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Soho Housing Associations’ 50th anniversary – Rebels with a cause!

In 1973 a group of residents were under threat from developers who wanted to flatten Piccadilly, Covent Gardens and Soho to build concrete roads and office towers. This was based upon a plan from the academic Patrick Abercrombie, who after the second world war had advised the government on how to rebuild London via his Great London Plan.
Barbara Brownlee, CEO,
Soho Housing Association

In the early 1970s the government at the time was considering re-building parts of London based on the same plan and aptly called it the London Plan, which envisaged flattening all the mixed-use houses and back lanes making way for concrete structures.

Residents, living in the private rental sector in the affected suburbs had other ideas and started to fight back against the developers. Following the success of residents in Piccadilly, the fight moved over to Soho and Covenant Gardens who also succeeded in stopping the development within their suburbs.

Though ten percent of the London Plan did get built, the rest was stopped by residents who loved their ‘old’ London and from this action of protecting their own homes and neighbourhoods, the Soho Housing Association was created.

Soho reborn

In 1974 the Soho housing corporation was born and from there the idea of a housing association grew.

Residents at the time realised they could protect more than just their own residences and by winning the initial battle and setting up a housing co-op could do even more. This led to them registering as a housing association so they could both protect residents living in the area and start buying or building homes in the area and keep them affordable.

Barbara Brownlee, CEO of Soho Housing Association, elaborates: “Soho Housing Association was launched because of residents standing up for their rights against developers and the government and since then has stayed local and true to its roots.”

At the time because Soho had been earmarked for development under the London Plan, none of the landlords had invested in their properties resulting in dilapidated residences.

“When the development was stopped, these landlords had property which they did not want, so the Soho Housing Association at the time was able to purchase the property at a good price,” explains Barbara, “and from there we have grown, but always staying true to our roots.”

Ambitions of founders

The drive to get more affordable housing in the centre of London, continues to this day, with the association purchasing eight new flats on Greek Street and 23 affordable flats in Portland Place, they are also building a further 35 units on land it owns and have two section 106’s in the pipeline.

“Continuing to grow is a great motivation for us,” explains Barbara, “because it also motivates us to stay independent – our founding fathers were very independent and feisty, in fighting their own battles – and we want to keep that same ethos.”

One legacy that continues at Soho is bringing commercial and residential units together. In the seventies, those running the association opted to purchase commercial property with flats situated above them. To prove it was safe for families to live in Soho, the association received funding from the Sainsbury Monument Trust to conduct a study that proved it was safe for families to live in both Soho and above commercial operations.

Unique and different

Owning several commercial buildings which generate regular income has and is still benefiting the association.

“We do have a large number of commercial units within the heart of the West End which is financially beneficial to the association,” states Barbara. “For example, on the one side of Charing Cross road, we own the buildings occupied by bookshops, independent bakeries, jewellery and coffee shops.

“Because we operate in the centre of London in both the commercial and residential sectors we must cater for the varying requirements of our different customers.

“It is not always possible to have peace and quiet when there is a late-night café operating under or near your flat, so we have to listen to both sides and really try to make both parties happy. But because everyone who works here is passionate about Soho, we will find the best solution, because we all want Soho to keep its authenticity.”

Grassroots movement  

“I still believe we have the essence of a grassroots movement that was born out of the desire to improve local housing conditions,” says Barbara.

“We have not expanded out of our region, and we try and create space for our residents, through producing roof gardens, and we also try and improve the cycling facilities around our properties, because, after all, we are situated in central London.

“So though the association is no longer up in arms against developers wanting to change the lay of the land, we are continuously trying to improve what we can offer our residents. So now it is a fight to obtain sufficient finances to maintain our housing stock and ensure all the facilities are on parr with residents’ expectations.”


One issue with buildings in Soho is that if it is not a listed building it falls under the category of being situated in a conservation area, and according to Barbara most of central London falls within conservation areas.

“This does create an additional challenge for us,” explains Barbara, “because you can be restricted when undertaking retrofitting projects.

“One of our biggest projects entails upgrading a block of homes at Sandringham Flats which had 125 units that are getting double glazing, new electrics and having repairs to its roof, amongst other items. Here we are working closely with the city planners because they are advising us on what we can and what we cannot do to this building.”

According to Barbara, this is the beginning of a long journey as it starts its retrofitting programme for its commercial and residential properties. To date, £40mn has been set aside for its retrofit programme and this figure will be amended as projects are completed.

Highlights for the association 

Over the past 50 years, there have been several highlights for the association and here Barabara highlights a few memorable and key moments.

The first one which had a major positive impact on growing the association in its formative years, was when the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher disbanded the Greater London Council (GLC). According to Barbara, the GLC was more left-wing than the Conservative party which is why they were disbanded. The GLC owned lots of council houses in Westminster and rather than give the houses to the local council, which was Conservative at the time, they instead gave the houses to the association.

“This was a great moment for the Soho Housing Association back then because they received a couple of hundred homes for free,” states Barbara.

“Royal visits over the years have also been highlights for the association, the late Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, opened the association’s Royalty Mansion on 28 February 1980. Then after the association had refurbished St James Residences in 1988, it was officially opened by King Charles III when he was still the Prince of Wales.

“For me, the highlight has to be turning 50 – because it is an important moment for the association.”

The future

As the Soho Housing Association embarks on its next 50-year journey, Barbara says that it will continue to carry on with its intelligent asset management programme, and as opportunities arise, it will acquire new stock.

They are fortunate that they have assets in London worth millions of pounds which they can release onto the open market. Once they have decided which of their current assets are surplus to requirements these will be off-loaded, and the monies obtained will be re-invested into its social-housing programme.

“We are also working hard at restoring relationships with our residents which were badly affected by the pandemic,” adds Barbara.

“I am also excited about our retrofitting and sustainability programme – as we bring properties up to scratch as well as using our gardens more efficiently along with courtyards and roof gardens.

“We will also be taking stock of all the properties we own in central London. We are in a privileged position to own some gorgeous properties and we will be looking at what we can do with them for the benefit of the housing association and our customers.”

Expanding one’s housing stock is critical for every housing association and even more so for the Soho Housing Association, even though it is situated in central London. So how are they going to achieve this?

“By being smart,” concludes Barbara. “There are still several places where one can build as well as places here that have not yet been developed. There are also several office blocks that were built between the 70s and the 90s that must be demolished where residential buildings can be erected. And we can always build up on some of our current stock and add a couple of floors to these buildings.

“And when housing developers build in the area, they have to have a percentage of affordable houses in the mix, so when that happens, we will then go in a buy them. It all fits in with our intelligent asset management programme which will enable us to continue for another 50 years.”