Home Page Garage demolition plan shows how housing has fallen off the agenda 23/05/14

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Hart of the Matter

One of the end results of the controls put upon ‘council’ housing provision in the 1980s was that it tended to take the housing issue out of the public and political arena which, in a town so dominated by provided housing as Haverhill was, has proved a seismic shift.


Within little more than a decade of the implementation of the ‘Right to Buy’ legislation, councils were beginning to look at ways of getting rid of their direct housing provision responsibilities, usually by creating a private organisation to take them on.


St Edmundsbury set up Havebury and passed on its housing stock in the 1990s, pocketing £30-odd million in the process and so doubling its reserves. The money came, in the sort of roundabout way which has always made housing funding almost impossible for the ordinary person to understand, from the Government.


The advantage, apart from the immediate cash, was that the council no longer had this huge drain on its resources of having to run a housing account – always separate from its main account, because all rental income had to be re-invested directly in the housing stock – and never had to account any more in public for the way it handed out homes (or didn’t).


In the 1970s one of the stock sources of stories in local newspapers was about people protesting about housing – housing they couldn’t get, housing which was unsuitable, and housing which was not in proper condition.


Streams of tenants filed through newspaper offices all over the country, complaining about every possible failing by the local authority. In Haverhill, it was often black mould on walls or ceilings, because houses on the Chalkstone estate had a central heating system which caused condensation if you didn’t keep the house properly ventilated by opening the odd window.


But we had everything else you can think of as well, down to the memorable occasion when - after St Edmundsbury’s early improvements to the Clements estate involved enclosing little open spaces to give tenants larger gardens – I interviewed a woman who had complained that she now had a small tree in her garden, which was dangerous because her children might try to climb it.


Hiving off housing to private organisations removed all this adverse publicity at a stroke, but it also led to housing dropping out of the spotlight altogether. No longer were rent increases of houses or garages a matter of public debate.


With the demise of the borough council’s housing committee, a whole swathe of political and community debates was removed, and now there is no requirement for housing providers to get their rent increases approved by anyone who represents the public.


This is also true of their planning applications. In the old days, the council’s efforts to add to its housing stock would have been a major issue at committee and full council. After Mrs Thatcher prevented councils building new homes, such efforts had to be curtailed anyway. Once the new private housing providers - who can build new by a complex arrangement of circulating money which no one really understands - had picked up the baton, it was all outside the public domain.


Now, of course, it emerges that we are way, way adrift from having provided the number of houses the country needs, with the result that house prices have rocketed, leading in part to our current financial woes.


Thus the Haveburys of this world are now forced into thinking outside the box about where they can build the extra homes needed. And they are needed, because private developers are still lagging massively behind, blaming the banks for not lending. Anyway, for many, buying a house at all is a pipedream nowadays.


Rents in general have gone up hugely since the ‘council’ housing days, supposedly to bring them in line with the private sector. This has just put more and more money in the pockets of those who can afford to invest in buy-to-let properties.


But all is not entirely rosy for Havebury. Unlike other providers, much of its stock is outdated, and although you can improve many things, you can’t change the design of the estates. In the early 1970s, the Clements estate received a design award – and, indeed, the houses are extremely well-designed, with a good deal more practical and efficient use of space than on the Parwkway or Chalkstone estates.


But the designers of the estates never envisaged the current car usage, thinking towns like Haverhill would become almost self-sufficient, with little need of travel (ho, ho). They didn’t even think there would be one car to every household, let alone two or three.


But even the limited number of garages provided on these estates is not being used. We heard this week that 650 out of 3,000 are empty. Having lived on the Clements estate for many years and rented a garage for some of those years, I am not at all surprised.


The garages are not big, and some people now feel the need to drive vehicles which would not be out of place in the Rockies or sub-Saharan Africa. However, cars in general are quite small now, thanks to tax and economy imperatives, so the garages are not impossibly impractical. They may be a little distance away, but that’s not a huge problem and they help on your insurance.


The worst problem, and the reason I gave up my garage, was (and presumably still is) the lack of consideration of other motorists. The number of times someone parked outside my garage and blocked me in was infuriating, because you had no way of knowing who the offender was on such a vast estate, and you were just stuck.


In the end, I had to park outside it to ensure I could always get in and out of the garage, and rapidly realised this was completely pointless.


Of the 2,350 garages rented, I doubt whether even half ever actually have a car in them. Most are used for storage, often in connection with some sort of business.


So the idea of knocking a lot of them down has some merit. It’s a pity it’s not a debate within the public domain.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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