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Manor from heaven

by Mark Espiner

Dutchman, Joost van Gestel, is making an absolute fortune with an innovative business in property guardianship in Holland and more recently in the UK. The method behind his riches is to install single working people into disused properties to act as ‘passive security’ for the properties’ owners. Not only does Van Gestel charge the property owners a large fee for the service but his ‘house sitters’ must also pay him up to £50 per week each for their own room in what is always communal short term accommodation.

I cannot help but think it would be madness to find yourself sharing a communal ‘tea room’ and toilets with eight strangers in an unheated disused factory for what is close to average rent. But whatever floats your boat right? At least Van Gestel is a rich and happy man (and the Guardian’s Mark Espiner seems to think it’s a good thing as well).

30 June 2004

Even on a reasonable wage, many people struggle to afford high rents. But an innovative new concept enables nurses, teachers and social workers to live in short-lease ‘des res’ accommodation – without paying through the nose.

It is in one of the poshest areas of Hartlepool and was built to a grand design early last century by a Tyneside shipyard owner. Its palatial interior includes a ballroom and swimming pool. Light wells break through from the first floor to illuminate the large hallway below. The east and west wings contain more than 30 rooms.

But it is not the heirs of this industrialist’s fortune who have inherited Tunstall Court, nor has it been snapped up by a popstar or City trader. The people who have the run of this mansion are not exactly what you would call to the manor born.

Emma Hunt, 25, is a D-grade staff nurse working on ward 10 of the University Hospital of North Tees. As she herself confesses, living in such a place would normally be ‘way beyond my means’. When she was a student on only £440 a month, she had to live at home with her parents and, even after she qualified, might still have not flown the nest had not Tunstall Court opened its grand doors to her. At £25 a week rent – about a quarter the going rate – and with all bills and council tax included, it is the most affordable accommodation she has ever had, with no parental strings attached.

It sounds like key worker heaven. So how on earth can it be true?

The answer is that the country that gave us Big Brother – the ultimate in alternative housing – has come up with an ingenious, but much less inane, accommodation solution. Dutch company Camelot has identified a gap in the property market and is commercially exploiting it so that key workers are the winners. And its cleverly contrived short-term use for thousands of empty buildings across the country benefits everyone.

Whether it’s a mansion such as Tunstall Court or a disused care home, a huge warehouse awaiting development or a residential property sitting empty, Camelot liaises with the owner to broker a mutually convenient deal. The company calls it the ‘Camelot Way’ and it goes like this.

Property owners worried about their empty buildings falling into disrepair, being vandalised or becoming a target for squatters approach – or are approached by – Camelot. The company assesses the building and tells the owner what it needs to do to make it safe and habitable. It then recruits, selects, interviews and thoroughly vets – according to National Security Inspectorate standards – people it calls ‘guardians’ to live in the building. Camelot likes the guardians to be key workers or professionals who will make the building their short-term home.

In effect, they act as passive security guards, and pay Camelot cheap rent, with all bills included, while the buildings owners pay anything between £50 and £500 a week, which works out about 10 times less expensive than installing 24-hour security guards and cameras.

The one drawback for the guardians is that they are not tenants, but are simply licensed to live in the building and can be moved at any time. Camelot says, however, that it undertakes to give a minimum of four months in any one property – which includes a month’s notice – and endeavours to move guardians from one property to another.

In London, those moves could be from a loft-style apartment with panoramic views of the city to huge rooms in a disused library in the East End for £50 a week.

For James Whiting, the Grade II listed Consulata Missionary College at the southern end of the Northern Line, with its own orchard, is a welcome and magnificent contrast with his workplace. He has a £300-a-week night job fixing track for London Underground. The rent savings he has made have been invaluable, he says.

Admittedly, Braganza old people’s home in Kennington, south London, isn’t quite the address you like to brag about. Indeed, it has the whiff of something far less glamorous than the grand ballrooms and bowling greens of Tunstall Court. But it still provides a spacious home that would normally be way beyond the means of many, such as Mark Traboulsi, who works in the Transport Police’s command and control centre.

Traboulsi, 30, was living in Brighton with his brother and jumped at the chance of cheap rent and three rooms. He admits that it might be a bit strange having a bathroom that still has equipment to help old people in and out of the tub, but the guardians living there have created a little community for themselves. In the outsize communal kitchen, he has quickly made friends with the other guardians, who joke that he’s their in-built security. And while the scheme is not the answer to the nation’s key worker housing crisis, it has changed these people’s lives.

The man responsible is 39-year-old Joost van Gestel, a friendly Dutchman, who brought Camelot to the UK two years ago. ‘We have 8,500 people in Holland living in schools, churches, offices, warehouses, monasteries, cinemas and flats,’ he says. ‘The phenomenon is called ‘anti-kraak’, which in Dutch means anti-squatting, but to be honest only 10% of owners are worried about squatting. The other 90% want to prevent vandalism, water leaks and fire risks.’

He seems completely at home in his central London office. And so he should be; it is a property that he and his workers – most of whom, including Van Gestel, also live in Camelot properties – are putting through its anti-kraak paces.

Van Gestel explain why key workers are central to his strategy. ‘It’s a trust thing,’ he says. ‘We explain to the owner that it’s key workers, people who are working, who are quite happy to live in a place for a few months to save some money and live near their working place. Key workers are our target group.’

In 10 years, Van Gestel has sufficiently built up trust in Holland to look after some 3,000 properties. ‘We work a lot with housing associations in Holland, where they give us streets or part of a town to manage,’ he says.

It is starting to happen here, too. The London boroughs of Southwark and Camden have both used Camelot, and Tunstall Court is actually owned by Hartlepool council after it became a state-run school.

Alongside the key workers are the professionals unwilling, or unable, to pay ridiculous rents, and the artists who don’t make enough from their craft to pay £150-plus a week.

There are people such as physics graduate Bas Vellekoop, who has used his knowledge and skill to revive the full broadband network that was in the building – a Hoxton warehouse, in east London, overlooking the canal, and formerly used as offices. His home, which he has transformed into a loft-like space, has separate rooms that are occupied by five others. They all share the kitchen and bathroom facilities. Bas is a composer, and the cheap rent is giving him time to develop his skills.

On the floor below it’s the same story. Emily Stein and her record producer friend, Tom Giles, love the cheap rent as they attempt to make their career breakthroughs. They are also putting considerable work into making their living quarters look magnificent. With its red painted floors, open plan kitchen and huge living room, it looks like a styled set for a lifestyle magazine.

When Van Gestel is asked about how he hopes to expand his business – there are only 200 guardians in Britain – he immediately switches to outlining the exciting properties that are just coming on to his books, such as a lighthouse located on the Wirral.

A castle in Northampton could be next. That makes sense. Where else would you get to rent a castle, if not from a company called Camelot?


copyright Guardian (UK) 2004

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Mark Espiner

About the author: Mark Espiner

Mark Espiner is a freelance journalist based in the UK.