‘Achievements’

When I was a child, one of my favourite non-fic books was a hand-me-down copy of The Story of Houses and Homes – a Ladybird ‘Achievements’ Book. No – really – I was a weird kid. In fact I still have it. Here it is:

I read that book endlessly – it was one of a handful I knew back to front – even the boring bits like the page about nasty slums and the one following it which explained how “a famous Act of Parliament, passed in 1875, stopped the greedy building of large numbers of small houses crammed together.”

That ‘famous Act,’ I found out later, was Disraeli’s Artisans Dwellings Act – which effectively began the social housing movement. My Ladybird book told me “Among other regulations there had to be a certain number of rooms, walls had to be of a certain thickness, every house had to have a sink in the kitchen with a tap, a copper for boiling water to wash clothes, and its own lavatory.”

It’s pretty much down to that act why so many houses round here – and, of course, across Britain look like this:

All those thousands of terraced late-Victorian /Edwardian houses are the result of builders working out the way they could squeak within the letter of the law, given the new restrictions, using the least amount of land and building materials.

For the last 18 months, as I’ve plodded my way to Sainsburys, I’ve been watching these flats going up. From the start it was clear they were never going to be able to use the description ‘luxury,’ but there is a point where cost-cutting and greed does start to plum new depths.

Rooms I swear will never be lit by natural light, edges that don’t meet, pipes sticking out from the walls, cheap, dodgy-looking doors and the block’s one nod to ‘style’ – glass panels masquerading as porches – hung horizontally so that rainwater will gather on the top until it either spills over onto whoever’s below or starts growing its own green roof.

A few weeks ago I walked past and they appeared to have given up on proper building materials at all. Workmen were busy putting up what I’m certain were plywood walls around the balconies and using what probably weren’t but did look like old pallets for the balcony roofs. Another guy was merrily painting the high, end wall two different shades of white, after, presumably, running out of the original colour halfway up.

Now, perhaps in some kind of bid to sell it to the HM Prison Service as overflow accommodation, some battered battleship grey panels are being put over the plywood (one or two look wonky to me) and some metal grilles are being tacked onto the balcony sides. All they need is some netting to make sure the inmates don’t chuck themselves over them. Oh – no – wait – that won’t be necessary – the giant road sign outside the window will break their fall…

All this has been bugging me for months. So why am I spitting tacks today? Because this weekend there was an article on the news that put me in mind of my Ladybird Book, and for two mornings running I’ve woken up grumpy, thinking of these blooming apartments.

The government has given housing associations cash to buy up unsold new-builds and turn them into social housing. I think it’s a great idea.

The problem? Many of these developers have been so greedy that they’ve produced properties so poor in quality the housing associations won’t touch them. They’re far too mean, small and badly built for social housing…

I’m not saying that this block has been rejected – or even considered by – housing associations, but if I were in charge of buying some new social housing stock I’d be giving it a wide berth, given what I’ve been watching go up over the months.

Of course, I haven’t seen it up close. Taking a sneaky peek at the show flat would be illuminating (even if I can’t promise those windows would be…) Every so often, a plastic banner is hung from the balconies, declaring the show flat is ‘open.’ I’ve not been able to see exactly where that would be. After a week or so, the banner starts to fall down, then it’s removed.

Apparently there’s an open day on 23rd May, though – the website still seems to hold out hope that someone would actually buy one of these. Just check out the prices – still absolutely ridiculous, despite their being reduced. If nothing else, check out the artist’s impression of what Woolwich Road looks like in Developer Fantasy Land. I particularly enjoyed the greenery, the block that’s been built over the coach station, the wide boulevard that is Woolwich Road and the piazza where the artist obviously enjoyed a pavement cappucino whilst sketching this fabulous scene of urban paradise.

It’s right and proper that the housing associations have standards – but why haven’t the rest of us? How have these developers been allowed to get away with this? According to the news at the weekend, MPs have been pushing for legislation that would guarantee standards for private development similar to the social sector.

What? We don’t have regulations already? What happened to the rules embodied in the 1875 Act, for starters? Repealed, presumably. By whom? Who thought that was a good idea? Have we really gone backwards into slumdom again?

I wish I could say this block was unique in its hideousness, but for those of us who have watched several local new-builds going up over the past few years it’s a familiar story.

My Ladybird book was published in 1963 – a brave new world of (admittedly unexciting but nevertheless sincere) tower blocks and glass Le Corbusier houses. I have no idea what they would write about Greenwich’s most recent ‘achievement’ in a reprint today…


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