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.
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 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.
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
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