Brixton's residents shape the future of their housing

An artist's impression of how the development will look
An artist's impression of how the development will look

Somerleyton Road was the heart of the Irish and Jamaican communities in Brixton, south London, from the 1950s until the properties on the road were demolished in 1968 to make way for a motorway.

The motorway was never built and, over the following decades, a hotchpotch of buildings sprung up along the road. In 2008, a group of local residents set up Brixton Green, a not-for-profit community benefit society, to lobby for the redevelopment of the land, much of which is owned by Lambeth Council, as part of a broader proposal to improve Brixton.

In November 2013, the council agreed to develop the site in partnership with the community, and planning permission was granted for a new affordable housing development last December. Construction will start later this year and will be completed by 2020.

A total of 304 rented properties will be built, of which 121 will be let at social-rent levels. A school for chefs, a nursery, a local shop, a health hub and a new home for the community theatre the Ovalhouse Theatre will also be built.

Dinah Roake, an architect and a co-opted trustee and vice-chair of Brixton Green, says it is pleased the plans have finally come to fruition but concedes it has been frustrating at times for residents.

"When people first became involved, they were very enthusiastic," says Roake, who joined the group in 2010. "It was the end of Labour's time in government and there were networks they could access to talk about things like community empowerment. They thought they had found an efficient way forward, but the process has proved more complicated than expected."

The scheme will require the residents to create a new charity, provisionally called the Somerleyton Trust, that will be granted a 250-year lease for most of the site, with the exception of the land on which the new theatre will be built. This section will be leased separately directly to the theatre.

The project is expected to cost about £100m, funded by a loan secured by Lambeth Council from the Public Works Loan Board, the government body that lends to local authorities. The new charity will repay the council using the money it raises from the rents it charges on the properties.

All the housing will be flats with from one to four bedrooms. Importantly, Roake says, the flats will be built to the same specifications, whether they are to be rented on the open market or provided at a social-rent level. The lower-rent properties will be distributed evenly around the development, avoiding the "poor doors" problems experienced on some mixed-housing developments. Overall, at least 50 per cent of the properties will be affordable housing.

Roake says residents will be able move into properties of different sizes if their circumstances change. For example, if a family paying social rent on a two-bedroom property needed three bedrooms, they could move into any of the three-bedroom properties that were due to become vacant, even if it was rented at a market rate at that time. The two-bedroom property the family previously occupied would then be rented out at a market rate to ensure the scheme continued to be financially viable.

Residents will also have a say in the management of the development because the new charity will be established on cooperative principles and residents will be represented at a board level.

"The point of the scheme is to build a community of people and not have a huge amount of churn," says Roake. "Because social housing is essentially rationed in the UK, we have a lot of people who are in need. This scheme will, we hope, give them secure housing and set an example to the private landlords.

"But it's not just about housing. It will also provide facilities - such as a nursery, a health and wellbeing hub and a school for chefs - that the community needs."

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