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Purpose-built housing co-op is now leading the way in sustainable living.
The unexpected stage for one of the most ambitious low-carbon developments in Britain today is not an executive estate in the Cotswolds or a pretty new eco-town, but a row of modest 1970s inner-city houses lived in by a 130-strong group of artists, students and others, just yards from where two French students were tortured and murdered last year.
Sanford Walk, a self-contained street of 14 co-operatively owned, shared houses and several flats built 35 years ago for single people in New Cross, south-east London, suffers every kind of historical and modern pollution. Wedged between railway lines, and downwind of one of London's giant incinerators, it was built on derelict industrial land almost on the site of the old Den, the notorious Millwall football ground. Its best feature is a vast 1980s peace mural by Brian Barnes, depicting Margaret Thatcher, Michael Heseltine and Ronald Reagan riding on cruise missiles.
But to see how Britain's first purpose-built housing co-op – which was novel enough to be opened in 1973 by Prince Philip, evolved into a low-carbon community fit for the climate-changing 21st century, you need to go back to the start, says Nick Raynsford, Greenwich MP and former housing minister, who worked with Shelter at the time and helped set up the co-op.
"In the late 1960s, there was a clearly emerging problem for students," he recalls. "Higher education was expanding, and they had no access to decent accommodation. We looked at a couple of sites in the area. Lewisham borough was supportive, and the Sanford site was pretty worthless. The idea of a co-operative formed and run by students, with bedrooms and shared space, was pretty advanced at the time." It still is.
"All the tenants are collectively landlords and responsible for helping the co-op," says Mark Langford, support officer at CDS Co-operatives, which administers the estate for the tenants.