Is Boris the man to make prefabs sprout in London?

The award-winning YMCA building on Dingwall Road, a 21st century prefab

The award-winning YMCA building on Dingwall Road, a 21st century prefab

CROYDON COMMENTARY: DAVID CALLAM muses over the mess our council has made of one of its most important community responsibilities

Housing in Croydon is in crisis.

A combination of lazy politicians and greedy developers has brought us to a parlous state in which we are proposing to build properties for a non-existent market while we fail to provide decent homes for those in genuine need.

The latest census, conducted in 2011, tells us there are 700,000 more people in Greater London than the experts predicted. That’s nearly 21,000 extra people in every borough. That in itself is cause for concern, but politicians and planners are compounding the problem by continuing to endorse get-rich-quick schemes that will remain unbuilt for years and then under-occupied, maybe for decades.

Over the past 60 years, a combination of rent control (which drove landlords out of the property market) and the dogmatic disposal of council houses (without suitable replacements) has resulted in a scarcity of homes and therefore a rise in the cost of buying or renting.

We have reached a wholly undesirable situation where anyone earning the average wage cannot afford to buy or rent a decent home in London and the south-east. Indeed, matters are so bad that even posh-boy Boris (tram or no tram) Johnson is campaigning for a city-wide pay increase in the form of the London Living Wage.

A major reason for Boris’s uncharacteristic concern, he says, is the cost of housing in and around the capital. He is sharp enough to realise that something must be done now if his banker buddies are to continue to find people to walk their dogs or clean their offices.

Of course there are ways out of the crisis, but first we have to stop wringing our hands and decide to do something. As ever, we are desperately seeking leadership.

I grew up in inner London is the wake of the Second World War and the destruction wrought by the Blitz: I can remember visiting a friend of my mother’s in her prefab on Clapham Common, and very comfortable it was too.

The standard of prefabricated buildings has improved markedly since then, but the principle remains the same. The new YMCA hostel in Dingwall Road is a good example of the latest techniques, built for a fraction of the cost of a conventional structure and, crucially, in a fraction of the time.

The flats on the site of the Propeller on the Purley Way have been built quickly and are more affordable than many developers' get-rich-quick schemes that have failed Croydon

The flats on the site of the Propeller on the Purley Way have been built quickly and are more affordable than many developers’ get-rich-quick schemes that have failed Croydon

Shared ownership is another way of creating affordable homes for working people in Croydon. For example, a flat in the new Propeller development on Purley Way will cost you £7,500 deposit with mortgage repayments of £395 a month for the 50 per cent you buy, and an additional charge of £168 a month for the 50 per cent you rent. That’s a total of £563 per month on accommodation.

We could and should be encouraging more of this kind of enterprise across the borough. The Propeller development has been built in the past two years, while other sites in central Croydon have remained vacant despite all the flashy computer-aided graphics that support developers’ unsustainable plans for “luxury apartments”.

The relative values of housing in Germany and the UK since 1970. Note how Britain's graph is on the rise since the early 1980s, right after the sale of council houses policy was introduced, but significantly with councils being prevented from using proceeds to replace that social housing

The relative values of housing in Germany and the UK since 1970. Note how Britain’s graph is on the rise since the early 1980s, right after the sale of council houses policy was introduced, but significantly with councils being prevented from using proceeds to replace that social housing

The mass market for homes must be met through renting. We must stop obsessing about property ownership – whatever The Blessed Margaret taught us – and follow our continental cousins into rented accommodation.

But the one-man landlord – Jack of all trades, or so he thinks – is not the way forward. We must encourage the likes of pension funds to invest long-term in small housing estates – definitely not the behemoths built by local authorities in the 1960s.

These modest developments should be looked after by housing associations employed to provide the highest standards of property management: they are not surrogate social workers and should not be asked to run job creation schemes for long-term unemployed tenants.

Effecting such a major change is a task for central or regional government – it will need encouragement through tax-breaks and guarantees that local councils have neither the cash nor the credibility to offer. But Croydon could earn Brownie points if it was seen to be in the vanguard, supporting such an idea.

We must make sure Croydon’s new homes meet a proper standard. Because of the skewed housing market, especially in the London region, at the moment Britain builds some of the pokiest properties in Europe – no room to hang a birdcage, let alone swing a cat.

Is the Mayor of London the right person to turn around Croydon's chronic housing crisis?

Is the Mayor of London the right person to turn around Croydon’s chronic housing crisis?

But a white knight is at hand – well a blond one, at least. It’s Bullingdon Boris again: this time he’s championing a return to Parker Morris – building standards imposed on the public sector in the early 1960s, but scrapped by the Tories at the behest of their developer chums in 1980.

The standards specify the size of rooms and the quantity and quality of fixtures and fittings. The Mayor is arguing for the re-introduction of a suitably updated version for publicly funded developments across Greater London: it would be such a small additional step to make them a requirement of planning permission for the private sector too.

Developers would scream blue murder, of course: building bigger homes to better standards would cut their profits. But how many developers, do you suppose, actually live in the shoe boxes they foist on other people?

Then there are the empty properties that litter the borough, about 3,000 of them, according to this year’s figures, some 700 of which have been empty for more than six months.

The count does not include flats above shops or the many empty commercial buildings in the town centre that are ideal for conversion. I have suggested previously on this website that local authorities have powers to take these properties into management, renovate and maintain them, and collect rents to recoup costs.

I have also suggested that complacent Croydon has consistently shied away from using these powers.

And then, there are the rough sleepers, so graphically described in Andrew Pelling’s recent commentary on this website. There was a time when Croydon Council refused to accept that the borough had a problem in this respect. The time has come to develop a comprehensive service for these unfortunate people – ignoring them won’t make them go away.

I am beginning to wonder whether housing provision is too big a responsibility for Croydon. All the initiatives are coming from regional government, while the more parochial borough council buries its head in the sand.

Would Boris be a better bet to get affordable homes – prefabricated or otherwise – built on the Gateway site in central Croydon, or created out of the many empty office blocks?

Or would he blow hot and cold, as he has with the Crystal Palace tram extension?

  • David Callam is a Croydon resident and a retired business journalist
  • Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon
  • Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or local event, please email us with full details at inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Boris Johnson, Croydon Council, Housing, Mayor of London, Planning, Property, Purley Way, Ruskin Square, Tramlink, Waddon and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Boris the man to make prefabs sprout in London?

  1. ndavies144 says:

    An interesting piece, the more so as Face the Facts on Radio 4 today was about the use of B&B accommodation by local authorities, with Croydon featured heavily and topped off by an interview with one D Mead. Naturally much hand-wringing by Cllr Mead but no answers bar a promise of a couple of dozen more houses next year. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007tmlp) .

    Also today I see the Sadvertiser is trumpeting uncritically L&G’s plan to turn the Nestle’s building into 288 flats for ‘commuters, families and young professionals’. No doubt that will wizz through the planning system without touching the sides and Mr Mead and his friends will tell everyone who’ll listen how they’ve solved the housing problem at a stroke. It remains to be seen whether they can find 288 people willing to pay the hefty price tags the ‘high quality residential accommodation” will command or if even the tiniest bit of it is used to help those condemned to B&Bs.

  2. mraemiller says:

    “the one-man landlord – Jack of all trades, or so he thinks – is not the way forward”

    I have never thought of home ownership as a trade of any kind and am firmly with P G Wodehouse in that if renting is a trade I dont think it’s one that has ever made anyone happy on either side of the equation. There just seems something fundamentally wrong to me somewhere in a world where no one can afford to own their own home without inheriting money … that said when I was a kid there actually was social housing.

    There are other options to home ownership or state housing … such as long leasehold flats … the trouble with that is that then instead of having to deal with tiresome maintenance issues alone you have to spend all your time dealing with the politics of the other residents like Dr Frasier Crane who’s life was endlessly frustrated by various Condo board meetings and machinations to a level that was even more vexatious than owning his own freehold could ever have been. How can painting 12 flats be less stressful than one house?

    Still, I don’t know why I’m moaning, it’s not like I had to write to the land registry to convince the Esate Agent who sold me the property that they can’t build on the garden they already sold me 10 years ago or anything … erm … nothing that bad’s ever happened.

    Isn’t much of Purley Way poisoned land as result of Croydon B power station and the old gas works …or is that an urban myth…? Does anyone know which bits are and are not safe to build on?

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