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.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.