An innovative solution to the capital’s housing crisis has been proposed by an organisation that runs 37 academies in and around London.
The Harris Federation has suggested it could build houses for teachers on surplus school land, addressing a key issue it has identified among its own staff. Of more than 500 teachers it surveyed, just 38% have been able to afford to buy a home, while 84% thought they would be able to, when starting work. And of those not currently owning, 94% said they would need to leave London, in order to be able to buy.
Of those polled via the online survey, 92% could see no way they would be able to save a deposit to buy, a sum today calculated at £91,500.
Harris Federation chief Sir Dan Moynihan commented: “There is both a market failure and a failure in our priorities as a society when teachers are unable to look forward to ever purchasing a home in London.”
“The shortage of affordable housing for teachers is easily the biggest long-term threat to schools in London. This is not an issue that requires tinkering at the edges or which can be solved by changing teachers’ pay. It requires the urgent, co-ordinated action of national and local government so that we do not have a city in 10 years’ time where teachers do not want to work because they have no chance to live here.”
He added: “We want to be empowered by government to build housing on the surplus land some of our schools have, which is currently totally unused.” The plan would specifically avoid trying to compromise existing playing fields, the federation has said.
And he told the Guardian that the theme is a wider one than simply filling a practical need: “It’s always been an expectation that teaching is a respectable profession and you should be entitled to have somewhere to live. But it’s not the case now, and nobody in politics is addressing it. That to me seems a far more fundamental thing to be worrying about than whether all schools should be academies by 2022.”
He said the problem was not unique to academies: “Like other schools, we are losing a stream of our best teachers who are going abroad for tax-free deals. They are going to the Middle East, they are going for three years at a time and they are explicitly saying they are going in order to build up a deposit, to be able to come back and buy a one-bedroom flat. They can’t afford to buy in London, the rental costs mean they can’t afford to save a deposit, so they have gone or are going to the Middle East because they can earn tax-free.”
“What the government should be doing is allow schools and education providers – and maybe the NHS too – to identify surplus land and provide the funds to build housing for public sector workers. We’ve put up over £200m worth of school building – we’ve built them very efficiently. Why couldn’t we also build low cost housing for teachers?”
The proposal has two major practical hurdles to overcome. Firstly, academies have little control over the school land and buildings they use, as these are leased from local authorities. The government has suggested this will change with a move to transfer the property holdings to central government in due course.
Secondly, the use of school facilities for any form of housing would be expected to require some flexibility in use. A Department for Education spokesman commented to the London Standard: “We have clear safeguards in place that mean academies cannot sell or change the use of publicly funded school land without consent from the Secretary of State and the proposals under the White Paper will not change that. Schools and trusts can apply to the freeholder for permission to change the use of a site.”
LPA Perspective: Three cheers to the Harris Federation for shouting loud about the practical problems – as an employer – of the housing crisis. And for coming up with a proposal to help solve the housing issue. While it may be born of blatant self interest, the idea of putting starter homes for teachers on unloved corners of school sites has merit. A not dissimilar idea, of building homes for nurses around the edge of NHS hospital sites, was floated not long ago at a GLA assembly meeting.
There will undoubtedly be concerns about the potential further loss of school playing fields, and the planning system will need to come up with a regime that prevents any such homes from being sold off into the open market, for a fat profit, in years to come. But a temporary permission, and perhaps a modular housing design similar to that being pioneered by the YMCA, could help provide the solution that Harris needs, to prevent it finding itself in the position where it cannot recruit or retain teachers in the capital.