leader in Enfield Council’s history in May 2018, and has lived in Edmonton, in the south east of the borough, all her life, knows what she’s talking about.

‘I’ve been a political activist since I was a teenager’, she says, having worked as a researcher in the House of Commons and for NHS England on health equality. Caliskan’s Turkish Cypriot grandparents moved to the UK in the 1970s, and she grew up around the ‘strong backbone’ of SME businesses in the borough. ‘My grandfather was a shop steward in a timber yard.’

On taking office she scrutinised the council’s plans for Meridian Water, Enfield’s flagship £6bn development in Upper Edmonton, and decided it ‘did not have to sign off one deal with one developer. We would do it ourselves, phase by phase. We’re talking about a 25-year project. Things change, and we need to have models of delivery that have a mechanism to allow change, otherwise it becomes static’.

‘We’re trying to be an enabler. What we are doing is really complicated, so the leadership needs to be creative”—”creative teamwork is a vehicle.’ This means a shared vision with her cohort of councillors, including deputy leader Ian Barnes, the Oscar-nominated film director and writer, a drama and comedy specialist who is spearheading the council’s new culture strategy. ‘It’s important to have a diverse Cabinet. That allows us to understand quite a diverse borough.’ With Enfield’s projected population growth, ‘our public services have to be more integrated in their delivery. We have to reach out to our partners and stakeholders more than before’.

‘We also have quite an ambitious estate regeneration programme. We are coming up with the model of delivery, not selling off land, but keeping it public’, and building ‘networks and commitments to a shared mandate. The integration has better outcomes for our residents. We’re trying to encourage young people to stay. We can’t afford to break up communities’. Caliskan is rallying residents in Angel Edmonton at meetings to help the council shape the new Action Plan to regenerate the area adjacent to Meridian Water and to get things taken care of, fast. They responded well to her saying she’s contacted North Middlesex University Hospital about including key worker provision for doctors and nurses in Enfield’s planned renewal of the Joyce and Snells estate.

At a time when greater public participation in decision-making is sorely needed, this fresh wave of local engagement means ‘we must demonstrate partnership between councillors and officers across the board. It matters when you speak to a resident. As custodians, you have their best interests at heart. You have to build trust, be up front and honest’.

Caliskan ‘has brought real energy and dynamism, clarity of vision, and bold, decisive leadership’, says Peter George, programme director of Meridian Water for the last five years. ‘She’s demonstrated a commitment to shaping her vision and strategies through ongoing engagement processes with local people, shaped by their input.’ From 2009–14 George led Enfield’s regeneration”—”estate, neighbourhood, economic development and planning”—”raising the bar on design quality with the delivery of homes at Prowse Court and Lord Graham Mews (Hawkins\Brown) in Angel Edmonton, and Dujardin Mews, the first phase of the regeneration of Ponders End (KCA, Maccreanor Lavington and East).

‘ We need to have models of delivery that have a mechanism to allow change’ Nesil Caliskan

In the driving seat on Meridian Water, ‘I very deliberately brought together a group of individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds, a good balance of public, private and third sector. Getting the right people and ensuring they all adopt a collaborative working style is essential’. To foster team spirit, ‘you must be sensitive to and perceptive about what people are saying and to how they are feeling. I’m careful to make people feel safe”—”they need to know they are being listened to. I’ll always take the time to talk to them. I also make things clear and by example. It’s about having a zero blame game, and honesty, to build trust’.

In 2014 there were only four people working on the project. Since then, there has been a steady increase to the current 35 postholders, with 15 in the wider council team including lawyers, planners, procurement and communication officers plugged in; ‘very experienced and high calibre people’. George estimates the number of consultants, architects, engineers and legal at 150, a total of 200 people working on Meridian Water. ‘Other councils are amazed at the size of the overall team, but with Meridian Water’s scale and complexity, and the level of financial risk, it’s important to appoint a team of this kind.’

It also equips them to manage the ecosystem of partners and stakeholders critical to the delivery of 2019’s major achievements: the award by government of £156m from the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF), and the new Meridian Water station opened in June (architects KCA, Periscope). For that they collaborated with Network Rail, Department for Transport, GLA, TfL, Volker Fitzpatrick, Greater Anglia, Crossrail, and Haringay and Waltham Forest councils. George, who did an MSc in Urban Regeneration at UCL while working for Hackney Homes, has the mettle of a man who takes complexity in his stride. ‘We applied best practice to achieve delivery of the station on time and on budget. Unless you work creatively, you don’t get the right outcome. A test of true partnership is how you resolve challenges. You develop each partnership by working together to overcome obstacles.’

‘Unless you work creatively, you don’t get the right outcome’ Peter George

The HIF award announced in August gave the momentum of Meridian Water’s housing delivery a massive boost. The partnership between Enfield and Galliford Try”—”appointed in April, to build 725 homes in the first phase”—”unlocked scope to deliver six to eight trains per hour, new roads, bridges, parks, cycle lanes and environmental works. Enfield’s successful bid involved a big team effort led by Lisa Woo, Meridian Water’s head of placemaking, working with the MHCLG, Homes England, the Department of Transport, GLA, TfL, Network Rail, Crossrail 2, the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust, Arup, local people and businesses, and local boroughs. ‘It’s been a monumental effort to coordinate all these stakeholders to get an agreeable outcome for everyone’, George says. ‘It’s required empathy, and taking the time to understand each of the stakeholders’ drivers and their alignments.’

He was also thrilled they pulled off the successful delivery of The Drumsheds cultural event venue on site in June this year with partners, the Vibration Group, staging the annual Field Day music festival on the site for the first time, attended by 30,000 people. Caliskan jokes that, in another life, she would love to sing on stage at Field Day. The Drumsheds is the first of Meridian Water’s creative meanwhile uses to go public. ‘It’s meant we have had to work with partners in a sector we were unfamiliar with’, adds George, ‘to quickly understand their priorities and build trust, and help enable them to understand what the council could deliver.’

‘I never want to lose sight of who we are doing this all for”—”the local community. You do regeneration with people as the principal beneficiaries, not for people. I personally lead on relationships with local residents. How local people feel and sense Meridian Water as a project is integral to its success. We’re also addressing local priorities (in Angel Edmonton) including crime and street cleanliness. Until we can fully deal with them, we won’t have a strong level of trust. It requires multi-agency and partnership working, and spending a lot of time in the communities themselves.’

‘Cities are really complex: they require a lot of professional skills and expertise’, says Sarah Cary, Enfield’s executive director for place since March 2018 (MPhil and PhD in Spatial Planning, UCL), who spent almost a decade at British Land as head of sustainable places. ‘An inherently multidisciplinary approach is vital. You’ve got to involve lots of different people to evolve a piece of city and have a team strategy that welcomes diversity in thought. We serve everyone in the borough, putting residents first, which gives us a mandate the private sector doesn’t have.’

Cary’s role encompasses all aspects of place, including council housing, building control and planning, recycling and waste collection. She wants ‘the council to make a big commitment to the carbon impact of the materials we use and reuse in our own construction industry’. Creating buildings is very carbon intensive. Besides wetlands implemented over the last 10 years, ‘I’d like us to be very ambitious about how we manage our parks and farmlands for biodiversity and climate resilience. The challenge is to think beyond tree planting to rebuilding ecosystems’. Both she and George want environmental sustainability best practice to permeate every aspect of Meridian Water. Dan Epstein (sustainability director, Useful Projects), who was head of sustainable development and regeneration for the 2012 London Olympics, is leading on the scheme’s sustainability strategy.

Under Cary’s watch”—”she is also a director of Public Practice, which operates a cross-council network for associates through one-year placements”—”eight talented practitioners have joined the ‘place’ department. This ‘has helped the council to bring a wider set of backgrounds and skills into its projects and teams, encouraging new ways of working, of approaching regeneration and development projects’. Woo, a Seoul-born architect (MA in Housing and Urbanism, AA), calls Cary ‘a great champion for collaboration and involving others”—”this spirit comes across in everything she says. We are developing a bespoke sustainability strategy for Meridian Water, and trying to embed the principles in key procurement activities. This isn’t possible without collaboration and input from wider teams across the council’. Vincent Lacovara, head of planning, has also played a key role in upping the ante on planning and strategic perspectives across the board since he brought his flair and unerring instincts from his long-term planning role at Croydon Council just over one year ago. For instance, he is looking hard at the potential for adding more high-quality residential uses alongside commercial, community and cultural uses across the borough’s high streets.

‘We are a lean team focused on the ultimate purpose behind our projects, involving a multiplicity of disciplines to tackle problems’, adds Woo. The ‘most important thing is empowering the professional team through our clarity of vision, leadership and purpose, so they know where they want to get to, giving them a sense of autonomy, and trusting that they will come up with outstanding solutions. Micro-managing never works”—”it hinders creativity’.

‘Within the team, there’s a culture very much driven by Peter George. He listens to others, he completely trusts team members to come up with creative solutions’, she says. ‘His creative leadership has been about challenging the status quo, doing things differently. We never just follow the usual process. We ask, how can we do this a bit differently, in ways that help others?’

Before Enfield became master developer of Meridian Water, Woo actively monitored the firm they had worked with, ‘to ensure quality’. Once in the driving seat, the dynamic of the team changed. With the HIF bid she responded to the scheme’s criteria for bidders to unlock a place, and the ‘empowerment of local government to address the housing crisis through the delivery of strategic infrastructure. Government wanted local leadership, and large capital projects that would encourage everyone to raise their game’. The HIF bid’s Green Book evaluation process required a masterplan for delivery. Instead of a standard delivery method, they boosted their chances of success by running bespoke multidisciplinary masterplanning workshops: ‘not only with the architects but to get wider input into the thought leadership’.

In 2018, the first Meridian Water Place Vision (which I authored) defined the overarching direction and principles of the scheme, drawing on over 100 interviews with councillors, executives, officers, consultants, local residents and partners. Throughout the phased development, a creative, inclusive ethos will continue to be applied. As part of this, says Woo, the council wants to involve more SMEs to work on various challenging briefs. Because ultimately, she adds: ‘we need creativity and ideas to help make Meridian Water truly special’.

Ian Davis, Chief Executive since 2017 (previously in Cary’s job), recalls Enfield starting to buy land, piece by piece, at Meridian Water, and getting Housing Zone status for it from the GLA. He restructured management with three executive positions. ‘I needed someone with a track record in regeneration delivery, and Sarah, coming from the private sector, was the perfect fit to bolster the structure’.

The Meridian Water team ‘is a great example of the council’s more progressive working model’ he has fostered, ‘supporting and allowing people to think about different ways of working, encouraging them to propose new things’. Departments have stopped being adversarial about budgets. ‘North East London is known to be in the top 7% of economic deprivation, and Enfield has suffered (on funding) before as it had relatively few projects ready’. 70% of emails in Cabinet members’ inboxes from residents are about housing provision. ‘We want to be a leader: we’ve managed to get a very good team together and are working to get a culture, moving forward. Surround yourself with the best people’.  

This all means ‘exposing our staff to a lot more partners who understand the value, building the relationships between public and private, looking at a whole different metric over time to enable us to do other things’, says Mark Bradbury, Director of Property and Economy since last November, and a chartered surveyor in local government for 15 years including Southampton and London Thames Gateway.

‘The old public sector model was to bring in private developers and get them to take the risks’. He’s very focussed on ‘raising the aspiration for the east of the borough, from lower to higher value jobs, in the face of AI and automation. We can’t rely on the ripple effect’. On Enfield’s town centre initiatives (a Good Growth Fund bid has just gone in), ‘with the community, we say, you tell us what to spend it on. It revolves around a wish list. We need to continue using the same words – enabling, empowering and facilitating – in the office as we do in the wider community’.

Tony Theodoulou, Executive Director – People, is responsible for Enfield’s adult’s and children’s social services, public health, schools and education, youth and community services. He feels the creative change management the Council has introduced has had an impact, ‘mainly through improved engagement with residents and a much improved focus on workforce development, the use of IT and working with partners’. Enfield’s new corporate plan aims to build on the interdependencies between people and place to achieve successful outcomes.

‘As a corporate Director I feel as responsible for the successful delivery of Meridian Water as I do about my statutory duties, recognising the positive impact this will have on future generations of Enfield residents and how it will improve health, education and social care outcomes. Peter (George) is taking great care to ensure he is creating a place where communities and individuals can thrive’.

‘When I took over as Acting Director – Resources, in March this year’, says Fay Hammond, another local authority veteran, ‘one of the first things I did was visit the Meridian Water site, to really understand what it’s like. We are a very collaborative, collegiate management team. Traditionally in councils regeneration officers are the creatives and the finance people are the number crunchers, but at Enfield we’re on the same page. We’ve sat down as an executive group and looked at the financial model, we know what the assumptions are. LSH is our partner in developing it since the new strategy was put in place. We now have ownership of the model. We understand each of development phases, and have a strong view of it overall’.

She got a real buzz going to the opening of the station, doing the joint photo on the tracks. ‘Sharing the joy is vital. We have a Whatsapp group with the Meridian Water team, and share pictures and good news, it’s an excellent management tool, it’s social and business together’.

Lucy Bullivant, for New London Quarterly, winter issue, 2019-20

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