Redeveloping the Holloway prison site shows responsible construction can be done by working together

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There are few issues that matter more to London than building more affordable homes. It is both about economic necessity – London won’t grow and prosper without genuinely affordable homes – and social justice.

Anyone who has spent time talking to a London MP or local councillor will have heard the heartbreaking stories of those in desperate housing need. Given the critical importance of delivering this, and doing it at pace, what will it take to make it happen? Some voices I have heard say it is just not possible to do.

For my first Housing Today piece, I thought it would be good to take a closer look at one Peabody scheme and consider what it can tell us about achieving our shared objectives.

Peabody’s acquisition of the former Holloway prison site in March generated lots of interest and debate. This may be partly due to the fact that both the local MP, one Jeremy Corbyn and the London mayor Sadiq Khan came to the event announcing our purchase. The site also has a history though. From the struggle for women’s suffrage over a century ago to the 2017 occupation by Sisters Uncut demanding that the empty site be used to support survivors of domestic abuse, the location has always been of national significance.

The former Holloway prison site has the potential for over 1,000 new homes, but we have to think beyond numbers

The site has the potential for over 1,000 new homes, but we have to think beyond numbers. Given its heritage, we bear a huge responsibility to get the development right. It will take time, but three years after the closure of the prison, work has begun to bring the 10-acre site back into use. We’ve promised 60% genuinely affordable housing, the provision of a women’s building, temporary uses and engagement with local charities, and new public open spaces for everyone to enjoy. Most importantly though, we’re committed to full and comprehensive consultation with local people.

Our first challenge is to develop a scheme that is of the highest quality, and that responds to the different local ambitions for the site. This is a long process. Realistically, getting to planning approval will take at least a year to 18 months. Less defensible than a long period of consultation though, is the time it took for the Ministry of Justice to sell the site. Holloway prison was closed some three years ago. To boost the number of homes, at the pace that is needed, government must up its game on the sale of public sector land.   

I understand the challenges. When disposing of public land, government needs to achieve value for the taxpayer on the sale. But also has a strategic imperative to sell it for housing while maximising the amount of affordable housing on the site. But the more expensive the land, the fewer affordable homes will be delivered. To unlock new sites for quality supply, government and industry should develop a measure of social value and placemaking in the sale of public land.

Peabody secured a loan from the mayor of London to part-fund the acquisition. This arrangement has two very important benefits

In the case of Holloway, Peabody secured a loan from the mayor of London to part-fund the acquisition. This arrangement has two very important benefits. Firstly, by releasing upfront investment for a costly major site it helped boost the viability of the scheme. This will help us to deliver 60% affordable and a significant number of much-needed social rented homes. Secondly, because that money will be recycled it will help unlock future sites for new housing in the capital. The mayor’s Land Fund is a welcome innovation and will be a key instrument in delivering the homes London needs.

Partnerships like this can make all the difference. Increasingly housing associations are taking on a masterplanning role. We will be managing the homes in perpetuity so naturally it is in our interests for the site to become a superb place. Our aspiration is that these places will be a benchmark for thoughtful and intelligent mixed-tenure, mixed-use developments.

We will be managing the homes in perpetuity so naturally it is in our interests for the site to become a superb place

Our development partner, London Square, also has a strong track record and significant expertise in regenerating dormant, under-used sites like Holloway. Their experience will be vital. The council too share our aspirations and, alongside community and campaign groups, will be key in delivering our goals for the site. More broadly, with local authority borrowing caps removed, I think there are new opportunities for direct delivery partnerships to build more, better, and at pace.

So, there are certainly opportunities to do more. Progress is possible. Clearly the mayor’s target of 65,000 new homes a year won’t be met any time soon, but City Hall is making good progress on boosting the number of genuinely affordable homes coming through the system. To do more, it will need developers and government to work together, with a more strategic approach to land and policy, and true public/private partnerships like those that have unlocked Holloway.

We all have a shared mission to rapidly scale up, and speed up, the delivery of quality new homes and create great places. It will be difficult. It will certainly be challenging. But it’s not mission impossible.

Bob Kerslake is chair of Peabody and Be First, president of the LGA, and a member of the House of Lords