The independent London newspaper

Empty flats are left to rot in midst of housing crisis

01 February, 2019

Jean Willson: ‘I walk past flats empty for more than 25 years’

• FOLLOWING recent articles about Holloway prison site, I am moved to write yet again about another prison disgrace in Islington.

I was born, and still live, at the back of Pentonville Prison in Roman Way. Almost every day I walk past a block of flats that has remained empty for more than 25 years. These flats, adjacent to the prison, were designed to house warders.

Five years ago, watching a self-sown ash tree in front of this block reach the height of the roof, I started a one-woman campaign to get something done about this shocking scandal.

I wrote to the chair of Islington Council’s housing committee, Diarmaid Ward, bringing his attention to a disgraceful state of affairs where more than 50 flats, some with three or four bedrooms, were vacant in Islington and could be used to house homeless families.

I also wrote to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), which replied that “due to a change in policy to no longer provide quarters for staff, these have not been re-let” and that “security concerns were prohibitive in agreeing a way forward”.

For many years now there have been discussions about whether Pentonville Prison should  close. Local people hear again and again that no decision has been made, even though the prison has been declared “unfit for purpose”.

Even though their own prison warders would now like to live there, the MoJ refuses to let staff move in. As there has been no maintenance or repairs done, these empty flats have been left to rot. I wonder how much it costs to keep the site secure?

Councillor Ward and I went round the two blocks of flats and were shocked and appalled at the negligence and waste of such valuable housing stock. Even more shocking was a huge, vacant car park.

We arranged to meet officers of the MoJ in 2018, the day after the government issued a directive “that no prison would close until they had a national review”. The MoJ people said they did not know this, and went on to tell us that the future of Pentonville was still under discussion.

However, they did agree to meet council officers, who put forward a proposal to convert the empty flats into short-term lets, to ease the critical housing shortage.

Over a year later, even though the council is still keen to renovate the flats and use them for Islington people, no decision is forthcoming from the MoJ. Shortly after our meeting with the MoJ, I noticed that steel shutters were fitted over every door and window.

Islington is still in the midst of a housing crisis, yet the MoJ drags its feet. Shame on you, MoJ, for letting these precious flats lie vacant while people are living in dire conditions, in hostels or are homeless.

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