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Families get burned by this fire station flats fiasco

27 February, 2020

The former Belsize fire station building

WHAT is the true cost of losing affordable homes in the Belsize fire station development?

The decision to grant permission to convert the Grade II-listed building into a block of luxury flats was approved, in the main, because the developer agreed that two homes would be housing association-run.

Three years later, the owners of the building, which has a proud 100-year history of public service, are trying to weasel out of that commitment.

The Town Hall planning department has provided a figure to the developer that it has now accepted. That figure has been intentionally obscured in documents publicly available on the council’s planning website.

Rather like a number passed in a folded napkin across a restaurant’s backroom table, the process feels secretive, perhaps intentionally covert.

How has the council come to its valuation? A “formula” has come into play, the council suggests. What integral calculus the bean-counters at the Town Hall are using is unclear. Camden’s Planning Guidance for payment in lieu rates suggests that a mere fine of £2,650 per square metre could apply “to shortfalls in the provision of affordable housing”.

The price of a two-bed flat in the “Belsize Fire House”, as determined by the private market, is £1.7million. To a social housing tenant living in London on a low or uncertain income, the true value of a home will be more than financial.

The feeling of security that comes with a social housing tenancy cannot be under­estimated. The sense of community, being part of a bigger picture, can inspire all manner of benevolent behaviour. The impact of the housing crisis cannot be so easily gauged by a property’s weight in gold.

Furthermore, the value of a social-rent home might be considered to be vastly more than what can simply be traded on the private market.

Financial viability assessments are often used to argue agreed schemes have become uneconomic. Current planning law states that if a developer is set to make less than 20 per cent profit on a new housing development, they do not have to provide affordable or social housing.

Councils often lack the backbone to fight affordable housing reductions through the appeals system.

Fewer ordinary families in affordable homes means more families at risk of homeless­ness. It also undermines the social mix in Camden, where rich and poor are confined to separate spaces.

Developers will always bemoan the expense of renovating listed landmarks: higher build costs caused by a weaker pound, lower than expected profits from “luxury” housing. It is difficult to have sympathy. Developers are given far too easy a ride as it is.

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