Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Building Houses on Old Kent Road

When Charles Darrow invented the Monopoly board game. He stuck this area at cheapest end of the board. Not much has changed. The Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle takes up that vast area between Walworth Road and Old Kent Road. It is one of the poorest areas in London. In the early 1990s I was called up to jury service at a trial for a series of people that had been arrested at a crack house on this estate. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. The trial revealed to me a troubled and frightening place that was failing to do anything more than keep the weather off the people who lived there. No doubt over the years many people tried to create a viable community here, but in the late 1990s the council decided it was beyond hope. The estate and the hideous neighbouring pink shopping centre were scheduled for demolition and replacement with new housing and shops. It sounded like a good idea.
 But this is a big place. And Southwark is not a fleet footed council. It took ten years to find a developer prepared to take it on. And several years more to negotiate with partners over the road layout, access to underground stations and the like.  
Four years later nearly all the people have gone. The estate was emptied (or decanted as housing people like to call it) the bulldozers were ready to roll. Plans were readied for replacement homes. Something was going to happen.
But when I visited yesterday it was silent. 1000 empty flats and not a sign of a builder. The Heygate like many other big housing regeneration project ran into trouble with falling house prices in 2008. The projected income from sales of new homes no longer added up. The development ground to a halt. Like many other stalled projects there was hope that it would be bailed out by generous government grants. After all down the road the Aylesbury estate redevelopment was salvaged by a whopping £42 million kick start grant last year. But no such luck  for the Heygate a few weeks ago the unallocated funding in the Kick start programme was cut and doubt thrown over whether similar funding will made available again. The Heygate is just one estate. But there are scores of them around the country stalled, empty and unviable. Some doubt whether bailing out big projects like this is a good idea anyway. But it’s an academic discussion now.

 For years we’ve been told not to worry about the thousands of vacant flats and houses that are in regeneration schemes. “They’re all the process of development,” we were told. But they’re not now. The process and the development have both stopped. Somehow we have to find a way to turn these places back into homes.

In the board game, if you play your cards right it’s easy and cheap to build houses and hotels on Old Kent Road. In reality it’s proving much more difficult.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Five things the government should do about empty homes

Zac Goldsmith was kind enough to name check the Empty Homes Agency on the Today programme this morning. He suggested that instead of “garden grabbing” which the government announced it would be restricting , “there are a lot of empty homes lets find ways of incentivising getting them back into use”

All very encouraging. Zac Goldsmith is of course not a member of the government (yet) but this is just the latest in a number of suggestions by people in and around the government that they will introduce measures to deal with empty homes soon. I met Grant Shapps last week and he said nothing to dispel the belief. But what should they do? Here’s what I think

1. Change grant rules to give housing associations a real incentive to buy and refurbish empty homes, and give greater flexibility so that homelessness charities and other community groups can refurbish empty homes too.

2. Government and public sector landlords should hand over surplus properties to local communities for them to bring back into use. Councils should be encouraged to do the same.

3. Give homeowners incentive to refurbish their own empty homes by reducing VAT rates on refurbishment to 5%. It is particularly important that special provision is made for refurbishment if the overall VAT rate rises.

4. Councils should be encouraged to act by extending the government’s proposed council tax incentive scheme (which rewards councils for getting homes built) to long-term empty homes returned to use.

5. Keep council powers including Empty Dwelling management orders. Without them council’s effectiveness is reduced. We agree that they should be amended but please don’t repeal them.