After 13,500 hours of volunteering, the tireless campaigners for London’s most ambitious community-led housing project can finally declare victory. Sort of.
When 11 acres of the St. Ann’s Hospital site in Haringey went up for sale in 2015, planning permission was granted to a developer. Of the 470 homes planned, just 14 per cent were deemed “affordable”, meaning they would cost less than 80 per cent of market rates.
In a borough with a dearth of affordable housing, a 10,000-strong waiting list for social housing, and a slew of contentious developments including HDV, Seven Sisters market, and Tottenham’s £850m stadium, it proved a bitter pill that residents were unwilling to swallow.
Several responded by forming St. Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (START) and went to work on an alternative vision for the site. Their plan, drawing on lengthy consultations with the community, called for 100 per cent genuinely affordable housing – with allocations for communal, supported, and sheltered accommodation.
The proposal emphasised quality of life through preservation and creative use of the site’s green spaces and biodiversity, as well as integrated health facilities and support for vulnerable residents. This complex would connect with the wider community through new cafes, shops, studios, allotments and a village green for the general public.
START crowdfunded £25,000 for architects to draw up a masterplan for the site with up to 800 homes. The vision earned endorsements from an ever-expanding network of local residents, businesses, and politicians. So impressed was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that he bought the St. Ann’s site as the first purchase from his new £250m Land Fund, and entered into a partnership with START to develop it.
The partnership will involve compromise. City Hall is planning for 50 per cent genuinely affordable housing, which, while a significant improvement on previous requirements, still falls far short of the campaigners’ ambitious 100 per cent target.
START activist Seb Klier says the deal should be celebrated but the group will keep pushing for more, having already received around £200,000 as part of fundraising to subsidise a higher proportion of affordable housing.
Klier believes that much of the community-led design, with its emphasis on quality of life, is “pretty uncontroversial” and should survive implementation. City Hall is positive about the proposed on-site features and intends for START to have freedom to shape the development and its links to the community.
“Even if our visions don’t align 100 per cent straightaway, we share such a lot of common ground and so many values that if we’re flexible we have the chance to achieve something really impressive,” says James Murray, deputy mayor for housing. “There will be plenty more conversations along the way but there is a lot of goodwill and it’s a great opportunity.”
The development will take several years for delivery but START is finalising allocations criteria to ensure homes go to people that need them. These include maximum incomes, local roots, and a prohibition on buy-to-let. Klier says there will be wide-ranging outreach to raise awareness of the new housing opportunities and prevent dominance by the “sharp-elbowed middle classes.”
Few expected START’s vision to succeed, and its progress offers inspiration for the burgeoning field of community-led housing.
“A success at START would be a game changer for the Community Land Trust (CLT) movement,” says Catherine Harrington, director of the National CLT Network. “It would at last prove that CLTs can work at scale.” St.Ann’s would be among the largest community-led housing projects in the country, according to the Network, and a unique use of the model to address urban housing shortages.
START activists hope their experience can help and inspire other housing projects across London and the UK. Thousands of hours volunteering have yielded a few lessons. Firstly that it shouldn’t be this hard.
“Taking a housing development forward is so labour intensive and requires a lot of expertise and access to resources,” says Klier. “What I’d like to see going forward is a commitment from all levels of government to think about how to better support community-led housing.”
One policy that should be challenged is the mass sell-off of public land, he adds, which is squandering hugely valuable assets for a negligible return. Research from the New Economics Foundation found that just 6 per cent of homes built on public land were genuinely affordable. Many public sites are targets for community-led housing projects.
City Hall will be buying many more sites with its £250m fund, with a particular focus on land owned by NHS trusts. The administration has also established a Community Housing hub to support projects and is seeking new powers to secure land for housing. City Hall’s role will vary by case, says Murray, but community groups seeking a partnership could learn from START’s commitment to consultations and flexibility.
“What is really positive about START is that they have strong links to the local community that they represent,” he says. “They have clear plans and are keen to work together to see what can be delivered.”
That remains an open question in Haringey and the rest of London. But START’s bold experiment could pave the way for many more.
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