Making Marston Court a reality

An interview with Jack Dempsey, Head of allocations and accommodation, London Borough of Ealing

Making Marston Court a reality

How was the overall concept developed in the first instance? Who contributed?
The concept of providing modular, temporary accommodation has been developed over a number of years – I personally have been thinking about it for around 5 years – before I even started with Ealing. Alongside Robert Turner, we thought it was time to ‘think differently’ and apply some creative thought around ways to provide local, suitable and affordable solutions – much like the prefabs which were built after the war (which proved to be very popular and durable). We were aware of projects being built in Brighton and Lewisham and the Ikea flatpack house used on the continent. We were also impressed by the temporary accommodation provided for the 2012 Olympics. We began by carrying out an analysis of the council’s land and corporate assets – looking at underused sites such as garage blocks (that attract anti-social behaviour and cost money to maintain), hostels and warden assisted accommodation. This intensive review helped us to identify whether sites could be better used – even on a temporary basis, pending comprehensive regeneration schemes. We were also keen to find a strategy that allowed us to retain the assets – we are aware that if we sell in order to meet an immediate need, the assets are lost forever. By looking at an interim use, we can not only fulfil the short term requirement, but also hold onto valuable opportunities which can be benefit our community in the future. We have identified around 100 opportunities across the borough.

What are the three main aspects of this project which excite you?
The concept of providing accommodation on sites we own – which are quick and affordable to build – is exciting. We’ve learned a lot from this first project and there were many sceptics, so it’s quite nice to counter any negativity with a solution which is local, fit for purpose and as near as cost neutral as we can get.

The fact that LBE can control the costs means that we are more able to support the people we are housing. By providing temporary accommodation which is local and affordable, this means that a resident can save for a deposit for a permanent home, retain their job and social networks, which makes it less likely they will become dependent upon us for housing in the longer term.

We also enjoy the fact that we are pioneering a new approach. It lends a slightly quirky dimension to Ealing’s ambitious regeneration ambitions.

Why is this project important to Ealing Council and the community you serve?
Many of our residents have lived in the borough all their lives – 20-30 years. In many respects, the area is made up of ‘micro-suburbs’ and people’s wellbeing depends upon maintaining their support networks, schools, GPs etc. If they are moved away, especially when they are at their most vulnerable, they don’t deal with change well. By providing them with self-contained accommodation that they can personalise, we can lessen disruption during a difficult time. In fact we are now receiving requests from residents in hostels who want to be accommodated in the new units.

What issues or challenges will the delivery of this scheme help to resolve?
Everyone living in London, including our residents, understand there is a need to optimize available urban sites and that change is inevitable. We believe that if we retain control over development sites that sit alongside our existing housing stock, rather than selling it to a private developer, we can better safeguard the integrity of the neighbourhood. As a social landlord, we are accountable to the communities in which we work and it’s important that residents are onboard with new plans.

Ealing has a long term vision to regenerate and improve housing across the borough and there is a lot of work already underway. If there are sites available that are suitable for conventional housing, then this will be our preferred route. This kind of interim approach is ideal for spare pockets of land that will become available as our regeneration programmes advance. We envisage that this will become part of a ‘rolling’ interim strategy that will involve us moving and reconfiguring the units as the situation dictates. The major benefit of this approach is the flexibility it affords us going forward. We also realise that we need a critical mass to make the strategy as financially beneficial as possible.

On a personal note, I hope to reduce the instances of ringing round landlords to source emergency accommodation and getting nothing or finding they are all too expensive. It means by having our own supply, we are able to maintain a more balanced portfolio of high quality and cost neutral temporary accommodation and allow us to continue to work with household to prevent them becoming homeless and supporting landlords to improving the quality of their accommodation reducing the number of people coming to us for help with accommodation and maintaining sustainable tenancies in the in the first place.

What challenges/issues have you overcome to deliver this project?
For some, the Bordars Walk scheme is a bit like Marmite – you love it or hate it. It is a tight site which has brought with it some challenges. We are really looking forward to seeing our other sites at Hope Gardens and Westfield completed.

We have all needed to go on the same journey to secure what is an unconventional approach to building and providing accommodation for local people in need of housing. But as a landlord with over 12000 rented council units, we see this as a natural extension of our services. The planners, building control professionals, other colleagues and politicians have all been very supportive in helping us to achieve our goal.

In the early stages of the project, we encountered some sceptisism, even from within our own organisation, about the quality and suitability of the accommodation. Now they are nearing completion, there’s a lot of interest and many more want to be involved. We are also getting enquiries from other councils – all of whom have underused sites, garage sites and carparks – that could be the source of valuable accommodation for local people. They are interested to see how it works in practice. We see this as a part of what all councils have got to do – to get a bit more savvy, adopt a suite of ideas and as soon as one looks like it will work, get on and do it. This in part, will help to ease the day-to- day pressure on emergency accommodation, improve the quality and suitability of emergency provision (reducing the number housed in B&B is a particular priority) and reduce costs by providing a local high quality solution for households in the most housing need.