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Like the electorate, architects believe in change

John Assael, RIBA President 2015 candidate

Amid the uncertainty of a hung parliament, the profession must act to ensure the new government properly tackles the housing crisis, says John Assael

Democracy and architecture have more in common than you would think. To be an architect is to believe in the power of design. And to believe in design is to believe that not only things can change, but that they should change for the better. 

As the public braved the infamous British summer yesterday to squeeze into polling stations throughout the country, they were engaged in the exact same thought process: that society could change, and that their vote would result in that very change. 

Yet no one could quite believe what they were seeing when the results started to roll in. By four o’clock this morning it was clear that the Conservatives would come up short of the ‘strong and stable’ landslide they expected, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour were making gains throughout the whole of the UK. 

Our new government needs a revitalised approach to estate regeneration

Today will see political journalists climbing over one another to declare what this result means, but it remains unclear. Even with the Conservatives forming a minority government, the mandate that Theresa May secured provides anything but stability. 

For our sector, a hung parliament simply means further uncertainty at a time when we need steadfast assurance. The previous government acknowledged the fundamental problems of the UK housing market, and the housing white paper marks a distinct change in the government’s approach to housing. 

But the responsibility of fixing Britain’s broken housing market cannot fall solely on the new government; we, as a sector, need to keep the built environment at the top of the agenda. 

The Assael micro-manifesto published today seeks to do that. By exploring how the policy environment can better serve the built environment, and those who inhabit it, we hope to keep the pressure on the government to see through the recommendations laid out in the white paper. 

One challenge that David Cameron sought to fix while in office was Britain’s neglected estates. While the £140 million funding pot was small, the potential for estate renewal across our major cities is huge. Three-quarters of those involved in the 2011 riots came from these neighbourhoods. Yet the policy, like Cameron himself, now seems like ancient history. Our new government needs a revitalised approach to estate regeneration. 

One area where innovation will effect change in the housing market is off-site construction

Meaningful community engagement early on can manage many problems through clear and honest dialogue. Government policy should continue to support this but it must also avoid stifling innovation on the part of designers and planners. Major redevelopment should always be commercially viable but with this comes the opportunity to create something architecturally stimulating on a scale that is rarely possible. By having a vision and being able to navigate the creative and economic paths, we have the power to enact real change in our estates. 

One area where innovation will start to affect change in the housing market is through off-site construction. Like many housing estates, modular housing has a rather toxic legacy thanks to the substandard homes of the post-war period. Advances in technology, as well as the consistency, quality and energy efficiency of modern methods of construction, means that modular is facing a substantial upgrade.

As our award-winning Creekside Wharf scheme for Essential Living, and forthcoming projects with Legal & General highlight, the scale of opportunity is immense. What’s more, the advances in modular technology make it versatile as a mode of delivery, meaning that good design doesn’t need to be sacrificed in favour of choosing to go modular. 

I believe that architects, and architecture as a discipline, have a fundamental role to make the world a better place. And this means ensuring that good quality, decent housing in large quantities doesn’t fall down the new government’s agenda. That is one of the reasons why I am running for election for the RIBA National Council. RIBA must do more to support architectural practices of all sizes to deliver positive change in our environment. Now, more than ever, architects and the RIBA need to emphasise to government the transformative power of design.


Readers' comments (2)

  • 'Our new government'? - it's not new, it's predominantly the same old faces, slightly rearranged, and as long as you've got a character like Boris Johnson taken seriously, and there are people like Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom given great authority, it requires a big stretch of the imagination to expect rapid reform of the iniquities that have created the housing crisis.
    Technological advances in mass housing construction won't in themselves address the problem, it needs reform in land supply and of the current scandal of housing as an international commodity.

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  • Architects..... Universities, Technologies...!
    Design. materials, for houses have been around for hundreds of years. Surely in this 21stC it would be expected for houses to be 21stC, not Dickensian and beyond. All facilities in houses high tech surely to be expected... Apathy or what on behalf of universities architects.

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