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These North London Activists Are a Rare Source of Hope in London's Housing Catastrophe

They're trying to turn a former hospital into an affordable housing utopia.

According to Savills, house prices in the north-east London borough of Haringey rose by a jaw-dropping 646 percent between 1995 and 2005. In the decade that followed, they rose by another 107 percent in spite of the recession. The borough's council house waiting list is 10,000 – and around 90 percent of those families "will never be housed in social rented accommodation", warns the council website. Calling it a housing crisis almost seems insufficient – it's a catastrophe.

*cue twinkly piano music*

But what if there was another way?

A remarkable glimmer of light has emerged in an unassuming corner of that same borough: the very real possibility of a new utopia in Haringey, on the site of an old hospital. St Ann's was opened in 1892, as the North East Fever Hospital, to deal with a severe outbreak of scarlet fever – and was brought under the auspices of the NHS when it was founded in 1948. Two-thirds of the huge 11.4 hectare site (equivalent to more than 16 football pitches) is now due to be sold off by the local NHS Health Trust; the rest will be maintained as mental health facilities. When Haringey Council's Planning Sub-Committee voted through the sale on the 16th of March, 2015 against strong local opposition, it was with the guarantee that just 14 percent of the homes in the new development would be "affordable" (i.e. 80 percent of market rate – i.e. not actually affordable). St Ann's fate already seemed sealed: another public asset sold to a private developer who would turn this massive tree-lined space into luxury flats and branches of Leon.

Right on cue, enter stage-left, a rebel group of local residents and activists who are determined to beat the developers at their own game. The group is called the St Ann's Redevelopment Trust (StART), and its proposal is staggering in its scale and ambition. With no previous experience of the frankly quite fiddly business of large-scale property development, they want to build 500 genuinely affordable homes for local residents. Their plan would also maintain St Ann's large green spaces for the whole local community – not just the incoming residents.

When I sat in on a StART meeting one evening in the early summer, 13 local volunteers had gathered in the echoey gym hall of a nearby primary school. They sat on creaking plastic fold-out chairs in the sterile gymnasium, like they do every fortnight, picking through the great swathes of bureaucracy, campaigning, lobbying and publicity required to raise the money, and persuade the powers that be that, for once, the right decision might also be the right decision. There was a great range of age and skill-sets among the volunteers present that night; generally, the older members looked to the younger ones to deal with social media, technological and crowdfunding questions – and the more experienced volunteers shared their wisdom from years involved in various types of community activism.

The big question at that moment was how to raise £25,000 to pay their architects to develop a thorough, credible proposal. You can't just tell the council "we want to build London's biggest housing co-op" and hope they say, "Oh, go on then." First StART had to prepare an 18-page brief, with a 357-page appendix, for the firm, 6A Architects – and now they have to raise that not inconsiderable amount of money. The crowdfunder runs until October and has so far raised nearly £11,000 of the £25,000 needed.

Last week I went back to St Ann's in the daytime to meet 32-year-old Kerem Nisancioglu, one of the 13 volunteers present that night in May. One of the things that comes across from an hour wandering around the site with Kerem is that this is more than just a straight fight for a higher proportion of affordable housing – essential as this is. It's an existential battle for the soul of a crowded city already wracked by inequalities of wealth, health and housing.

For well over a century the St Ann's site has served the public good, and the health of the local community. It's not much of a stretch to fear that if a private developer won the bid, the area could be gated off, patrolled by private security guards. The substantial green space, with its wide variety of rare trees and micro-climates, might be built over, or reserved only for the wealthy incoming locals. The experience of many new developments in London suggests that it would cease to be public.

Public consultation with the local community has been central to the StART campaign since the outset. Some of the existing buildings would be kept – one large, elegant red-brick building, built in 1900, could be used as a community centre, maybe a cafe, or a pub. The dramatic and impressive water tower has similar promise – one popular idea is to turn it into a gallery. As we walked around the emptier side of the site, we stumbled on a film shoot, vans and cables and messy piles of technical kit everywhere. The NHS health trust was making some money on their asset while the buildings are unused, shooting an episode of Endeavour, ITV's prequel to Inspector Morse.

"The architects are going to work on four options," Kerem explained, "with varying density, from a low of 250 homes, to a high of about 800. We've been working on a likely middle figure of about 470 homes – because in the community consultation there was a lot of support for the buildings not being any taller than six floors. The community consultation asked a lot about which buildings local people would like to be kept, and how the community space should be used – like, would you want a newsagent, a post office? Even a lido was mentioned – loads of people were up for a lido!"

Who wouldn't want a lido, if they were asked? The grassroots nature of the campaign taps into something quite fundamental: how often are local communities actually asked about what housing they'd like to see when top-down regeneration schemes take hold? Public consultations by councils and private developers are often deliberately opaque, or their results are ignored – going through the motions before slapping down the expensive restaurants, bars and gyms that the market (i.e. the new arrivals) demand in the local area.

StART sprung into life last year after the "Save St Ann's Hospital" campaign accepted defeat and local activists wondered if there was any way to ensure that this massive site offered more than yet another slew of inaccessible luxury flats. The small-scale Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op in Tottenham was thinking of lobbying the council for a small part of the new housing, for a new co-operative of ten or 20 homes. "And then there was just the eureka moment," Kerem recalled: "Why not just try and get hold of the whole site?"

Kerem

There are lots of ways to measure the British housing crisis, but here's one statistic which hits you like a half-brick upside the head: the annual number of new homes built per person, while David Cameron was Prime Minister, was the lowest since 1923. The house-building rate in Britain has been declining consistently under every government since the 1970s. The government won't build homes, while the private sector only wants to build blocks of luxury flats, out of reach of even those on middle-income wages. Without some kind of grassroots intervention, you wonder how most ordinary Londoners might ever come to own a home in their own city.

"I think that's exactly the question we're trying to answer," said Kerem. "Personally, I'd like to see a shift away from the idea of ownership altogether, but that's just my personal feeling – my ideal would be socially rented housing, co-operatively managed by the residents... A lot is still up for debate – there are so many variables, in terms of how many would be rented, or sold. But there is agreement that it should be genuinely affordable and that any ownership shouldn't be speculative: so no buy-to-let, no buying and leaving them empty – putting into place mechanisms so that if it's sold, it's not sold in a way that raises the value."

StART would run the site as a Community Land Trust (CLT), a non-profit system that keeps property in the ownership of the local community, in perpetuity. So as well as the plan to build 500 new genuinely affordable homes, they want to buck the trend of pretty much all the building work going on in London. The campaign may be run by ordinary locals, but in addition to widespread support from Haringey locals, they have received a warm reception from many local politicians, including local MPs and councillors, and even Joanne McCartney, the Deputy Mayor of London.

When approached by VICE, local MP David Lammy expressed his support: "I am supportive of the growing role of community land trusts in order to tackle London's ever growing housing crisis," he said. "I have written to our new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, asking him to meet with St Ann's Redevelopment Trust to discuss their plans and how they may be able to access affordable capital finance which will be the next stage of developing their innovative proposals."

Amid the local enthusiasm, there has been some scepticism. "The more cynical reactions we've heard are, 'It's impossible and the people doing it are deluded – they don't actually understand what is necessary to get something like this built.' But that does a real disservice to how informed everyone is in the group, in terms of just how big an undertaking this is – it's a permanent part of the discussion. It does grate a bit when you hear people say, 'You just don't understand how land value works, or how loans work,' and it's like, 'No, we fully understand that.' Don't get me started!"

"What I've found really inspiring about working with this group is that no one's really baulked at the ambition, or turned away from it," said Kerem. "Some people have been like, 'Let's pitch this directly to Sadiq Khan, why not?' He says he wants 1,000 new CLT homes by 2020 – so we're saying, 'Look, we can halve your target in one go.'"

The project is a potential beacon for tackling a crisis of affordability that is acknowledged across the political spectrum. Kerem admitted to moments of anxiety at the sheer scale of the task – but there was also confidence and a belief in how big this could be for the capital: "It might even give local authorities a kick up the arse and show them, 'Look, affordable housing in London is actually possible.'"

@danhancox

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