Private, mixed tenure or affordable? Councils must build all three to survive

‘Why do architects always wear black?’ read one flyer at a recent protest outside a major architectural awards ceremony, ‘because they’re the funeral directors of the working class.’ While this fairly predictable sentiment may seem appealing to the general public, the idea of the architect as some kind of arbiter of social justice has arguably never been further from the truth. Far from the heady days where local authorities ran their own architectural design departments, filled with dreamy socialist baby boomer designers, architects have long since been resigned to the margins of construction and planning. Finding themselves on the final leg of an arduous and elaborate relay race, preceded by a whole swathe of individuals from developers to M&E consultants, from project managers to conservationists. That said, the topic of the housing crisis appears to have gained further traction among the architectural fraternity in recent weeks amid the creeping renaissance of council-led social housing construction.

It is important to begin with the hard numbers. London officially needs between 40,000 and 50,000 new homes built each year. Last year, 18,260 were completed. It has become almost common knowledge that it is naive to expect the private sector to fill this gap, especially given the portion within these figures dedicated to social housing. Since neoliberalism arrived in the 80s, bringing with it Right to Buy, which has to date wiped around 270,000 homes from council stocks in London and the capping of local authorities’ ability to borrow money for housing construction, boroughs have repeatedly been unable to maintain adequate levels of housing provision, culminating in today’s situation of 380,000 people across London on housing waiting lists.

What we are seeing now however, under a new, younger generation of planners and councillors, is an acceptance of the fact that council housing as we have come to know it, in its stigmatised British state under the spell of home ownership, can no longer be produced in the same way under the current economic and political system. Those contesting this will point quite rightly towards the quiet financial success of many public-led schemes, namely postwar New Towns and social housing programmes which ended up paying for themselves several times over. What comes next seems to be councils acting in a far more savvy way with regard to using the limited resources available to them. Maintenance costs, reduced budgets and short-sighted selling off of land to private developers à la Aylesbury or Heygate has weakened the armoury of public bodies to bring about housebuilding results. Councils such as Camden and Hackney, areas with particularly exponential house price increases in recent years have been relatively proactive in reigniting the capacity for building their own stock, a process which has lay dormant in some cases for 40 years or so. Architects such as Pitman Tozer, 5th Studio, Alison Brooks and Karakusevic Carson are just a selection of architects which have all worked in recent years on projects in which the client has exclusively been a local authority or housing association. This change is fundamental to the nature of housing, whereby space standards, mixed tenures and overall build quality (interpreted in a rational way by a developer as merely inconvenient blemishes on the bottom line) can be agreed over time, ideally with future tenants, all the way up to the point at which construction starts. After this stage, it is quite common (and far less damaging) to appoint a 3rd party to work on the sale or the managing of the units themselves.

To do this, councils have already begun the process of off-setting the cost of these development by cashing in on the ludicrous nature of market-rate property in their boroughs, building denser private developments, where studios may sell upwards of half a million pounds, in order to fund other schemes of more complex mixed tenure, including social and ‘intermediate’ housing. Intermediate housing allows those on low to middle incomes to purchase, in the example of shared ownership, a share of a property and rent the remaining half, increasing their equity as and when they become able to do so. These mixed tenures not only make such schemes more workable for local authorities but also encompass a more blurred social composition in contrast to the ‘poor-door’ trend we have seen in recent years. Now that councils are as of last year able to retain revenue derived from land sales and rents in return for greater responsibility on housing which can then be reinvested has to be seen as a positive move, leaving aside the ideological element to council housing in order for councils to maximise the significant portfolios of land they still command in order to kickstart a serious and long-term housing plan.