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How Do We Solve The Housing Crisis?

16 September 2016

Housing – back to the ‘corpy’?

At the recent Local Government Association (LGA) conference in Bournemouth, there was an ‘insistence’ that there should be a “national renaissance” in council housing building as a central element to solve the (affordable) housing crisis.

It’s been four decades since the country delivered 250,000 new houses in a single year; and 44% of those were by local authorities (LAs). Some would say that’s the number we need on an annual basis to get anywhere near bringing the shortage to an end. 
Since that giddy housebuilding height of 1977-78, private developers have only been able to build 90,000 homes p.a on average; with LAs only providing about 1% of the overall total.

How-to-solve-the-housing-crisisWe are all in agreement that more houses are needed, and yet there are wide differences in perception of the problem and the solution. One might expect the LGA to inevitably favour an LA-based prescription, so the question has to be asked: why councils particularly? Why a return to the days when 20% of the country lived in, or rented, a home from the council – the ‘corpy’ as Liverpool locals used to call theirs.

It has to be said that, historically, councils were responsible for some fantastic social housing. Great examples would be the tenements of the Boundary Estate in London’s Shoreditch or the (almost) lovely ‘cottage estate’ of Totterdown Fields in Tooting. Even near misses – the Flower Estate in Sheffield would be a prime example – were characterised by an aspiration to deliver ‘model housing’ even if the ultimate execution was patchy or diluted. 
They could be small, yet – especially by today’s standards both public and private – later space standards driven by the Parker Morris Committee (Ministry of Housing's Design Bulletin 6 – Space in the Home, 1963) were very generous indeed. And, more recently, even non-traditional point and slab block builds aping Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation principles can be much loved by their residents.

Unfortunately, it also has to be said that, historically, councils were also responsible for some diabolic social housing. These were almost all a function of the Brutalist movement – as inspired by Le Corbusier. Whether you like the style or not, there was perhaps not anything wrong with the design principles per se, except in the UK they were fundamentally ignored in two main ways, to devastating effect.

First, mixed use was often entirely overlooked. Where Le Corbusier incorporated shops, schools, restaurants, sporting and medical facilities and, even, cinemas; we didn’t. This led to isolation, disengagement, alienation and decay. Second, we skimped – so, where, for instance, Corbusier’s Cité radieuse in Marseille was finished to a high standard; ours were often built – fixtures and fittings included – to a (low) price and quality suffered badly. So why them?

"Investment in housing has significant wider benefits and we want to build the right homes in the right places ..."

Cllr Peter Box, LGA housing spokesman, says: “The focus of councils is beyond bricks and mortar. Investment in housing has significant wider benefits and we want to build the right homes in the right places that can generate growth and jobs, help meet the needs of our ageing population, and provide the infrastructure, schools and hospitals that enable communities to thrive”.

Fine words and although one assumes that he’s driving at the perceived tension between public service and private profit, yet – sorry Pete – it’s not an answer. Weighing in behind this amorphous cry is Lib Dem spokesperson, Baroness Cathy Bakewell, The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and, more credibly given our sector, Federation of Master Builders.

Obviously, one wishes to see an end to housing shortages, more affordable housing – especially for key workers in city centres; more community housing for rent and freed up land and planning. And, of course, local authorities make great owners and managers of their stock. They are experts, although perhaps not as expert as they were before so much stock was RTB’d or divested to Housing Associations.

Yet there’s nothing in anything the LGA says, or what its fans say for that matter, that supports the notion, that leads to an inescapable conclusion, that councils – the corpies – should also be their own developers.

It sounds like nostalgia to a great extent, although even that’s not what it used to be.

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