Monday, May 26, 2014

Will we build again? - thoughts on radical housing

I went to some of the Radical Housing weekend in New Cross last month (26th April), one of a series of events across London from the Radical Housing Network. The day of talks at Cafe Crema in New Cross Road was packed, and I caught Owen Hatherley talking about the history of Council housing in the 20th century. Mr 'militant modernist' is of course a defender of the bold vision that created mass housing that was genuinely affordable, and if some of the big Council Estates with their tower blocks ended up as hellholes he would put that down in most cases to cutting corners in construction, poor maintenance and poverty rather than architecture. After all, as he pointed out, big tower blocks are now being built all over London to a broadly similar design, but now marketed at the wealthy. And ironically the size of some of these 'luxury' flats is less than the typical space in many 1960s and 70s Council flats.

I also caught the beginning of a talk by architect John Broome about self-build housing in Lewisham. This is an interesting topic which I will return to another time, but Owen was obviously taken by it because in his first column this month in Architects Journal he wrote about it:

'A spirit is haunting Lewisham. It is the spirit of self-build the London Borough of Lewisham... Colin Ward, Nicholas Taylor and Walter Segal between them secured several council-owned sites for self-build colonies, given over to council tenants for shared ownership. The result was small developments of houses made outrageously cheaply from modular components, which managed, in their system of construction and ownership, to close the usual divide between designer, consumer, contractor and worker.

They all still stand, heavily altered by their residents - as was intended - although the Segal system means that they look a lot more ‘architectural’ in their ordered, elegant expression, than most self-build schemes tend to. As a social project they were only a partial success: like so many of the famous-architect-designed council flats, these houses have often been sold on at about 10 times their original value...

But where it gets interesting is that some of the self-builders are trying again - at a site in Ladywell, also in Lewisham, which they hope to secure for a ‘zero waste, energy plus, carbon negative social housing project’, with custom-designed houses, under the management of the local authority. If they get it, then maybe these ideas can return from the private to the public, where they began' (full article here).

One thing that Owen's talk made me ponder was how much expectations have been lowered in the past 30 years or so about what is possible in housing. Today even in avowedly radical housing circles the focus is often on what can be done at the margins - self-build, housing co-ops and squatting empty buildings. All valid but it takes for granted that the resources and power to actually build on a large scale remain with developers and landowners. The most that can be demanded it seems is a higher level of social housing alongside big private developments- or bigger reservations for the poor. It is considered unrealistic to propose that a major development could be undertaken that didn't start from the premise that 'affordable housing' is only possible as a planning gain from large scale private building. As for questioning whether classes and inequalities are inevitable in the first place, well forget it. Affordablity is seen as a technical measure related to square metreage, not a function of low incomes.

Yet, as Owen showed in his talk, through much of the 20th century people who were hardly revolutionaries oversaw the compulsory purchase of land and buildings from the wealthy to build homes at low rent in huge numbers. This included the award winning Lillington Gardens Estate in Pimilico (now a Conservation area), built on land compulsory purchased by Westminster in the 1960s. A South London example would be the Kingswood Estate in Dulwich, built on land compulsory purchased from the Vestey family in 1956 by London County Council. 
Why this happened is open to debate - there was certainly a fear of social unrest, if not revolution, in the aftermath of the First World War and to a lesser extent the Second World War. Also industrial employers needed workers in cheap housing to keep wages down, leading to massive housing developments such as in Dagenham to serve the Ford factory.

Beresford House on the Kingswood Estate in Dulwich
(photo by Will Faichner at Flickr)
Not everything Councils did was great - in some cases good (or at least salvageable) housing was declared derelict and needlessly demolished. But if mass low cost housing was possible then, why not now? It is not as if large amounts of public money are not already being poured into subsidising private housing development - Hatherley noted that the state is underwriting many luxury developments by investing hugely in infrastructure (roads etc.) in areas like the area around the Olympic village or Greenwich peninsula. If we want to get really radical with housing perhaps we need to raise our sights. Why not, for instance, come up with alternative housing plans for vacant sites like Convoys Wharf and fight for them with the same energy some people have put into plans for building boats there?* It is politics not some inevitable 'economic reality' that says that the initiative must remain with private developers.

(*not a criticism of the Lenox campaigners, they have been good at fighting their corner, but there are lots of other people around who could be focusing on the housing side of Convoys Wharf)


runner500 said...

A great post, it is a depressing time in terms of affordable housing that is desperately needed in London. The new social housing currently being developed is far too close to market rents to be really affordable and little will change in the short term with the next round of development only providing around £20k of grant funding per home. No wonder lots of housing associations aren't even bothering to bid for it.

Things will only get worse if the Tories stay in power, but I doubt that there would be significant changes under Labour.

Interesting that you picked on Lillington Gardens in Pimlico, it is an estate I used to work on and looks to have stood the test of time fantastically well.

Transpontine said...

Thanks, Owen talked about Lillington Gardens in his talk, partly to show that there's nothing inevitable about housing estates from that period falling into disrepair.