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What is wrong with UK housing?

Four leading architects discuss what needs to change in the way we build homes in Britain in order to relieve the current crisis and provide functional, well-designed, affordable housing for the 21st century

Tony Fretton, principal, Tony Fretton Architects

‘The architectural community has always been central to the development of forms and ideas in housing. Post-war public housing depended on the work of CIAM and its local development by architects such as Neave Brown, Neylan &Ungless and others. When that program was negated, architects such as Levitt Bernstein, CGHP and others developed different approaches for housing associations.

At each change of government policy all expertise is thrown away

‘In recent times practices such as Maccreanor Lavington, Alison Brooks and Mae have provided the intelligence for developer housing. At each change of government policy all expertise is thrown away. The experience of my practice in Belgium and The Netherlands is that developers’ housing is promoted by public bodies and situated in coherent plans, while in the UK there is an unwarranted belief in the market. Political actors in London will disagree and point to the Olympics and its proposed legacy. But I am afraid this is a rhetoricised version of the same lack of intelligent planning.’

Peter Barber, owner, Peter Barber Architects

‘The housing crisis in the UK is systemic. It is a consequence of laissez-faire government and wishy-washy policy made by successive governments, of both political complexions, which have allowed our land economy to go haywire. Housing production has been ‘left to the market’. Design is driven by profit instead of ideology.

Homes are seen as a product, an asset, a commodity

‘Homes are seen as a product, an asset, a commodity. Government pussyfoots around trying to control things with ‘design standards’, which determine the layout and size of homes, but the issues are much more fundamental.

‘I would like to see the government intervene with legislation which would favour smaller, more creative developers, small local developers, housing associations, co-ops and individual owner-occupation over the vast absentee landlords, corporate investors, pension funds and housebuilders who currently call the shots.

‘I would also like to see the expansion of local government’s home building programme and in particular a massive investment in new council housing, funded by direct taxation. Housing produced in the public interest by democratically accountable organisations: what could be better?’

Michael Wilford, partner, Michael Wilford Architects

‘All parties involved, particularly the politicians who have the power and primary responsibility to address the housing crisis, regularly drone on like a jammed CD player with the same obvious message that the primary solution is to build more homes. But they are not able to articulate real vision, ideas and tangible proposals as to how this might be achieved – too much talk, not enough action!

Architects should, by taking a more pro-active role, rise to the opportunity

‘In this vacuum architects should, by taking a more pro-active role, rise to the opportunity and contribute their entrepreneurial skills to identify potential and realise development projects themselves to provide attractive, economical and environmentally responsible architectural solutions. Politicians, financiers, developers and contractors have had ample opportunity to meet the demand but have failed miserably to do so. The architectural profession should now put its head clearly above the parapet and demonstrate, by example, its practical and social skills in positive meaningful ways to provide attractive, functional and affordable housing.’

Roger Stephenson, managing partner, Stephenson:ISA Studio

‘Politicians use housing to suit their political needs and have a history of completely misunderstanding the process. The Pathfinder Initiative being a wonderful example.

‘Statements about needing to build 300,000 houses a year have been issued for as long as I can remember. If the process were understood and controlled, there would come a time when gentle, non-disruptive renewal would be a matter of course.

The best architects could do is to help politicians to understand housing

‘The best architects could do is to help politicians to understand housing. Ownership patterns and state-generated social engineering play a far greater role than design. There are successful tower blocks, slab blocks, cul-de-sacs. Classically, back-to-back bye-law terraced housing with not a patch of green in sight has been home to wonderfully integrated communities.’

The 10 biggest housing schemes approved this year

Graph showing which of the top 10 housing schemes in the UK (by unit numbers) that have received outline planning permission since January 2014 and have appointed architects.

Housing graphSource: Glenigan

 

Readers' comments (6)

  • http://www.hemingwaydesign.co.uk/blog/wayne-hemingway-on-the-housing-crisis

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  • Jane Simpson

    Peter, I couldn't agree more.

    Another issue is sustainability, there is an enormous amount talked about it in terms of energy, but what about the sustainability of housing. New housing is often too small, starter homes are just that; enough until you have a small family that gets larger. Often the numbers of bed spaces is such that the living space and storage are insufficient. In Yorkshire we had a garage that cars wouldn't fit into!
    Then you need to move on, more sales for the house builders, lot of hassle and lost memories. Housing should be fit for purpose to accommodate a families as they grow, shrink, change.

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  • Design though should be by trained design professionals, now anybody can call themselves a designer and politicians with no background in design are approving or throwing out planning applications. Politicians need to step back from housing policy and planning application approval also and let those who know about it, not just profiting from it, produce the regulation.
    However I agree architects should take a stand and show the public what they could be having it design professionals were involved not just developers.

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  • Protection of function?

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  • Jane Simpson

    Peter, I couldn't agree more.

    Another issue is sustainability, there is an enormous amount talked about it in terms of energy, but what about the sustainability of housing. New housing is often too small, starter homes are just that; enough until you have a small family that gets larger. Often the numbers of bed spaces is such that the living space and storage are insufficient. In Yorkshire we had a garage that cars wouldn't fit into!
    Then you need to move on, more sales for the house builders, lot of hassle and lost memories. Housing should be fit for purpose to accommodate a families as they grow, shrink, change.

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  • Local authorities have it in their power to drive or inhibit good housing, and are a major player not addressed in this article. We have 2 schemes, one in Camden, and another elsewhere. Camden Planners and committee were exemplary in their involvement, assistance and eventual approval conditions, all orchestrated to rapidly ensure final delivery of a quality project.
    For the other scheme, planners and councillors have opted out. No attendance at the public meeting, no perceivable effective policy other than wavering between what they perceive nimbi's and Councillors will want. The non-elected amenity group have been left to be the conduit for dialogue, arbitters and final judge. Although helpful and well meaning in many ways they have a vested interest of Nimbyism at odds with policy that exists, and more importantly achieving housing targets. These latter factors are not adequately represented by the Council's officers to balance the dialogue. To please the amenity group, a 2 to 3 storey apartment scheme, mostly lower than the Victorian neighbours, will be built in a town centre where the process of renewal should respond to increasing population by increasing density and height. It has been a tortuous process, long drawn out. The result of this inadequacy is an authority whose record for meeting housing targets is woefully inadequate and falling behind at a compounding rate year on year, and the aesthetic / urban design quality of what generally gets built is lamentable.
    Wayne Hemingway's link above has an astute summary of this. I quote:-
    "There needs to be planners and elected planning committee members who understand good design, are trained in place making, can recognise when they are being hoodwinked or steamrollered and are empowered to stop house builder in their tracks and then work with them to deliver something fit for purpose.

    We need a younger profile to our elected members of local councils, anyone can stand - you just need to sacrifice some time, easier said than done when you have family and work commitments. The demographic that is being hit hardest by the housing crisis is the young; they need to find a voice.
    It can be too easy for house builders to use their legal and financial weight to overpower the planning system.

    We need more political, more skilled and creative planners and we need a career in planning to be considered every bit as desirable as architecture and design when it comes to education. We surely should be shouting more about the importance of place making to the quality of life. There is an argument for making it easier to enter the planning further education."

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