Why ideal homes project has its knockers

Normally, this column is about an individual. This week, it’s about a doorbell. And a gym and a bus. To tell the story, we have to go back to 1975, when the IRA bombed the Caterham Arms on the southern boundary of Croydon. Up to that point, the nearby army barracks had been as much a community facility as a military establishment. There had been a swimming pool and a cricket green, and the locals had had open access. But after the IRA attack the barracks were closed, and the Grenadier Guards finally left in 1995. Three years later, Linden Homes bought the site, and formed a partnership with the Guinness Trust.
Local interest was pretty high, so a planning weekend was organised in February 1998 to ask the people what they wanted on the site. By then the barracks had been sealed for years behind an eight-foot fence – and who wouldn’t be curious to have a look at the site again? So over 1,000 people showed up. It had already become clear that the original brief was unrealistic unless more houses were built. The community concurred. Within two days the architects were able to produce a masterplan based on their ideas. Linden and Guinness would build almost 350 houses and also shops, kids’ facilities, a restored cricket green and pavilion, and a restaurant.

The council and Linden haggled a bit over the proportion of affordable houses. The council wanted 30%, Linden 25%. But, in the spirit of compromise, they split the difference and settled on 27.5%. Some of the development is new build and some is in the converted original buildings. The skateboard park, for instance, is in the old chapel. And the quartermaster’s store is now a gym.

Guinness was determined about one feature of the development: the affordable housing should not be identifiable as different. They had had experience of the success of this at a previous development. They had “pepper-potted” at Poundbury (for pepper-potting is what it is called), and Linden agreed with them that this should happen at Caterham.

Overall, it has been successful. But that brings us back to the doorbell. For very good reasons, Guinness wants to provide as much as possible to its incoming tenants. So they have what they call “scheme developments standards” that they have agreed with the Housing Corporation. And the provision of a standard-issue black plastic doorbell is one of these standards. But Linden built the houses for sale with just a doorknocker. And the good intentions that paved the path to hell hove into view.

You do have to be pretty observant, but if you want to find the renters in Caterham, you just have to look for the doorbells. What seemed to be the most decent gesture – to provide tenants, many of whom might be on housing benefit, with as much as possible that they didn’t have to buy – accidentally became a tiny stigma.

What of the gym and the bus? Well, in relation to these two, housing benefit has stamped its mark metaphorically on the foreheads of the renters, too. If you are a homeowner, you get free membership paid as part of your service charge. Similarly, with the bus service, which Linden pays for as part of its planning agreement. Homeowners automatically pay £50 of their service charge towards this and get 50 £1 bus vouchers in return. This acts as an incentive for people to use the bus, and after five years, when Linden no longer has to pay for it, it should be able to stand on its own feet.

But God forbid people on housing benefit should have free access to a health gym or public transport, like their neighbours. The housing benefit rules will not allow gym membership or travel to be paid for. If it were included in the service charge tenants would not be able to claim it, but they’d be required to pay it, so it would come out of their already meagre benefits.

Caterham is a model of social inclusion, but the only differentiators come as a result of public-service rules applied across the board. With the best of intentions, we have created a system that tries to help people but which only serves to stigmatise them. Does that ring a (door) bell, anyone?

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