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'Scandal' as MoJ refuses to sell empty Pentonville flats to Islington Council for social homes

PUBLISHED: 11:09 04 February 2019 | UPDATED: 19:07 04 February 2019

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

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

Archant

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has snubbed Islington Council's attempts to lease 29 three- and four-bedroom flats near Pentonville Prison to accommodate homeless families, the Gazette can reveal.

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

After “decades” of painstaking discussions the MoJ is now exploring other options for its Roman Way units, rather than leasing them to the borough with more than 14,000 people on its council house waiting list.

The down-at-heel blocks were once prisons officers’ accommodation – most of them have empty for 27 years but a “handful” were occupied until last year.

The borough’s housing chief Cllr Diarmaid Ward and the shadow foreign secretary and Islington South MP Emily Thornberry today posted a co-signed letter to the government’s prisons minister, Rory Stewart, requesting an urgent meeting.

Ms Thornberry today told the Gazette: “Given the housing crisis that we have in Islington we need to account for every single property.

The building pictured in 2017. Picture: Polly HancockThe building pictured in 2017. Picture: Polly Hancock

“There has to be a great reason why flats are empty and it’s my job to hold people to account and that’s what I’m doing, just like I’m doing with why it’s taking so long to sort out the [disused] fire station [in Roseberry Avenue], Clerkenwell.

“Every flat must be occupied as quickly as possible.”

She also said: “It is unacceptable that flats which could provide emergency accommodation for homeless families should have been left empty for so many years.”

Cllr Ward said: “Earlier this month, it appeared that we were finally about to make progress on this issue, and that the MoJ were about to agree terms to lease these properties to the council, to be used as much needed temporary accommodation for homeless families.

“But yesterday, we were informed by MoJ officials that they had been instructed to look instead at alternative uses for the site.

“This is a kick in the teeth for the local homeless families who would have benefited from this much needed housing being made available after lying empty for years.

“Islington Council stands ready to work with the MoJ to make sure that these homes are put back into use.

“A Ministry of Justice that does not understand housing justice is not worthy of the name.”

A senior town hall source added: “After a lot of delicate negotiations and years of campaigning on this and meeting with councillors and officers they have said they’re not going to do it.

“It’s mad, I’m absolutely furious about it. Livid.”

The MoJ has been paying double council tax on the buildings while they’ve been empty.

The Gazette understands talks between the council and MoJ broke down after “higher-ups” told officials to use the units for something that will generate more money.

In May 2017, Jean Wilson, a housing campaigner and then chair of Holloway’s Centre 404 charity, told the Gazette: “I can’t bear seeing all these empty flats when we have such a massive housing crisis in the borough. It’s absolutely scandalous. Some people in this borough are desperate.

“It’s criminal when Islington Council would occupy those flats tomorrow and put people up to ease this crisis. Something needs to be done.”

A borough-wide street council in November designed to give a “snapshot” of Islington’s rough sleeping population accounted for 43 people, up 51 per cent on the previous year. Campaigners says this sharp rise underlines the dire need for more council homes in the borough.

An MoJ spokesperson said: “We have received a proposal from Islington Borough Council and are considering a range of options to guarantee the best deal for the taxpayer.”

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