Croydon needs to get creative about affordable housing

By - Monday 21st March, 2016

Sean Creighton urges fresh thinking on Croydon’s affordable housing crisis

“Investment in affordable housing for people in housing need and on low incomes has declined. The 2011/2015 Affordable Housing Programme saw a sixty per cent reduction in affordable housing investment compared to the previous programme”. That’s Croydon Council’s housing allocations scheme cabinet consultation, 21st March 2016 (3.3)

Croydon Council has put much energy into trying to raise the percentage of ‘affordable units’ in the new private developer tower block schemes from a minimum of fifteen per cent to a maximum of fifty per cent. The recent Delancey proposals explained to the planning committee on 3rd March for the St George’s Walk area envisage that only ten per cent will be in the new development and that five per cent will be provided elsewhere. The chair of planning, Paul Scott, stressed that the council will be looking for more than fifteen per cent. Whether this will be achieved remains to be seen. The economic justification for any percentage is based on a ‘commercially confidential’ independent assessment which the public will never see, so we will never know whether more could be provided.

Looking back, the growing crisis was predicted

The issue of affordable housing is a growing problem for Croydonians and Londoners. There has been much discussion about the issue over the years. As private rents, increase so do ‘affordable’ rents because the government links eighty percent of them to private renting costs.

Looking back, the growing crisis was predicted. I have just closed my old website and in doing so I have been reminded that in the period 2001-2002 many community and voluntary sector organisations argued that the dangers with the Mayor of London and the government’s emphasis on letting London grow were further socio-economic polarisation, inadequate provision of affordable housing for essential public and other service workers and that yet more commuters will be sucked into London to work.

More creative solutions are needed, so how about living over shops?

I argued at the time that a more imaginative approach was needed than one which emphasises the percentage of affordable housing in new developments. In October 2002 I submitted the following written evidence to the House of Commons Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s committee inquiry into sustainable housing and communities:

  • London’s public service and lower paid private sector workers need to have the option of affordable housing in London, preferably near or within easy traveling distance to where they work. Proposals to provide their housing outside London will not be of much use to those on shift systems or who have to start work very early or very late. It will increase the number of people who have to commute into London on the already congested railway network. Developments that create housing for just one type of public sector worker, such as teachers or nurses, run the risk of creating occupational ghettoes rather than mixed communities, and are therefore not conducive to building sustainable communities. More creative approaches to developing affordable housing in London are needed.

  • A number of developments have eroded the supply of affordable housing in London, particularly central London, over the last twenty-odd years. One has been the switch of many housing units to office and other business use, e.g. mansion blocks between Victoria and Westminster/Pimlico.

  • It would be helpful to have a strategy which links assistance to businesses operating in buildings which used to be used for housing, to re-locate to new and modernised office blocks, with the buildings they vacate converted for affordable housing. The strategy might include: incentives for business in offices in such property to re-locate to the new office developments being built at strategic places in London like Paddington and Kings Cross, thereby releasing their current office space back for housing; transferring the ownership of the emptied buildings to affordable housing providers to convert back to flats or houses and encouraging the developers of new offices and other schemes who will have to meet affordable housing objectives to support such a strategy by either buying up the released buildings for housing or providing their existing owners with money for conversion or modernisation.

Another potential source of supply for new affordable housing is through better implementing the Living Over the Shop approach, identifying empty or under-used accommodation above shops and other businesses and working with building owners to develop them as affordable housing units. This has a number of advantages. Increased numbers of people living on a main road will increase the customer base for local businesses. This, and the extra money the businesses will earn, will make many of them more economically viable. This will contribute to building sustainable communities.

Let’s make run-down shopping parades priority conversions to affordable housing

Another potential source is shops and other businesses operating in run-down shopping parades in which many of the businesses struggle to survive and where there is a high turnover of businesses and periods when shop units are empty. In many areas there is a slow market drift to obtain a change of planning use and convert the properties to housing. A more pro-active strategy could be devised to ensure that such properties can be used for affordable housing, and to shorten the periods that such parades experience economic unviability.

The development of such strategies will require a range of organisations and interest groups, including the London Mayor and the London Development Agency, the Housing Corporation, local authorities, building owners, social landlords, and Chambers of Commerce to work creatively together. There could well be a role for local strategic partnerships to look at the scope for these approaches in their boroughs, as part of the development and refinement of neighbourhood and community strategies. The approach may also be relevant in some other parts of the country.

These suggestions were endorsed by the Croydon TUC Working Party in its report on the council’s growth plan in 2014. We have yet to see evidence that the council is acting upon them. They are not mentioned as possible ways to increase affordable housing in the report to the cabinet on 21st March. This report is an absolute must-read for anyone concerned with the growing housing crisis in the borough.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Jonny Rose

    Or start building housing underground… see here for details: :)

  • lizsheppardjourno

    On behalf of the English language and everyone who loves and respects it, I will shortly be launching a class action against the misuse – I would go so far as to say ‘abuse’ – of the word ‘affordable’, specifically when used in relation to housing.

    It’s never cheap to go to court but this outrage cannot be allowed to go on. How have they got away with it so long? To make a donation, contact me via Twitter.

    • Robert Ward

      I’m in on that Liz. Language should be used to enlighten rather than confuse.

      I am just about ok with it if a distinction is made between Affordable (capital A) to mean the legal definition. I think that Sean is using it in that sense. There is some minor wriggle room but that pretty much means social housing.

      • Robert Ward

        P.S. ‘Homeless’ is also regularly miss-used. There is a legal definition which, if you qualify, means that the Council has to house you, which may mean bed-and-breakfast but you won’t be on the street. The same word is also used to describe people living on the street, not the same thing at all.

      • Anne Giles

        I thought “affordable” also meant private rentals which were inexpensive, and homes to buy inexpensively?

        • Robert Ward

          “Affordable” housing as defined in legislation includes social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing.

          The new Croydon Council plan aims for 40% of new homes to fit this category. This will be made up of 30% to be either affordable rented (up to 80% of market rates) homes or homes for social rent and 10% to be intermediate housing for low cost shared home ownership managed by a Registered Social Landlord.

          The Croydon Council Plan does not capitalise the A so when people see “affordable” housing they with some justification might think that it means housing that they might be able to afford. The reality is that the vast majority of them will not qualify.

          • Anne Giles

            Thanks Robert!

  • Robert Ward

    I hadn’t realised there was any problem with living over a shop. I have lived at various times over a Post Office, a car showroom and a furniture shop. No problem at all. Living over a chip shop might be a different matter.