As people may be aware, Royal Mail is planning to redevelop part of their large WC1 Mount Pleasant site. Both Islington and Camden councils are involved in this and with 750 homes currently planned, it is going to be a major development. Exhibitions have been organised and early plans have been submitted. On Wednesday 14th November, a development forum was organised to discuss the whole project.
The meeting was packed with residents with a range of concerns, most from local housing associations. A wide range of issues were raised but the general feeling was very much that the plan was ill-conceived. The proposed buildings seem excessively high in places (up to 15 storeys), not taking sufficient account of people's right to light, especially along Calthorpe Street and Farringdon Road. The design is rather unimaginative and people felt it was inward-looking. Some spaces in between buildings seem to have no public access, raising the risk of creating gated communities. A public space has been planned for, but it is still unclear who will own it and pay for its maintenance. The danger that it could be lost to private interests in the not-so-long term was raised.
Generally, in an area which lacks public amenities, including a school which has been demanded for years, it was felt that not much was on offer for the local community and that the proposed development was simply too dense.
These are obviously all legitimate demands and a plan that does not meet such requirements should be resisted. However, given the current housing crisis it is also true that more homes need to be built in Islington. In a capitalist system, we will always be left with different interests seeming to conflict with each other because as long as basic human needs such as education, health or housing are conceived of as services that have a cost and from which a profit can be made, we will be left fighting for what we need. With the Mount Pleasant redevelopment though, we can fight for our common interest, for all our needs, including housing.
Due to lack of time and bad organisation, the type of accommodation that will be available at Mount Pleasant was not properly addressed at the meeting though. So far Royal Mail say they do not know what proportion of private / affordable / social housing there will be. The design of the flats has deliberately been conceived so that they could be used for either type of housing. The fact that no minimum amount of social housing was ringfenced is not a good sign though. The main worry of course is that whichever developer is contracted to do the job will try to maximise profit by trying to pack in as many private housing as possible. But who can afford such rents?
The National Housing Federation has found that private sector rents have risen 37% in the last 5 years, while wages and benefit levels have actually gone down. Still, private rents are set to increase by a further 35% over the next six years.
Islington Council says they are committed to 50% affordable housing on large developments, but at rents between 60% and 80% of the current market prices, everyone knows that so-called affordable housing is everything but affordable. According to the London Tenants Federation, it would take a household incomes of between £33,375 and £44,500 to afford this type of tenure, when the London median income is of £31,379.
Within these 50% affordable housing, Islington recommends that 70% should be social-rented. This amounts to only 1/3 of the grand total and these are only guidelines anyway. No wonder Royal Mail already discarded the idea of a minimum amount of social housing on the site, citing the viability of the project as a major consideration. This is not the developer talking, just Royal Mail. Good to see where their priorities lie.
With the recession and attacks on the welfare system the housing situation is only getting worse. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing Research, 6,000 homes in Islington will become unaffordbale for people on housing benefit due to the cuts and caps that are gradually being introduced by the government. Where will these people go?
If housing is to be built on the Mount Pleasant site, it needs to be social-rented housing that working-class people can genuinely afford. But at the moment, not only are we not getting social housing we are actually losing it, partly because of schemes such as the buy-to-let one. According to figures from the Department for Local Communities and Government, over 5,000 social homes have been lost in the borough between 1998 and 2008. In contrast the number of new such homes built and managed by the council in recent years doesn't amount to a three-digit number. Added to the number of people on the housing waiting lists, this shows the scale of the current housing need as much as that of the incompetence of decision-makers.
What we want for Mount Pleasant is a development that meets the needs of local residents and provides homes for those who need it - not another regeneration scheme that will gentrify the area and profit a few corporate and private interests.The struggle over this development is part of a wider struggle against austerity, against cuts to services and the welfare system, against attacks on the working-class, and against the deterioration of our living conditions under capitalism. Let's fight for what we all need - starting with Mount Pleasant.