Social housing block set to be sold for redevelopment as refurb costs soar

Walbrook House had its gas supply switched off last year over safety fears but the cost of fully repairing it is now said to be £30m, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

An Edmonton tower block that had its gas supply cut off over structural safety fears looks set to be sold by Enfield Council.

Civic centre bosses have revealed plans to sell 23-storey Walbrook House in Huntingdon Road for private development, after deeming the costs of refurbishing the block or knocking it down to build new affordable housing to be too high.

Built in 1968 using a cut-price method that involved assembling large panels manufactured off-site, the tower block – which contains 126 flats – was found to be at risk of collapse in the event of a gas explosion following tests carried out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Cladding was removed in 2019 because of fire safety concerns, and the gas supply was cut off in July last year. The council began a programme of safety works and drew up plans to connect the block to its district heating network. But after costs soared from £14million to £23m, it started to consider other plans and began rehousing residents.

In January, families remaining in the block complained they were “freezing” and suffering from worsening damp and mould after being given “inadequate” heating.

A report reveals the council now plans to “fully decommission” Walbrook House, moving out the residents of the 20 flats that are still occupied and buying up the properties owned by leaseholders.

It says the cost of a refurbishment could rise to more than £30m because of inflation in the construction market. The work would be funded by extra borrowing and some charges would be passed on to leaseholders “to offset a proportion of the council’s debt”.

The council has already racked up debts of more than £1billion – partly to fund new housing schemes such as Meridian Water in Edmonton, where the first homes are due to be completed this year.

Another option for the council would be to demolish Walbrook House and build new homes. But the report states that it “would not be possible to replace the number of homes on a like-for-like basis”, adding that the expected £50m cost would require “significant additional grant funding”.

The report says that given current government funding policies for affordable homes, a regeneration would have to be paid for by the council.

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It adds: “Given the current market pressures on build costs it would not be affordable to commence any redevelopment works until such time as there is more certainty on the viability and deliverability of undertaking direct delivery in the market.”

The report states that selling the block would be the least expensive option, and that there is “potentially an attractive opportunity for an investor or developer which could provide the council with a land receipt and homes remaining in the borough”. It reveals “underused” land close to the block would likely be included in a redevelopment.

Two other blocks in Edmonton – Shropshire House and Cheshire House, on the Shires Estate – are also set to be taken out of use and likely demolished. Built using the same method of construction, the two 18-storey blocks also had their gas supplies switched off after they were found to be at risk of collapse in the event of an explosion.

Those living in the three tower blocks will have to be rehoused as the borough faces a chronic homes shortage made worse by a collapsing rental market. The Walbrook House report says residents of the block “will continue to be rehoused based on priority need in line with the [council’s] allocations policy”.

It adds that all council tenants will be given “priority weighting” on a “choice-based lettings” scheme that allows them to bid for council and housing association properties available for social rent and/or London Affordable Rent in Enfield.

Council leader Nesil Caliskan said: “There has been a legacy of chronic underfunding and investment from the government for existing housing stock, such as Walbrook House.

“The priority for Enfield Council is to ensure all our homes are safe and secure, and that we communicate clearly and honestly with existing tenants and leaseholders on our intentions. Having listened to residents at Walbrook House about the future of the block and options available, a consultation was conducted with them where we explained the need to permanently move residents. More than 80% of residents have already moved from this block into alternative council homes.

“We will continue to update residents on the future of the building and site as we explore and consider options further.”

Update (22nd May):

Lee Chamberlain, the opposition Conservative group’s shadow cabinet member for social housing and regeneration, said: “The council’s position is to pretend they do not control a budget of many millions which they chose to spend elsewhere. This is a doubly outrageous claim since they clearly planned to leave people living in these dangerous squalid blocks until we challenged them over it and the risk became public knowledge.”

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