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Friday, 13 June 2008

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

I'm old enough to remember the single by Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. It was written by John and Paul and went to number two in the charts in 1963. At the time I was living in West Hove with my mother and step father in a 3 bedroom Edwardian terraced house. Last year the inhabitants celebrated the street's 100th anniversary; holding a street party and inviting previous owners and occupiers to the celebrations.

I was pleased and impressed that people felt it worthwhile to celebrate the anniversary. The street had its own 100th birthday website and it was fascinating to read the reminiscences of earlier inhabitants, the origins of the street and the part its inhabitants played in the two World Wars. As well as the photographs showing the changes that had taken place in the street – being in Hove it wasn’t called a road or street but “Villas”.

The “Villas” described the properties which were at one end and on one side of the road – nearest to the sea. They were imposing; double fronted with elaborate front entrances. As one moved up the road the houses got progressively less grand, until those nearest the railway station and the parade of shops were little more than “two up and two down”. Our house, which was a middling sized property, is now converted into two flats.

Returning to our “two up two down” terraced house in Walthamstow, I was struck by the contrasts and similarities between the Hove “Villas” and our “Road”. At the lower end of our road one side comprises of bay fronted Edwardian build. Not as grand as those in Hove, but different enough for it to be obvious. Our house is one of six in a terrace, build around the 1870’s. There’s quite a strong sense of community in our road, long standing and newer residents chat, go into each others houses and talk endlessly about the quality of Council services and, until recently, how much their houses had increased in value! Many of the houses are family homes.

Less happily, in the recent past, many of the older, long established residents have moved on or died and their houses sold to developers or private landlords. Family homes have been converted into flats for rent or sale. In some cases, run down homes have been spruced up benefiting the community. Other houses have seen a rapid turn over in tenants, overgrown gardens and poorly maintained structures.

Recently one of our neighbours, a widow in her 90’s died. Her house was one in our terrace. Frankly, the house wasn’t in the best of condition, but my concern was that it would be sold off and converted into flats, even though it would make an ideal family home. (In living memory these “two up two down”, housed a married couple with three children and a grand mother. Possible because there was no bathroom and an outside loo!)

Earlier this month I saw the son of the widow coming out of the house. After talking about his mother and his memories of growing up here, I asked what was going to happen with the house. I said I was concerned that once sold it would be converted into flats removing a family home from the road. To my surprise and delight he told me that he’d been told by the Council’s planning department that they would no longer allow the conversion of family homes into flats in the area.

The change of policy is confirmed in this week’s “wfm”, the Council’s community paper. As part of the Council’s Sustainable Community Strategy we’re told that the Council has listened to residents' views and introduced measures to prevent family homes being converted into flats. We’re in one of the wards with an absolute prohibition on such conversions.

Now I’m all in favour of listening Councils, but it strikes me that in this area the Council should not have had to wait until its residents had spoken out, before it acted.

For a number of years now it has been central, regional (London) and local government policy to ensure that there is a match in housing need and provision. In the Council’s 2006 Unitary Development Plan there is the recognition that additional housing should take account of the need for family sized homes.

When, in late 2006, I was putting together an objection to a proposed development near our road, I looked at the Council’s planning application web-site. I can’t claim that my research was scientific, but over a period of about 6 months, I noticed that there were no applications to build family homes but numerous applications to convert family homes into one/two bedroom flats.

It must have been obvious to the planning professionals in the Borough and the councillors on the planning committee what might be the impact of such a trend. Reducing the stock of family homes would push up the price of such homes, further exacerbating the problem the Council recognised existed.

Family homes tend to attract wealthier, two income couples – with money to spend in the area, either doing up their homes or buying locally. The gap is in the provision of family homes for people who can’t afford to buy. Little is provided by the social housing sector, and I can’t see the private rented sector going out of its way to meet the need; it hasn’t in the past.

I can’t help thinking that whilst this policy may calm the fears of some of the most vocal constituents; it doesn’t address the need to provide access to family homes to a wider section of the community.

Now if someone knows the answer to that, please don't keep it a secret.

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