ASH Co-Housing: Design Option for the Brixton Housing Co-operative

This co-housing project is the fourth time in recent years that ASH has worked with housing co-operatives as a way to build the much-needed social housing that London councils and housing associations have abandoned in favour of market-sale and shared-ownership properties and other forms of so-called ‘affordable’ housing. The first time was with the Patmore Housing Co-operative in Wandsworth; the second with the Drive Housing Co-operative in Walthamstow; and the third time with the Brixton Housing Co-operative in Lambeth. This project is also with the Brixton Housing Co-operative, and brings into focus the erasure of the legacy of the Brixton uprisings of 1981 by the local planning authority, Lambeth’s Labour-run council, which has led the social cleansing of Brixton’s council estates and local businesses for investors and developers, to the ongoing cost of the local community. This project is an attempt to balance out a part of that cost, by building housing that meets the needs of the Brixton community, rather than those who seek to profit from the area’s rising property prices.

1. Competing Visions

Social and Political Contexts for the Site

Located at 141-149 Railton Road in Brixton, SE24 0LT, this community-led project is a proposal for the redevelopment of a derelict medical clinic as co-operatively-managed-and-owned co-housing. The site of the clinic is currently under threat of redevelopment by the private owner as high-cost, market-sale, residential property built to capitalise on land values in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Inner London.

The feasibility study presented in this article is the result of a collaboration between Antoine Rogers, Co-Chair of the Development Sub-Committee of the Brixton Housing Co-operative (BHC), Steve Chambers, an independent planning consultant, and Architects for Social Housing. In it, we explore the possibility of redeveloping the site to provide 20 rooms in order to house those on Brixton Housing Co-operative’s waiting list both now and in the future. BHC has immediate housing needs, with 10 persons currently on their housing waiting list, the majority of whom require 1-bedroom accommodation, which is in short supply in Brixton. The project could additionally address the problem of overcrowding in some of the co-operative’s existing homes.

Beyond housing provision for those on the current waiting list, the project will enable the Brixton Housing Co-operative to attract new members. BHC is particularly interested in recruiting young people, and has identified a potential new members in local youths who are either in care-homes or in education, and who are socially vulnerable and in need of good-quality social housing.

‘Looked After’ young people — which means those in education beyond the age of 16 — are more difficult to foster due to the decreased rate of payment to professional carers. Many aspiring, motivated and educationally-achieving ‘Looked After’ teenagers are, as a consequence, housed in unregulated private hostel accommodation lacking in any support or guidance.

Of significant benefit, for this population of young people, is the potential stability of secure housing during this important time of passage into adulthood. By bringing these teenagers into accessible proximity to the Brixton Housing Co-operative offices, the communal garden, and above all its current members — some of whom have had similar experiences to their own — the aim of the project is to provide opportunities for young people to benefit from role-models and a support network in the Brixton Housing Co-operative, and in doing so to gain the benefits of co-operative living and perhaps even to be influenced by co-operative values and principles.

Brixton, in the London Borough of Lambeth, has been the ‘regeneration’ capital of South London for many years now. This started when its relatively low-cost, good-quality, centrally-located Victorian housing became attractive to London’s middle classes. The resulting ‘gentrification’ of the area pushed house-prices up, increased private rents, and has driven out much of the long-standing, working-class and overwhelmingly Black community.

This largely organic process, however, has more recently been capitalised on by the council-led estate demolition programme, the demolition of Brixton’s markets and other so-called ‘regeneration’ projects, such as the transformation of Lambeth’s public libraries into gyms run by private companies. Together, this wave of demolition, privatisation and redevelopment has meant that residents who were born and raised in Brixton can no longer afford to live there, and entire communities of long standing are being decimated.

What is the Brixton Housing Co-operative?

The Brixton Housing Co-operative has a unique and rich history serving one of London’s most culturally diverse and vibrant communities for 40 years. From its beginning, BHC sought to provide social-rent housing, which has not always been a priority for Lambeth council. Formed in 1976, BHC grew steadily in size through the 1980s; but as a result of changes in Government policy in the late 1980s — added to the dramatic increase in house prices at that time — BHC halted development in 1990. However, BHC has recently re-instated its Development Sub-Committee, and is currently looking to develop new housing.

BHC is a medium-sized co-operative, comprising 87 homes that are distributed primarily in the Herne Hill ward near Brockwell Park. Additional homes are located near Brixton Hill and off Acre Lane. With a current total of 111 members, BHC is a largely working-class, ethnically- and sexually-diverse, but also ageing, co-operative, with the following demographic:

  • 80 per cent are working-class
  • 40 per cent are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)
  • 38 per cent are Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI)
  • 30 per cent are living with HIV or AIDS
  • 25 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental-health condition
  • 23 per cent are between 60 and 70 years old
  • 55 per cent are between 45 and 49 years old

BHC is a fully-mutual housing co-operative, meaning its members own all its property collectively, and are responsible for managing and maintaining it as social-housing landlords. BHC wishes to increase the efficiency of their housing management, as well as develop their housing stock to accommodate both new and existing members throughout the changing cycles of their lives.

History of the Site and Existing Building

The site was previously the location of a medical clinic, which is now disused and derelict. This was opened in 1984, following the recommendations of the Scarman Report on the causes of the Brixton uprising of 1981, which began on Railton Road. As such, the clinic was a legacy of Lord Scarman’s warning that ‘urgent action’ was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an ‘endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society’. The building was intended to form part of lasting improvements in the area, which were to be brought about through investment in social infrastructure and the community, both of which had been neglected for decades.

To the immediate north of the site is the Railton Road Methodist Church, and across the road are the current offices of the Brixton Housing Co-operative. The site backs onto the large communal garden of the co-operative, and to the south adjoins the largest consolidated grouping of BHC-properties, with 28 x 1-bedroom homes in terraced houses along Railton Road and Mayall Road, all of which open onto the communal garden.

Currently, land used for social infrastructure in the London Borough of Lambeth is safeguarded by planning policy that would require an application for its change of use. However, instead of finding a new community use for this site, in 2010 the National Health Service, which owned the clinic, sold both the building and the land it is built on to a private developer. They in turn boarded the building up and left it to fall into disrepair (below) while they waited for the land value to appreciate sufficiently for them to make a profit from the demolition and development of the now derelict clinic. This, clearly, is not what such land was intended for, and a complete betrayal of the recommendations in the Scarman report, which identified ‘community redevelopment and planning’ as one of the main areas of practice that needed changing in Brixton.

Initial Proposal

In July 2019, the current owner of the site, Gold Compass Developments Ltd — whose offices are located in Mayfair at Bond House, 20 Woodstock Street, London, W1C 2AN — presented their plans at a public exhibition in Effra Space. These proved extremely unpopular to local people. Brixton Buzz, the local online paper, reported that the developer suggested that ‘neighbours had a choice between a derelict building with the attendant problems of fly tipping and anti-social behaviour or accepting the proposed House of Multiple Occupancy’.

The subsequent planning application by Gold Compass, submitted in December 2019, proposed using the site for the development of 40 co-housing units over three stories (above), with single and double rooms, each with en-suite toilet and shower-room, shared kitchens and a gym, targeted at a market of young professionals. There was no mention of provision of social or even affordable housing. Behind the facade of ‘co-housing’, this was an up-market hostel of single-room occupancy accommodation, designed by FourFourSixSix Architects, to capitalise on the area’s rising land-prices. Clearly, this proposal did not address local housing need for sustainable social housing, and would instead have brought a transient community into the neighbourhood, increase the tensions arising from economic inequality in the area, and contribute to the ongoing gentrification of Brixton. In the face of numerous objections from neighbours, on 5 June this year Gold Compass formally withdrew their planning application.

2. ASH Proposal

The Brief

Part of the brief for ASH’s feasibility study for the site was to provide community facilities on the ground floor of the redevelopment in order to create space for education, training and public cultural events. In addition, we suggested including spaces for social and cultural interaction between generations. This was partly in order to contribute to compensating for the reduction in the borough of space and services for older people, who make up a considerable demographic in both the Brixton Housing Co-operative and in the London Borough of Lambeth. More broadly, the project looked to increase the opportunities for socialising between individuals in the local community, both old and young. We believe this would meet the building’s current use-class rating as a non-residential institution, while reviving its employment for the benefit of the local community.

It was important to members of the Brixton Housing Co-operative that, unlike the transient residents proposed for the private co-housing, the new residents of the co-operatively-run co-housing would have the opportunity to remain members of the BHC throughout their life, thereby continuing to have access to good-quality housing that in Brixton is unavailable to all but the wealthiest members of British society.

The Feasibility Study

The aim of this feasibility study was to explore and assess the possibilities for the Brixton Housing Co-operative to purchase and redevelop — in partnership or otherwise — and ultimately manage the site, which is immediately adjacent to their existing properties, and whose future will have a direct and significant impact on them. This meant exploring a range of funding and delivery options available to BHC.

Together with Antoine Rogers of the BHC, and the planning consultant for the project Steve Chambers, ASH worked to initiate the project, secure funding from the Community-led Housing Hub at the Greater London Authority, and propose the project to both the Co-operative Development Board as well as the current landowners.

Principles of Co-operative Development

As part of the preliminary investigations, ASH proposed a series of development principles which we felt would help the Brixton Housing Co-operative to structure the discussions around the project, and help the decision-making process, which is made more difficult when a large number of members are involved. These principles required that the development:

  1. Must correspond to broader co-operative values;
  2. Should engage with as many other co-operative organisations as possible;
  3. Must involve the local community in the design process;
  4. Would try to involve the local and future community in the construction process;
  5. Must be not-for-profit, with all profits from the development channeled back into the project to benefit the local and future community;
  6. Must achieve the maximum number of homes possible and appropriate for the site;
  7. Must prioritise the well-being of current and future residents;
  8. Must include some community facilities, with the brief for these facilities to be worked up in collaboration with the local community, for whose benefit they must be designed;
  9. Must not result in the overshadowing of the existing co-operative garden;
  10. Must comprise 100 per cent housing for social rent;
  11. Must be environmentally sustainable in both development and use;
  12. Must remain, represent and reflect the legacy of the 1981 uprisings, functionally, materially and architecturally.

As well as helping the residents to make decisions, if the Brixton Housing Co-operative was offered the opportunity to go into partnership or joint venture with the existing developers — or indeed another entity — these principles would be part of any agreement with them, and so would create and ensure co-operative foundations for both the relationship and the form of the final project.

Refurbishment of the Existing Building

In accordance with ASH’s principle that refurbishment should always be the default option in any project involving an existing building, we initially investigated the possibility of reusing and refurbishing the former medical centre. However, the design and construction of the building offered very limited options for either. Subject to structural analysis, it may have been possible to make use of the foundations; however, the structure itself consisted of load-bearing walls in the very small rooms (above) that originally housed the surgery treatment rooms. None of these could easily be reconfigured to suit the community uses required of the proposed co-housing (below), and could not be removed without the entire building collapsing.

Weighing them up, these were the pros and cons of refurbishment:

  • Pros. a) It is cheaper. b) There are environmental benefits to not demolishing the existing building. c) It would preserve the heritage value of the previous building. d) It could involve some aspect of self-build.
  • Cons. a). It will not provide adequate living environment on the ground floor. b) It is restrictive in terms of opportunities for adaptation. c) The existing building has a small footprint, so we would have to increase the numbers of residents to make the project financially viable, and would need to add a second floor, increasing the overall height of the structure and therefore its impact on the surrounding environment.

New-Build Development

We then explored the possibilities of a new-build option following the demolition of the existing building, which would free up the whole site to meet the co-operative’s community and housing needs. These were the pros and cons of new-build:

  • Pros. a) We can control the environment spatially and materially. b) We can be in control of how it is built, with the potential for self-build. c) We can design and build-in adaptability and flexibility for future use or vertical expansion of the building. d) We can design according to the precise needs and brief of the end-users.
  • Cons. a) The environmental costs of demolition, including loss of embodied carbon, noise pollution, dust particles and disposal of waste. b) It is more expensive.

On balance, therefore, we concluded that refurbishment was not an appropriate option for this project, and demolition and rebuild better met the total social, environmental, economic and political demands of the project.

To meet these demands, we proposed that the ground floor of the new development would accommodate a range of community spaces, including a meeting room and kitchen, with the potential for shared workspaces, including a rear yard with a fitted workshop. The exact configuration and function of these spaces would be subject to local consultation and community need, but would be designed to be as flexible as possible to allow for changes of use in the future.

As a community space, it’s important that the outside of the building, where the large windows face onto the street, should have ledges or window-seats on which both passersby and residents can sit, breaking down the barrier between the inside of the building and its outside (above). It is a characteristic of Brixton culture, with its roots in the Caribbean, that it takes place on the street rather than indoors. However, under the orthodoxy of so-called ‘defensive architecture’ (anti-homeless spikes, walls and benches), which is removing places in which people can congregate in public, allied to aggressive policing and Public Space Protection Orders, this has become more and more difficult — if not impossible — in Inner London. We believe in resisting this assault on our rights of assembly and movement by designing the outside space of the building — yet still within the legislative boundaries of the site — as a place for congregation from which the public cannot be dispersed by police or council orders. This private space, made available for the use of the public, would be demarcated by columns supporting the bay windows above, forming a colonnade.

Above the ground floor, ASH proposed dividing the development into 3 ‘houses’, each of which could accommodate 4-5 good-sized double bedrooms with shared bathrooms, kitchens, dining spaces and living rooms, as well as outdoor roof terraces overlooking the shared gardens. In ASH’s designs, these ‘houses’ all have separate entrances from the street, as well as separate bin and cycle-storage facilities. The primary shared spaces in each of the houses — including the kitchens, dining and living rooms — would be situated on the first floor and facing onto the street below. The structural design, with non-load-bearing interior walls, allows the shared spaces to be either opened into a single open-plan space or sub-divided to accommodate smaller, more private spaces, depending on the needs of the residents.

In contrast, the bedrooms in all three ‘houses’ would be arranged along the rear of the terrace on the first floor, and along both the front and the back on the second floor, providing a quieter environment for these personal spaces. Bedroom windows at the rear would be orientated towards the co-operative gardens to the south (below), both to mitigate the proximity of the windows to the rear of the houses on Mayal Road opposite — which in this orientation they would not overlook — and also to orientate the new residents towards the rest of the Brixton Housing Co-operative.

In terms of its design and materials, the appearance of the building on the street and its role within the local neighbourhood is also important. ASH wanted the building to retain and communicate its important history and heritage architecturally. To this end, the relationship of the building with the rest of the road would be crucial. The adjacent terrace of housing on Railton Road was substantially rebuilt in the 1980s following the formation of the Brixton Housing Co-operative and in response to structural demands on the existing buildings. In order to integrate the new proposal into the existing terrace, as well as to mitigate any overshadowing of the co-operative garden at the rear, ASH proposed extending the undulating series of pitched roofs on the existing terrace (below), and continuing the brick frontage and other detailing from the neighbouring terrace onto the saw-toothed facade.

Since the intended residents of the co-housing include youths and young adults coming out of care, it is important that the windows in the communal and private rooms at the front of the building on, respectively, the first and second floors do not conform to the stereotype of floor-to-ceiling windows that are a defining trope of the ‘New London Vernacular’ in architecture. Even among London’s private renters and property owners, these are typically immediately covered with net curtains or blinds. But for residents whose lives until now have been defined by a lack of privacy and electronic surveillance in care homes, we think it is important that they should have the option of personal privacy in their new home.

The front of the building, therefore, will have the same saw-tooth bay windows as at the rear, with discreet corner windows in the second-floor bedrooms (above). This will have two benefits. First, the individual resident will have the choice of when she or he looks out onto the street, rather than the window offering a perhaps unwanted view into the interior of their home. And, second, given the importance of Railton Road as the spark that lit the Brixton Uprising, the residents will be able to look up and down the road, in memory of the Brixton residents whose courage in the face of police brutality, slum housing and a Government policy of managed decline ultimately led to the setting aside of the land their homes are now built on for the benefit of the Brixton community.

Finally, as a commemoration and celebration of this courage, ASH proposes that the side wall of the co-housing, which faces north up Railton Road to where the police began their assault, is used as a surface for a mural. Wall murals are a characteristic of Brixton’s urban environment, and we envisage one — conceived and painted by Brixton artists, but for which we have provided a rough example (below) — composed of scenes from the three days in April, 1981, when the people of Brixton rose up against poverty and racism to create the Brixton that is in danger, thirty years later, of vanishing under the weight of investment capital, predatory developers, and planning authorities beholden to financial investors in the building industry.

Strategy for Community-led Construction

In partnership with a manufacturer of modular, pre-fabricated structures, ASH’s aim is to accommodate self-build construction where possible, enabling apprenticeships and training schemes as part of the project, as well as lowering the overall cost of construction. In this way, during the design and construction process, we would begin relationships with the same young people who could be occupying the future housing they would be helping to build.

Funding and Delivery

As part of the Mayor of London’s Community-led Housing Hub’s London Community Housing Fund, ASH and BHC made a successful bid for funding for a feasibility study for the project. This fee would cover the fees for the design work by ASH, the planning consultants and the finance consultants in assessing the viability of the development of the site.

Depending on the outcome of the feasibility study, it is likely that the Brixton Housing Co-operative, as a Registered Provider of Social Housing, would be eligible for both revenue funding (i.e. towards all consultants’ and other fees, expenses and costs leading up to planning and detailed design stages) and capital funding (for the construction of the project) through the Homes for Londoners: Affordable Homes Programme. If the co-operative didn’t want to deliver the project itself, but did want to be the landlord of the final scheme, the funding would extend to partnership for the purposes of the development.

Like many London co-operatives, the Brixton Housing Co-operative emerged in the 1980s from a combination of squatting vacant housing and being given housing by the council that at the time was in extremely poor condition and located in areas that were not then deemed ‘desirable’. This was done either for small amounts of money or simply in exchange for undertaking the refurbishment of the buildings. Having invested in these properties over the past 30 years, refurbished them and brought them up to a decent living standard, such co-operatives often have considerable assets, without a significant mortgage, in areas that are now deemed to be desirable again, and whose financial values are therefore considerable.

Brixton Housing Co-operative owns in the region of 80 properties in Brixton. The most straightforward option for funding the new development, therefore, was for the co-operative to borrow the money against the security of these existing assets. The borrowing of the funds for the project against the co-operative’s existing housing stock is perfectly aligned with co-operative values, high among which is the expansion of the co-operative and its housing in order to enable more people to access low-cost housing in an area of such extreme housing need, precarity and homelessness.

The costs of the project include not only the construction costs and fees, but the cost of acquiring the land. Unfortunately, in 2010 the NHS sold the land at an inflated price, and this increased again when it was resold in 2016 with outline planning permission. This means that, in order to recover their initial investment, the current developer would have to ask a high price for the land — a price that will effectively assume 100 per cent market-rent or sale of the properties in the final development.

The way land prices are established under capitalism is that — rather than trying to assess what might be the social value of a piece of land according to the needs of the community — its cost is assessed as a proportion of what the land will be worth on the market once it is developed, with the highest cost in London currently being for residential property. This means that the land is marketed, and a price set, on the assumption that a certain number of market-sale homes will be built on it, plus the profit for the developer, which is typically a minimum of 20 per cent and often more. For this reason, once a piece of land is sold into the market, its sale price is such that building 100 per cent social housing on it is extremely difficult to achieve — if not impossible — without considerable public grants. The purpose of the feasibility study for this site, therefore, was to explore what the value of the land would be to the Brixton Housing Co-operative, and therefore provide them with a price they could offer to the current developer for that land.

In summary (below), the Brixton Housing Co-operative could 1) become a development partner with a property developer, subject to a potentially complex partnership agreement; 2) develop the site itself, perhaps as part of a Community Land Trust; or 3) go into partnership with other co-operatives or investors. If necessary, one of the three proposed houses could be altered to accommodate a self-contained flat, which could then be sold as part of a Community Land Trust to raise funding. In addition, the community facilities on the ground floor could be rented out commercially to generate revenues.

3. The Current Situation

Co-operative Values

Unfortunately, last December, when it came time for the co-operative to vote on whether or not to accept the funding for the feasibility study, they voted against it.  As a result, the work documented here is only a part of the feasibility study, which we were unable to complete. As with ASH’s other co-operative development projects, we believe it was the scale of the project that resulted in the co-operative not taking the project forward. A co-operative is a collection of residents inexperienced in development of this scale; and because of the nature of its organisational  structure — with the residents themselves, in the form of the various management boards, being the ones to manage the project from the client’s side — a project of this scale is often too daunting to pursue.

We believe residents may also have been justly concerned about the extent to which their homes would effectively be leveraged against the proposed project. In the end, the project was evidently a risk they were not comfortable taking. Developments such as these are indeed a risk, so it is not altogether surprising that inexperienced resident groups are not keen to pursue them; but at ASH we also believe co-operative housing developments, which have enjoyed low-cost housing for years, have a duty — as part of their co-operative values — to do what they can to improve the lot of others less fortunate than themselves.

The outcome of one of our previous housing projects, Brixton Gardens, which also involved the Brixton Housing Co-operative, identified the need for more support to be given to co-operatives — not just at this stage but throughout their general ongoing management — in order to provide them with the knowledge and confidence to be able to initiate the investigation of a project such as this.

Given that many housing co-operatives in London have the assets against which to borrow the necessary funds, they are in a unique position to develop low-cost housing that meets housing needs. However, although co-operative values state that increasing the size of the co-operative should be a part of its life, it is rare that housing co-operatives take the opportunity they have to provide the kind of housing for which London is desperate.

Planning Consent

But the future of the land at 141-149 Railton Road is not yet decided. The site currently has planning consent only for D1 use-class (non-residential institutions), reflecting its most recent use as a health clinic. However, in May 2016, over 3 years before the co-housing proposal, an outline planning application was approved by Lambeth council for the redevelopment of the existing clinic as 5 x 4-bedroom, 3-storey houses with basements, use-class C3 (dwelling-houses). And since withdrawing the planning application for the upmarket co-housing in June, the developers have revived this proposal.

On 1 October this year, Gold Compass proposed redeveloping the site on this outlined basis, with a proposal for 5 x 3-storey houses, plus basements and an additional story in the roof, to be sold as freehold properties. In this part of Brixton, midway between the train stations to the north and Brockwell Park to the south, such properties will sell for well in excess of £1 million each.

It’s an indication of the demographic at whom these investment opportunities are aimed that the rendering of the development (above) contains five figures, all of them white, all of them young professionals, and the only car in the street is what looks like an Audi. For those not familiar with the area, this is not a characteristic representation of either the residents or the traffic on Railton Road. Not that young professionals of any colour will be able to afford such properties, but they will be the target renters for the investors who do.

Fortunately, the original outline planning consent granted by the council in 2016 expired in May 2019, so the new application by Gold Compass is for an extension of the original application, which Lambeth council has the discretion to award. If it does, Gold Compass may very well choose to sell the land to another developer. On 27 September, 2017, under their former name of Bricks and Magic Ltd (but registered to the same address in Mayfair), Gold Compass paid £2,426,000 for the site with the outline planning consent. However, land prices in London increase many times over once planning permission has been granted for a change to residential use. In retrospect, therefore, it looks entirely possible and even probable that the proposal for co-housing made by Gold Compass in December 2019 — the fourth planning application they had made at the time — was purely to demonstrate to Lambeth council that the only use of the land should be as market-sale, residential properties. Once that permission is granted, and the land value increases accordingly, it will be even harder to build homes for social rent on the site, or to continue its use as a benefit for the community.

Should Lambeth council grant planning permission for this proposal — which given its programme of demolition and privatisation seems likely — this would not only be a waste of valuable inner-city land that could be used to address the crisis of housing affordability in the borough, but would also be a betrayal of the Brixton generation that rose up in protest against police brutality and Government disinvestment to create the vibrant area and identity that has subsequently made it so attractive to predatory developers like Gold Compass Ltd.

An Asset of Community Value

In an attempt to protect and continue this legacy, last year the planning consultant, Steve Chambers, prepared the grounds for an application on behalf of the Brixton Housing Co-operative to have the site of the former medical clinic on Railton Road — a clinic that was built as a direct result of the Brixton uprising and the Scarman report — designated as an Asset of Community Value. One of the grounds for this application was that, in the Lambeth Local Plan, which was adopted by the council in September 2015, Policy S1: Safeguarding existing community premises, clearly states:

‘Existing community premises, and land formerly in use as community premises, will be safeguarded unless it can be demonstrated that: i) there is no existing or future need or demand for such uses, including reuse for other community services locally.’

This application, submitted by Mr. Marc Thompson, a member of the Brixton Housing Co-operative, and signed by 21 other members registered to vote in the London Borough of Lambeth, made the following arguments.

  1. ‘The clinic was planned in 1984 following the recommendations of the Scarman Report on the causes of the Brixton uprising of 1981. It was part of the investment in the community and social infrastructure of the area, which had been neglected for decades. The building replaced housing that had been bomb-damaged in the Second World War and subdivided in 1977. The building was intended to form part of a lasting improvement in the social well-being of the area, a direct legacy of the 1981 uprising.
  1. ‘The property has D1 use-class planning consent only, reflecting the most recent use of the site as a health centre. As such, it has a clear non-ancillary use in the recent past that furthered the social well-being and interests of the local community. Furthermore, in the Lambeth Local Plan existing community premises, with planning use-classes D1 and D2, are safeguarded by policies S1 and S2. These classes cover uses such as healthcare, childcare, higher and further education, training, community halls and meeting spaces, libraries, indoor play, recreation and sports facilities and places of worship. The property has been used for no other purpose since the use as a health centre and does not have planning permission for any other use other than D1.
  1. ‘The Brixton Housing Co-operative (BHC) is adjacent to the property and as part of a strategy of community development requires premises for childcare, education, training, community halls, meeting spaces and recreation. There has been a reduction of space and services for older people which are a considerable demographic in BHC and Lambeth more broadly. As well, there has been a reduction of services and spaces for young people, let alone spaces for intergenerational engagement. It is therefore realistic to think that there is a time in the next five years when there could be non-ancillary use of the site that would further the social well-being or social interests of the local community both old and young (noting the Localism Act 2011 does not require this to be in the same way as before). Registering the building as an asset of community value will provide the opportunity for the site to continue in community use in the event of a sale.’

Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly, given its unswerving commitment to Neo-liberalism in housing policy — Lambeth council refused the application. The only reason it gave for doing so was that the use of the site for community use, and therefore its D1 use-class, was a long time ago, and too much time had elapsed. In other words, the council was effectively rewarding the owners for allowing the building to fall into disuse and disrepair, and failing either to refurbish it or to redevelop the land for community use.

The Legacy of 1981

According to Lambeth council’s own report on the State of the Borough 2016, the most recent to be published, of Lambeth’s 318,000 residents in 136,000 households, a third are homeowners, with 65 per cent living in rented accommodation. 20 per cent of these rent from the council (far less by now after the demolition and sale of council homes), 16 per cent from social landlords, and 29 per cent from private landlords. 87,000 people, well over a quarter, are living in poverty (that is, 60 per cent below median income) after paying their housing costs, and 49,000 before those costs, meaning 38,000 Lambeth residents are being driven into poverty by the cost of their housing in the borough. Nearly 12,000 of the residents in receipt of housing benefit to go towards these costs are in employment.

Despite this overwhelming evidence of the need for social-rented housing in the borough, the Mayor of London’s London Plan: Annual Monitoring Report 2019 shows that, as of 31 March, 2018, Lambeth council had awarded planning permission to build 6,454 properties for market sale or rent, 730 intermediate properties (for shared ownership and rent-to-buy), 572 for so-called affordable rent (anything up to 60 per cent higher than social rent), and just 12 homes for social rent.

To permit a Mayfair property developer to build five million-pound-plus houses for market rent on the Railton Road site would rank high in the list of betrayals by which this Labour-run council has shown its disdain for the Brixton community it claims to represent. Indeed, it would be a fitting addition to Lambeth council’s ongoing attempts to demolish 6 of the borough’s council housing estates, turn 10 of its libraries into privately-run gyms, its successful eviction of the market traders under the Brixton Arches, and its support for the creeping colonisation of the area by the ersatz culture of corporate outlets like Pop Brixton. It’s safe to say that none of these so-called ‘regeneration’ projects are what Lord Scarman had in mind when he recommended that the people of Brixton should be ‘encouraged to secure a stake in, feel a pride in, and have a sense of responsibility for their own area’.

However, this betrayal is not yet accomplished. There is still time for local residents to voice their opposition to these plans to Lambeth council, and to let them know that, although it is doing everything it can in collaboration with London’s Labour Mayor and this Conservative Government’s Housing Minister to destroy the culture and socially cleanse the community of Brixton, the spirit of 1981 still lives on.

Next year, 2021, is the 30th anniversary of the Brixton uprising. Today, as the Black Lives Matter protests have brought into focus, police brutality and racism have returned with increased unaccountability and impunity, with racially-targeted stop-and-search powers back with a vengeance, slum housing conditions and homelessness endemic to the area, and unemployment among youths rising. Brixton is under renewed threat, no longer from disinvestment by the state but from investment by private investors at home and abroad looking for quick profits from residential property development. And the Labour-run council, which under ‘Red Ted’ Knight took the stand of refusing to implement Margaret Thatcher’s limits on local authority spending in 1985, in 2020 is hand-in-glove with the Conservative Government of Boris Johnson.

It is vitally important that the Railton Road site is used for the community purposes for which it was set aside by the council in 1984 following the recommendations of the Scarman Report, and does not become part of the economic forces that are driving the Brixton community from the area it made.

Please help by going onto Lambeth council’s website page for this planning application and registering your opposition to its proposals. Since Lambeth council has in the past erased such objections from its website (for example, against the planning application for the redevelopment of Knight’s Walk), it would be a good idea, once you have done so, to make a screen-grab or other record of your objection, and keep it for future reference. And if anyone has the resources to help develop ASH’s proposals for this site, please get in contact at:

Architects for Social Housing

Postscript. On 29 October the application by Gold Compass developers to extend their expired outline planning permission to build 5 x 4-storey £1 million properties for market sale on the land at 141-149 Railton Road set aside for community use was refused by the planning department at the London Borough of Lambeth. Below is the text of our objection to this application. What we are looking for now is a developer, housing co-operative, community land trust or community group to buy the land and redevelop the site along the lines proposed by ASH for co-housing for social rent, including young people coming out of care. 


3 thoughts on “ASH Co-Housing: Design Option for the Brixton Housing Co-operative

  1. In reponse to posting this article on Linkedin, we received this comment from Brendan Conway, the Land and Development Lead at the GLA’s Community-led Housing London hub, with whom we worked on the funding grant for ASH’s feasibility study:

    ‘Great piece here Geraldine. I enjoyed participating in this process, but as you outlined, BHC decided not to proceed to avail of the grant on offer. We respected the integrity of their governance and the decision made. Getting the developer to the table is one thing – keeping them there is another. The work we did certainly isn’t wasted and this strong piece provides a worthy reflection on this important site. BHC are uniquely placed to unlock its undoubted social and community wealth building value. Lots of moving parts but chances are they could align again given what is a very different development market.’


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