Anya Martin: Campaigns against Southwark’s council home plans typify a national problem

Anya Martin: Campaigns against Southwark’s council home plans typify a national problem

Southwark is at the forefront of London’s housing crisis. There are over 16,000 households on the borough’s waiting list for a council home, half of which include children. There are also 3,300 households living in temporary accommodation, often in severely overcrowded conditions. These figures represent just the tip of the iceberg of housing need: many are not eligible to apply for council housing in the first place.

Southwark Council has responded to this challenge with a commitment to deliver 11,000 new council homes by 2043, the biggest council home building programme in the country. It is exploring over 70 sites, looking at garage, car park and other under-utilised space it owns.

It is also acquiring new land where that is financially viable but, unsurprisingly, land prices in London are often prohibitive given the much lower rental returns from building council homes on it. Making more efficient use of land a local authority already owns lessens its need for additional taxpayer cash and is essential for Southwark if its programme is to be finished.

The council is currently on course to have 2,500 new homes completed or being built by May 2022. However, this effort is not without its critics. As is typical for almost all new homes proposed anywhere in the country, small groups of neighbours are out in force lobbying against Southwark’s plans. This has been a particular challenge for the council where land is on or beside existing estates. Individual campaigns have gained traction in local and national media.

One such campaign involves the Flaxyard, a brownfield site in Peckham. A campaign called Peckham Green Save It (PGSI) has characterised the proposals as “destroying a public park to create luxury private housing”. But as On London has already highlighted none of the homes to be built there will be “luxury private housing”. There will be 96 homes for council rent in a ward with 270 households on the waiting list along with 24 shared ownership homes for people who can’t afford to buy outright.

Furthermore, the Flaxyard is not a “public park” and never has been. The site was previously reserved to be a tram and bus interchange and was re-designated for housing after the proposed Cross River Tram scheme failed to progress. The council temporarily added grass to the site make it more pleasant for the community while it awaited development – a nice decision they are probably regretting now.

PGSI is not the only campaign of its kind and it isn’t even the most misleading. Others are claiming loss of green space even when the proposed housing scheme they object to is to replace old buildings. In the Bells Garden Estate in Peckham the council has recently approved the demolition of an old community centre to make way for the construction of 83 council homes, a new community facility, an improved playground and sports area, a linear park and a net increase in trees.

Because of the improved layout and density, these plans result in only a four per cent increase in built footprint area in exchange for substantial improvements to the green and community space available, not to mention all the homes for those in need. Nonetheless, the “Save Bells Gardens” campaign insists “yes to social housing, no to Southwark building on green space”.

Many of these campaigns insist that they don’t oppose new council homes. One even calls itself Yes To Fair Redevelopment (YFR) and demands more council homes. Yet it focuses only on where such homes should not be built. Infilling Harms Estates (IHE), which attends the same demonstrations as YFR and provides the same phone number as PGSI, seems to happily represent all the Southwark anti-council housing campaigns on whatever grounds, regardless of whether or their aims are consistent. This leads IHE into the corner of complaining about the destruction of trees even as it opposes developments, like Bells Gardens (pictured) that would produce a net increase in trees and improve biodiversity.

Another campaign, Save Slippers Place, reassures us that none of the local campaigns are saying “don’t build”, yet it lists a series of rules that would essentially exclude most of the brownfield Southwark can afford to build on. Adopting those rules would effectively nuke the whole council housebuilding programme, and leave the 16,000 households seeking them waiting indefinitely. And of course, even if a sudden and enormous injection of taxpayer’s cash could fund the purchase of more private land there would be the same kind of battles with those living next to it.

It is not hard to understand the complaints of these campaigns. Much-needed as new council homes are, residents who already live next to where they are to be built aren’t set to personally benefit from them – by definition, they already have homes. Building is noisy and disturbing, especially when it’s right next door. But this takes us to the ultimate problem behind England’s internationally sluggish housing supply: everyone thinks new homes should go elsewhere; and the neighbours of elsewhere don’t want them either.

Southwark’s curious network of close but contradictory campaigns against council homes underlines some of the serious challenges with dealing with brownfield sites in London. Despite the refrain of “brownfield first” from rural anti-housing advocates, it is equally hard if not harder to build on brownfield sites. They have more neighbours than your typical development, which means more political pressure to not develop them. And even a development that seems to meet every criteria of being on brownfield, being affordable, being well-designed and improving amenities, finds itself up against campaigns like those in Southwark.

Anya Martin is director of PricedOut, England’s campaign for housing affordability. PricedOut calls for action from government to build more homes and reduce the cost of decent housing.

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