- The Observer,
- Sunday March 2 2008
When Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour sold his London mansion for £3.6m, he was putting into practice his 'house for a house' philosophy: the belief that the wealthy should sell one of their palaces to provide hundreds of homes for those who are less well-off.
The rock star's move was inspired by a project in New York, where an Art Deco hotel had been turned into a block of 400 flats, half for low-paid key workers, the other half for homeless people. Those who were in work encouraged others to find a job, and supported them through their difficulties.
Five years on, and the idea of bringing the New York dream to London has crumbled into dust. Successive attempts to find a suitable site and then push it through the labyrynthine planning system have failed. The energy and excitement behind the original idea has been replaced with a bitter scepticism about the way planning rules and nimbyism ('not in my back yard') have ended up blocking the idea.
The homeless charity Crisis, which had spearheaded the Urban Village plan and was the beneficiary of the rock star's millions, has admitted defeat and is now looking at much smaller schemes.
Gilmour says: 'Obviously this setback is a disappointment, but I am determined to make a success of the Urban Village project here in London and to continue to work with Crisis to bring real change to the lives of homeless people.'
The charity's chief executive, Leslie Morphy, says the need is greater than ever. 'We have 40,000 people in London living in squats, B&Bs or on the streets. I think it does say something about us as a society if we cannot get a project as exciting as this off the ground. It is dispiriting and we need to learn a lot from this.'
For Gilmour the sadness is that New York is now opening its fourth such scheme. Eight other properties are currently being developed, and the scheme has received dozens of accolades.
At the time he sold his home to Lord Spencer, the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, Gilmour explained his reasons eloquently. 'The effect of homelessness is damaging and debilitating to individuals. The crises and traumas in some people's lives are severe. I believe they need support and understanding, and this project gives people back their lives.
'They are helped to find jobs and feel that they have some standing within the community at large and it costs the taxpayer less than any of the schemes in existence so far,' he said, pointing out that the scheme typifies charity by example. 'We know lots of people with lots of money. They have one house here, one house there. I'm, like, how many houses do you need?'
The hope then was that the scheme of self-contained flats for 400 residents would be up and running within four years, and that Gilmour's money would go towards the £50m total needed to build such a block.
The first possible scheme was in Camden, north London, but a tortuous two-year negotiation to buy the site didn't bear fruit. Then another site was found, also in Camden, and the government regeneration agency English Partnerships became involved, but this also fell through.
In 2004 the former Mildmay mission hospital in Shoreditch, east London, became available. It seemed perfect, as it was built on a former NHS site, located in an area of huge housing need and there was strong church support. There would be 270 flats, and buildings would include facilities for counsellors and health workers to help the homeless.
The planning officers at Tower Hamlets recommended the scheme, but in September 2006 the local councillors turned it down, following pressure from local residents. Documents show that residents were worried about the size of the scheme, but also had concerns about security since many residents would have mental health problems. Four months ago, faced with soaring legal bills, Crisis was forced to withdraw its plans to appeal against the decision. Morphy said: 'It is dispiriting that it fell through. If you think a group of people are going to be living near you who are vulnerable, people will feel worried about that.'
But one difference between London and New York is the Americans' 'can-do' approach, along with the fact that big business is supportive and receives large tax credits for funding such schemes, ensuring that these get built. Last month the Common Ground charity raised $1.2m at a single fundraising dinner in Wall Street.
One early supporter in London was Rabbi Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and mental health expert who in 2003 was head of the King's Fund think-tank. 'We were so excited by the scheme. The New York housing showed that the people who are in work can show their neighbour the benefit of having a job, and having a steady life,' she said. 'If we can't get a scheme like this running in London, with all of its wealth and all the great need for housing, that's pretty poor. There is a lot of nimbyism around, but we have to find a way of making this work. We can't give up on it.'