Work is well underway on creating a new £31.6 million Creative District in Woolwich, which is to be branded as Woolwich Works.
Around the site hoardings are in place and some are remarkably tone deaf. There’s one stating how nice it’d be if the homeless could go in for free.
Yet almost within site of this spot is Riverside House; a former council building recently sold to help fund the Creative District instead of all income being used to assist with rapidly increasing homeless problems – or using the building for housing.
Riverside House is just one of a number of sites being sold to bolster Greenwich Council’s General Fund which is being used to fund the project budgeted at £31.59 million with contingency of £11.16 million for Phase 1. Here’s a list of buildings helping to fund the project:
Of course, the children who stated this aren’t to know, but who in the council thought it a good idea to include it on site hoardings?
No sooner had a private buyer purchased Riverside House had they sought to convert to 199 flats through permitted rights. Permitted rights requires no affordable housing provision.
Selling assets for prestige projects is a common theme across the borough. See also the recent sale of a family centre in Plumstead.
These sales were occurring as homeless numbers increased sharply as shown in a Council report from earlier this year. This covers financial year 2018/19:
Just this week it was revealed that a £2.6 million budget overspend will occur this financial year due to rising homelessness and a lack of homes:
Central Government policies play a large role in the housing crises we now see though local authorities can’t entirely shrug off blame – and there’s examples locally that not all is being done to help alleviate a problem affecting more and more people.
A boost for Woolwich?
This isn’t to say it’s wrong to pursue projects to boost and assist town centres. The project could bring in many more visitors to the area and thus footfall and income.
The issue is how it’s funded. Could the authority have borrowed – either commercially or through the Public Works Loan Board – at extremely low rates to fund a commercial project and thus retained assets to house the homeless instead of sending people as far as Medway – or use all income from property sales to assist with housing?
If so, it would’ve helped to reduce ever-rising costs to taxpayers of placing people in emergency accommodation and private lettings, and provide stability to those in need of homes. They would lose the short term cash boost but gain over a longer period through paying less for expensive private lettings.
Instead of money spent on the Creative District, Greenwich Council could have worked to convert Riverside House for truly affordable housing – rather than sell to a private buyer who immediately sought to convert without any obligation for affordable homes, let alone social housing.
We are continually seeing sell-offs of public buildings and land for short term cash boosts as mid-to-long terms costs rise. Again, central Government doesn’t make things easy for local councils. Unlike the 1980s, councils now retain Right to Buy income but must spend within three years and the amount spent on any project is capped at 30 per cent – so council’s must find other ways to spend including partnering with Housing Associations.
In Greenwich, much income went towards another option that provides the worst value according to the council themselves – buying market homes at the top of a market cycle – which is also pricing out first time buyers and pushing up house prices.
But they didn’t want that highlighted in Greenwich Info, stating:
Sites across the borough
When it comes to council land not all sites are suitable for retaining. East Greenwich library is listed and in terrible shape, and perhaps no longer economic to retain. But that cannot be said for all buildings. And even if building are to be sold, at least try to gain maximum income.
East Greenwich library is in an area neglected for decades. It’s hardly going to help secure a good price.
The argument that Plumstead’s Kinara Building, for example, has been disused for some time is not an argument for failing to seek wider planning designation including residential use before the site is sold thus limiting income from sales.
The tragedy of all this is more people living rough, more people not knowing where they’ll be living next week let alone next year, but hey, at least they’ll be able to know ballet is happening nearby.
Greenwich often retort that 750 council homes will begin by 2022 and some are now underway. But the scale of the challenge is much greater. Much, much more needs to be done and that challenge will not be met through a combination of dire central Government housing policies and local Government failing to use every single tool at their disposal to tackle this crises head on.