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The HCA plan's glimmer of optimism

Permit yourself a smile – social housing is back on the public-sector agenda, says Kieran Long

It may not be a return to council housing, but it’s damn close. In the absence of any willing private developers, the public sector is finally picking up the ball and running with it, raising hopes that the housing market could get a shot in the arm.

What will this mean for architects? Almost certainly a change in the makeup of client groups. Sometimes this will be for the better, with local authorities less at the mercy of private developers’ more cynical efforts. There will surely be drawbacks. It is a rare local authority that is geared up to develop a large regeneration project efficiently and decisively.

One well-placed source told me that there was a collective sigh of relief when housebuilder Crest Nicholson pulled out of the Erith Western Gateway project in the London Borough of Bexley this week. Despite a masterplan by EDAW and architecture by Assael, the project had few fans in the mayor’s office. The council had little choice but to select Crest Nicholson when competing developers began to find the going tough last summer. There is a feeling that a new role for the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) and the local authority could mean a new masterplan and an increase in design quality. If it can lever money from the HCA, it can continue with the project.

A new role for the HCA and the local authority could mean an increase in design quality

The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham has already done so on one town-centre project, and is now poised to take a larger role in the £1.9 billion Barking Riverside development (above). We expect Erith and Barking to be two of the six London projects that will announce bailouts from the HCA later this week. Other candidates in London? Canning Town, Brent Cross/Cricklewood, Wembley Central and Croydon, maybe?

I asked a senior Greater London Authority source how he felt about the financial risk that local authorities were taking on. Couldn’t this turn into a disaster for the public finances? He answered: ‘Arguably council housing was a disaster the last time round. There are boroughs in London still paying off the debts.’ We can’t say what the long-term effect on local authority finances will be, but that the HCA is taking action that could give stalled projects new life in the short term is grounds for optimism. Time to dust off your social housing portfolio and meet your new clients.

kieran.long@emap.com

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