Back to the future
As housing demand continues to outstrip supply, the government could learn from the policies of post-war Britain, when Whitehall was populated by committed architects and Bevan warned of the dire consequences of cutting standards, writes Paul Finch
You might have thought that nearly 60 years after a campaigning Labour government devised policies to provide housing for all, more would have been achieved. The architect Simon Allford recently drew attention to what Aneurin Bevan said in 1946, in the introduction to a small book on the design of new homes in post-war Britain: 'In the face of so enormous a problem, there is a temptation to cut standards, to reduce size, to eliminate planning and design - anything for speed - but this would be a crime for which we, our children and grandchildren would pay for 50 years to come; it is a crime we must not commit.'
Then, as now, key issues were speed, economy, location and capacity; but then with the question of quality infusing the debate. The present government, having inherited and prolonged a period during which supply has been vastly outstripped by demand in areas where people want to live, is now desperately seeking answers to the problem created. Success will be dependent not only on political conviction but on persuasion, encouragement, research, tax regimes and local factors that can frequently delay, if not entirely frustrate, the will of national government.
Unfortunately, it is by no means clear that the groups government will need as supporters will be committed, psychologically or commercially, to the task. After decades of under-performing on the Stock Exchange, housebuilders are relishing the growth in status and share price that shortage has helped bring about. Why should they bail out the government in order to see a huge increase in supply, prices stabilising or falling in real terms, and their market rating declining?
As for economy, the best that ministers have been able to do is to point to the potential savings to be made by means of industrial standardisation, particularly in the field of steel components. But what has government itself brought to the party? The days of the National Building Agency are long gone; the Building Research Establishment is not a government operation any more; housing design is an afterthought in most schools of architecture; and the housebuilding sector does not invest in research, partly because it has to invest so much of its capital in acquiring landbanks.
The government, like every government for three decades, has proposals to make planning more 'efficient' - a Whitehall synonym for 'quicker permissions'. But as the Terminal 5 saga showed, the system is often about the necessary fig leaf of democracy, shrouding political intention and played out against a background of planning law.
(Question: if Terminal 5 was just a terminal, without shopping, would it be built? ) We can assume that plans to create mini New Towns will result in drawn-out public inquiries and massive political hostility, some of which is already in train. Moreover, at some point the Environment Agency will make louder protests over proposals for half a million new homes in the Thames 'Gateway', for which (in large part) read 'flood plain'.
The overarching problem for the government is capacity - of the political system, the planning system, the house-building industry and the design professions. Richard Rogers, who was commissioned by the (now) deputy prime minister to undertake the 'Urban Renaissance' report, believes that the government's new housing policies, creating vast new homesteads across south-east England, represent the antithesis of the spirit of his report, which urges the regeneration of urban areas before building outside them. Professor Peter Hall, a member of the Urban Task Force and not averse to development in the countryside, has nevertheless wondered why one would build housing all over Kent, rather than reinforcing the economic health of its many seaside towns.
The way in which professional planners think about capacity and supply could be unkindly characterised as the last true vestige of the command economy whose apotheosis was the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (never the twain should meet).
In retrospect, we can see that, whatever its merits, it also created the preconditions for the debilitation of inner urban areas, the introduction of a curate's egg New Town programme, and a schizophrenic attitude towards the benefits or otherwise of urban living, which remain to this day. One could cite as an example the curious belief that low-grade warehouse estates should never be categorised as potential housing land in local plans. Hence, the nonsensical suggestion that London's housing supply cannot be achieved within its own boundaries. (The planners have the figures to prove it - supplied and tested largely by them. ) A cursory examination of most London boroughs reveals vast tracts of derelict, under-used or badly used land. One can only feel sympathy for planners, local councillors and people on the housing list who have been hidebound and red-taped by successive governments from 1979, who have made it difficult to do anything about housing supply.
Margaret Thatcher's famed policy of selling council houses (or flats) - dreamed up by the Wilson administration but never adopted - was not, of course, a housing policy. It was a redistribution of wealth, which you might have thought the Labour Party would have welcomed. So a fiscal policy replaced a construction policy, and the trouble started. The consequences included housing associations becoming the suppliers oflast resort, and councils relieved of any responsibility to build. This has been (at least in the South East) a disaster. 'Community policemen' and other public-sector workers have to move 50 miles away from their patch; loft living is only of benefit to couples who can scrape together at least £250,000 to get on the housing ladder. Families and communities are broken up because sons and daughters cannot afford to live in the areas where they were brought up, with scarce public housing occupied instead by various incomers with a better legal claim.
And the shadow of poor quality lingers.
The private sector's cynical success in getting the Thatcher administration to scrap Parker Morris regulations for the public sector gave volume housebuilders the excuse to build down to a standard rather than up, something housing quality indicators have, alas, done nothing to change. Second-rate developments all over London have slipped below the design quality radar because often they involve desirable regeneration and use of derelict land; even then the housebuilders usually have to fight long battles with the planning authorities because the latter still operate in a system reminiscent of building licences and butter rations. No wonder the builders, their architects and the product sometimes look tired.
But where are the sunny uplands envisaged by Bevan? Is it possible to turn all the negative energy and average design into construction policies to encourage good developments in sensible places at affordable prices?
That is the deputy prime minister's aim, and a laudable one, too. John Prescott has proved that he can be persuaded by good argument, and he will give time for a policy to mature rather than rush both to judgement and action. Lord Rooker, the last housing minister, stated that he was determined to avoid the mistakes of the last great public-sector housing boom, with its sorry outcome for millions of tenants trapped in substandard accommodation for decades.
Were Prescott and Rooker to take a long breath and review the housing 'crisis' (not, of course, a crisis for the vast majority of citizens), they might ponder at least some of the following points.
First, easy planning permissions under pressure do not produce good developments, especially if they are of the mega-estate variety. Planning authorities should be encouraged to bring forward land themselves, using CPO powers if necessary, as part of the process of procuring good new housing. Give councils responsibility for new provision, not just management of the old and sometimes failing. Second, stick by the principles of the Urban Task Force.
Third, start funding proper research into speed and quality, using some of the reported £21 billion the government has to spend on urban redevelopment. Fourth, recognise that it may be developers who are the new providers of choice, rather than traditional housebuilders, who like to do things their own way. Fifth, put a duty of better quality on to both public and private sectors in respect of design, space, volume and insulation standards. In particular, remember that better space and design will in the medium term simply result in less money being paid for housing land - and who cares about that?
Sixth, think about the split responsibilities created when the construction industry was taken over by the Department of Trade and Industry. Where is the joined-up thinking on housing going to come from?
Finally, Prescott might ask himself why no significant design contribution to the debate about housing is taking place in government. The answer: because there is no longer that phalanx of committed architects operating in Whitehall who know what they are talking about. In 1946, the Bevan booklet included architectural plans showing the standards the government wished to achieve - almost unthinkable today, but no less necessary. Then, housing was the responsibility of the Department of Health. The reasons for that were by no means illogical.
This article is taken from the foreword to this year's Housing Design Awards booklet