Beds in the office for those sleeping rough

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The Independent Online
A year ago on this page, the property analyst Geoff Marsh took us around London office sites better suited to much-needed homes. Hundreds of commercial buildings that were empty could also make the switch, he said. The Housing minister, Sir George Young, has now got the message, promising to encourage this sort of transition. Charles Hendry MP, chairman of a parliamentary group studying homelessness, has also demanded ways to tackle the paradox of homeless people sleeping in the shadow of empty office blocks.

This sudden interest springs from a detailed study of housing potential in the inner city produced by Mr Marsh's company, Applied Property Research, along with the agents Cluttons, cost consultants Gardiner & Theobald and architects GMW. At pounds 35 a copy, The Home-Office Report may get no further than planners, housing associations and colleges desperate for student accommodation. But it carries a hint of the future for ordinary buyers, too. The Home-Office Report is available from The Publishing Business, 27 John Adam St, London WC2N 6HX.

AS A nicotine addict, I am particularly attracted to Redfields, a country mansion on the Surrey/Hampshire border. Eighty-plus bedrooms would offer plenty of space for smoke-filled rave parties with fellow victims of the air- cleansing drive in Britain's offices; and it is the perfect site, having been a final resting place for English tobacco. Old tins of Blue Pryor, which was grown on the estate well into the Thirties, can still be found in the house. They are unlikely to move when KPMG Peat Marwick, which used the house into a training centre, leaves.

The management group is shifting to the smokeless zones of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands. Now all I need is to find a few other morning-coughers who will chip in for the pounds 1.6m Knight Frank & Rutley is asking for the old plantation.

IN RECENT decades, the rush by successive governments to build huge numbers of council homes for the least possible cost left a legacy of vandal-ridden estates and derelict tower blocks. These are being cleared, at vast expense, but penny-pinching builders and the effects of a government scheme to reduce the numbers of empty repossessed properties could combine to produce a new generation of crumbling homes in their place.

Lord Rodgers, director-general of the Royal Institute of British Architects, believes housing associations now run the risk of putting quantity before quality. In letters to the chairmen of more than 200 associations, he warns that plans to buy up 16,000 empty homes could involve taking on property they would normally avoid.

In addition, it appears that some building contractors are cutting corners to survive in a cut-throat market. Associations should get more for their money but will get their fingers burnt unless they keep a close eye on builders, warns Simon Kolesar of the cost consultants E C Harris.

Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, says 1,000 homes have already been bought by housing associations, and another 9,000 are in the pipeline, as part of the pounds 475m scheme announced in the autumn to help unlock the housing market. So far, most have been bought up from builders, as these were the fastest deals to make, but the minister expects many of the remainder to be empty and repossessed homes.

'WHAT'S in a name . . . ?' Quite a lot, actually. Honeysuckle Cottage attracts a lot more attention from buyers than boring old No 15, according to the Hampshire agent Hill & Morrison, which would have liked to re-name Fiddlers Green, a five-bedroom house in Upper Farringdon. Instead the firm knocked the price down by pounds 15,000, to just less than pounds 180,000.

Buyers were already installed in Cliftonville, Kent, when the name game took a turn for the worse. One day they lived in the elegant Ridings; the next, Chislet Way, courtesy of Thanet Council. After much protestation from residents the name has reverted. The builder, Sunley Estates, which still has homes to sell at prices up to pounds 170,000, cannot contain its glee that glamour has been restored. The Ridings rides again.