IS STEPNEY to be the new Isle of Dogs? Details of an eye-wateringly expensive residential development have come to light which suggest that Whitechapel is being subjected to the same kind of random gentrification as E14.
It was always going to be touch and go for Whitechapel once development started. A decade ago, NHS authorities were selling off land assets to finance the new hospital PFI deal. The Post Office was selling up, after closing a major sorting office. Crossrail was (finally!) coming. And Sainsbury’s decided that its store would be greatly improved if they built an umpteen story tower block on top of the supermarket.
The Council had been renting a building in Mulberry Place to use as a Town Hall, but the owners warned that they would not extend the rental agreement past 2020 because they intended to pull down the development and build a bigger one. Mayor Lutfor Rahman spotted the opportunities and dangers of what was going on.
Mayor Rahman’s plan was that the Council would buy the front building of the Royal London Hospital, preserving the listed facade, to use as a Town Hall – saving the waste of paying rent. There would then be a Masterplan to pull together the existing users of the site – market traders, small businesses and residents – to ensure that the development brought positive benefits to the area, not gentrification. The Masterplan was named the Whitechapel Vision.
John Biggs divides as he rules
The vision of a community-led development of Whitechapel stalled when John Biggs took over as Executive Mayor in 2015. He had the Whitechapel Vision investigated, assuming it was just a vanity project – only for officers to advise that re-locating the Town Hall to the Hospital Building was a sound and wise decision.
Biggs and Cllr Josh Peck, the Cabinet Member responsible for the Whitechapel development, then disbanded the development-wide consultation mechanism. Cllr Rachel Blake subsequently endorsed this approach, opposing calls for a Whitechapel-wide resident consultation forum. Developers and planners were to decide who got the playground update, which community centre got double-glazing, which area got resurfaced roads – with smaller scale, localised consultation on these individual elements only.
Now here comes the gentrification
The latest phase (71 properties for sale) of a development called The Georgette South is to be launched on 7th January. It’s in the Silk District. (No, we didn’t know where that was either – apparently it’s the junction between Sidney Street and Stepney Way. It’s another example of “cultural appropriation” – where money-making developers use real local history to give their developments a quaint authenticity they don’t deserve.)
Georgette South is being developed by a Joint Venture Partnership (JVP) between Mount Anvil and L&Q. JVPs are business arrangements which generally favour the developer partner at the expense of social housing. Georgette South does include some social housing, but it is difficult to get information out of Mount Anvil about how much is being built and where it is, so let’s leave that to one side.
There is no shortage of information about the properties that are for sale.
•The apartments (i.e., “flats”) are “generous in size”. Which is great news – because owner occupiers obviously need (deserve?) more space than private and social renters. The flats also have “Siemens premium appliances” (when did you last hear of social housing coming with appliances?). Residents also have a fully equipped gym on site (with a spin studio!); a WiFi-enabled working space; a 24 hour concierge; and a cinema room with full length sofas and a bar.
•John Hall, Group Sales Director at Mount Anvil, has been moved to declare, inter alia, that “Buyers […] remark on [the area’s] vibrancy and its world class cultural scene.” That’s probably what attracts the rough sleepers who congregate in the side roads off New Road too: a vibrant pavement and the world class cultural scene.
What kind of flats are up for sale? The 71 properties range from “studio apartments” (bedsits) to three bedroom flats: and “prices start at £467,000.” How many of the 20,000+ Tower Hamlets residents in housing need have £467,000 in their back pockets?
If you’ve save a deposit of £67,000, your £400,000 mortgage will cost you around £2,000 a month (over 20 years). Assuming the £467,000 is for a bedsit, you will need to have a net income of £4,000/month to keep your housing costs down to half of your net income – a level reached only by higher rate taxpayers. Someone on the minimum wage will take home around £1,200 a month. If three or four minimum wage earners were to share a bedsit, they may be able to afford the mortgage.
How many people will buy one of the 71 properties in order to live in it remains to be seen. Large sections of recent private developments in Tower Hamlets have been bought up by overseas investors who do not even bother to rent the property out, or by private landlords who then let the properties out at high rents. (These high rents then force up social rents, where these are calculated as a percentage of market rents.)
Once more, the land resources of our borough are being sold off – and Tower Hamlets residents are paying the price, not reaping the advantages.