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Public wealth is being transferred to the pockets of property speculators


Kate Macintosh, architect of the recently listed Leigham Court sheltered housing scheme, on the threat to London council estates

Architecture on Trial

Earlier this month, I was invited by the Save Knight’s Walk campaign to attend their Open Gardens Estate event organised with Architects for Social Housing (ASH) in order to celebrate the gardens and green spaces found on housing estates.

This was for me, in part, an opportunity to celebrate the listing of my own 269 Leigham Court Rd in Streatham, and to thank those who had helped in the campaign to save it. Knight’s Walk, a group of patio houses and two storey flats grouped round an area of woodland at the base of three 22 storey tower blocks, together comprise the Cotton Gardens Estate in Kennington, designed in the 1960s by my late life-partner George Finch. Along with five other sites in the borough, it is now threatened by the bulldozers of Lambeth Council.

For the record, the density at Cotton Gardens/Knight’s Walk is 343.5 people per ha or 96 DPH (dwellings per ha) – roughly double what is currently demanded on suburban sites round Winchester.

We cannot afford to let right-to-buy undermine the ability of housing associations to raise funds against their property holdings, to maintain their stock and to continue to build. Right-to-buy for local authority tenants should be discontinued, unless constrained by a requirement that the property is returned to council ownership when the purchaser decides to sell, at the original purchase price plus inflation. This would stop the ridiculous acquisition of these dwellings by buy-to-let landlords, who then rent out to families on council waiting lists, at rents that have to be subsidised by housing benefit – a merry-go-round on which public wealth is repeatedly transferred to the pockets of property speculators.

Equally, we cannot afford to allow land-banking by super-markets and volume house-builders. Neither can we afford the weighty 20 per cent VAT penalty on renovation and maintenance work to the existing housing stock, which creates the artificial imperative to favour demolition and replacement; new-build being zero-rated. We need a level tax playing field.

It needs a coalition of politicians of good faith from all parties, along with environmentalists, conservationists, professional bodies and charities active in the housing field, to band together and campaign on these issues, devise rational solutions and arrest the steamroller of big finance, which is being allowed – no, encouraged – progressively to crush all innovative and creative locally generated activities. Once the social capital is created, high-finance moves in, redesignating a place as an ‘opportunity area’.

The UK is somewhere between the ninth and 27th richest nation on earth with a GDP more than 4,000 times larger than it was in 1955. And yet we have 1.86 million households waiting for social housing.

I am old enough to remember the post-war Labour government. At a time when the national debt was 245 per cent of GDP, it rebuilt the country, doubled living standards and established the welfare state and the NHS – all now under threat. Now with national debt worth 80 per cent of GDP, all public assets are being sold off, to further enrich the 1 per cent and impoverish the rest of us.

If we could do so much in 1945, when the country was technically bankrupt, what might we not now achieve with the political will, in building a more just society? I salute the endeavours of ASH. It is acting in the spirit of leading US Democrat congresswoman Nancy Pelosi when she said ‘Don’t agonise, organise.’


Readers' comments (6)

  • Well done Kate! What a tonic to read such a well-argued case against this government's attempt to decimate social housing provision, while pretending it is dealing with the housing crisis. Once again those in real need are penalised in the interest of the so-called "market"! Kate's comments should be on the desk of every politician and housing professional throughout the country.

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  • Compare and contrast the humanity of these schemes with the Hackney 'poor door' development seen on Channel 4's Dispatches a couple of nights ago. ASH needs to get into every architecture school and every local authority and housing association, to install some of these decent social values.
    A terrific piece, spot on about right-to-buy, even before the ludicrous new threat of applying it to HA tenants.

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  • A wonderful piece, absolutely spot on and impossible to argue with. Thanks to you, Kate McIntosh.

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  • Excellent article, Kate. Being on the 'front line', as it were, at 269 Leigham Court Road, I know that what you write makes perfect sense. I know too that, sadly, there are Councils totally complicit in what the Government is doing.

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  • Good to hear a voice from the 70s, and still talking sense? It's a shame that we used fair faced block work so much, why didn't we just use London Stocks!? Public housing is still a confused mess, now further confused by foreign money, VAT, Andrew Adonis, Tory "expertise" etc.

    It's been the outstanding and unsolved problem since I started in 1971. When are we going to get together and get it right?

    David Farmery davidrfarmery@gmail.com

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  • Refreshing to hear expressed thoughts which have been unsaid for so long

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