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Canterbury: Ministry of Defence blasted after Howe Barracks homes left neglected

An abandoned street in Canterbury has been left to go to rack and ruin at a time when the need for family homes across the district grows greater by the day.

Sobraon Way was once a picturesque cul-de-sac, surrounded by tall trees and grassland and home to more than 30 military families on the former Howe Barracks site.

But now the houses stand empty, boarded up and ransacked; many of them in a state of disrepair.

The street had become a target for flytippers (4571949)
The street had become a target for flytippers (4571949)

Outside, shattered glass litters the street, a fridge lies dumped on its side and rubbish piles high.

The Ministry of Defence owns the lease to the 33 homes, which in a habitable state would be ideal for desperate families languishing on the council’s housing register.

But Canterbury City Council says the MoD has shown a “total disinterest” in working to secure a deal for the homes and has branded it “utterly negligent”.

The local authority was even prepared to shell out the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to renovate the homes, but says it has been impossible to get the MoD to engage on a serious level.

VIDEO: Canterbury's ghost street

In March, the Kentish Gazette - Kent Online's sister paper - asked the MoD what its intentions were for the homes and was told they were being marketed for rent to the general public.

At that time, as they are today, none of the houses were even close to being in a habitable state.

The Gazette alerted the city council to the possibility of taking on the homes, aware of the desperate need for social housing in the city.

A secret council vote in June sparked the beginning of serious talks between the authority and MoD, with a deal to sub-let the homes looking likely.

But now the negotiations have collapsed, sparking a fierce and unrestrained attack on the MoD by frustrated city council leader Simon Cook.

“To leave these properties unused and to have no interest in bringing them back into a habitable condition is utterly negligent behaviour by the MoD,” he said.

“It will cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds to repair them and the cost is rising all the time.

“Put simply, our view is that the MoD has denied many families a home and they should be ashamed of what’s happened.”

The trashed kitchen in one house
The trashed kitchen in one house

The talks have reached a dead end at a time when the local authority has about 2,500 individuals and families waiting for a council home.

Cllr Cook says it has worked tirelessly to secure the houses in Sobraon Way since being made aware they could be available.

“Hundreds of officer hours have gone into this, and we even got as far as starting the procurement process in order to secure a contractor to renovate the homes as quickly as possible should a deal have been done,” he said.

“Sadly, the MoD has shown total disinterest in negotiating with us and no understanding of how important this issue is to us and our residents. Despite our constant chasing, it has been impossible to get them to engage on any serious level.”

In 1996 the MoD sold its 57,400-home married quarters portfolio to Annington and leased it back with a heavily discounted rental rate.

When Howe Barracks closed in 2014, the MoD handed 30 homes back to Annington the following year and a further 147 in 2016.

Smashed windows in Sobraon Way
Smashed windows in Sobraon Way

Controversially, the second batch of homes were auctioned off by Annington as part of a sealed bid process, with the financial clout of Redbridge Council in London outmuscling Canterbury City Council.

As such, Redbridge secured a 30-year lease on the homes and families were moved down from the capital.

This week Annington confirmed the MoD is to hand the 33 homes in Sobraon Way - plus two others still occupied in the street - back within six months.

A contractor on the site told the Gazette this could happen in March next year.

As part of the 1996 deal, the MoD has to hand the homes back in a fit state or pay dilapidation costs, which in 2016 averaged almost £22,000 per home.

Given the state of the properties in Sobraon Way, this bill is likely to be much higher.

Cllr Cook says he hopes a deal can be struck with Annington when the homes are given back, with Redbridge understood to have gone cold on the idea of securing more properties on the barracks site.

City council leader Simon Cook
City council leader Simon Cook

“Local people can be reassured that we’ll be urgently pursuing discussions with Annington to see what can be done,” he said. “We hope they will appreciate our concerns and desire to bring the properties back into use far more than the MoD has.

“Finally, we’d like to thank the Kentish Gazette for their support in this matter. We appreciate this is a story that could have been told some time ago, but the paper has understood the sensitivities involved and the possibility that a story before now could have wrecked any potential deal with the MoD.”

The Kentish Gazette was made aware of the empty houses - and the sorry state they had been left in - back in March, some seven months ago.

Sensing a potential opportunity to secure the homes for desperate families in Canterbury, the Gazette alerted the city council to the possibility the properties may be available.

A trashed bathroom (4571927)
A trashed bathroom (4571927)

The authority also recognised the potential but, still reeling from losing out to Redbridge in 2016, it asked the Gazette to hold off publishing to avoid alerting other councils to the empty homes.

Not wishing to scupper a deal, it agreed to, until this week when any hope of a deal collapsed.

Among the tenants to move down from Redbridge was Natalie Mbunga, who says it is a “tragic waste” that Sobraon Way is not being used to house families desperate for decent accommodation.

“They look almost new but have been standing empty and I just don’t understand why when there is so much need,” said the mum-of-three, who works at the Spires Academy.

Natalie Mbbunga outside the boarded up former army homes in Sobraon Way, Canterbury
Natalie Mbbunga outside the boarded up former army homes in Sobraon Way, Canterbury

“We are Redbridge Council tenants from London but didn’t know anything about the row over Canterbury City Council losing out on buying many former army homes until we arrived here, and then felt the resentment, which was understandable.

“We are lucky to have a house but are now acutely aware that local people have lost out.

“But I still think these empty homes should go to local people.”

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