Brick by Brick chief admits failing to meet 50% affordable target

Colm Lacey, the head of the council’s house-builders, says that that there will be no council homes built and that he is missing his ‘affordable’ housing targets. BARRATT HOLMES, housing correspondent, reports

Man of action, or Action Man? BxB’s Colm Lacey admits his company has failed to properly scope its building sites

Colm Lacey, the former council employee who has risen without trace to become the “chief executive” of Brick by Brick, the council’s in-house house-builder, has been spouting off to his new best mates in the building industry.

It was another puff piece in The Architect’s Journal last week for Lacey and Brick by Brick, the loss-making developer which is struggling to sell its over-priced homes.

The 1,000-word article appeared to be little more than an exercise in blowing smoke up Lacey’s arse, as the piece announced to the magazine’s loyal and loaded subscriber base that there’s more easy money coming from Croydon for high-roller architects’ firms in the next round of  Brick by Brick developments.

Even in his first answer, Lacey reveals, unwittingly, that under his stewardship, previously solemn promises from the Labour-run council’s troika of Tony Newman, Alison Butler and her husband, Paul Scott, have already been abandoned.

Brick by Brick, Lacey concedes, will not be delivering on its council-set targets of 50 per cent “affordable” housing.

“What have you managed to achieve?” comes the soft question.

The unfinished houses in Upper Norwood which BxB are offering for £600,000. This site was due to be completed by the end of 2018

Lacey replies: “So far we’ve won planning consent…” which is arguable. “Won“? Handed on a plate, more like, by a chair of the planning committee, Scott, who broke the law by whipping his committee colleagues.

Lacey continues: “…on around 40 sites for 1,200 units or so, of which 45 per cent are affordable.”

And there we have it.

A basic premise of the Brick by Brick mantra from Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the council’s £220,000 per year chief executive, and from the council’s Blairite administration was that 50 per cent of the housing that they were spending hundreds of millions of pounds on would be “affordable”.

Yet Lacey is now admitting that he has failed to deliver.

“We are actively on site on around 24 of those sites, and our first three schemes are on sale and attracting a lot of interest.” A bare-faced lie.

This month, Brick by Brick resorted to spending tens of thousands of pounds on newspaper advertising because their over-priced homes, mostly going for private sale, are not selling.

According to BxB’s own figures, before the ad was placed in the Evening Gideon, at the Ravensdale and Rushworth site in Upper Norwood, only three of 31 plots have been reserved. At the sllightly less pricy Auckland Rise and Sylvan Hill site, 11 units have been reserved out of 56. At Flora Court in Thornton Heath, which is mostly a very unaffordable shared ownership scheme, only four of 24 units have been reserved.

That’s hardly “a lot of interest”.

In fairness to the interviewer, they do pull up Lacey on the amount of affordable housing being delivered. Though they fail to nail him down to a figure.

“Weren’t you originally targeting 50 per cent affordable?” they asked.

“Over time,” Lacey slimed, “we aim to deliver half of our residential programme as affordable housing. To date we have achieved around 45 per cent through the planning system, more than double what was achieved in Croydon in the years before Brick by Brick was established.” Two lies for the price of one.

Under London planning rules, and under successive Mayors, Croydon has had to ensure that 30 per cent of new housing in the borough has been “affordable” (which, being London, is not really affordable at all, but that’s another discussion).

Lacey’s clearly a little slack with his figures.

In 2019, according to Brick by Brick’s own figures, they are not even achieving 30 per cent affordable with their first tranche of completed homes, with 71 per cent of new builds this year due to go straight on to the private market.

Lacey then confirms what no one at the Labour-controlled Town Hall has wanted to face up to. Labour-run Croydon Council will go for at least eight years without building a single council home.

BxB’s still unfinished Ravensdale and Rushden site, photographed earlier this month. This shows how close the building site is to residents’ existing homes

“The council,” Lacey said, passing the buck to the local politicians who gave him his job, “chooses not to deliver traditional council housing… as in lower-value boroughs like Croydon, a great deal of any new council housing is almost immediately lost to Right-to-Buy.”

Confirmation, if any was necessary, that from 2014 to 2022 at the earliest, the Labour-run Croydon Council will not build a single council home.

Right to Buy is, of course, the widely acknowledged excuse for this, but BxB is proving to be nowhere near a solution to the housing crisis, or a means of finding homes for those in greatest need. No one on the council’s lengthening housing waiting list will be in the market for one of Brick by Brick’s £600,000 three-bed terraced houses in Upper Norwood.

Given BxB’s pitiful record for delivery – the Fairfield Halls project being more than a year late and £11million over-budget, all of its current 38 housing schemes late or delayed – the next series of answers from Lacey to the soft-focus questioning might appear to be the witterings of the sadly deluded.

“Our overall aim is to deliver between 500-600 new homes a year, typically on smaller suburban sites,” Lacey said.

As chair of planning, Labour councillor Paul Scott ‘whipped’ colleagues to vote through BxB planning applications

“We’re currently working up a new batch of 50 or so sites with a view to submitting planning applications towards the end of the year.” That will be the release of 60 sites, including council-owned garages and corners of public green space, which the council pushed through recently in a manner described as “underhand and sneaky”.

Lacey’s presence in the trade rag is, of course, all about giving himself public profile in the business, and pitching for firms to come forward to snap up juicy public-funded design contracts.

“We will always remain keen to work with the best architectural talent,” Lacey smarmed, a comment deemed architect-friendly enough that the magazine’s editors even used it for a pull-out quote. The Honorary Fellowship surely can’t be too far away for our Colm, emulating his boss, the self-proclaimed “regeneration practitioner”, Negrini.

Of course, the magic formula which Negrini and Scott dangled in front of their many guile-less colleagues at the Town Hall when first they proposed Brick by Brick was that they would be able to turn dross into gold like alchemists, by converting small scraps of council-owned land that no one else wanted into money-making new homes.

The reality is proving a whole lot different.

There’s a reason that other, commercial developers have tended to steer clear of such sites. And putting someone like Lacey, with no commercial development experience, in charge of running these schemes for Brick by Brick may not have been the cleverest move. Which is why the 50 per cent affordable target is being abandoned, and why the prices of some of BxB’s properties are proving to be at the expensive end of the private market.

“Delivering on small sites is never easy,” Lacey simpered to his interviewer.

“One of the key lessons we’ve learned is to know as much as possible about what is in the ground.”

That’s a lesson Lacey’s learned while on the job, at public expense. Isn’t that the sort of thing you know, in your bones, as a property developer, or that is taught on Day One of the “how to be a property speculator” course?

“When you are working at pace and scale, things like utilities diversions or other ground complexities can have a big impact at a programme level,” Lacey said, in a leading contender for this week’s No Shit Sherlock awards.

Did BxB scope properly at  Heathfield Gardens and its Japanese knotweed?

What followed is an admission that, basically, Brick by Brick has been falling down on the job. The 15-month delay on the large-scale Fairfield Halls project, we are now expected to believe, was because they were surprised to discover asbestos in a 1950s-built structure. What happened at the scoping stage?

Inside Croydon has chronicled how on one of their housing sites in central Croydon, BxB committed to going ahead with a development even though the site is blighted with Japanese knotweed – something which building regs explicitly prohibit and which might render the properties built un-sellable. Was the “Godzilla weed” missed because no one had done their site scoping properly at BxB?

Asbestos was an issue again in the garages at Montpelier Avenue in Purley Oaks, as BxB’s demolition contractors seemed unprepared (or unbudgeted?) to attempt to protect residents and their children – the site is on a route to a nearby primary school – from the health hazards of asbestos dust.

Works on another site close to the town centre, close to the social housing flats at Heathfield Gardens, were shut down earlier this year for almost a month because of unforeseen – or unresearched – issues with the water mains. Who would have expected to find a water pipe under the ground close to a built-up residential area, eh?

Residents from across the borough who have had the misfortune to have a Brick by Brick site imposed on them have reported similar horror stories of incompetence and mismanagement.

Under Lacey, site management by BxB has been amateur hour.

Lacey, though, blames the borough’s residents for his and his company’s shortcomings.

“A development programme of this scale is obviously not without challenge and there will always be people who feel that certain sites should not be developed, or who don’t like the scale or form of architecture or tenure of certain developments.” So that’s them told.

“We’ve now updated our site investigations scope to gather even more information at an early stage,” Lacey told the Architect’s Journal in an admission of his own and his company’s failures.

According to BxB’s Colm Lacey, everything’s just peachy, even at long-delayed builds such as Ravensdale and Rushden site

“Our key aim is to ensure that existing residents feel they have had a genuine opportunity to comment or get involved in proposals as they are being developed, and that their voice has been genuinely heard and considered,” Lacey assured the architects’ rag, with an assertion which is barely believable to any who have had direct experience of the often shambolic state of BxB projects.

“As more and more of our schemes complete, I think they are making a huge difference to people in Croydon.” But not necessarily in a good way…

Towards the end of the interview, Lacey the developer tried to adopt the role of someone with real social conscience.

“Lack of access to good quality housing is a catalyst for all sorts of problems,” he said.

“We have a responsibility to do something.”

Said the man who is using public money to build flats that are sold on the private market for nearly half a million quid.

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1 Response to Brick by Brick chief admits failing to meet 50% affordable target

  1. David Wickens says:

    As I’ve said before golden rules for development are (1) own or control the land (remember the Bridge to Nowhere, and the debacle over Brick by Brick’s failure to secure the Croydon College annex building?) and (2) site investigation, remember New Addington Sports Centre, Fairfield asbestos and the examples in this article.

    Building above ground is relatively risk-free in terms of cost, so you must invest in site investigation if you want to minimise risk.

    Tramlink was an example where thorough site investigation, including trial holes and ground penetrating radar, coupled with expert council engineering staff working closely with utilities, minimised risk of unforeseen problems and saved approx £30million on original utilities proposals.

    It also provided the main contractor with more reassurance on timescales and the whole £220million project was built is around three years. Edinburgh’s trams by contrast, didn’t have such robust utilities planning and the project overran badly both on time and cost.

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