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Government / Local politics

Britain's most expensive council houses just went on sale for £3 million each

In late July, two houses in Southwark went on the market for more than £3m each. There’s nothing particularly unusual in this – houses sell for a lot more than that in central London.

But what made this estate agent listing slightly out of the ordinary is that the two properties are former council houses. Britain’s most expensive council houses, in fact.

Southwark council put 21 and 23 Park Street up for sale back in 2013, to raise money for new housing stock. The Grade II listed building, which needed £500,000 of work to make it habitable, was snapped up by a developer for £2.96m. The sale sparked an occupation protest in the property, accusations of social cleansing and questions over the ethics of flogging off social housing in expensive parts of London.

If both properties sell for their asking price (which, let’s face it, is more than plausible), the developer will net more than £3m in profit.

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And we shouldn’t have a problem with that. In the meantime, Southwark council has built 21 new homes in Bermondsey.

The homes in question. Image: Beth Parnell-Hopkinson.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea we are flogging off London’s social housing for financial reasons. But not all such sales are equal. Selling a single property, which is going to cost hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds to bring back into use, is quite a different ballgame to selling off 92 homes under Right To Buy (RTB) – which Southwark did between September and December of 2014 alone.

I don’t mean to pick on Southwark council particularly with this – RTB is a deeply flawed policy and, like all local authorities, Southwark is at the mercy of central government. All the same, those 92 properties represent a huge loss to the taxpayer.

By contrast, the choice over whether to keep one hugely expensive property, or letting someone else take the risk of renovating it while you build 21 much-needed homes, should be a no-brainer. In fact, if selling off London’s social housing hadn’t become so common, and so controversial, over the last few years, it’s likely that no-one would have bothered at all about the sale of 21 and 23 Park Street.

The debate on social housing in the capital is a complicated one. When is it okay to sell council-owned inner city property so as to fund more houses in a slightly cheaper area? One person’s social cleansing is another’s sound financial management of assets.

Beth Parnell-Hopkinson is a senior editor at Londonist.
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