When there's no place like home

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Too many teachers in the capital are forced to live far from work thanks to sky-high house prices. Alison Brace reports on latest government moves to address the problem

PRIMARY school teacher Maxine Brice shares rented accommodation with two other people in Colliers Wood, south-west London. She teaches in Battersea - a more upmarket part of south London - but property prices are so high there that it is impossible for her to rent, let alone buy.

"I would like to be living on my own, but it would be impossible," says 24-year-old Maxine, who gained qualified teacher status in September and teaches at Honeywell junior school.

"I'm saving up for a deposit, but as it stands at the moment, there is no way I could even contemplate buying my own place."

Building societies will potentially offer loans up to three-and-half-times Maxine's pound;18,366 starting salary, but that would still barely buy a studio flat in Battersea.

Her headteacher, Duncan Roberts, says: "What we heads are getting slightly worried about is that teachers qualify at a London college and then can't afford to live here in any meaningful way and end up moving out to the shires."

Mr Roberts needs to look no further than his school boundary to see evidence of the problem his younger members of staff face.

"There's a four-bedroomed house being built next to my school and it's on the market for pound;525,000," he says. "My staff just cannot afford to live near here."

Of course, Maxine is not on her own. Colleague Andrea Hubrecht, 27, lives near Brixton in a flat owned by a friend who does not charge her full rent, and Munavara Ahmad, 28, rents a room in a property owned by her parents in Mitcham, Surrey.

And then there's the travelling time - and costs - as well as a pound;340 parking permit to be able to park near the school.

The scenario will be familiar to staff in schools across the South-east, as well as the more affluent areas of Britain's biggest cities and even in some rural areas.

The issue has been on the Government's agenda, too. Last month, the Department of the Environment ,Transport and the Regions launched its new pound;250 million Starter Home Initiative which aims to help at least 10,000 nurses, teachers, police officers and other key workers to buy homes in places where the cost of housing might otherwise price them out of the community.

"If our towns and cities and our rural communities are to thrive, it is vital that they retain the key workers who contribute so much to the quality of life," said deputy prime minister John Prescott at its launch. "If key workers can't afford the cost of housing our communities will suffer."

The scheme is also to be directed at areas where there are "demonstrable recruitment and retention difficulties". In essence, it could mean government subsidies of up to pound;25,000 to help teachers like Maxine buy their first home.

But how these subsidies will be distributed is yet to be decided. Registered social landlords, local authorities and other interested parties in the public and private sectors are being asked to put forward proposals and talks are being held with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to look at how the scheme might best work.

The subsidies could take the form of interest-free top-up loans, cash for deposits or help with shared ownership schemes where a housing association might own half the equity.

"Individual key workers will not be able to bid for the money directly from the pot," said a spokeswoman for the DETR. "Those schemes which are approved will be advertised in the local area and key workers will then be encouraged to apply."

Although in some instances the scheme will support first-time buyers wanting to buy family-sized homes, it will not support those struggling to move from a flat to a house.

Neither will the new scheme drop teachers into the heart of middle-class areas: bids will be focused on homes in the bottom quartile of house prices in a local housing market.

The teacher unions see it as a very small drop in a very big ocean. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has been closely examining the link between teacher recruitment and cost of property in its submission to the Greater London Authority's scrutiny committee on affordable housing.

Pam Tatlow, a regional official of the NASUWT, said: "We welcome moves the Government has taken but it is not the sole answer.

"They have failed to recognise that if the money is to be bid for by individual boroughs, it creates a competition between the boroughs rather than an infrastructure which aims to recruit and retain teachers committed to London."

The National Union of Teachers also believes that the scheme will not radically affect areas where there are major recruitment and retention problems.

"Even with a pound;25,000 subsidy, three times a teacher's basic salary will buy very, very little in London and many other parts of the country as well," said general secretary Doug McAvoy. "It would not be enough to recruit more teachers, and certainly not enough to retain those already serving in schools.

"To achieve the Government's aims of reducing class sizes to a maximum of 30 alone requires an additional 14,000 teachers," said Mr McAvoy. "We have a profession where two-thirds are over the age of 40 and the profession is not replacing itself."

The answer is to increase salaries, not offer housing subsidies. But spiralling house prices has been identified as a major contributory factor to the teacher shortage crisis.

A report by the University of North London last April revealed how the cost of property was one of the main reasons why 40 per cent of London's teachers were planning to quit the capital within the next five years. The average price of a house in London is now about pound;175,000.

Professor Alistair Ross, co-director of the research project, said at the time: "If you are on pound;22,000 a year, you face the choice of either living in London in rented accommodation for the rest of your life or moving outside the capital where you can actually buy somewhere for your family."

The Starter Home Initiative will make available pound;50m in 20012002, and pound;100m in 20023 and again in 20034. To qualify for the scheme, at least one member of any household applying to buy must be a teacher, nurse or member of the police force - depending on which key worker group is being targeted in that area.

Total household income and savings will be taken into account in assessing the need for assistance.

The Greater London Authority's Scrutiny Committee on Affordable Housing has just finished hearing evidence from witnesses on how to address the problem of affordable housing for key workers. Its report is due out in February. "Something fundamental needs to be done to change the balance in London," said a spokesman. "What you have got is the super-rich who can pay half a million for a house and then basically you have got everybody else. Whether you earn pound;30,000 or pound;15,000 you still can't afford to buy a house."

As for Maxine, she would be tempted by the Government's Starter Home Initiative - if a proposal for a scheme is put forward in her area. "Even then I would worry about what the catches were," she says. "I really do struggle every month at the moment, but I find it quite upsetting when I think of all the money I'm giving away to a landlord. How am I going to afford my own house?" Additional reporting Joe Perry


* An average detached house in Greater London costs pound;408,940 compared with only pound;102,131 in Wales.

* There are considerable variations within the capital. A detached house in Barking and Dagenham costs pound;151,241 compared with pound;1,312,535 in Camden.

* Teachers in inner London get an additional allowance of pound;2,316 per annum; pound;1,524 a year in outer London. Teachers on the outskirts received an extra pound;591 a year.

* Several London boroughs have devised strategies to help teachers with accommodation problems. In Newham, the council has recently revamped a block of council flats with Peabody Unite and plans to make a number of units available for teachers and other key workers. It also offers subsidised accommodation for trainee teachers.

Lambeth is working on plans to provide affordable rented accommodation for teachers.

Southwark is launching a scheme with the Landmark Housing Association to allow teachers to buy a share in a property and pay a subsidised rent on the rest.

Tower Hamlets offers 50 affordable council and housing association properties each year to teachers.

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