The end of housing and the last Londoner: Part two

Kings Cross in the heart of the capital was once a tight-knit community but family ties are loosening.


Take a look in May’s edition of 24housing and you can explore a remarkable project created by Origin Housing called The Living Centre.

Located in Somers Town in London’s Kings Cross, it uses a 21st Century building to provide health, employment and community support.

I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour to find out more about the project, which is the result of imaginative use of a Section 106 planning agreement and a housing association taking a scientific approach to community issues. It’s been made possible through a partnership with the Crick Institute, which is at the forefront of scientific research.

The area is buzzing with media companies, retail outlets and even boasts the tech giant Google as an employer.

Housing is about one inescapable truth: place impacts on homes and the people living in them. Somers Town is defined by transport: it is surrounded by three railway terminals and a major road. The lives of the people living there have ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the industries around them.

My journey to Somers Town had the added dimension of being a journey back to my roots because part of my family lived on those very streets at the turn of the century. They moved from the countryside to work on the railways when area was a slum and living conditions were horrific.

In the early 20th Century an enlightened priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, was so appalled by what he saw that he became a housing reformer and toured the country to raise the funds to build the housing estate that is still there today. My family were gone by the time his slum clearance programme got underway, but they did end up in social housing in London.

And one of them prospered. He became a train driver, which at the turn of the century was the equivalent of being one of today’s high-end IT professionals. He was enticed to work on the frontier railroads of America and settled in Salt Lake City where he bought land and built a house of his own.

So I thought it would be interesting to compare notes. Could he live today in the neighbourhood he left behind?

A quick scan on the property websites revealed that a one bedroom flat costs £425,000. Working on the old yardstick of a mortgage being 3.5 times a salary, that’s a sole or combined salary of £121,000 a year.

And the numbers only get bigger. According to the Land Registry, the overall average price of houses for the area is £803,589.

The big employers in the Victorian era were the railway firms. Were my ancestor working for Transport for London as a qualified train driver, his salary would be around £60,000 a year. He had four children. So at a stretch, if his partner had a similar salary he could just about afford that flat. But he could go no higher on the property ladder.

And before any enterprising estate agents are tempted to contact me to ask “how I am feeling today”, I had better make clear that a return to Kings Cross is very definitely not on the cards for me.

Given my support for social housing, I thought I would at least explore the option of applying for social housing in the area. I discovered that Camden Council allocates around 1,000 properties each year.

Its website makes absolutely clear there are two hopes. No Hope and Bob Hope (and Bob’s not taking calls any more). The council bleakly says: “Demand outstrips supply and only those who have very significant housing needs are ever likely to secure council accommodation.”

Back at the Living Centre they have an employment project working with the Crick Institute to find work for residents as well as with other employers include the nearby University College.

The jobs are roles like administrators, security staff, maintenance workers and so on. They don’t have a £50k salary. The increasing reality is that fewer people on low incomes can afford to live in the area.

Had my family stayed and got on the property ladder, at least one of them would be a property millionaire. The impact of Right to Buy has created winners over the last 30 years if they were canny and got their timing right.

But it’s come with a long-term cost of viability as many London employers (such as Grant Thornton) now say they are struggling to recruit because of living costs.

And due to the changes to tenancy rules, benefit caps and the rent cut, most of the current social housing tenants are being squeezed out. In reality, a new social housing tenant has about five years’ before they will have to move on.

Can a sustainable neighbourhood be based on international buyers parking their money in bricks and mortar, carpet-bagging techies looking to sell their start-up to Google and a few tenacious older people who have managed to hang on?

This leaves a question. At the heart of the housing crisis is a debate that no-one will have about ownership: entitlement and community. Who should live in this area?

*The blog title is derived from The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama