Looking at the projects which feature in our two social housing issues, it is evident that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between projects by housing associations and those by private developers. Social housing has moved away from the age of heroic megastructures, or the provision of endless identical and determinedly ordinary houses, and has started to provide the visual richness and the degree of choice which home owners have long since come to expect. It is also increasingly concerned with durability and life-cycle costs, as well as with the provision of public spaces which are pleasant and secure.
These concerns are symptomatic of the fact that the social housing provider takes a long-term interest in each project. The private housebuilder is under pressure to maximise the initial offering in order to attract the highest price: life-cycle and maintenance costs are a secondary concern. And since cost is always based on the individual unit, furnishing homes with a saleable 'extra' will take priority over work to the public realm. The recent bout of floods is a particularly dramatic reminder that hasty decisions by developers can be disastrous in the long term. But there are countless other examples - from shoddy buildings which have proved difficult to maintain, to communities which are not of sufficient density to sustain a decent bus service.
So how can developers be persuaded to take a longterm view? Perhaps the answer is to insist that local authorities grant 999-year leases on development sites as opposed to selling the freehold. As the developer becomes the leaseholder, it will be obliged to take a longterm interest in its investment. The company may go into liquidation or simply choose to walk away, but the leasehold will exist as a commodity which can be bought and sold. And if there is a workable service charge system it should be an asset rather than a liability.
So long as there is a mechanism in place to ensure that the leasehold is always sold wholesale, and cannot be broken down into its constituent parts, there will always be a specific individual or company with an interest in the long-term viability, and overall success, of the scheme.