You write about these buildings as if they were sculptures floating in a gallery hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.
In 2011 the Centre Point buildings were purchased by Almacantar, a property investment and development company part-owned by the Agnelli family of Italian billionaires. Founded in 2010, Almacantar has since acquired over 1.5 billion square feet of prime property in Central London, and is typical of the type of investor on which London’s housing policies rely. Its assets include the renamed Centre Point Residences, Marble Arch Place, CAA House, Lyons Place, 125 Shaftesbury Avenue and One and Two Southbank Place. The latter is the commercial part of the mixed-use development being built as a joint venture between the Canary Wharf Group and the Qatari Diar property investment company. This is wholly owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the State of Qatar that has around £30 billion worth of investments in the UK out of an estimated £275 billion in assets worldwide. In March 2017 Transparency International published a report on the investment of ‘dirty money’ in new high-end London developments, and found that of the 79 properties that had been sold in Southbank Place for between £1.05 million and £3.06 million, 70 had been purchased by overseas buyers, 37 of whom were from high corruption risk jurisdictions. Given the prices at which the properties have been sold, it’s more than likely that a similar percentage of overseas buyers and dirty money is invested in Centre Point Tower.
Centre Point Residences lies within the London Borough of Camden, and in 2014 the council granted planning permission for the renovation and change of use of the Tower from office, restaurant and bar to 82 residential units with 180 bedrooms, and of the House and Link from office to a mix of retail, restaurant and bar. Work began in 2015, and the first 8 apartments in the Tower were sold off-plan that April. Since they have been taken off the market it’s hard to establish what the sale prices were, but a 1-bedroom flat is on sale for £1.8 million, a 2-bedroom flat for £3.665 million, and a 3-bedroom flat for £7.225 million. Famously, the Chinese family of a student come to study at University College London paid nearly £5 million for her 2-bedroom apartment. The 2-storey, 4-bedroom penthouse, whose conversion ended five decades of public access to the 360-degree views it provided over London, and which has yet to be purchased, had an asking price of £55 million. Parking space is available for an additional £250,000.
More indicative of their use than their sale price, however, is that although more than half the 82 apartments have reportedly been sold, only 10 of the owners have moved into their properties. That the rest are buy-to-let landlords is reflected in the rental prices for the apartments, which are still available. 1-bedroom apartments are renting from £1,150 per week, 2-bedroom apartments for £1,850 per week, and 3-bedroom apartments for £4,000 per week – plus a £25,500 deposit. Others are being advertised as holiday lets.
Following changes to legislation introduced in 2013 and made permanent in 2015, converting office space to residential units is now permitted development, and therefore doesn’t require planning permission. But the changes to the listed buildings did, and as part of its Section 106 agreements with the council, Almacantar, which reportedly invested £350 million in the conversion, paid £5.5 million in contributions to community facilities, employment, education, highways and the public realm in Camden. That’s about the price of one 2-bedroom apartment.
In addition, Almacantar also paid for the construction of 13 affordable housing units (not social rent, as Rob Wilson inaccurately reports) with 25 bedrooms in a block named White Lion House. As has become normal practice in London, this was built apart from the rest of the apartments – not off-site, as is increasingly the case, but on the site of the demolished Intrepid Fox public house at the south end of Centre Point House. This means tenants of the affordable housing enter their homes through what have become known as ‘poor doors’. The argument for this social segregation that is being built into London’s architecture is that these separate entrances and locations reduce residents’ service charges. Not coincidentally, it also means that the people who can afford the prices being asked for the luxury apartments in Centre Point Tower don’t have to rub shoulders with the class of people they would usually only encounter at home when they’ve been employed to clean their apartments. Even more importantly, the value of their investment will not be reduced by its proximity to the affordable housing in which the cleaning and service classes live.
But is this, in fact, true? Despite their designation, only 5 of the affordable housing flats in White Lion House are for social rent, with the other 8 for affordable rent, which means up to – and invariably at – 80 per cent of market rate. While the former may be affordable to a cleaner and her family, the latter most certainly are not. Despite their proximity, affordable rent units won’t be built to the same standards of space or build quality as their multi-million-pound neighbours; but that isn’t likely to bring them any closer within the reach of the 5,500 people on Camden’s housing waiting list (down from 27,000 in 2014 since the 2011 Localism Act allowed councils to change the criteria for qualification) or the nearly 1,300 people that are homeless in the borough.
But the prohibitive expense of 8 of the development’s 13 so-called affordable housing units is not only the only thing to question whether the largely empty super-prime developments that litter London’s skyline are doing anything to address the capital’s shortage of housing that Londoners can afford to buy and rent. The one bit of useful information in the AJ review is that the construction cost of White Lion House was £8.75 million, so about the price of one of the nicer 3-bedroom apartments. But by any measure, 13 units is a miserable return on the huge profits Almacantar can expect to make on the Centre Point buildings, not only from their residential component but also from the leased retail, restaurant and bar space in both Centre Point House and Centre Point Link.
Across London, both councils and the Greater London Authority are handing over council land and granting planning permission to high-end developments that are little more than investment opportunities for global capital, much of it from high corruption risk jurisdictions, and being tossed coppers in compensation. The fact that Almacantar can afford to take half the properties in Centre Point Tower off the market, and has reportedly recovered the costs of its construction and renovation, shows not only the kind of returns international developers are making on their investment in London property, but how inadequate councils are at coming away with the homes for social or even affordable rent they claim they can from these deals.
The only barrier to the boom in London property and the housing crisis it has helped to produce is the one that has caused Almacantar to take these properties off the market – the threat of Brexit. Until the UK market has stabilised sufficiently for investors to be sure of the returns on their capital, the 40 or so flats are likely to remain as empty as they are in the glossy publicity photographs. But then Almacantar can afford to leave them empty. They’ve recovered their investment, paid off the council, and can wait till the market recovers. There is as little incentive for them to sell their properties below the price overseas investors will pay as there is for property developers to build homes in which Londoners can afford to live. But the tens of thousands of homeless households in London can’t wait, and neither can the hundreds of thousands on the housing lists of London’s councils.
Waiting, of course, is not all that Almacantar will be doing. Taking the unsold Centre Point Residences off the market is also their response to the Chancellor’s threat, in last week’s budget, to raise stamp duty a further 1 per cent on purchases of residential property by non-UK residents. Just as property developers, housing associations and real estate firms have influenced London’s housing policy to accommodate the housing boom that has produced the housing crisis – replacing council rent first with social rent and then with the new category of affordable housing, lobbying for higher densities and reduced space standards, circumventing Section 106 agreements with viability assessments and threatening not to build in London if even affordable housing quotas are enforced – so the same private interests can exert pressure on the Government when it proposes legislation that threatens the profits being made from that market.
In the meantime, as the 40 unsold properties in Centre Point Residences join the other 20,000 long-term empty homes in London, the more immediate question is what will the citizens of London do to house its 1,000 rough sleepers on our streets, the 165,000 Londoners that are homeless and living in hostels or temporary accommodation, the 225,000 hidden homeless that are sleeping on London couches, and the 244,000 Londoners on council housing waiting lists? The housing crisis is, first and foremost, a political crisis in which our current democratic institutions of Council, Greater London Authority, Parliament and Government are all failing us. Centre Point Residences is the proof of that.
But you're right, now I look at it, White Lion House is a ‘studied composition in vertical elements incised lightly with a pattern by Eley Kishimoto in a slightly token, weak reprise of the main tower's sculpted skin . . .’ Thanks for that.
Architects for Social Housing
That's it? I know the AJ doesn't like to concern itself with the use-value of the buildings to which the profession never tires of handing out awards, but in the week the Prime Minister promised to life the cap on council borrowing to build affordable housing, you might have mentioned the affordable housing component of the Corniche building as an indication of what that will be.
Entered through a separate poor-doors to a building called Bankhouse, the affordable housing component of the Corniche backs onto the railway line that runs directly behind the development, and was developed separately by the One Housing Group housing association. Bankhouse includes all the development’s affordable housing provision, and provides a mix of 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, 36 of which are for sale through shared ownership deals, and 48 are retirement apartments for people over 55 with care needs and available for affordable rent, meaning up to 80 per cent of market rate. These 84 homes making up 33 per cent of the development’s 253 apartments. However, at £565,000 for a 1-bedroom apartment and rents from £208 per week (£900 per month) plus service charges as of November 2017, even this so-called ‘affordable housing’ would be well beyond the financial means of the man who was killed by the Corniche building, Mike Ferris, who despite being a life-long West Ham fan lived outside of London in Hoo, Medway.
And although the AJ's concern for social issues apparently doesn't extend beyond the profession's increasingly undignified scrabble for briefs, you might also have applied your investigative antennae to who is buying these properties to which so much of London's land is being handed.
A report into corruption in new London developments published last May by Transparency International revealed that all of the 7 Corniche properties sold at that time had been purchased by overseas investors, and that 3 of the owners were from high corruption risk jurisdictions. Of the 14 developments investigated in the report – including One Tower Bridge, 250 City Road, Southbank Place (the former Shell Centre), Baltimore Wharf, Circus West (phase one of the Battersea Power Station), City North Islington Estate, Manhattan Loft Gardens, Market Towers (One Nine Elms), Merano Residences, South Gardens (Elephant Park), The Stage, Two Fifty One Southwark Bridge Road, Westminster Quarter and The Corniche – 87.7 percent of sales had been made to buyers from abroad, and of these almost half had been bought from persons living in high corruption risk jurisdictions.
Despite this, Councillor Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Labour Council, which granted planning permission for the development in March 2013, said of the Corniche Building:
‘This new development on Albert Embankment is another important stage of the transformation of Vauxhall. Developments like 20-21 Albert Embankment are essential to bringing new jobs, new affordable homes and inward investment into Lambeth which will secure our long-term economic growth.’
In October 2013, St. James received approval from Lambeth council’s planning committee to turn the 14 shared ownership properties in the neighbouring Merano Residences – like the Corniche also developed by St. James, a subsidiary of the Berkeley Group, and designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners – into 6 properties for market sale, making the development 100 per cent private. In compensation for this loss of affordable housing provision, St. James provided the funding for 6 of the 8 ‘social rented affordable housing units’ that were built on 24-30 St. Oswald’s Place, a site cleared of a ‘short life’ housing co-operative, whose terraced housing was demolished by Lambeth council because it had, in the words of their newsletter, ‘reached the end of its lifespan’. Two years later, in November 2015, this new development was visited by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who said:
‘I was keen to come along to see how they’ve managed to get the best deal for local residents, persuaded developers to build the right sorts of homes and negotiated on behalf of local residents. What you’ve got in Lambeth is a council on the side of its residents and as Mayor I’m going to be on the side of Londoners.’
The properties in the Merrano Residences, which started at a sale price of £2 million, have all been sold. Like the Corniche, all the 8 properties sold at the time of the Transparency International report had been purchased by oversees investors, 75 per cent of them from high corruption risk jurisdictions. Properties in the Dumont, the third development to make up the Albert Embankment Plaza, also developed by St. James and designed by David Walker Architects, are still available and start at £2.35 million for a 2-bedroom apartment, which makes them as likely to serve as investment opportunities for global capital and dirty money as the rest of the plaza.
In case you're interested.
Architects for Social Housing
ASH's design alternative to demolition found room for an additional 242 dwellings through infill and roof extensions without demolishing a single existing home or evicting a single resident, increasing the estate's current capacity from 476 homes to 718. This was costed by Robert Martell & Partners at £45 million for construction. With external works and services, professional fees, a 10% contingency sum, and £18.5 million for the refurbishment of the existing stock (a figure provided by Lambeth council) the entire scheme was costed at £84 million, of which £6.5 million has already been provided under the Decent Homes Standard.
We've been looking at the proposals for the redevelopment of Central Hill estate by PRP. Even though its predicated on the demotion of 456 council homes, the redevelopment costs have been withheld as 'commercially confidential', since Homes for Lambeth, despite being owned by the council, is a private company, and the new estate will be run as a housing association, and therefore not subject to FOI requests.
However, given the information we have from the Feasibility Report by Airey Miller, the decant costs (compensation for leaseholders, home loss and move payments) on Central Hill are £25.65 million. The demolition costs, which have been silently omitted from the council's estimates, we estimate at £22.8 million. And the reconstruction of the 456 demolished homes alone is £152 million. That's a total cost of over £200 million, two-and-a-half times the cost of the ASH scheme, just to replace what's already there.
However, to meet the equivalent number of homes in the ASH scheme (718 dwellings) will cost £288.5 million, more than three-and-a-half times the cost of the ASH scheme.
To meet these astronomical costs, however, the council will have to increase the density of the existing estate by at least 300 percent. The PRP proposal we've seen that is closest to this is for 1,530 dwellings, which will cost in total £558.5 million.
To produce sufficient profit for the developer, the tenure breakdown for this PRP proposal is as follows:
320 properties for London Affordable Rent (which in Lambeth in 2017 was £159/week for a 2-bedroom, an increase on the social rent of £135/week for the equivalent)
100 target rent (nearly double social rent ay £213/week for a 2-bedroom)
109 shared ownership (which requires a 25% deposit on a £476,000 property, plus £820 month rent)
246 market rent (£480/week for a 2-bedroom)
765 market sale (a 2-bedroom property currently estimated at £476,000)
All of which will be subjected to increased and uncapped service charges by the housing association.
As anyone can see, this development will do nothing to address the borough's need to build housing its constituents can afford to rent or buy, or reduce its housing waiting list for council homes, which like every other London council it repeatedly sites as the reason for its estate regeneration (sic) programme. They will, however, produce considerable profits for the scheme's private development partners.
By contrast, in addition to the refurbished existing homes, of which 340 are for social rent and 136 leasehold, the ASH scheme proposes an additional 120 new build for social rent, 60 for market rent and 62 for market sale. The PRP schemes are assessed on a 60 year financial model, but we estimate we can recoup the costs on our scheme in a little over 10 years.
So how did Lambeth council reject our proposal as 'financially unfeasible', when there proposal is seven times the cost of ours?
Well, among the discrepancies between the feasibility studies for the PRP proposals and that for the ASH proposal are the following:
On the ASH scheme there was a 40% social rent requirement on new builds, not the whole of the estate (for which we provide 64% social rent); while on the PRP schemes there was between 27-40% affordable on the whole of the new development.
On the ASH scheme 0% of the new builds were capitalised for market sale; while on the PRP schemes 44-54% of the new builds are for market sale.
On the ASH scheme, capitalisation was estimated at 35% (social) and 68% (private) rents; while on PRP, capitalisation is at 47% (affordable) and 75% (private) rents.
On ASH, capitalisation was on the 242 new build rents only, but not on the 340 existing rents; while on PRP, capitalisation is on all new build rents.
On ASH, the cost of the scheme was estimated at £100.6 million over its £84 million estimate by our independent QS; while on PRP, the cost of the schemes omits the £22.8 million cost of demolition.
On the ASH scheme, there is full disclosure of the financial estimates by quantity surveyors Robert Martell & Partners; while on the PRP schemes, financial estimates by Airey Miller for cost of construction, professional fees, Section 106 agreements, marketing and letting fees, developer profits, inflation and loan interest withheld by Lambeth Council as ‘commercially confidential’.
For this and no doubt other acts of legerdemain, Airey Miller was awarded the role of Strategic, Commercial and Technical Advisor to Lambeth council's major Estate Regeneration Programme on a five-year, £6 million plus contract.
The financial facts are that, if an estate regeneration scheme begins by demolishing the existing estate - which is policy for Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, the GLA and the Government - the cost of demolition, compensation and rebuild is so great that the resulting redevelopment must overwhelmingly be for properties for private sale, with zero homes for social rent, increased rental charges for existing council tenants, and hugely increased costs and reduced tenancy rights for leaseholders.
Should any of this be of interest to the investigative journalists at the AJ, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Architects for Social Housing
In our report, The Truth about Grenfell Tower, which we published a month after the fire in July 2017, Architects for Social Housing wrote:
‘What the Grenfell Tower fire has exposed is that the separation between the public and private spheres in UK housing no longer exists in any qualifiable sense, and any trust we may once have had that the duties of the former are independent of the interests of the latter has no foundation in practice. From our work with council estate communities trying to save their homes, and from our own experience of living on council estate tower blocks, ASH has become increasingly interested in the potential of a third sphere of activity, which is neither public nor private. What those commentators on council estates who live – to use Andrew Gimson’s description – in their “little terraced houses” do not understand is that the most important space on a council estate does not fall into the clear distinction between private and public that terrace-dwellers cross every time they step outside their home and into the street. In seeking to recreate the street life of working-class communities, post-war council estates designed communal spaces into their architecture. These include not only the community halls in which residents meet – and which because of this are always the first part of the estate to be shut down by councils intent on demolishing it – but the internal hallways and external walkways between individual homes; the numerous landings outside lifts; the lifts themselves – where in the few seconds it takes to ascend or descend relationships with neighbours are made and maintained; and above all in the entrance halls – in many cases later additions to address the teething problems of this new form of communal living – and in which the concierge, known to every resident and therefore knowing every resident, is the presiding spirit of the estate, setting the tone for its cordiality, its fraternity and its ethos of mutual support.
‘All of this is unknown to the dwellers in privately-owned homes and fenced-in gardens; but it is where the collective life of a council estate takes root and grows. Most importantly, it is a space which is neither private, and therefore subject to the property or tenant rights of the individual or household, nor public, and therefore the province of the council. Rather, it is a collective space, over which no resident has rights, which none of them own, but for which they all take responsibility and share in its benefits. As the corruption of the public sphere by the private accelerates under increasingly accommodating government policy, mayoral direction and council practice, and the lives of those under the management and care of these public bodies are increasingly put at risk of eviction, homelessness and even death, ASH believes this third sphere, the space and activity of community, must be reclaimed.
‘Once the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower is buried and the land cleared for redevelopment, it will still be in the hands of Kensington and Chelsea council. Worse still, the fire has brought about precisely that demolition of the “blight” that Grenfell Tower, in the eyes of the council and the TMO, represented, freeing up the land it stands on for the potential residual values the original masterplan for the Lancaster West estate envisaged activating through its redevelopment as ‘high end’ properties for home ownership and capital investment. Were this to come about – and under existing ownership and policy there is nothing to stop it happening – it would be the greatest betrayal of both the dead and the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.
‘To oppose this, therefore, ASH proposes that a portion of the £20 million donated by the general public – and which the government should be invited to match – be used to purchase the land on which Grenfell Tower stands and place it in Trust for the survivors and the surrounding community; and that in its place housing is built that is neither owned by the council nor run by the KCTMO, but owned by the Community Land Trust and managed by a Housing Co-operative run by the residents themselves. From the ashes of Grenfell Tower, and the forces of private greed and public corruption that burnt it to the ground, a new Community estate could rise – as a home for the homeless of Grenfell Tower, and as a model of communal housing for the hundreds of thousands of Londoners currently threatened by the programme of estate regeneration.’
The whole report, which as of writing has been visited over 16,000 times on the ASH blog (though apparently not by the editors and journalists writing for the AJ), may be read here: https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/07/21/the-truth-about-grenfell-tower-a-report-by-architects-for-social-housing/
Architects for Social Housing
If anyone would like to understand what is happening at Central Hill estate, what the financial, social and environmental costs of its demolition and redevelopment will be for both residents and the council, and what design alternatives to demolition have been developed up to feasibility study stage by us, Architects for Social Housing published a book-length study in April that you can access here:
Anyone interested in reading a breakdown of the numerous failures in the London Mayor's policy on Resident Ballots for Estate Regeneration Projects, which has not been written to empower residents but to manufacture their consent, can read about them here:
And if you want current examples, rather than future speculations, about how this and other GLA policy is funding estate demolition you can read about it in detail here:
Architects for Social Housing