Hackney Cohousing Project has dreams dashed by council
PUBLISHED: 09:08 25 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:58 25 February 2016
Hackney Council has pulled out of a deal to establish a community-owned housing scheme in Stoke Newington. Pascale Hughes and Sam Gelder spoke to the man who spent six years trying to get the Hackney Cohousing Project off the ground.
The man who dreamed of setting up an innovative “cohousing” project in Stoke Newington has accused Hackney Council of wasting years of his family’s lives by scrapping a deal they had been working towards since 2010.
A group of 10 people had been in talks with the town hall for two years over plans to buy a disused children’s home in Albion Grove, Stoke Newington.
They wanted to create a community-led project of 15 homes – three of which would be social housing – with communal gardens, common rooms and workshops.
In December, backed by private firm Inhabit Homes, the group submitted a £1.85million bid for the site, which is a five-minute walk from London’s first cohousing project Copper Lane.
From Copenhagen to Hackney - the cohousing journey
The Albion Grove site Hackney Cohousing Project tried to buy is just a five-minute walk from the capital’s first successful venture, Copper Lane.
Back in 2009 a group of five residents bought a plot of land – complete with derelict nursery – from an Egyptian church. The newly-built site was up and running by 2014 with six homes and shared open spaces.
The modern concept for cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1960s, borne out of families’ frustrations with living conditions. The first attempt was in 1964 – the idea of architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer and a group of friends.
Their project in Copenhagen was supported by city officials but neighbours weren’t so keen and the site was sold.
Meanwhile, an article by journalist Bodil Graae in 1967 led to 50 families developing a project. The two groups joined forces and built two sites, which were completed in 1973.
But the council announced last week it was reluctantly pulling out of the deal, claiming the plan was not financially workable.
It said it could no longer justify the large taxpayer subsidy needed to make the project work and could no longer leave the site empty.
But Toby Lloyd, who launched the project in 2010 with his wife Kim Wade, said officers had continually moved the goalposts regarding the cost.
He told the Gazette: “We have been treated schizophrenically. At times the councillors were supportive, but other times the officers were wilfully obstructive.
“There was an utter refusal to engage with us. They have wasted years of our lives by not being honest upfront. We have spent more than £20,000 trying to get the project off the ground and now my family is burnt out.”
The council expressed concerns over the reliability of the project’s funding, though Mr Lloyd claims an initial £1.6m bid was backed by housing association Peabody. “We heard nothing for nine months so Peabody pulled out,” he said. “I understand it’s a small project but they can’t blame us.”
A council spokesman said even the Peabody-backed bid did not carry necessary assurances over funding, despite an agreement to sell the land at a discount and retain equity to help the buyers.
Mr Lloyd, of Albion Grove, now believes truly affordable housing in Hackney is a thing of the past.
“We are all members of the ‘middle group’ that is being squeezed out of the borough,” he said. “Unless you are extremely wealthy or eligible for social housing it is almost impossible to raise a family here.”
He continued: “It’s part of a wider squeeze on affordability. The council has a good track record of getting affordable housing and our approach was to try an innovative way of getting social housing at the same time – on a site that wouldn’t otherwise deliver any affordable housing.
“It was a potentially important contribution to show different ways it could be done, by the communities themselves. We thought it was win-win for the council.”
In a press statement the Hackney Co-Housing Project said: “Since we approached the council with our proposal six years ago, house prices in Hackney have risen by 60 per cent. Rather than recognising this as evidence of a worsening affordability crisis, officers have instead used it to demand an ever-higher price for the site – making it impossible to deliver truly affordable housing for local residents.”
The council is now looking at other ways to use the brownfield site, which is currently used by a property guardian firm. Housing some of the borough’s 2,300 homeless people in the building is one avenue being explored.
In a blog post the borough’s housing chief Cllr Philip Glanville said: “There were many significant and practical challenges to be overcome with the HCP scheme, including evidence of real funding, its composition both in terms of tenure mix and eligibility, a concrete delivery plan, and the identification of a suitable development partner. Despite this scheme now not moving forward, the council maintains an appetite to explore new and innovative ways to provide housing.”