Open letter to Kingston Councillors about St George and TOPO

Dear Councillors

Tonight you will make one of the most important decisions you will ever have to make regarding the future of Kingston and how our townscape will look for the next few decades. Do you want to be the councillors responsible for opening the floodgates to overly dense, poorly designed, unaffordable tower blocks that add nothing in terms of architectural merit or beauty to our historic town? I trust not.

The main reason for saying no to St George’s plans for Eden Quarter should be concern for the people of Kingston who can ill afford to buy these homes if built. There are over 8,000 people on the housing list in Kingston, there are nearly 500 homeless people in Kingston, and the food bank in the town centre gave food parcels to 5,847 people, of whom 2,034 were children, in 2014/15. Will these homes help any of these people? No.

It’s not just the poorest and most vulnerable in our town that these home will be too expensive for. It’s everyone. And St George know this. In their own analysis of affordable housing in the town it found: “Affordability constraints in the borough ensure that accessing the housing ‘ladder’ is difficult. According to the Land Registry the average house price in the borough is £429,296. Whilst the Annual Survey of Hours and Earning (ASHE) 2013 reports that the borough has one of the highest gross median incomes, approximately £36,600 per annum, the average house price is almost 12 times higher.

Earlier this month I met with representatives from different faith groups in Kingston, including Christ Church New Malden, Surrey Islamic Centre, Chapel Street, Kingston Liberal Synagogue and St John’s Kingston Vale, among others. The key issue affecting their communities is the issue of the cost of housing, whether it’s young people feeling hopeless about their chances of moving out of home, middle aged parents worrying about where their children will live and the break up of their wider family, or older people concerned about where they could retire to.

St George’s latest design includes a measly 15% of affordable homes rather than the 50% that RBK states it is committed to in its SPD. For St George to cite viability and factoring in the cost of renovating a listed building are just weasel words, when we know very well that companies like St George look to make a minimum 20% profit on its developments and that in November 2014 the following was introduced by the Government: “a financial credit, equivalent to the existing gross floorspace of any vacant buildings brought back into any lawful use or demolished for re-development, should be deducted from the calculation of any affordable housing contributions sought from relevant development schemes.”

Furthermore, let’s be clear about the extremely healthy state of Berkeley Group (of which St George is a part), as given in their annual report 2015“In terms of performance, Berkeley built and sold 3,355 new homes this year at an average selling price of £575,000. This led to an increase in adjusted pre-tax profits of £454.6 million, an increase of 19.6% compared to last year, and a profit of £85.1 million from the sale of a portfolio of ground rent assets, giving total pre-tax earnings of £539.7 million.”

Do the right thing, put the needs of your community first and set a planning precedence you can be proud of:

  • Demand cheaper homes from the developers;
  • Insist on lower building height to fit our townscape;
  • Expect much better design from the architects. 

I wish I could be at tonight’s meeting, but I have long-standing engagement that I cannot break. However, I know that many Kingston residents will be there tonight, so I am sending this letter both for myself and on behalf of those residents who also cannot make it.

I will leave you with one last thought: I have worked in Canary Wharf and I can tell you that scuttling through dark weather-beaten streets caused by wind tunnels and shade from the towers that inhabit every corner is not an experience our community wants. The towers at Eden Quarter will create just this kind of street scene in Kingston – and if this one is approved – councillors will NEVER be able to say no to another one.

Kingston’s lack of affordable homes

My letter to Richmond Park MP and Mayoral hopeful, Zac Goldsmith:

Dear Zac

Yesterday I was at a meeting of representatives from different faith groups in Kingston, including Christ Church New Malden, Surrey Islamic Centre, Chapel Street, Kingston Liberal Synagogue and St John’s Kingston Vale, among others. The key issue affecting their communities that came out of the meeting was the issue of the cost of housing, whether its young people feeling hopeless about their chances of moving out of home, middle aged parents worrying about where their children will live and the break up of their wider family, or older people concerned about where they could retire to.

As your speech at conference clearly showed – and from our conversations on the subject – you know that housing is the one topic that unites Londoners. Yet, while you have been outspoken about other parts of London you have been reticent to speak out about the developments in Kingston and the utter lack of ‘affordable homes’ (which despite their flaws are all that developers have to offer) included in the many plans for the area and in particular TOPO (The Old Post Office)/Eden Quarter. 

St George’s latest design includes a measly 15% rather than the 50% that RBK states it is committed to in its SPD. For St George to cite viability and factoring in the cost of renovating a listed building are just weasel words, when we know very well that companies like St George look to make a minimum 20% profit on its developments and that in November 2014 the following was introduced by the Government: “a financial credit, equivalent to the existing gross floorspace of any vacant buildings brought back into any lawful use or demolished for re-development, should be deducted from the calculation of any affordable housing contributions sought from relevant development schemes.”

Furthermore, let’s be clear about the extremely healthy state of Berkeley Group’s (of which St George is a part), as given in their annual report 2015:In terms of performance, Berkeley built and sold 3,355 new homes this year at an average selling price of £575,000. This led to an increase in adjusted pre-tax profits of £454.6 million, an increase of 19.6% compared to last year, and a profit of £85.1 million from the sale of a portfolio of ground rent assets, giving total pre-tax earnings of £539.7 million.”

TOPO goes before the Development Control Committee next week for consideration. I implore you to use what pressure and influence you can bring on to both Kingston council and St George to dramatically improve its affordable housing provision. If you truly want to ensure that London has homes that ALL its residents can afford, you should make sure it happens in your own ‘back yard’.

Housing in crisis

This is the letter I had published in the local paper last week:

Our housing in Kingston is at breaking point. Last year, according to Rightmove, the average price of a home in the borough was £554,178, up 11 per cent on 2013 and 20 per cent on 2012. Who can keep pace with these astronomic levels, when salaries only increase by between one and two per cent per year?

Meanwhile, figures from Shelter, the Homeless charity, show that since 2011 in Kingston 77 council homes were sold off and none of them has been replaced, while the social housing waiting list has over 6,000 people on it. Housing officers tell me that the rent cap is forcing them to relocate residents outside the borough.

Furthermore, in the three years to 2013, less than 200 affordable homes were built in Kingston, not even 10 per cent of the council’s own target. In 2013/14 the target was a mere 84 homes. How can the council hope to achieve its targets when it approves developments such as the one by Berkeley on the old gas works at Sury Basin, where only 50 out of the 315 homes are affordable. No doubt this was justified by the viability assessment. And, what is a ‘ viability assessment’? It’s the developer’s OWN analysis of the finances of their OWN scheme, and if this self-assessment demonstrates to the council that the scheme is not financially viable, then the developer is able to duck out of providing affordable housing.

Exactly the same looks to be happening with the Eden Quarter development on the Old Post Office site. The developer St George, owned by Berkeley, says that because of viability they can only afford to provide 15 per cent affordable housing. Really? Maybe it’s because they’re worried about their profits? It can’t be that, because Berkeley Group posted a 40 per cent jump in profits to the end of April 2014, up to £380m from £271m in 2012-13.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make last Tuesday’s Development Control Meeting, where St George presented their scheme to our councillors. Instead, I sent Council Leader Kevin Davis and the two councillors responsible for housing, Cathy Roberts and Patricia Bamford this letter to ask them to do the right thing for the people of Kingston. I also copied in MPs James Berry and Zac Goldsmith in the hope they can bring pressure to bear on both councillors and government with regard to the deep problems we face over housing locally and nationally.

I, and many other residents in Kingston, urge councillors to stop accepting poorly designed, exceedingly tall, overly dense schemes with unduly small rooms, featuring a derisory amount of homes that people can actually afford. Instead, they should tell St George, and other developers, to create schemes that reflect the history and prestige of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames as well as providing for the needs of residents both now and in the future.

NHS, Housing and Schools – solving the crises

I finally caught up with the leaders debate last night. Watching it without the hype of a live broadcast exposed the tropes that each of the main party trots out, as they have for the last 20 or so years :

  • The Tories say you can’t trust Labour because they’re tax and spend.
  • Labour says Tories are all cut, cut, cut.
  • While Nick Clegg actually said ‘we would cut less than the Tories and tax less than Labour’! You can’t make it up.

I didn’t think Leanne Woods came off as badly or Nicola Sturgeon seem as wonderful as the polls suggested, while sadly Natalie Bennett didn’t have much chance to shine, although she managed to get some key policies across.

Worst of all was Farage who, at the very least, exposed him and UKIP for what they really want – to take us out of the EU. And this, when they have 24 MEPS – the hypocrisy of a party funded by the very institution it wants to leave knows no bounds.

What I would say about UKIP is that they’re very good in defining the problems besetting the British people, while blaming the wrong causes (migrants) and suggesting poor solutions (leaving the EU).

1 Housing – UKIP says the pressure on housing is because of immigration.

NO. The strain on housing is caused by Right to Buy which has taken council houses away from the poorest in this country, and have not been replaced as promised. On top of this not enough homes have been built to meet demand, instead, this Coalition government has put house prices up by guaranteeing mortgages with their ‘Help to Buy’ scheme. Plus, giving landlords tax relief on the interest on their mortgages has just helped private investors and inflated prices up while taking these properties out of the reach of first time buyers.

Solution – build council homes. Allow councils to borrow money so they buy land and properties on which to put social rented homes. Build on brown field. Stop developers riding roughshod over councils in their pursuit of profits by letting them buy their way out of providing ‘affordable homes’ within their developments. Remove the tax relief for landlords, and change tenancies from 6 months/1 year to 2/3 years, so that tenants have more security and rental costs don’t keep being put up every time the contract is renewed.

2 Schools – UKIP says the pressure on school places is because of immigration.

NO. The squeeze on school places is caused by local councils being so strapped for cash they haven’t been able to invest in the land or property that becomes available in their area so they’ve sold it off to developers instead, so creating further demand down the line. And, now under the Coalition, the Free School fiasco ensures councils have no controls over where and when schools are created, as they are reliant on Academy Trusts putting in bids to the Department for Education and then the Education Funding Agency buying a site, within its limited budget, appropriate or otherwise.

Solution – give councils back the ability to buy land and property as needed for schools and the funds to do it with. Only when local authorities can buy land or brownfield sites in their areas to do with as required, whether it’s for schools, homes or health centres will the problems our communities face over lack of infrastructure be properly dealt with.

3 NHS – UKIP says the pressure on doctor’s appointments and our NHS is because of too many migrants coming to the UK for our health service.

NO. Labour introduced market forces into the NHS, which have added been to by the Tories in the Coalition government. Plus, changes in GPs contracts under labour allowed them to stop providing out-of-hours care – while paying themselves more at the same time – which then forced more people to go to their local A&E rather than their local surgery.

Solution – keep the NHS free at the point of access, tax the top 1% wealthiest in the UK to raise around £21 billion to pay for it and reform GPs contracts so the out-of-hours care is not forced on to local hospitals instead.