This guest post comes from Michael Parkes, a chartered surveyor and community planner working in Somers Town in Camden. Michael has a long history of good work in London, previously having been involved with the Campaign for Homes in Central London.
In this article he writes about Somers Town and posits a new typology for our city, the “gold belt”; the area around Central London, traditionally home to many lower income and immigrant communities which is quickly being gentrified. Michael’s piece describes how this process is shutting people out of their own community and raises some serious issues about the conflicts of interest that emerge when the council seeks to manage this process, as regulator, land owner and developer.
By Michael Parkes
London is a special case. It has by far the highest land and rental values in the country. As the central business district expands, the adjoining inner city areas change through investment, speculation and gentrification.
This results in dramatic changes in land use and population in the traditionally low-rent areas surrounding the city centre. This is already happening in Shoreditch, Spitalfields, and Bermondsey. In Elephant and Castle, large housing estates are being demolished and redeveloped to create a “new place”. There is a grave risk there will be no place left for nurses, teachers, car mechanics and other necessary workers who own no land or buildings. Instead of being able to stay, they are “squeezed out”, and, if still employed, face long, expensive and exhausting journeys in to and back from work.
A Gold Belt to match the Green Belt: advantage imported and disadvantage exported. Former schools and print works converted to half-empty tower blocks of luxury flats – apartments held as an investment not a home!
This process can seem attractive to Local Authorities, who are required by law to provide services like housing to their population, but may not have the budget to do so. Exporting the problem can be an easy way out.
With the arrival of a wealthy, healthy, fully employed, well-educated population (few of whom are likely to use or need existing local services, shops etc), both the budgetary and the regeneration record of such authorities will improve and private sector investment secured from around the world.
As this process develops, land and buildings increase in value. The temptation for private and public sector landlords to cash in becomes irresistible.
Somers Town is one of a series of neighbourhoods alternating between major Opportunity Areas along the inner city ring road between inner and central London. It has already experienced major development at St Pancras, Kings Cross Central, the Crick and the British Library and is currently subject to HS2 and Crossrail 2 proposals. It has a high proportion of council and housing association tenants living in flats, and significant Bangladeshi and African communities.
It is relatively deprived, with low levels of economic activity, poor health and low life expectancy. Central Somers Town is designated in the Camden Borough Plan as an “Area of More Limited Change”. This means it is not expected to see major development itself, but instead will benefit from development in the two opportunity areas. Camden council sees these benefits as being jobs and training and the provision of open space and other community facilities where there are local deficiencies. We fear that it will become the latest area to fall victim to the housing and planning crisis.
The Neighbourhood Plan
The Somers Town Neighbourhood forum was set up in 2013 to prepare a Neighbourhood Plan for the area. The plan does not accept the removal of low-income communities as inevitable.
Instead, our vision is to help communities to help themselves out of disadvantage: “We want a framework for sustainable community development, so the existing Somers Town community can stay and get a slice of the action. The Plan proposal has now been submitted to the Local Planning Authority (LB Camden).
Led by the Community / Voluntary sector, the Plan has taken many years to prepare, in an authentically “bottom – up” fashion using a very wide range of community planning / participatory techniques.
Consultation carried out by the Forum revealed :-
- very few residents had any idea how “affordable housing” was actually provided.
- considerable support for housing aspirations such as :-
- All new housing to be built and occupied as a home and not as an investment.
- Allocation should prioritise existing young people – sons and daughters, concealed households and the elderly in the Neighbourhood, who wish to stay, look after each other, and, in so doing, reduce pressure on health and social care services, use local schools, shops, etc. and thus secure a sustainable community development.
- Rent and transfer costs of affordable housing should be tied to the average household income in the Neighbourhood.
- Housing development to be subject to an agreement that it remains as affordable housing for people with a local connection in perpetuity.
Very few people in Somers Town have their own garden. Consequently the relatively few green open spaces in the Neighbourhood are very valuable and the Plan seeks to designate them as Local Green Space, which is protected under the National Planning Policy Framework.
Current development proposals
Despite the very clearly stated goals of the community to pursue managed and sustainable development, the council is now seeking to build a series of very high density blocks of luxury flats on public open space, one up to 25 stories high.
The application is a result of the council’s Community Investment Programme or CIP.
CIP is intended to “improve and transform services by realising assets and thus bridging a critical funding gap.” This new CIP method of funding “community infrastructure” is highly controversial in a place like Somers Town, where the council is a major land owner. In cases like this, the inherent conflict of interest that exists when the council acts as developer land owner and planning authority leave the neutrality of the council seriously compromised
The current application is focused on the urgent and locally agreed need to rebuild Edith Neville Primary School, a Nursery, and a play facility.
The only document accompanying the Planning application which was not publicly accessible was the viability assessment. There could very well be alternative cheaper, better, more deliverable solutions to meeting the local needs than the sole CIP funding mechanism and its expression in this scheme. But without access to the detailed costs and returns, this is excruciatingly difficult to assess.
If scarce, valuable public assets are to be sold off to improve and transform public services, then there is a very strong case for an Open Book Policy and Community access not only to independent planning, but commercial valuation advice, so that, at the very least, local people can see whether or not they are getting value for money.
In this case the viability question is particularly important. In 2013 the itemised costs of the new community facilities amounted to £15m. Three years later, because, presumably, of the design of the school, community buildings and landscaping, these costs have apparently risen to £27m, but without sight of the viability report, no one can see why. Obviously, the more expensive the community infrastructure : the more luxury flats required.
In what we see as a last chance to prevent further consolidation of inner London into a Gold Belt and to restore some semblance of credibility in the planning and development processes, let alone usher in “fresh ideas” for planning, funding and delivery of much needed genuinely affordable social rented housing, the chair of the Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum Slaney Devlin has initiated a Judicial Review into the scheme.
This challenge is based mainly on the fact that the council’s own policy on Somers Town formed no part of the officer’s analysis and reasoning leading up to his recommendation to grant conditional planning permission.