Home Truths: Croydon’s struggle to build affordable housing

Artist’s impressions of One Lansdowne Road, Westfield Croydon and the former Essex House site
Credit: Croydon Council

Of the four boroughs covered by East London Lines, Croydon fared the worst last year in its delivery of affordable housing. Just 183 of the 3,670 homes built in the borough in 2016/2017 were affordable, and its affordability provision of just 5 per cent was among the lowest in the country.

It is the latest in a series of revelations that has stoked concerns that the borough is failing to meet the housing needs of its residents at a crucial point in its history.

Late 2017 saw planning permission granted to three large, high-profile developments that will reshape Croydon’s skyline for decades to come. The projects are centrepieces of Croydon Vision 2020, the borough’s 20-year regeneration programme which will bring £5.25bn of investment to the area.

The redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre, One Lansdowne Road and Essex House sites will bring 2,300 homes to Croydon, but just 460 (20 per cent) will be earmarked as “affordable”. Moreover, the vast majority will be one- or two-bedroom “executive apartments”, and all will be clustered in a small area in the centre of Croydon, close to transport links to central London.

“They’re sucking in people from other parts of London rather than building homes for local people,” says Tim Pollard, leader of the Conservative group at the council. His party have made housing a central campaigning issue in the run-up to May’s local council elections. With Croydon currently held by a slim Labour majority, there’s everything to play for.

“There’s a lot of anger at the gridlock around affordable housing and council housing in particular,” he adds. “They’re not building the right type of housing in the right places.”

The long-delayed project to demolish the Whitgift Centre is a particularly contentious topic. Opened in 1968, three years after Croydon’s amalgamation into Greater London, it was intended to act as a bold statement of the borough’s forward-thinking approach to urban planning, and desire to become a major shopping destination. It remained the largest shopping centre in the London until 2008.

The intervening years, however, have not been kind. Outdated, dilapidated and now largely vacant, it remains rooted in the heart of the town centre: an all-too-visible remnant of a past the town would rather forget, and a lasting symbol of the long-term lack of investment in Croydon’s public image.

But despite near-universal support for its redevelopment the Whitgift Centre still stands, almost a decade after plans to demolish it were first proposed in 2009.

The failure to get the project off the ground, despite the involvement of two multi-billion-dollar development companies, overwhelming public support and state funding to the tune of almost £50m, offers a glimpse of the systemic problems plaguing efforts at housebuilding in London.

“Everyone involved wants to see this happen,” Pollard says. “But changes in administration and the wider planning context have held things up.”

The Whitgift project was first delayed when original leaseholder Howard Holdings went into administration in 2010, scuppering its plans for a modest renovation and expansion of the centre.

Australian supermall developer Westfield (portfolio: 100 malls worldwide; £35bn in assets) and Anglo-French developer Hammerson (portfolio: 40 malls; £20bn in assets) were both invited to pitch for the right to redevelop the site. However, another hurdle presented itself when the freeholder of the land, local charity the Whitgift Foundation, and administrators for Howard Holdings could not decide between themselves which offer to take. the Whitgift Foundation supported Westfield’s proposal; the administrators preferred Hammerson’s. With the two parties at loggerheads, a public consultation on the rival schemes was launched in 2012 to break the deadlock.

Eventually in 2013, Westfield and Hammerson agreed between themselves to a venture that would see them partner up to deliver the project. Their plan, now to entirely demolish the centre and replace it with a Westfield mall and several apartment blocks was approved by the council in November of that year. Work was scheduled to begin in 2016 and be completed by 2019.

But further delays followed. Labour took control of the council in 2014, and the developers revised their plans to increase the size and housing provision of the project. In 2017, despite missing not only the council’s target of 50% affordable homes but its absolute minimum of 30%, planning permission was granted once again. The project is not expected to be completed until 2022 at the earliest.

That is, if it doesn’t encounter yet another unexpected delay. Westfield was bought over in a multibillion-pound deal late last year. Hammerson is currently in advanced talks over a £3.4bn takeover of rival intu. Whether either move will result in yet another re-evaluation the project is anyone’s guess.

“It’s really frustrating,” concedes Paul Scott, a Labour councillor and head of the council’s Planning Committee. “Projects like this are extremely complex, particularly when you have two major developers involved. At the end of the day, you can support, encourage and facilitate as much as you can as a councillor, but it’s down to the developers to crack on with it.”

And the missed affordability targets? “That’s because the developers submitted a viability assessment which claimed they couldn’t go any higher. The final figure was the result of a lot of back-and-forth between them and our planning officers — ultimately the council was left with the decision to stick rigidly to our targets and likely lose an appeal to central government by the developers, or get the thing built without the delays that would have entailed.

“The whole system is flawed — everybody in the industry knows viability assessments are a joke. What we need is a fundamental rethink of the system, or we simply aren’t going to be able to get this sort of housing built.”

In a bid to better meet the housing needs of the borough, the Labour-led council created Brick by Brick, its own development company, in 2015. In a novel approach to circumvent central government limitations on council house building, it was set up to build homes on council-owned land, sell off around half at market value, and offer the rest at affordable rents. However, despite a £10m loan from the council to build 1,000 homes by 2019, it has yet to lay a brick.

It has also attracted enormous controversy over its plans to aggressively develop green spaces on council property. Seventeen local residents’ associations wrote an open letter to the council complaining about the impact such development would have on the people already living on the estates. The issue has become a major issue on the doorstep, with the Croydon Conservatives pledging to call an “emergency stop” to Brick by Brick’s activities on day one of a Conservative administration.

But Labour remain bullish about the scheme. “Central government has taken active steps to prevent local authorities from building new council housing,” Scott insists. “So we had to find a mechanism to get around that deliver affordable homes.”

Brick by Brick has had a slow start, he concedes, but with work soon to begin on more than 30 sites, he is confident that it will prove to be a success.

“I understand people’s frustrations about infill,” he adds. “But the reality is that we have a lot of open space, much of which isn’t often used. We don’t have the luxury of keeping it all. The only other option is to push out into the green belt, which no one wants. Most people understand that there’s this urgent need, but when they then say ‘but not around here’, what else can you call them other than a nimby?”

Croydon’s situation is a curious one. Everyone involved in the planning process agrees that too few affordable family homes are being built in the borough.

But, with power having passed between Labour and the Conservatives several times over the past decade, the borough’s wildly swinging housing priorities have caused confusion and gridlock. After decades of underdevelopment, developers have been able to take advantage of the desperate need for any sort of housing to secure themselves more favourable terms from a council desperate to be seen to be taking action.

The recent decision to publish viability assessments is a step in the right direction. But with planning permission already granted to a string of high-end developments, it may well be too little too late. Croydon’s skyline is set to change forever, but people who live and work locally may well question how much they actually stand to benefit.

This article is part of EastLondonLines’ Home Truths series, which looks at how Londoners are losing out on affordable housing. Click here for the full series.

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