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Local authority housing projects could save jobs

Plans to give local authorities the power to develop hundreds of thousands of council houses over the next few years were hailed this week as a lifeline for the UK’s struggling architecture profession

Under the plans, ordered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week, councils will be given the freedom to borrow money to develop housing schemes on their own land and retain the proceeds from social rents. The announcement is expected to lead to a swathe of council housing projects not seen since the 1970s.

‘I think it’s an incredibly important announcement,’ said Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS), adding that local authorities would build up in-house architecture departments for the first time in more than 25 years.

‘Social housing delivered by the private sector has been appalling. I’m confident that a public sector-led approach is going to improve design,’ he said.

Andy von Bradsky, chairman of PRP, said that in the short term local authorities would turn to architects in the private sector for design expertise to help them work up schemes. ‘We have the masterplanning and housing design skills which have been denuded over the years in local authorities,’ he said.

Both Bradley and von Bradsky predicted many new joint ventures between local authorities and developers, along the lines of Salford City Council and Ask Developments, currently working with FCBS in Salford; and Barking and Dagenham Council and Bellway Homes, working at Barking Riverside with architects Sheppard Robson and Maccreanor Lavington.

But some architects warned that the move could mean a return to the ‘bad old days’ of mono-tenure housing, losing all the lessons of sustainable communities built up over the last 10 years.

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands partner Alex Lifschutz said: ‘I believe that it’s a big mistake to fall into the usual housing “social class” trap which has bedevilled the domestic market.’

Stephen Davy of affordable housing specialist Stephen Davy Peter Smith Architects warned that the move could add more bureaucracy, and queried whether local authorities are equipped to deliver new homes.

He said: ‘Are councils really best placed to provide additional housing? Surely housing associations are now well established at providing social housing, so let them spend the money for the councils.’

A government consultation closes on 14 April. A government spokesman said councils were likely to gain the new powers by the summer.

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