Recent coverage of our plans for the Sutton Estate in Chelsea in The Guardian and the commentary that has followed it on social media have painted a false impression of what we are proposing to do and why.
The Guardian, and indeed a number of the politicians and ‘celebrities’ that are passing comment, appear to have spoken only to opponents of the scheme. That has angered many Affinity Sutton tenants, the overwhelming majority of whom support the need to re-provide their homes with modern and spacious new accommodation. The main objectors are in fact not our tenants and we are concerned that they are causing distress through a campaign of deliberate misinformation and speculation.
We reject outright the allegation that redevelopment of the scheme is motivated by creating large profits. Charities are not permitted legally to distribute profits. Every single penny that is not required to be spent on providing the new social homes on the estate will be invested in new social and affordable homes either elsewhere in the Royal Borough or in other places where there is acute housing need. No Affinity Sutton executive director, board member or staff will benefit personally in any way from this or any other scheme we develop. Our motives and indeed our fiduciary duty are to manage our housing assets in the long term best interests of our current tenants and others in housing need.
Seventy five percent of the homes will be for social rents at a fraction of the market price and with a floor area at up to 25% bigger than the current flats. The government has no policy and offers no funding for regeneration of time expired housing. It is this alone that makes it necessary to develop some of the new housing for sale - to produce a profit that can be used to re-provide the social housing. No-one can provide housing at heavily discounted social rents without subsidy. The high values in Chelsea mean that we are at least able to retain 75% of the homes for social rent. There is no ‘profiteering’ and no ‘social cleansing’ as some of the objectors would have the public believe. And we can confirm that no Affinity Sutton tenant will be evicted.
Until we can get the scheme underway, a number of the vacant flats are being used by RB Kensington & Chelsea as temporary housing for homeless households. Affinity Sutton does not manage these and neither do we have any legal relationship with the occupiers. The council will offer them permanent housing in due course but they are not and have never been Affinity Sutton tenants and there was never any question of them being offered permanent homes on the estate. Councils offer temporary accommodation for a number of reasons but the main reason is that there was no permanent housing available at the time they become homeless. That is fairly and squarely a result of the government not doing enough to support the development of new social housing.
Some commentators are critical of our proposal to demolish rather than refurbish the estate. In fact, a substantial part of the estate, which contains the local shops, was modernised at great cost some years ago and will be retained. However, although we acknowledge that the design of the buildings is popular with some local people, this is far from a universal view. In fact, the design was criticised by many experts from the outset, largely on the grounds of the poor flat designs, the intense massing and the impact this has on the natural light within the flats. They are not viewed by English Heritage as being of sufficient architectural quality or interest to justify them being ‘listed’. In fact, the Chelsea Society, whom we have consulted extensively, is now broadly supportive of the redevelopment; it says:
“The Society reckons that, on balance, Affinity’s plan to give the estate a good long term future is hard to oppose – particularly as all remaining tenants will, with just one move, be offered flats in the new buildings.”
The flats are simply not fit for the future and it is uneconomic to improve them to modern standards. The layouts are poor, the rooms are small (around 25% smaller than modern standards), there are no proper bathrooms in some of the flats, and there are no lifts in most of the blocks. Also, there is very little external space, there are no balconies, and natural daylight is restricted by the way the blocks are arranged. These issues cannot be resolved without significant loss of flats (for example, by knocking two into one), and without a major and disruptive programme of works requiring tenants to move out of the blocks temporarily for long periods. In fact, modernisation and refurbishment work would lose a similar number of social homes to redevelopment and provide inferior accommodation. Moreover, the full costs would have to be funded from Affinity Sutton’s reserves and incur substantial additional debt.
The simple economics are such that the social rents paid on the Estate, which are quite properly a fraction of market rents, broadly cover only the management, maintenance and repairs services. The rents are not sufficient to fund also the debt costs of the very major investment required without some form of subsidy. Using our reserves for this purpose would prevent us building new homes elsewhere and require the rents paid by our tenants in other parts of the country to subsidise our tenants to live in Chelsea.
We have looked at all of the options for this estate over an extended period of time, working with our residents, local councillors, representative bodies and the local community. The Affinity Sutton board is satisfied that redevelopment is the right and only feasible course open to us. Of course, the final decision will be made by RB Kensington & Chelsea when it determines our planning application. This will be subject to the usual, full statutory consultation process to which anyone can contribute their views.
Everything we do at Affinity Sutton is guided by our social purpose. It is our firm intention to develop a high quality scheme that will provide social housing in Chelsea for generations to come. Many of our Chelsea tenants have lived on the estate for decades. Nearly four in five of our residents attending our latest consultation events say that our plans offer them and those in housing need the best option for a beautiful home in a desirable area at a price they can truly afford. We believe that their voices should be heard loud and clear by those who are objecting to the scheme.