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Fears for Islington council homes that could be ‘gone in a generation’ if government’s housing bill goes through

Glyn Robbins, manager at the Quaker Court estate

Glyn Robbins, manager at the Quaker Court estate: ‘It’s hard to see a place where its impact is going to be felt more keenly’. Current market rent for a one-bed flat at Quaker Court is £397 per week. Current council rent is £138 per week

Published: 22 January, 2016
by KOOS COUVÉE 

FINSBURY, located on the fringes of the City of London, is increasingly synonymous with the trendy Old Street tech hub dubbed “Silicon Roundabout”, and an accompanying booming property market which sees house prices rise by almost 15 per cent every year. 

But the area also occupies a significant place within the history of the welfare state, particu­larly social housing. It is home to the Finsbury Health Centre, designed by modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin, who was also behind the Grade II-listed Spa Green estate in St John Street – one of many high-­quality brutalist council estates in the area.

It is ironic, then, according to one Finsbury housing worker, that it is here that the government’s Housing and Planning Bill represents more of a threat to this legacy of pioneering 20th-century municipal architects and city ­planners than almost ­anywhere else.

The Finsbury estate, where current market rent for a one-bed flat is £337 per week, and current council rent is £123 per week

According to Glyn Robbins, manager at Quaker Court, a 65-home estate built by the Greater London Council in 1966, the Bill is “an existential threat to social housing”. 

“Here, around Old Street,” he said, “it’s hard to see a place where its impact is going to be felt more keenly. It will be devastating. If it goes through, in a generation’s time, you come to Quaker Court and you’ll find a very different place.”

Sitting in his office adjacent to Quaker Gardens, the surviving fragment of a former burying ground for Quakers opposite Bunhill Fields, Mr Robbins says he is particularly concerned about plans to extend former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s flagship Right to Buy policy. The Tories’ new legislation would allow housing association tenants to buy their homes, with councils forced to sell “high-value” properties as they become vacant to compensate housing associations for the heavily discounted sales of up to £103,900 per property in London. 

Town Hall chiefs, who preside over a housing waiting list of 18,000, fear Islington will lose 500 council homes every year as a result.

The Mallory Buildings, where current market rent for a one-bed flat is £450 per week, and current council rent is £138 per week

“Every family-sized home would have to be sold into the private market,” said Mr Robbins, who has a PhD in housing studies. “People who need homes, such as vulnerable tenants, people living in overcrowded homes, they would not get the opportunity to move here if the Bill was passed.” 

Almost half of Quaker Court has already been sold off under Right to Buy. Currently there are 33 tenants and 32 leaseholders – if one more property is sold it will become a minority-tenant estate. 

“Any sense of shared responsibility is lost with that [sale],” Mr Robbins added.  

According to property website Zoopla, a three-bedroom Quaker Court flat currently fetches £645,000 and rose in value by a whopping £90,000 over the past year. Monthly rent for a three-bed is £2,600, while council tenants living in identical flats pay a social rent of £590 – a stark indication of the borough’s rental divide. Many of the leasehold properties on the estate are rented by young professionals and students. 

Pat Freeman, 55, chairwoman of the estate’s Tenants Management Organisation (TMO), who has lived on the estate since it was built almost 50 years ago, said: “It’s a good investment for some but you do lose a bit of the community. You get lots more private people coming in.”

And, although she won’t be affected, Ms Freeman is also worried about the Bill’s so-called “Pay to Stay” proposals, under which “high income” households – those earning more than £40,000 – will be charged market or near-market rents. 

“I find it quite scary,” she added. “We want to keep social housing. There are lots and lots of people who can’t afford the market rents.”

“Pay to Stay” means councils will have to start collecting information about tenants’ income. It will effectively introduce means-testing in the social housing sector for the first time.

Islington’s housing chief, Councillor James Murray, has previously warned that thousands of tenants could shun job promotions, reduce working hours, split up from partners or fiddle incomes to prevent their rent from increasing four-fold.

Mr Robbins said that policies in the Bill are born out of ideology and a lack of understanding of social housing. 

The Spa Green estate, where current market rent for a one-bed flat is £375 per week, and current council rent is £123 per week

“At the very basic level, what does someone like David Cameron know about council estates?,” he added. 

“The government simply cannot conceive of something that’s not for profit. They want homes to be commodities that can be bought and sold. They themselves don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ve never had means-testing in council housing. Still they are pushing it.” 

But Mr Robbins believes the plans can be resisted. “We need a very robust push back against this Bill, and to say not only that this is wrong in principle but also impossible in practical terms,” he said.

“Why should Islington give any such guarantee for the likes of Peabody [housing association] who have a surplus of £35million a year? You can only hope councils will legally challenge this on the basis that it is undoable. We need to see this Bill as something that is not yet law and we should challenge it.”  

On February 9, Islington Hands Off Our Public Services will hold a public meeting on the housing Bill at the Town Hall. Mr Robbins will speak alongside Cllr Murray, tenants, campaigners and trade unionists. 

The government says the proposals in the hous­ing Bill would help deliver a million new homes by 2020. 

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “We have got Britain building again, with more council housing being delivered since 2010 than in the previous 13 years.

“However, there are billions of pounds locked up in high value stock, which will be reinvested in building of new homes that better meet local needs as well as support­ing home ownership through Right to Buy.”

The housing Bill will now move to the House of Lords after passing its third reading following a session in the Commons.

Comments

March Against the Housing Bill January 30th

There's a march planned to demonstrate against the Housing Bill - next Saturday 30th January 12pm assemble at the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth and march to Downing Street for 2pm see https://www.facebook.com/events/817880454987012/

Right To Buy

A pity Islington Labour went along with RTB for electoral reasons for so long.

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