Building for the future - a one billion pound project to transform Stevenage's social housing
Chief reporter Martin Elvery takes a tour around Stevenage to see the first fruits of a billion pound council housing overhaul.
Stevenage doesn’t often get praise for its council housing stock. The 8,000 council homes which the town still has often look dated – many were built in the 1950s and 1960s during the heyday of the New Town project. Residents often call the Comet complaining about damp and poor maintenance.
Yet while most towns and cities have sold off their council housing, Stevenage Borough Council has bucked the trend – recently announcing it will spend a billion pounds overhauling its housing stock and building new homes over the next 30 years.
It would probably make much more sense financially for the Labour-run council to sell off its housing and recoup the profits, but the authority says it is committed to making social housing available to people who can’t afford increasing outrageous prices and rents. The housing stock may not be the best quality in the world, but it does give many families somewhere they can afford and the council is committed to – slowly but surely – improving it.
What’s more, in a series of new projects, the council is to build hundreds of smart new homes – many of which will be rented out at reasonable rates.
Speaking exclusively to the Comet, the council’s assistant director of development, Ash Ahmed, and its lead member for housing, Councillor Jeanette Thomas, it’s obvious just how passionate they are about this.
Ash tells me the council values its residents and wants to provide for them.
He says when he started the job two years ago he wanted to see progress quickly because the numbers of homeless and people on the council’s housing list is increasing showing an acute need for homes.
He says the council wants to provide homes for those who want to work in the town and move back here after living elsewhere, and that house prices have grown so drastically in recent years because of the numbers of London commuters who want to buy homes here. This means that living in the town is becoming increasing unaffordable for many.
The council’s homes – new and old – will be rented out at two rates – a standard social housing rent of £105 per week for a two-bed home and an affordable rate at £155 per week.
Over the next 30 years the council will spend £680 million refurbishing existing council homes and £320 million building new ones.
I toured some sites with Ash and Jeanette to get an insight into the work that’s going on, looking at the homes that have been finished and some that are being built. The new-build sites include the impressive 22-home Kingpin Square development in Archer Road where the old dilapidated King Pin pub has been cleared to provide a modern new square surrounded by high quality homes, with new shop units too.
At the former Twin Foxes pub we walk round a building site where a block of 14 new apartments is being built.
There is also a £1.3 million new build set for the former site of the March Hare pub, and the council has purchased a number of new properties at an new-build estate in Kilner Close.
The council will offer a mix of 40 to 50 per cent private sale with 50 to 60 per cent affordable rented homes in the new builds. In some cases the council builds the homes and in some cases it buys homes on estates already built by developers.
Jeanette tells me: “We’re planning mixed communities. The idea is that you won’t necessarily know if your neighbour is a private or council tenant.
“This is great for social mobility and we believe whichever type of tenant they are, people will look after their area and their homes.
“A lot of things in life are about the chance of where you are born and we don’t want people to feel stigmatised just because they were born in a council property.
“We also want to give people the aspiration to be home owners and many will have the chance to buy the homes they rent for a certain period of time.”
Ash adds: “House building is a risky business and many other councils are not doing it, but we want to be able to provide for those who grow up in the town and then for those who get to an age in life where they needs specialist housing.”
Around the town these days you will see a green ribbon adorning hoardings on building sites and adverts for new council properties. The ribbon is a symbol of the council’s ongoing commitment to provide homes for its residents and encapsulates the every spirit of the New Town project from its roots back in the 1950s when it all began.