The Surrey-Hampshire border, southwest of London, is one of the most affluent areas in the country. It is currently facing a crisis in affordable housing.
The area around the Surrey-Hampshire border, southwest of London, is one the most affluent areas in the country, thus in the world. Within this area are pockets of acute social deprivation and provision of social housing is in crisis.
The good burghers of Waverley (Farnham and Godalming) have estimated that to meet the demand for social housing, every new build should be at least 70% affordable housing. It is currently running at zero.
The blame is laid at the door of developers who are expert at wheedling their way through planning legislation. This may be true in Farnham and Godalming, but it is certainly not true in Aldershot and Farnborough.
In Aldershot and Farnborough in the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor, it is the planners who are fiddling the planning system on behalf of developers, who are pushing through unwanted development that allows developers to line their pockets at the expense of the local community.
I only have to spend a few minutes leafing through the Rushmoor planning agenda to spot major flaws, more than sufficient to stop any unwanted development dead in its tracks. If I take the trouble to convey my observations to the officials, my comments are never placed before the committee. The committee turns a blind eye, only rarely questions, and almost never challenges how they are told to vote.
Plans were afoot to relocate an abattoir from North Camp (south Farnborough) to Aldershot. It was virtually a done deal, until residents of Aldershot learnt of the scheme. The abattoir owner put in to develop his existing site. The abattoir has been there since 1890, therefore over a century of unregulated soil and ground contamination, but no request for soil or ground contamination surveys to be carried out before the committee considered an application for 29 two-bedroom flats. The development was too high density for the site, was out of character with the area, would have overloaded with traffic surrounding streets, provided no open space, provided no affordable housing. The latter two being a breach of the Local Plan. The recommendation from the planning officials was to approve. Their reasoning was that the developer needed to make excess profit in order to be able to finance his next development!
KPI, a Kuwaiti-financed property company, own Farnborough town centre. They have spent the last six years trashing the town centre. The final death blow, if they get their way, will be to demolish the northern half of the town and to replace it with a superstore, facing out of the town with its own car park. Social housing, 28 maisonettes owned by Pavilion Housing Association, are to be demolished to make way for the car park. Above the superstore will be offices and 96 flats. The percentage of social housing within the development is less than the percentage required by the Local Plan. And that is even before account is taken of the fact that the figures are being fiddled. No account is being taken of the loss of the 28 maisonettes, no account taken of the flats lost above the existing shops to be demolished. The arguments put forward by the planners is that the town needs a superstore as it will revitalise a dying town centre, that it is okay to kick people out of their homes and destroy social housing and abuse their human rights as their rights are overridden by the fact that a superstore is in the public interest. The social housing is less than required as the developer needs to make some money and needs to be compensated for the extra cost incurred in demolishing social housing for a car park! No one on the committee questioned what was going on, three members of the committee were at the time, board members of Pavilion.
Any new development above 15 dwellings and above a certain density and size, should have 30% social housing. This is not only being ignored, but the Rushmoor planners are actively promoting schemes that ignore it. Many have zero social housing, and the town centre development only has 20%, and that is before account is taken that the figures are fiddled.
In Waverley, they are currently going through the exercise of whether or not what is still council housing should be privatised. How far this has got, and whether or not the tenants are being fed a pack of lies (as Camden) or the ballot being rigged (as Nottingham), I do not know.
If the Waverley tenants want to know how bad it becomes once council housing is privatised, they only have to look to their northern neighbours in the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor. Here, the council housing was privatised ten years ago. The tenants have regretted this stock transfer ever since. Repairs are not carried out, tenants who speak out are victimised, rents have risen above inflation. This is not just the view of the tenants. The Audit Commission has recently published a damning report on Pavilion. A second report looking at social deprivation, has identified parts of Aldershot and Farnborough, all Pavilion estates, as some of the worst deprived areas in the country.
Rushmoor has 3,500 people on the housing waiting list. The Council claims no one in the borough is homeless. A claim that is not true. One man has been living in a car in Aldershot for the last two years. The Council claims he does not merit to be housed.
In Farnborough town centre alone, there are around 100 empty properties. In many cases, they have been empty for years. The vast majority, are owned by KPI, the town centre developers. They are deliberately keeping these properties off the market. As are Pavilion. Several properties are at Firgrove Court, the maisonettes destined for demolition for a car park if the development goes ahead. As Pavilion have kicked out their tenants, they have gone in and deliberately trashed the properties, gutting them of kitchens and bathrooms, rendering them uninhabitable.
Councils are under a legal obligation to identify empty properties, and bring them back onto the market. Pressurising the landlords to do so, and failing that, to serve Compulsory Purchase Orders on the owners.
Rushmoor council offices are two minutes walk away from Farnborough town centre. Rushmoor Housing Department claimed not to be aware of this empty housing. When asked to do something about it, the response was a cock and bull story that the flats are uninhabitable (they probably are but have not been inspected), that the landlord was in the process of doing them up and that they were not available to rent because they were for sale etc. There is no evidence that any of this is true. The same dereliction of duty is all too apparent when asked to enforce repairs, again a statutory obligation.
In a telephone conversation with Simon Rutter, senior development surveyor KPI (project officer town centre redevelopment), late afternoon Wednesday 12 August 2004, he confirmed that around 100 properties were empty, that they were not in a habitable state due to the length of time they had been empty, that they were doing them up (there is no sign of this), and that they would be available for rent by Christmas (he did not say which Christmas). Asked if there were any plans to put any on the market or if any of the flats were for sale, he said no
Rutter has said that anyone desiring a flat should contact him at his office at St Modwen (the parent company of KPI). 020 7499 5666
In Aldershot, at least a dent would be made in the local housing shortage if Pavilion were not so lax in leaving properties lying empty.
The response of Waverley is to seek out empty property, and if possible, rent it off the landlords for re-letting as social housing. They are asking people to come forward if they know of empty property that may be available for rent. 01483 523375
The Army has released a large chunk of land, surplus to requirements, on the outskirts of Aldershot between Aldershot and Farnborough. This will be one of the largest housing projects in the country. Should Pavilion be a key partner, when they cannot manage the properties they already own, more tenants have their lives made a misery?
This site offers an opportunity for sustainable development – low energy use housing, parks and green areas, small offices and workshops for local enterprise, the site to be energy self-sufficient. But Rushmoor is not known for transparency, openness, accountability and democratic participation, let alone visionary thinking.
What is jokingly called 'consultation' is that we will tell you what we have decided on your behalf.
An example of this was at a recent 'public consultation' meeting called by Hyde Housing Association in Aldershot. Hyde want to let what amounts to little more than a rough wooden shack to roughs no one else wishes to house. The place is a death trap and should be pulled down and some decent housing erected on the spot. This was tried once before, but it became such a nuisance that it had had to be shut down. It was suggested the place be wardened, but this was dismissed out of hand. As was the suggestion that a tenant live there rent free in return for acting as warden.
Rushmoor are keen to promote this death trap, as it saves the cost of bed and breakfast accommodation. Whether or not Hyde can manage the death trap, it is only necessary to look at Hyde in Aldershot town centre. Decent tenants are having their lives made hell by roughs and Hyde turn a blind eye, as does Rushmoor.
Maybe it's an insurance job. Maybe Hyde are hoping it burns down so they can use the insurance money to rebuild on the site.
Invitations went out. Only a limited number went to the area that would be affected. It would not do to encourage local community participation. Attendance was: half a dozen from Hyde (who came all the way up from Southampton), a couple from Pavilion, a couple from Rushmoor housing department, a couple of police, half a dozen Rushmoor councillors, and two members of the public. All bar the public met an hour before so everything could be discussed and a common strategy agreed upon. When this was questioned, the response was: 'but that is how we always do it.' One Rushmoor neo-Labour councillor went so far as to state that any further meetings should be held without the riffraff, ie the local community. He also came up with the no-brainer that CCTV be installed within the death trap as a means of monitoring the roughs it was destined to house!
No doubt Hyde and Rushmoor will issue a press release claiming widespread consultation.
The anomaly is Tory controlled Guildford. A survey of council tenants showed that they were happy to remain with the council. The council, quite wisely, decided not to waste any more taxpayers money by engaging in a full ballot of council tenants. Guildford expects quite easily to meet the Decent Homes Standard. They have also met their target of affordable house build early. Guildford now intend to aim for 850 instead of 500 affordable homes by 2007. There is currently in Guildford an annual shortfall of 722 affordable houses. Guildford has seen a 17% increase in the number of people making application to the Council for affordable housing.
The crunch has come in this mainly affluent area due to the abolition of the Social Housing Grant and the mismatch between that which those at the bottom of the heap earn and the price of local housing. Where I live, it is not atypical to find houses for sale for £250,000 and upwards of £500,000. Even the fact that many are in the crash zone for Farnborough Airport has made little difference to price. And the demand is there, houses are sold in as little as a few hours of being put on the market.
The concern locally, is less the social concern that people lack decent affordable housing, but more, where are we to house the people to do the low paid shit jobs we would not wish to do ourselves. We have students to do the McVomit type jobs, but what of all the other low paid work? A problem that is currently being solved by migrant workers who are being exploited by local Rachman landlords.
The lack of affordable housing is worsening as house prices rise much faster than average earnings. In the south east, average house prices have risen by 112% between 1993 and 2001.
Affordable housing is a phrase I do not like, as what is affordable, depends upon what you can afford. I can visit a friend outside Farnham, swim in his indoor pool. His house is modest compared with those of his neighbour's. To afford any of these mansions, one of which belongs to a local Rachman landlord, one has to be a multimillionaire.
There are no easy fixes. We cannot continue concreting over green fields, eating into the Green Belt or demolishing existing houses and infilling with hideous blocks of flats. Nor is raising the wages of the lowest paid going to help as it simply pushes house prices ever higher at a faster rate.
Some form of regulation, both in terms of regulation of rent and through planning controls helps, but it has to be for housing under local community control, and that does not imply either council control or the modern Rachmans, the housing associations.
We need more enterprise in other parts of the country, to stop the south east overheating.
In Farnborough we are seeing more and more massive office blocks being built, or in the planning process. Most are currently sitting empty (and for that reason Network Rail has pulled out of a massive office development at Farnborough Station). But were these office blocks ever to be filled, it would either mean more people commuting or more people wishing to live locally, more pressure on a fragile local infrastructure that is close to breakdown, more pressure on local housing. None of which is good for the local environment, none of which is sustainable.
Ultimately, and in the long term, we have to look to limiting and then reducing our own population growth and lifestyle consumption. Neither the rest of the world nor our own little overcrowded island can withstand our jackboot ecological footprint.
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Affordable homes quota to go up, Surrey Advertiser, 23 July 2004
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Dad forced to live in car while waiting for housing, Farnborough News, 6 August 2004
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Will it go or stay? Abattoir future in the balance, Farnborough News, 30 July 2004