South of the River – Streets in the sky


Compass-SouthI was delighted to discover this week that blocks of flats will be overlooking Holbeck Moor once more when the new housing is completed in a year or two.

I poked my nose into the open day event that sc4L held last Monday at St Matthew’s Community Centre. It’s either one of the perks of the job of being a citizen journalist, or it’s what drew me to role. I’m nosy and I like to know what’s going on round our way.

I was clearly out of touch. Last time I’d seen the plans, the Holbeck Towers site was going to be all low-rise family housing. Now there are couple of five and seven storey blocks of flats in the mix too. If they were private sector we could call them apartments, but I fear in the public sector they will always be flats. Either way I like them.

They seem very practical for smaller households and from the higher floors they have great views. They are very popular in the rest of Europe (as is renting your home, by the way) and perhaps their reputation has been revived with the boom in city centre living.

Before anyone else sounds the hypocrisy klaxon, I will freely admit that I’ve never lived in a flat.

Personally, I would have liked to see the old Holbeck Towers blocks refurbished. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with their design. The problems, as so often with Council blocks from that period was security and insulation, or rather the lack of them. In the end it was cheaper (in the short term at least) to knock them down and start again.

I’ve mentioned the Scharnhorst estate in Dortmund previously in this column. It looks like Leek Street flats in Hunslet, but it was built to higher standard and is still standing. The point then as now, is that if you skimp on construction and the “extras” you end up building new slums. If flats are built to a high standard with good sound and heat insulation and an effective security system, there’s no reason why flats can’t be as good as any other housing type.

Flats and houses, high-rise and low-rise – it’s horses for courses, or it should be. People should be able to find the right sort of accommodation for their household and that’s going to change over time. Young singles and couples may enjoy city centre living, then need a house and garden to bring up children, then downsize again when the children grow up leave (they do leave home don’t they? Eventually?). “Problem” tower blocks such as the Crescents in Beeston have been transformed by becoming housing over the over 55’s.

This all sounds rather idyllic and it doesn’t happen for lots of people. The reason is that there aren’t enough properties, especially in the social housing sector. You need plenty of capacity to allow for circulation, then people can exercise real choice. Shortages lead to rationing through rigid lettings policies in the social sector and high prices in the private sector.

Something else I discovered at the open day is that sc4L are not building any one bedroom properties. These have been unpopular and hard to let in the past, with no spare room for guests, a study, or accumulated junk.

The problem is that the Bedroom Tax has been introduced since the new homes were designed and there aren’t enough one bedroom properties in Leeds to meet demand. Well I’m glad they haven’t included one bedroom flats. The Bedroom Tax is a nasty, vindictive piece of social policy and I expect these home to outlast it by many decades.

Jeremy MortonEven though they haven’t started building yet, I don’t think they could change the scheme now if they wanted to. Not without unwinding the finance and the approvals and starting all over again. Holbeck can’t wait another five years, it wouldn’t be fair on the community.

I’m off on holiday, but I’ll be back in a fortnight with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.