Saturday, 01 November 2014

The last social homes

By April 2014 the Olympic village will have converted from athletes’ dormitory to a brand new community. Gavriel Hollander finds out how England’s last large-scale social housing development is being whipped into shape

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On Friday 10 August, Geoff Pearce will be relaxing in his seat at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, taking in the final of the men’s 4x400 metre relay.

Mr Pearce is one of the lucky few to have won the lottery to buy tickets for one of the highlights of the last weekend of the London 2012 Olympics.

But as the circus that is the games begins to wind down amid a fanfare of patriotic hubris and - unless the organisers ignore a century of closing ceremony tradition - a small army of brightly coloured stilt walkers, his job will be about to get a lot more demanding.

As director of development and asset management at East Thames Group, one of three organisations which form the Triathlon Homes joint venture, Mr Pearce is responsible for a project that, to the housing sector, will be one of the games’ greatest legacies.

New neighbourhood

After the sporting elite have returned home, Triathlon - which features 25,000-home Southern Housing Group and private developer First Base alongside 13,500-home East Thames - will begin work to convert accommodation
in the athletes’ village into one of the last large-scale social housing developments in England.

More than 2,800 new mixed-tenure homes will spring up in place of the single-bed flats that will house swimmers, boxers and gymnasts for a few weeks this summer.

Nearly a quarter of these homes in the new E20 postcode will be available for social rent - a tenure which faces extinction almost everywhere else after the grant funding pipeline was cut off at the last comprehensive spending review.

‘We expect it to be really popular on the basis that there’s not a lot of competition,’ admits Mr Pearce. ‘But it’s also because the quality of the housing is so good.’

Triathlon will be responsible for the 1,379 affordable homes bought from the Olympic Delivery Authority. Of these, 675 will be for social rent, 354 will be for intermediate rent set at between 20 and 30 per cent below market rates, and 350 will be shared ownership or shared equity properties.

That responsibility really kicks in after the games. First, Triathlon will oversee the work to convert the athletes’ accommodation into family homes, a major part of which will be the installation of kitchens - something which Olympians can, apparently, do without. Then, from April 2013, comes the task of moving residents into an entirely new neighbourhood. At the same time there is the small matter of the 1,439 homes that will be made available for private rent through a joint venture between Qatari Diar Real Estate Development Company and Delancey - known as QDD - which bought the homes for £557 million.

A lasting legacy

Getting the mix right, building a brand new community and creating a place where people want to live out of choice rather than necessity are the challenges facing the Triathlon team. And this is not just any development; it is both the last hurrah of social housing in England and the first sign that this summer’s sporting jamboree could produce something that lasts longer than a Usain Bolt race.

‘The legacy is really important,’ agrees Mr Pearce. ‘The focus has always been on what the place will be like after the Olympic Games. The circus comes to town for four to six weeks and goes away, but people will be looking to see how well maintained the legacy is.’

Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham, the borough that will host the village and provide half its tenants, echoes the sentiment. ‘The rest of the world might see it as the Olympics but we see it as a locality,’ he asserts. ‘For the IOC [International Olympic Committee] it might be important to be able to come back and say look how well it’s worked, but for me these are my residents.’

Between the private and the public elements of the development, all 2,800 families will move onto the site in the space of less than a year from spring 2013 onwards. A new academy school, catering for ages three to 19, is being built simultaneously and will open next September.

The challenges for all involved are around how to build a brand new community from scratch while the world watches and, at least on the social housing side of the equation, how to decide who lives there.

Resident profile

In many ways, the two questions are one and the same. While sections of the coalition government - and indeed many aspects of its flagship welfare reform programme - seem to want to demonise social tenants as being locked into a cycle of joblessness and dependency, the lettings plan for the Triathlon homes reflects a very different reality.

The vast majority of those moving into the village will either be in work or in projects aimed at getting them into work. It is one of the first times employment status will be used as one of the main criteria when it comes to nominations for social housing on such a large scale. It is also a very deliberate strategy, chiming with a borough-wide plan being brought in by Newham Council from October this year.

The local authority will be the source of tenants for more than 300 of the 322 family-size social homes on the site. The remaining nominations for the 675 social rent homes will be divided up between other east London councils, Triathlon and the Greater London Authority, the latter of which will distribute rights for around 10 per cent of the homes to other local authorities in the capital.

Building a community

The unique lettings plan reflects more than just an ideological standpoint.

Converting an area that was, until recently, a run-down, derelict mixture of warehouses and breakers’ yards still displaying the scars from a Luftwaffe battering more than 60 years ago into a vibrant new neighbourhood requires more than just houses; it takes a whole economy. Jobs will play a part in that, with up to 100 being created for estate management work alone.

Sir Robin says the planners of Olympic legacy have had to learn the lessons from past housing policy.

‘We need to build a community that will be here for years to come,’ he explains with an obvious passion for the project. ‘If you put everyone who is poor and not working together then you’ll be knocking it down in 40 years’ time and wondering why it happened.’

The close integration of social tenants with the private residents of QDD is another major factor, with the homes being interspersed among each other. The success or otherwise of Triathlon’s development and the private rented units is mutually dependant, so the need not to create polarised communities is uppermost in the minds of the all involved.

‘The fundamentals are that the success of this is the most important issue in Olympic legacy,’ says Neale Coleman, the mayor of London’s Olympic advisor. ‘It’s not just about the housing; it’s about the social and community parts too. It’s a complex scheme and it will need everyone to work together.’

The presence of the oil-money backed QDD homes is crucial to this community building, adds Mr Coleman. But that part will only be considered a success if the whole area remains desirable. To him, the village could be a model for how to involve institutional investors, such as Qatari Diar, in helping the country build more and higher quality new housing.

‘Despite a lot of talk, it [institutional investment] hasn’t happened; but here it is happening,’ he continues. ‘But the investors there are dependent for their returns on it being a popular place to live.’

Whether the project could also show how there is an ongoing place in the country’s tenure mix for social rent is a thornier question. Triathlon will not convert any of its social rented properties to affordable rents of up to 80 per cent of market rates as it was not registered as an affordable homes provider with the Tenant Services Authority, which regulated the social housing sector at the time. What’s more, as a single purpose vehicle, it is not allowed to use future rental income to fund affordable house building.

The future of social rent

Both Mr Pearce and Sir Robin are unequivocal in their belief that the tenure could still have a future.

‘We firmly believe there is an ongoing case for social rent or certainly at a much lower rate than the affordable rent model allows for,’ says Mr Pearce. ‘That’s particularly for people whose circumstances are unlikely to improve.’

He adds that this does not just mean for the long-term unemployed but, just as importantly, for the low-paid workers who struggle to find genuinely affordable accommodation in London - the sort of people who the village is designed to house.

Mr Pearce admits the funding model for Triathlon - which received £110 million of its £286 million cost from the Homes and Communities Agency - is too ‘grant hungry’ to be replicated in the age of austerity.

But he is aware that the overall success of the project could still make a point to government that flexibility on rent is crucial to building communities.

‘In London, there is more of a case for it [social rent],’ he continues. ‘If people are working as nurses or in health care, many cannot afford affordable rent.’

The moral, social and political arguments are not over. But first, Mr Pearce, along with everyone else involved in the project, will have to show that their grand vision works.

‘If it fails, it means we have failed,’ says Sir Robin. ‘That is why we have spent so much time making sure we’ve got it right.’

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