Editor’s comment: MoJ’s refusal to sell Pentonville flats is disgraceful – and short-sighted

Flats in Roman Way at the back of Pentonville Prison. Picture: Polly Hancock

Flats in Roman Way at the back of Pentonville Prison. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

I shouldn’t be surprised, but backing out of a deal to let Islington fix up and let out 29 huge empty flats behind Pentonville Prison is really shameful behaviour from the Ministry of Justice.

It’s public land, and if the MoJ bean counters valued it so much you’d think they might have used it at some point over the last 27 years.

Instead, the government is acting like an unscrupulous developer and “land banking” while people are quite literally dying on Islington’s streets for want of a secure home.

Twenty-nine flats might not have made much of a dent in Islington’s 14,000 waiting list, but every three- or four-bed could have taken two or even three households out of acute housing need.

If a family of, say, five moves out of a two-bed into one of these new larger flats, their old home is then available for smaller families – and so on down the chain.

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The MoJ says it wants to get the best deal for taxpayers (that is, more money to spend locking them up) and can get the best return by selling the land to the highest bidder.

But then what? It sits empty while that developer cooks up a plan for it, submits a proposal that lacks adequate affordable housing, is perhaps challenged by Islington, lodges an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate, and at the end of the process Islington either ends up with a big legal bill and a handful of flats that are still broadly too expensive, or just gives in and signs off the plan with a meagre contribution to affordable homes either on or off site. It is an old story.

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Even if we think like the government and approach this purely in financial terms, what of the saving that could have been made to the taxpayer by 100 families being taken out of housing poverty? Deprivation, and all that comes with it, makes people more likely to need the help of health and social care services; more likely to fall into debt and destitution.

The MoJ’s most noble goal is rehabilitation, but surely prevention is even better.

Tackling inequality is what represents true best value for the taxpayer. Sadly, it would appear this government is more interested in getting best value for itself.

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