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Higgins sends its peace envoy into the 'war zone'

HOUSING - Rebuilding one of London's most notorious housing estates while the residents remain in place is no easy task for Higgins Construction.Damian Arnold reports

ARRIVING to rebuild one of London's most troubled housing estates, beset by drug dealing, prostitution and car crime, Higgins Construction quickly found out how the site justified its tag as a 'war zone'.

Since starting on site near Islington's Caledonian Road in December in 2005, Higgins' team has had to deal with some unpleasant and dangerous incidents.

The contractor is using its long experience on similar community regeneration projects to diffuse a volatile atmosphere on the site. And six months into the £40 million job, there is relative calm as the first new concrete-framed, brick-clad homes rise out of the ground.

'Security has been a big problem on this site, ' says Rakesh Makanji, sen ior site manager at Higgins, of the project that will see 359 homes built over the next five years. 'We've had break-ins during which our computers were smashed up and cars have been broken into and splashed with paint. We've had kids smashing windows and throwing stones at our cameras.

'People were even throwing bottles and used nappies at site workers below from their flat windows, and it got so serious that they threatened to walk off the site. But we've dealt with the problem now.' A turning point came when some of the worst troublemakers were caught on Higgins' CCTV trying to smash up a digger on the site.

'I think they were surprised that the cameras actually worked. We warned them in no uncertain terms that if we caught them again that next time we would prosecute, and since then there has been a lot less trouble.' The cameras and night-time security guards are only part of the solution. Getting to know the residents is just as important and Higgins' residents' liaison officer, Barry Oxford, is the link man.

Affable, chirpy and (very necessary for this job) with a good sense of humour, Mr Oxford runs the gauntlet of all the upsets expressed by residents.

Walking along the battered and in some places burntout corridors of the 44-year-old estate, he knocks on doors and introduces himself. The idea is to reinforce the point that before too long they'll be seeing some benefit from all the upheaval.

Mr Oxford has also helped to find jobs as site operatives for some of the youths that live on the estate and this has already helped to diffuse some of the hostility towards the site team, he says.

'I think it makes a difference when the youths on the estate see people they know working on the job, ' he says.

Most of the residents he meets are very supportive and long-suffering of the noise and dust as long as they can see the construction rising out of the ground, says Mr Oxford. But this was not the case in the torrid first few months as the site excavation hit problems.

Rakesh Makanji says: 'We found a lot of gas mains and live cables that did not show up on the site drawings but, when we contacted the utilities for up-to-date drawings and to help us diver t them, we had to wait for three months in some cases for their teams to come out. They're as good as gold once they get here, but getting them out of their office has been difficult.' And many of the service pipes they did encounter were badly corroded because of the presence of so much quicklime in the top soil.

The problem was a result of the site's original use in Victorian times as a cattle market, when quicklime was used to rot any remaining meat off the carcasses.

Pipes and cables have been completely replaced in some places, adding further delays.

Higgins has been able to make up time with an average of one floor of the superstructure of the four building projects per week going up under phase one, but there is little margin for error in the programme now.

'We had a little time buffer but there's hardly any left now, ' says Mr Makanji.

At least Higgins has successfully cleared up the most dangerous area of the estate ? a 7,500 sq m reinforced concrete underground car park where some of the worst anti-social behaviour took place has been partly bulldozed and partly converted into community workshops.

And construction continues, in some places just inches away from the existing blocks, which won't be demolished until the new homes are ready. The main challenge is to enable the residents to carry on living in safety and with minimum disruption.

Higgins has installed security cameras around the boundaries of the construction sites to ward off intruders, but they have to be very carefully situated to ensure they don't overlook anyone's home.

'None of our cameras can look on the houses under the Data Protection Act, so we've had to be very careful about the way we angle them, ' says Mr Makanji. 'In areas where we're building right next to the existing blocks it has been a bit of a nightmare.' Access for residents to get in and around the estate has to be maintained and, where sites have been boxed up by wooden hoardings, Higgins has worked closely with the London Fire Brigade and Ambulance Service to identify which areas of the estate could be blocked off and where access has to be maintained at all times.

As the five-storey blocks rise out of the ground, there is the added danger that intruders could get onto the scaffolding, which is within touching distance in some places.

At one particular point at the new horseshoe-shaped block in the middle of the site, a bespoke scaffold design was required with locked gates at cer tain points to deter raiders from climbing them and breaking into flats.

Jim Veal, a long-term resident, says: 'I've been very, very impressed with the progress that has been made.

Most people here accept the noise; they are just longing for the day when they can move into their new flat or house.'