The Agar Grove Estate
Published: 28 April, 2016
By ELLA JESSEL
LIVING as custodians of former pubs, empty offices or in the twilight zones of council high-rises awaiting demolition, Camden’s property guardians are something of a hidden population.
Acting as live-in security guards to deter squatters from moving into empty properties, 152 guardians – mostly students and those in creative industries – pay to be housed in the borough’s council-owned properties alone.
The schemes have been lauded as an innovative solution to London’s housing crisis: property owners are afforded peace of mind, security firms receive a healthy income stream and the guardians get cheap accommodation in central locations. It seems everyone wins.
But warnings have emerged that those who sign up to be guardians are beginning to be short-changed: the costs are going up, inflated by London’s sky-rocketing private rental market, but no new residential rights are coming their way.
In the past licence fees were so low that many were happy to forgo their legal status as tenants and live in buildings that often fail to meet decent living standards. But on the Agar Grove estate in Camden Town alone there are 100 guardians living in “void” flats, paying on average of £530 a month per room in licence fees and bills, while at the same time facing the risk of being moved out at short notice.
Camden Council has a contract with Vacant Property Security (VPS), which was renewed last November, through which it receives an income of around £60,000 per year, as well as council tax payments charged to the guardians by VPS.
Rules in VPS contracts forbid guardians in Camden from submitting planning objections or contacting the council, and most are unwilling to talk to the press for fear of recriminations.
In the Lulworth Tower on the Agar Grove estate, guardians claim they were told the higher-than-average licence fees reflected the fact it was a “long-term opportunity” of between three and six years. But a new 18-month maximum rule on regeneration sites, brought in with the new contract, means the guardians have to leave in June.
At a tenants meeting to discuss changes to government housing policy – organised by the council earlier this month – an experienced and newly-pregnant property guardian said VPS had issued her with a 28-day notice after she informed them she would be away from the property during the bank holiday at the end of May.
“We can be kicked out at any time because we don’t have rights – we have licences instead of tenancy rights,” she said. “We don’t have any rights, but surely we have human rights. As a Labour council they should do more, they should get involved with this and regulate these companies that operate through loopholes in the law.” Town Hall housing chief Councillor Pat Callaghan said: “If this person does not wish to take up VPS’s offers to be a guardian of an alternative property, they can get in touch with us to discuss their housing options.”
While admitting property guardianship is “not a secure tenancy” and therefore is not appropriate for many people, the council insists its agreement with VPS protects guardians “in a range of ways”.
Properties are required to be of good standard and the council is able to specify occupancy levels and ensure licence fees are reasonable, it says.
“Guardians accept a licence from VPS to occupy the property on a temporary basis – a maximum of 18 months – and benefit from low cost housing through a reduced licence fee,” said Cllr Callaghan. “The council also benefits by not having to pay security firms high fees to look after a property while it awaits regeneration.”
But tenants groups such as the Camden Association of Street Properties (CASP) and the Camden Federation of Private Tenants (CFPT) say the council must provide better regulation of rights.
“The only losers are the victims of this housing crisis, people who stand very little chance of ever being offered a permanent and secure home,” said Petra Dando from CASP, adding: “The fact it’s happening on Camden estates in a borough that prides itself on standing up to rogue landlords, is quite simply shocking.”
A VPS spokesman said: “We make clear to all of our guardians that guardianship is a temporary arrangement, prior to them taking up guardianship.”