Donald Hunter House, Woodgrange Road.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Local historian and housing specialist, Peter Williams,  relates the interesting story behind one of Forest Gate's most prominent land marks: Donald Hunter House.

Introduction

Most Forest Gate residents will be familiar with the tall building at the corner of Woodgrange Road and Romford Road above the Iceland store. Older residents will know it as Telephone House. Newcomers may know it as Donald Hunter House, and it has quite an interesting history.

That corner of Forest Gate suffered substantial damage in the Blitz, with the original Victorian Methodist church destroyed by bombs on 17 April 1941. It was replaced in the post war period by the current church. The Princess Alice pub was also destroyed and had to be replaced in 1950s.

Council flats were built to replace the Victorian villas of the Woodgrange estate. The council took the opportunity to provide a new public library for Forest gate. This was at first floor level above the council built shops with an entrance in Claremont Road. This was replaced in the last 15 years or so and the old library became a training centre run by a local charity.

The architects model below commissioned by Newham Council shows the vision for the area from Osborne Road to Romford Road. Not all of this was built but Telephone House can be seen to the right, and the low rise shops with library above to the left.




The current Forest Gate library occupies the ground floor of what was Telephone House. The library was originally branded The Gate, but has been recently rebranded the CNC or Community Neighbourhood Centre, reflecting the new role libraries have assumed in Newham. The book stock has been reduced and space created for a wide variety of community activities and events.

Telephone House, Woodgrange Road, was built in 1958 by what was then the Post Office, that ran both what we think of as post offices, but also Post Office Telephones, the forerunner of what became BT (British Telecommunications) when privatised by Mrs Thatcher.

The building was the headquarters of Post Office Telephones for the eastern area of the London. On the ground floor was a Post Office, which later moved across the road into a private shop. There was also a showroom on the ground floor of Telephone House displaying the latest telephone equipment for sale when you could only by your phone (landline) from BT. There was no choice in those days!

BT leave

Around about the year 2000 BT declared the whole building including the tower block redundant as they rationalised their offices. In recent years it has become commonplace to convert old offices into residential (not least because the Cameron government liberalised planning laws to help this happen, developers often no longer need planning permission). But in 2000 it was still relatively rare to convert office to residential.

The old Telephone House was bought by a company called Peabody Unite plc with the intention of converting it into housing for keyworkers. There was already a housing crisis in London and people like trainee nurses, social workers and teachers had a desperate need but cheap but accessible accommodation.


Donald Hunter House, today
In the 1980s Newham Council in fact had made some hard to let council flats available for teachers, social workers and other young professionals who they found hard to recruit into the borough to work for them and other public bodies, but by the late 1990s these schemes had come to an end as homeless pressures increased and the council could not spare flats. The Metropolitan Police also had small tower blocks of its own to accommodate young constables at Selsdon Road, Upton Park and another one behind East Ham police station, but these were sold off many years ago.

Peabody Unite plc was itself an interesting organisation, a joint venture between the famous Peabody Housing Association, founded in Victorian times by the great American philanthropist George Peabody, and Unite Group plc,  then a small private company specialising in key worker housing. As the press release put it:

London NHS workers gain new affordable homes with Peabody Unite's £33 million investment
                                                                                                                                                                                          2 August 2000
 
The UNITE Group plc, the UK's leading specialist provider of accommodation services for students and key workers, has today announced that its joint venture operation with the Peabody Trust, Peabody Unite, is developing two schemes in London, which will be worth £33.3 million on completion, and will create more than 500 quality, affordable bed spaces for Barts and the London NHS Trust homes workers in Whitechapel and Forest Gate, East London.

On completion the building was renamed Donald Hunter House after a well known doctor and according to the company “provided quality Peabody UNITE homes for 256 key workers.”

In 2013 the owners applied to vary their original planning permission which had said that they could only house ‘economically active’ people i.e. keyworkers in the dwellings but Newham Council refused to agree this change to the planning rules for the block. In 204 a different planning application allowed the building for the first time to be used as a hostel. (see below)
Quality was always an issue in the building as the faculties were fairly basic with small rooms and shared facilities such as communal kitchens. It was never hugely popular with the NHS staff it was targeted at and Peabody Unite began to market it to a wider audience of keyworkers, and by late 2013 when it closed in that form they were housing some students there.

Unite plc (not with Peabody) went on to be a major provider of private sector student housing in London building many new blocks all over central London. Their rents are not cheap, and now they attract a huge number of foreign students with rich parents who can afford their market rents.

They have massive new-build schemes in Stratford, notably the thousand home red building with a stepped profile that towers at 28 floors over the Olympic Park behind John Lewis, (called Stratford One and opened in 2014) and the 750 room scheme at the corner of Angel Lane by Stratford tube station opened 2015. East London has been a success story for them.

Donald Hunter House was less of a success and was put up for sale around 2014. On 15th October that year 4-20 Woodgrange Road was acquired by an offshore company Stratos Holdings, Martello Court, Admiral Park, St Peter Port, Guernsey. It is the only property owned by the company in the UK and the holding includes both The Gate library and Iceland stores.  So, Newham Council are paying rent to Stratos in order to run a library there.

This information is drawn from public Land Registry data that has featured on this site before in an article showing links of Forest Gate properties to tax havens (see here).

Stratos was specially created offshore to hold the building but the actual owner are Saudi Arabian oil interests. When it became clear that Forest Gate was to become a beneficiary of the opening of a Crossrail station, Donald Hunter House was snapped by this Saudi company, sensing a good return on the investment would be pretty much guaranteed.

The Saudis decided they did not want to demolish and redevelop straight away so they looked round for an interim use. They got in touch with one of a number of private sector companies that have developed over the last decade or so specialising in providing homeless temporary accommodation to London boroughs.

Homeless accommodation

London councils have always wanted to try to avoid the use of so called Bed and Breakfast hotels, which in reality are simply another form of private rented accommodation where the council is paying a premium for its immediate availability. Central Government introduced a target a few years ago saying councils must not leave families in B&B for more than 6 weeks, and this forced councils into the hands of a different kind of private landlord, offering short term lets in the private sector at a price below a hotel price but normally above rents for ordinary self contained private accommodation. Often it was the same businessmen involved in both kinds of accommodation.

Nevertheless this new style of homeless temporary accommodation was often of a slightly better standard than the traditional B&B with a higher degree of self containment, some being small flats or studios. Councils entered into longer term contracts to secure a better overall price.

One such private property company was TANDO who did business with Newham council in Canning Town to put back into use some empty council flats that were awaiting a more comprehensive redevelopment. However they ran into some difficulties there outlined in a story in the Newham Recorder early in 2017.

This story was also covered in the Guardian. Another of these specialist companies was Theori:

A Freedom of information Act (FOI) request to Newham in 2015 sought to tease out the relationship between Newham Council and the following companies:

·         Tando Homes Ltd and associated companies
·         Theori Investments
·         Omega Lettings - and associated companies; and
·         Mears Group

All these companies have links. Tando in fact is a shortened form of Theori  AND Omega, T and O. To quote from a council report online in the context of Canning Town and Custom House:

Theori Property Services Ltd has a stated environmental policy that demonstrates a commitment, wherever practical to use environmentally friendly products (such as condensing boilers). They have a waste management strategy designed to deal with refurbishment and build waste. Both the environment policy and waste management strategy will be adopted by TANDO Property Services Ltd.

Donald Hunter House was under the Omega lettings brand and in recent period has been block booked by Tower Hamlets Council for their homeless families. Newham Council had used it briefly in 2014/15 but Tower Hamlets were able to pay a better price due to the quirks of the Housing Benefit system – the rent allowance is higher in Tower Hamlets than Newham. Many of the social care and education costs of these families of course fall on Newham, though some families travel back to their home borough for schooling. Omega operates as a Registered Provider, regulated by a government bod,y but unlike a housing association it makes profits for its shareholders.

Conclusion

When it comes to homelessness there is a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude amongst London boroughs as they are all competing for scarce housing resources, and landlords are able to profit from this lack of cooperation in London. London has 32 housing authorities; New York is just 5 boroughs and with a Mayor across the whole city with stronger strategic powers than London’s.  In London councils have been forced into the hands of highly profitable property businesses specialising in homeless temporary accommodation due to the lack of affordable supply. Donald Hunter House is held offshore in a tax haven pending re-development by Saudi oil money.

References

This article uses publicly available sources: here, here, here, here and here 

Planning applications can be seen online at Newham planning portal. FOIs are here:


1 comment:

  1. where did the g.p.o. engineering staff go when leaving telephone house ?

    ReplyDelete

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