Priced out no more: how a London group defied gentrification
From the top floor of an industrial building just north of central London, Christian Spencer-Davies pointed towards the city centre.
In front of us there was another low-rise industrial structure, and around it half a dozen cranes looming over other buildings. A little farther, two towers dominated the skyline – flashy student accommodation halls that residents call ‘Manhattan walking up the street’.
‘Just a few years ago, nothing was there,’ Spencer-Davies said.
We were at the top of the Cedar Way Industrial Estate, just off Camley Street, within walking distance from King’s Cross.
A small area of Camden carved out between the railway and the canal, Camley Street is home to some 1,000 residents, mostly working class, and a few medium-sized industries. Many of them operate in the food sector, catering for central London.
Residents took the two towers to be early signs of a radical transformation seen across many other urban areas – gentrification. After the regeneration of King’s Cross in 2013, developers turned to its surroundings. The area attracted more interest, more investment, more businesses willing to relocate. Prices rose.
‘[In Camley Street] an old industry building came down,’ Spencer-Davies explained to New Internationalist. Cranes popped up. Then came the two towers.
Over time, the community grew concerned more faceless student blocks would pop up in the neighbourhood, fearing a spike in housing prices and that welcoming more students with no interest in the community would impoverish it. The local industries, on short-term leases from Camden Council, also grew worried the leases wouldn’t be renewed, and they too would have to relocate – following a London trend.
Unlike many other areas where residents fell victims of gentrification, Camley Street decided to act before it was too late. The community wasn’t reassured the council would do enough to prevent them from being pushed out, so they took matters into their own hands, and worked at plans for a Community Land Trust. This is the story of how a community fought to preserve its space, creating an alternative to the fate property speculation had for it.
People before profit
Community Land Trusts, or CLTs, are a radical form of community housing whereby the community acquires land (usually from the local authority), and then offers homes at genuinely affordable long-term leases, linked to median local salaries rather than market value.
In St Clement’s CLT, London’s first CLT established in 2016, one-bed flats were offered for sale at £130,000, compared to the £450,000 expected for similar flats in the area. The only catch: buyers can’t make a profit out of reselling their property; the housing will remain affordable for future occupants.
CLTs have the potential to shelter communities from the buffeting winds of the property market, because they empower the community to put its own needs –not profit – at the heart of local planning.
‘CLTs compete with developers to determine the future of a given area,’ explains Elena Besussi, a Planning Teaching Fellow at University College London.
Only one can win: CLTs or developers. ‘The key question is: who is the author of the transformation of cities?’
In Camley Street, the demolition of the first warehouse sparked local businesses’ concerns.
‘We needed something drastic to protect the [local] industry,’ explained Spencer-Davies, who owns an architectural modelling company, when I met him in Camley Street. ‘If we didn’t do anything, we knew we wouldn’t be strong enough compared to the pressures developers could put on Camden Council to redevelop the area.
‘Alex Smith, [managing director of muesli-makers Alara, and chair of the Neighbourhood Forum] had an idea: build housing. And if we did housing, wouldn’t it be nice if it were affordable?’
The Neighbourhood Forum agreed and the group got in touch with lawyers, architects and planners.
Eventually plans were drawn up for Britain’s biggest-ever CLT – ‘20 or 30 times bigger than anything ever made,’ according to Stephen Hill, who has advised CLT groups since 1989.
It entails gradually pulling down the old warehouses and houses to make way for a neighbourhood redevelopment addressing the community’s needs.
Camley Street would offer more homes (700-800 of them, for about 2,000 people) and more space for industry. The area would become more affordable, ecologically sustainable, while also boasting more community spaces and plenty of green space.
Both local businesses and residents would be able to remain, and houses rented out at genuinely affordable rates – likely capped at 33 per cent of local median salaries, divided into different tiers. By contrast, in London many people renting privately currently spend up to 50 or 60 per cent of their salaries in rent.
The group in Camley Street was also able to find pledges for the funding needed to deliver the project – some £750 million, mostly from pension funds. (‘The bit that excites investors is that this is recession proof,’ Christian Spencer-Davies said.)
The CLT would also be financially sustainable. The plans would entail repaying all its loans within 75 years – and estimates that within 100 years it would make enough money from affordable rents that it could even decide to do a full rebuild.
‘Recession in the property market is guaranteed to happen at some point, but the whole housing market can go to fuck – and we’d still be cheaper,’ Spencer-Davies said.
The size of the proposed Camley Street CLT is a first, but CLTs themselves are not new.
They’ve been around for decades, first in rural areas where nobody but the community was active in building, then in places where high proportions of holiday homes were forcing residents out. In the last five years, they have become a tool to resist gentrification in small urban communities (20-30 homes), like the one in St Clement’s.
Now, they are spreading fast. According to the National Community Land Trust Network, the number of CLTs in Britain has grown six-fold since 2010 – today, there are 225. The movement has reached larger urban communities in London, Bristol, Leeds and other cities. In London, Brixton Green CLT has already been approved and will deliver some 300 homes – half of which will be affordable. There is a proposal for the St Anne’s Hospital site in South Tottenham and a community group is planning to propose one on the Holloway Prison Site.
The map shows existing CLTs in England and Wales.
‘In London the ambition of communities is spurred on by the fact that there’s so much development going on, but very often without adequate amounts of affordable housing,’ says Stephen Hill. ‘CLTs give people who are angry about housing an opportunity to really do something. This is important given what’s happening in London these days,’ he says, referring to the Grenfell Tower tragedy – in which a 24-story council estate owned by one of Britain’s wealthiest local authorities caught fire killing at least 71.
Elena Besussi agrees: ‘If the [property] market is really driven by demand, the greatest demand there is in the UK at the moment is affordable housing.’
Fast forward to today, and plans for the Camley Street CLT have been on hold for a while – since autumn 2016, according to Stephen Hill.
Everybody who has been contacted for this article believes the CLT has all the ingredients to be successful. The CLT group has presented a study to the council and say they can ‘start building tomorrow’ if it is approved.
But a CLT’s chances of success so often depend on the political courage to back it – and this can be an obstacle. Councils can be under pressure to run ‘competitive’ tendering processes, and often lack experience with similar projects, so they’re incredulous that communities could really do something like a CLT, and of such scale.
After months of stalling talks, the project has made sudden progress in December 2017. Policy-makers within Camden Council have recognized the potential of the CLT plan, and the Council even expressed interest in taking on the development of the area.
In this scenario, the Council would pick up the vision of sustainability and affordability behind the CLT, possibly retaining the right to change some points of the plan, and then do the building itself – so it would not be a CLT anymore, but many of its positives would become reality for the local community.
The local group has welcomed the council’s interest. ‘We’re not adamant that we want to be the developers,’ says Spencer-Davies. ‘Our battle has always been to make the businesses stay and to keep rents affordable.’
Even if it is still uncertain whether the huge amount of work put in by Spencer-Davies and the CLT group in Camley Street would produce Britain’s biggest ever CLT, experts believe that the work to plan it is worth it.
Stephen Hill says that if one of the mega-CLTs is approved, it may spur a new wave of communities to plan their own, while also helping convince other local authorities and policy-makers of their viability. And even if they aren’t approved, the work behind the plans can enable communities to have a voice in the future of their area – as is happening in Camley Street. But it is hard work.
‘Doing a CLT takes over your life, you really have to want it,’ Hill says. ‘And even then, schemes don’t go ahead for all sorts of reasons. Often you may not be able to house yourself through this. You’re doing it for your community.’
This kind of altruistic idealism is consistent with what Christian Spencer-Davies told me. It’s hard for some people to understand why he’s done all this. Why would anyone put in months, even years of work, not pocketing a penny, and without any guarantee of success?
To him it’s simple. ‘I just like to stay where I am.’
For practical information on how to set up a Community Land Trust, visit http://www.communitylandtrusts.org.uk/
This article has been amended on 24 January 2018 to correct Elena Besussi’s job title. It stated she was a Professor; she is a Teaching Fellow instead.