London appears to be growing ungainly tusks, as each week a new ivory tower erupts into our skyline. A constant cause of controversy and debate, construction in London is one of the capital’s most vital, and all encapsulating industries, affecting everyone who lives here. For the vast majority, homes in London are not investment opportunities, and have nothing to do with climbing up a ladder, except when they do DIY. Property is about more than just a place to hang your hat or lay your head, they are our homes.
The Peabody Trust is a “charity that was set up in 1862 by the American businessman, banker and philanthropist, George Peabody” in order to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis and provide them with comfort and happiness.” These, the words of Peabody, have become the mantra of one of London’s oldest, largest, and most unique housing associations.
The man responsible for looking after the housing association’s 28,000 homes, and the 80,000 people living in them is Stephen Howlett, CEO of Peabody. Whizzing through London traffic, in the back of a cab with Stephen Howlett is something that every Londoner should experience. Every building seems to have a story, whether it is developers trying to build above Lambeth North station, or the bomb site which is worth more as a billboard than it would be at homes, or the macabre history of the ‘Devil’s Acre’ in Westminster, Stephen Howlett seems to know everything about the buildings of London.
The main reason for this is because Peabody seems to be in every part of London. “That’s one of ours,” Stephen says proudly pointing out the window of the taxi, and not for the last time.
It is important that at this stage you do not get the wrong impression of Stephen and Peabody. They are not developers and Stephen is not adding to the glut of luxury homes, making a tidy profit from overseas.
As Stephen explains: “We work with local authorities to provide housing, they help us, sometimes through planning, sometimes with sites, but also we work with them to house people who are in greatest need in their areas.” 73% of Peabody properties are rented out for £120 per week. “The great majority of our homes are for low income earners,” Stephen says.
“We take a great deal of pride in architecture and we like to produce homes that people want to live in” says Stephen. He adds, “people who know us will recognise our buildings” and he is right. Standing 3-6 stories tall they are ahead of their time as space efficient estates, with beautiful, maintained floral beds (some of which I am told were planted by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, though they did not survive despite the help of holy green fingers).
What makes Peabody unique, is not the Act of Parliament that delivered its governing instrument, nor the fact that it has stayed true to its founder’s wishes for nearly 200 years. What makes Peabody unique is its unerring devotion to London and us its inhabitants. London has grown and changed a great deal since 1862, as have we the population. But Peabody very physically bridges that gap between the people and the place. Quite literally built into the landscape, and yet, as Stephen says: “We’ve got a legacy to protect, but we are also at the forefront of regeneration in London today.”
When Peabody left his 5 trustees the Peabody Trust, he not only left them the mission to “ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy of this great metropolis”, he also wanted them to act as a business. Peabody is, therefore, a socially conscious charity business, whose aim is to return a profit not to shareholders, but to projects which will add value to their customers. In the 1970s and 80s, as much as 80% of a development could be paid for by the government (with the rest made up by low income rents), but by the 2000s “the amount of public money became less available” and as Stephen says, “in the forward projection there currently isn’t any public money available for rented housing.”
In order to continue to provide low rent housing, therefore, Peabody has developed quite dramatically. Of the 1,000 homes they provided last year, Stephen explains, “about 380 were sold outright, and one half of the rest became low rent housing, while the other half were shared ownership.”
“We have now gone into an era where we are just about self sufficient,” Stephen says, talking about the future of Peabody, adding “it means we have had to borrow money on the markets, and it means more risk for us, but we will continue to do it to protect the future of the company.” He also explains that the biggest challenges faced by Peabody are the fact that it is becoming “increasingly difficult to continue to build houses in central London because of the huge cost of land.” With plans in motion to build 20,000 homes over the next 20 years as part of a major regeneration of Thamesmead in East London, Peabody and Stephen are setting their sights on the transformative quality of infrastructure and transport, linking formerly distant parts of Greater London to the city centre.
“Thamesmead to Canary Wharf will be just 11 minutes, when the new Crossrail is completed, and Bond Street will be just 23 minutes,” Stephen says, “so transport links will entirely change the geography of London.” He even believes that “people could be working in Westminster or Chelsea and Kensington, who will live in low cost homes in Thamesmead and commute in.” When you look at the high quality homes which Peabody have become famous for producing, it is not hard to believe that in 20 years time, the Royal Borough may very well be thinking about getting a little Peabody place in Thamesmead.