Local residents have reacted with fury to Lambeth council’s rejection of their plan to develop a large part of central Brixton with truly affordable housing. Brixton Green was set up a decade ago to make sure the community was actively involved in the redevelopment of Somerleyton Road and was last year granted nearly a quarter of a million pounds from the National Lottery to work up its plans.
Its slogan is: “Brixton people know what Brixton needs”. But Lambeth council has thrown out its plans. Brixton Green proposed to buy the lease of the Somerleyton Road site, working with the council, and to build 234 homes – with rents based on ability to pay.
Council says plan faces ‘significant legal and financial challenges’
The council now says that this plan faces “significant legal and financial challenges”. Yet it has known about the plan for several years and had not warned that it might – without consultation – reject it. Brixton Green says its proposal is financially and legally sound, viable and ready to go.
The rejection came as the council began to promote its “vehicle” for building homes itself: Homes for Lambeth. It is not clear if Homes for Lambeth will develop Somerleyton Road, although Brixton Green claims to have been told that is what the council wants.
In an open letter to members of the council’s ruling cabinet, Brixton Green’s board said the decision was a massive missed opportunity and demonstrated that the council was not serious about enabling the community to lead. Brixton Green, a non-profit community benefit society, has spent years on the proposal. It secured a £231,000 Power to Change Lottery grant to set up its own delivery vehicle, the Somerleyton Trust.
It says its proposals are economically sound and it has support from Places for People, one of the largest housing associations in the country, that is able to deliver the housing and source the development finance, taking away the risk and need for funding from the council. More than 1,200 people who either live or work in Brixton have been involved in Brixton Green.
In November 2013, after five years of lobbying, Lambeth council agreed to develop the Somerleyton Road site in partnership with the community and Brixton Green.
Council decision makes a mockery of its claim to be a cooperative council
Abigail Melville, Brixton Green community trustee and a former Lambeth councillor, told the Bugle that the decision “made a mockery” of the council’s claim to be a “cooperative” council that put community involvement at the heart of its development plans.
She said that officers’ advice to elected council members not to support the proposal was wrong and based on an assessment carried out in October last year.
At an extraordinary board meeting immediately following the decision, Brixton Green decided to launch a campaign ahead of the local council elections in May. One board member said: “Feelings are running quite high given the huge amount of time, effort, goodwill and money that has been invested putting the community voice at the heart of this project.” A public meeting, “Brixton Voices”, has been called for Wednesday 7 March at The Department Store on Ferndale Road opposite the Bon Marché to seek to galvanise support and commitment to the council’s promise of “genuine community involvement in the management of public assets”.
Brixton Green believes it can build homes on Somerleyton Road faster than Lambeth council and says it could be ready to start in a year. The council, on the other hand, cannot yet say how the site will be developed.
First news of the council’s plans came in an email to local Labour Party members with a link to an interactive map on Lambeth council’s Love Lambeth website. It named the Somerleyton Road developer as Homes for Lambeth. But as the Bugle went to press, the map showed the Somerleyton Road developer as “TBC”, an acronym usually translated as “to be confirmed”. A council spokesperson said the original entry was a mistake that had been corrected.
Cllr Paul McGlone, deputy leader of the council, said that : “Good progress is being made on the exciting plans for Somerleyton Road, with work due to begin shortly on the first phase of the development, which includes the relocation of Ovalhouse Theatre to Brixton.
“The overall project will deliver more than 300 new homes, a new nursery and community and commercial space on a number of sites along the west side of Somerleyton Road in Brixton.
“The council has worked closely with community group Brixton Green on their proposal for the remainder of the site, however significant legal and financial challenges have been identified in their proposal which means the council cannot proceed with it.
“However, the council is absolutely committed to moving forward with the overall scheme and to continuing to work with them and the local community to ensure continued community involvement at the heart of this exciting project.”
Council given “inadequate advice, based on half-baked information”
Brixton Green chair Dinah Roake said in response: “I am flabbergasted to hear that Lambeth is unwilling to work constructively with local people to facilitate community-led housing. The council has been given inadequate advice, based on half-baked information. Is this more about ‘control’?
“Over many years we have always managed to find pragmatic solutions to any genuine barriers. Thanks to good advice from top lawyers and surveyors, we know that our plans are deliverable and are risk-free for Lambeth.
“We just need them to agree to grant the lease for the land to the Somerleyton Trust. There is no reason the council cannot work with us on that in good faith.”
Homes for Lambeth’s business plan was adopted by the council in January. It proposes to build an initial 300 new homes and to have more than 500 newly built homes under management in five years on a range of projects. The council said this business plan does not include Somerleyton Road.
Homes for Lambeth will be in charge of the demolition and rebuilding of the Cressingham Gardens estate overlooking Brockwell Park – a plan that has also infuriated residents and led to accusations that the council is not listening to local people as it strives to build more homes.