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A small site, but a big idea

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As government and the housebuilding sector contemplate strategies for massive house-building in the Thames Gateway, a proposal for a small site in Camden offers an alternative idea for key worker housing in London.Why isn't it being greeted with open arms? Paul Finch reports

One of the weaknesses of the idea that building homes all over the Thames Gateway will provide the solution to our housing problem is the assumption it makes about key workers. That assumption is that their time is of little importance, and that their travel-to-work arrangements can happily fit with normal patterns of public transport.

This means that nurses, policemen, and others working unsocial hours will either have thoroughly unsatisfactory lifestyles, leading to damaging staff turnover rates, or they will use cars - not something government wishes to promote.

There is, of course, an alternative that has been tried and tested over generations: let key workers live close to their place of employment.Some readers may remember something called council housing, which provided low-cost homes for just such people.

The sorry diminution in building by local authorities over the last two decades, not compensated sufficiently by increases in housing association supply, has left social and economic dislocation in London and the South East.

Meanwhile the claim of the housebuilder and the planner, that there is not enough housing land in our urban areas to accommodate all the people who want to live there, continues to be one of the great myths of our time, sustained by the often arbitrary and historic zoning of areas for so-called employment uses, and an inability to come to terms with the idea of densities that were commonplace not long ago, and which still pertain in many of the most expensive parts of London.

Local authorities are in many ways in denial about housing.They can't build; they are not keen on managing;

they don't have to identify housing land with any particular vigour;

indeed their main activity on the housing front is planning, which often is the occasion for delay, obstruction and obfuscation (in some boroughs, liberally laced with extremist conservation policies aimed at stopping housing for ordinary people).

So it is that a modest scheme for Falkland Road, Camden, becomes not a routine matter of provision, but a political battleground for all the wrong reasons.The eightunit proposal, designed by ABK for Urban Space Management, is for one-person and two-person flats, for nurses.The London Division of NHS Estates has said it will offer a rental guarantee for 25 years on the scheme, which would make the finances tick nicely. It is low-cost, using freight containers that have been insulated, rendered and fitted out off-site (a refinement of the idea USM and Nick Lacey used at Trinity Buoy Wharf for the Stack City project). An outline application was submitted a year ago, with no result; a detailed planning application went in this week.

You might think Camden Council would give developer and architect red-carpet treatment, but not a bit of it.

When USM's Eric Reynolds was first involved with the site, he tried to rent one of the 12 council-owned garages.

Camden told him it didn't own the site.When Reynolds proved otherwise, it was claimed the site had transferred to the housing department. Eventually, says Reynolds, Camden said the garages were for 'essential storage'.This ludicrous state of affairs is an example of why it is so difficult to develop homes: all the emphasis seems to be on why you should not do something, rather than why you should.

As the site owner, Camden can, of course, do whatever it wants. But the scheme could be built over the garages, since no ground-floor homes are envisaged in the design.

A planning permission would concentrate minds on what happens next.Reynolds and his architect, Richard Burton, believe there are hundreds of sites like this all over London, and that demand from employers like the NHS would underwrite the redevelopment of tricky sites that happen to be close to public facilities. In the case of Falkland Road that means proximity to four major hospitals.

Reynolds, whose company manages low-cost retail and mixed-use space at Camden Lock, Spitalfields Market and Trinity Buoy Wharf, is world-weary about process rather than bitter over the planning story so far.He thinks an appeal following non-determination looks possible, given the inaction over the outline application. But whether or not this scheme gets built, the principles underlying it will continue to be promoted: modern, lowcost prefabricated homes in central locations for key workers on relatively low salaries.While housebuilder big boys carve up the Thames Gateway, a thousand flowers could yet bloom on pocket sites across the capital.

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