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Mon 16 September 2019
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Tom Cordell reports on an endangered proposal by local people in north London to turn an old hospital site into genuinely affordable homes.


For 40 years, the raging property market has pushed housing costs up beyond the reach of ever more of us. But, is there anything we can do to stop it?

In Haringey, north London, the St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART) is trying to establish an alternative for local people. It wants to take over a disused Victorian hospital to build homes and community facilities outside of the housing market – that would be owned forever by the community.

After a promising start, the project is now on the brink, and the fate of the scheme is in the hands of the Greater London Authority (GLA).

The Mayor’s housing team prioritises community-led housing only on sites that are too complex or too politically contentious for conventional development models.

The story began in 2014 when the local NHS mental health trust drew up plans to sell the land to a developer. To maximise the financial return it would get from the site, it had applied for planning permission to build homes there. The trust proposed a scheme where less than one sixth of the homes would have been “affordable” housing.

In a borough with 9,000 on the waiting list for a council home, and 3000 living in temporary accommodation, this goaded local people into action. “We thought – surely we can do better than 14%” said David King, one of StART’s founders. But how could they find the £40 million that the cash-strapped NHS needed to release the site?

The group investigated models to develop the site and, in 2016, decided to form a community land trust (CLT). A CLT would own the land in perpetuity for the community, insulating the land use – community facilities and housing – from the pressures of the property market. In this sense, the model is not so different from traditional council housing. But, with many local authorities across London demolishing their housing estates to realise its underlying land value, many feared that the council could no longer be trusted to protect the interests of its tenants.

These worries became very real for Haringey residents when, in early 2017, it was revealed that the nominally Labour-run council was secretly drawing up plans with Australian property conglomerate LendLease which threatened to disrupt and displace the settled communities there. They planned a joint venture to demolish and rebuild vast swathes of the council’s homes. As the £2 billion scheme came to light, there was uproar from residents across the borough.

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It was in this context that, in 2018, the GLA stepped in to buy St Ann’s from the NHS. Matching London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise to back community-led housing with cash, the GLA promised to work with StART to realise the site’s potential.

StART’s original plan was for around 800 homes on the site, all owned by the CLT, and for rent at no more than a third of average local household income. But, as the negotiations went on, the GLA refused to accept community ownership of the site or to agree to StART’s compromise position that at least 150 homes on the site should be owned by the CLT and made available to local people at genuinely affordable rents.

Around Christmas 2018, StART reflected on what it had achieved. The group decided it was at risk of sleepwalking into a deal that didn’t have community support. In April the following year, it called a meeting to ask the local people what they thought about the GLA’s offer. The group overwhelmingly rejected it.

The St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust wants to take over a disused Victorian hospital to build homes and community facilities outside of the housing market – that would be owned forever by the community.

While the GLA publicly insists that it is “committed to identifying a pipeline” for 1,000 community-led homes across the capital, it now “aspires” to offer only 50 such homes at St Ann’s (even though the land there could deliver 750 more). Sources within the GLA say that, in reality, the Mayor’s housing team prioritises community-led housing only on sites that are too complex or too politically contentious for conventional development models.

The GLA insists it will tender the site to its developer partners this summer. King argues that this places the GLA in breach of its original agreement: “How can they go ahead if the community don’t support this? It’s in the terms of reference we agreed”.

StART has been incredibly successful in its initial ambition to force planners to demand an increase from 14 to 50% of affordable homes on the hospital site. But, City Hall now looks determined to push on with a development model at St Ann’s that, instead of breaking the power of the market over housing, will once again reinforce it. 

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