| William Guild | Janvier 2019 |
With yet another general election looming, the political battleground has become alive once more with the usual weaponised topics of Brexit, the NHS and immigration. Housing is no less of a priority. Repeated spending cuts by Westminster has exacerbated the crisis, imposing considerable strain on local councils’ budgets. According to the National Audit Office (NOA), not a single starter-home of some 200 000 units promised in Conservative’s 2015 manifesto has been built. As the construction of new homes becomes increasingly dependant on the private sector, young professionals see themselves priced out of the market, especially in and around Greater London. Public housing provisions have been all but amputated, leaving an ever-lengthening waiting list of frustrated households.
Today, social housing comes with a loaded meaning. Many of us still think of the decrepit post-war council estates that harboured poverty and crime; inhospitable concrete jungles stranded between railway lines and a car park. However, let us not forget that exactly forty years ago 42% of Britons lived in council housing. It seems hard to believe, especially given the current government’s obsession with creating a new homeowner democracy in this country. At the height of its success, the London County Council was the largest architectural practice in the world. It attracted some of the most forward-thinking designers of the time, such as Neave Brown, who produced pioneering and modern solutions to the housing crisis of the time.
However, the liberalisation of the market in the 1980s splintered this state-sponsored housebuilding effort. The government progressively retreated from major urban projects, leaving underfunded councils at the mercy of property developers and contractors. To add insult to injury, Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy Act opened the gates to the mass hoarding of the existing publicly-owned housing stock. Ownership in council estates became severely fragmented as the more affluent middle-class households were given an unprecedented opportunity to become homeowners. The unintended result of this legislation was an exodus of wealthier individuals to the suburbs as they cashed in or rented out their council flat. The remaining, poorer tenants – who could not afford to buy out there flat – were left to fend for themselves. The process known as residualisation gave rise to pockets of extreme deprivation in the heart of the city, which in turn led to acute urban poverty, street crime and, most damagingly of all, an irreversible stigma.
The failings of council estates were already widely known by the turn of the century, but it was not until 2016 that David Cameron administered the final blow when he dubbed them ‘sink estates’ in a government article. Although many of the estates from the immediate post-war proved to be particularly resilient, such as the Stepney-Poplar Reconstruction Area (1951), the era of large-scale public housebuilding was at an end. In 2007, housing associations overtook councils as the largest social housing providers in the UK. This was symptomatic of a trend set by successive Conservative governments to sell off as much public capital as possible, especially in the wake of the more recent financial crisis. Today, council housing has been replaced with three alternatives: social rent (50% of the market rate), intermediate rent and affordable rent (80% of the market rate).
To adapt to this new leasing framework and to the ambitions of private developers, many estates have gone through a process of regeneration or renewal. In the cases of the Heygate Estate and Robin Hood Gardens, this led to a complete overhaul of the site, demolishing thousands of homes to make way for more contemporary and attractive looking apartment complexes. After decades of neglect and stigmatization, there was no doubt that such estates needed a face lift. However, resorting to a tabula rasa approach – which ironically was adopted by the very people who designed these estates in the first place – serves only to further offset the social problems that renewal should be dealing with. When the Heygate Estate was earmarked for regeneration, Southwark borough council promised to rehouse a portion of their social tenants in the new development on completion. However, once Lendlease had purchased the site, assurances for social and affordable rent soon disappeared. Unsurprisingly, the developers prioritised the profitability of their investment over its social consequences. The scandal that ensued was in some ways a wake up call for local authorities and the central government who assumed, for the most part, that the private sector would take on the burden of producing socially rented homes.
Awareness of the implications of regeneration – the wolf in sheep’s clothing – have since greatly increased, especially amongst communities living on the remaining estates. In West London, the proposed ‘Earls Court Masterplan’ developed by Capital & Counties (Capco) to be Europe’s largest luxury development to date has been halted by the local community. Residents in the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, which are located within the boundaries of the regeneration area, were under threat of being displaced despite claims by Capco that they would be rehoused on site. They convinced Hammersmith and Fulham council to buy out the estate through a compulsory purchase order (CPO) so it would remain in the public domain, thus hampering efforts by the developer to acquire the land. Although the purchase has yet to be signed, it conveys a renewed sense that councils are once again taking on the responsibility of securing housing for the more vulnerable members of our society.
Beyond the occasional community push backs on private development, there is also a wider, council-led movement to reinvigorate the social housing market. In an article for The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright outlines several examples of innovative housing projects across the country. Cities like Bristol, Doncaster and Nottingham are competing to develop more sustainable solutions to counter the depletion of their housing stock. In the face of continued spending cuts, councils have opted for a new approach by creating a private corporate entity to develop proposals on their behalf. While the company borrows the funds directly from the council – and not the banks – it operates in the same way as a private developer. The council can bypass the legal restrictions set by the government but also prevent public funds from ending in the private sector. This closed loop strategy means they have a higher degree of autonomy in the project execution.
Architects have also benefitted from this new wave of development, thanks in part to the competitive spirit between councils. Croydon’s Brick by Brick development corporation has enlisted big names such as HTA and Mary Duggan Architects to design a new generation of housing as exemplar projects for other councils to follow. Furthermore, this year’s Sterling Prize winner – British architecture’s most prestigious award – was given not to a lavish office building or museum but to a humble street lined with council owned houses in Norwich. Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches symbolises a radical shift in perception surrounding the image of social housing in this country. Estates used to fill people with fear; now crowds are queuing up for guided tours through Norwich’s newest and most celebrated addition.