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The right path

Governments are being forced to fundamentally rethink the ways in which we finance, conceive and commission public accommodation. Does this mean we are entering a new golden age of social housing, or witnessing its ultimate demise? And how might we build in such a way that meets demands of scale, aesthetics, functionality and cost? Abi Millar speaks to Charles Holland of Charles Holland Architects, Hari Phillips of Bell Phillips, and RIBA chair Ben Derbyshire.  

The rise and fall of social housing is a story that’s been told many times before. In the UK, the tale could be recounted in particularly stark terms, with Neave Brown’s celebrated housing projects exemplifying the ‘rise’ and the tragic Grenfell Tower fire conveying the ‘fall’.

As the story goes, post-war governments invested heavily in social housing, only for Margaret Thatcher’s government to pull the trigger with the ‘right to buy’ policy in 1980. Overnight, five million council tenants became eligible to buy their homes.

The flipside was that the rate of construction slowed. Amid all the rhetoric about ‘pride’ and ‘freedom’, rents for remaining tenants surged and much of the existing stock fell into disrepair. Just three years after the scheme was introduced, the number of properties available for social rent had halved.

“In the postwar period of the UK there was a balance of housing provision between the public and private sectors,” says the architect Charles Holland. “That changed from the 1980s onwards, when direct state spending on housing was continuously driven down. But if the state stops building housing, the private sector doesn’t actually increase the amount it builds, as that would simply lower the value of their existing houses.”

Over time, ‘right to buy’ engendered a culture of private landlords and spiraling rental rates. According to a recent analysis, 42% of council houses sold under the scheme are now privately rented. Meanwhile, the UK’s affordable housing market has been funded mostly through cross-subsidy from private sales.

“The reliance on cross subsidy is now established as not adequate to the task of delivering sufficient affordable housing,” says Ben Derbyshire, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). “In any event, in many locations ‘affordable housing’ is a misnomer. The only solution is to very gradually increase direct investment in social housing by the government, channeled through local authorities.”

Holland, who describes the answer to the housing crisis as “in some ways, screamingly obvious”, agrees that public sector investment is essential.

“In the UK, there are some signs of the problem being addressed – local authorities are being allowed to borrow over their previously capped amounts to start investing in developments,” he says. “But until the fundamental ideological prejudice against direct state investment is addressed, it seems unlikely the private sector will ever wish to develop the kind of housing that we need.”

A wider look

We have seen similar stories play out elsewhere in Europe. In Paris, the government is bringing back rent control in a bid to counter soaring living costs. In Berlin, rents have more than doubled over the past 10 years. And in Spain, where social housing only comprises 2.5% of the housing mix, rising rents are fuelling concerns about a new housing bubble.

The common denominator is that housing prices are rising faster than citizens’ incomes, and existing models of provision are feeling the strain. As of 2015, 11.3% of EU households spent more than 40% of their disposable income on housing, up from 9.9% in 2009. Meanwhile, funding for building new homes fell from €54.5bn in 2009 to €27.5bn in 2015.

“The austerity years left local authorities struggling to deliver services generally,” adds Derbyshire. “It’s not just that there’s not an adequate supply of new social housing, it’s that existing housing has been under-resourced. Local authorities are less able to manage it and prevent overcrowding.”

If there is any good news to be wrung from the situation, it’s that crises of this nature tend to spur some genuinely creative thinking. Holland thinks planning and strategy need to change on a fundamental level.

“The housing crisis is an ecological crisis too, so in order to address it in a meaningful way we need some big ideas,” he says. “We might have an intervention similar to the post-war period, where large areas of countryside were protected as green belt, and other areas were identified as places to build new communities. There was an ambition to how it was done that seems difficult to imagine now.”

As he sees it, this wouldn’t be a purely bureaucratic, state-led process. Nor would it be a reversion to older models of council housing (which would be to downplay the legitimate problems faced by the 1970s sink estates). Rather, it would require exceptional architects who could dream up new housing typologies.

“I think embracing lots of different way of delivering housing would be good, and there might be an important place for things like self build and community build and other models for people taking control,” he says. “You might get a combination of local authority infrastructure and smaller community-led groups.”

His former practice, FAT, worked on several public housing commissions, including the Islington Square development in Manchester. Completed in 2006, this scheme consists of 23 family houses designed in close collaboration with residents. It aims to reconcile the residents’ tastes with those of the developers.

“The houses were important to a working class community who saw the regeneration projects around them as potentially threatening,” he says. “Their aspirations were towards more traditional forms of housing with private garden space, so we developed typologies that enabled flexibility of occupation and allowed for a certain individual expression of each house within a whole.”

Community engagement

A more recent community-led housing development is Marklake Court near London Bridge, completed by Bell Phillips Architects last year. The project comprises 27 affordable flats and maisonettes, customised to each resident’s requirements.

“Marklake Court is the embodiment of a community’s drive to develop new affordable homes in its local area, underlining what can be achieved if more communities are empowered by their local authorities across London,” says Hari Phillips, director of Bell Phillips. “The project provides a blueprint in creating affordable housing that responds to a community’s needs.”

Importantly, projects of this kind may help communities stay together. The building acts as a gateway to the 1960s Kipling Estate, showing that it is possible to increase housing density on existing estates rather than demolishing an estate and then rebuilding it.

“Marklake Court offers an alternative route, eradicating any potential disruption and dislocation of existing communities,” says Phillips. “The project demonstrates that residents, empowered by the engagement process, will support new housing at high-density.”

Derbyshire agrees architects should have more confidence in engaging with local communities. He advocates for a national housing expo that can show the world what can be done.

“I think we need to fly the flag for what our industry is capable of, both in terms of meeting the aspirations of local communities, and our ability to construct buildings using the very best contemporary technologies,” he says.

As he explains, this is not just about improving social housing per se. It’s also about recognising what makes cities great – the ability of people from all walks of life to live close by, rather than staying in ghettos of rich or poor.

“The consequence is more vibrant neighborhoods, more effective service delivery and the ability of people to live close to their source of employment,” he says. “That understanding is right across the political spectrum, but we absolutely need to invest to enable people who wouldn’t otherwise afford to live in some neighborhoods to do so.”

Seize the opportunity

Holland believes that, as society veers away from the basic unit of the nuclear family, better investment in social housing could bring about some much-needed innovation.

“Historically, social housing has been an area of amazing innovation in housing design and fantastically high quality schemes,” he says. “The private sector is a very conservative market dominated by a small number of players, who aren’t particularly interested in innovation either stylistically, in terms of typology or responding to social change.”

On top of that, he feels that better planning is urgently needed. At the moment, land prices are so high in certain areas, the only people who can play the game are the big housing developers. This effectively shuts out smaller developers and cooperatives that might have bright ideas.

“In the architectural world you see a lot of competitions about innovative ways of making cheap housing, but the fundamental problem really is land prices,” he says. “I think we’ve got the point where planning is a development control mechanism to stop things happening, but it should be about making plans for how we develop areas.”

Of course, social housing is a highly charged and hugely politicised area. For every person who grows misty-eyed over the past ‘golden age’ of government building, there is another who attributes the housing crisis to the free market not being free enough. (In the latter camp is Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrik Schumacher, who has advocated for scrapping social housing and claims that “housing for everyone can only be provided by freely self-regulating and self-motivating market process.”)

For both Holland and Derbyshire, however, better public accommodation is an essential component of addressing the housing crisis. For this to happen, it will need to receive appropriate subsidies, and architects will need to be more involved.

“The public sector has been massively eroded and hollowed out,” says Holland. “I would reverse that completely and suggest that public sector investment as a dynamic proactive tool is absolutely what we need.”

This article appears in the Summer 2019 edition of the LEAF Review

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