How disgruntled Tottenham residents triumphed over a developer planning to build more unaffordable housing

The START site in Tottenham, north London. Image: Kieron Monks.

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 ubsidise 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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.