A new wave of high-quality local authority house building suggests the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street was no flash in the pan, writes Will Ing
Council housing is back. Across the UK, local authorities built themselves 4,010 homes in the financial year 2018-19 – more than in the whole of the first decade of the millennium.
Many more are on their way. In the same 12-month period, English and Scottish councils started construction on 4,330 units of social housing – more than in any year since the start of the 1990s.
Last year council housing also bagged its first-ever Stirling Prize with Goldsmith Street. RIBA president Alan Jones hailed Norwich City Council’s 100-home development, by Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, as a ‘pioneering example for other local authorities to follow’.
This followed the much-demanded lifting of the cap on local authorities’ freedom to borrow and invest in housing, regarded as the key to opening the social housing pipeline.
Yet scrapping this limit, in late 2018, will have come too late to affect the 2018-19 numbers.
So what is behind this recent spike in numbers? Does the headline-grabbing success of Goldsmith Street reflect a wider focus on quality? And what are the opportunities and obstacles of designing council housing?
The mini-boom appears to be an early indicator of a bigger housing push driven by local authorities battling, through necessity, to tackle a growing crisis. There are 1.1 million households waiting for council accommodation in England alone – and yet every year tens of thousands of council homes are lost to demolition and Right to Buy.
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Source: John MacDonald-Fulton for Hackney Council
Local Government Association housing spokesperson David Renard, who is also leader of Conservative-run Swindon Borough Council, says local authorities are becoming desperate.
‘There is no doubt the pressure driving councils to do more is [because] more people are accessing the private rented sector and, because of government policy, many of them are getting into financial difficulties and then they are coming back to councils,’ he says. ‘Councils are just using everything at their disposal to try and make more social properties available.’
UK local authorities are currently spending £1.1 billion a year on costly temporary accommodation. According to housing charity Shelter, less than a quarter of this is provided by councils themselves or registered social providers – with most supplied by private-sector companies.
Central government has also ramped up pressure on councils to build more, as a national shortage – concentrated in south-east England – threatens political consequences for the Conservatives.
In autumn 2018, then-prime minister Theresa May abolished the stringent borrowing cap on councils’ Housing Revenue Accounts (HRAs), allowing them to take on debt against a much greater proportion of their housing stock. But it takes time for councils to source land and expertise, agree a loan and plan a housing delivering programme with the consent of stakeholders.
Savvy councils know there is a long-term argument for investing in quality. Low-maintenance homes, designed and built to a better standard, can save money
‘It’s a little bit too early days to see the results of this and the effect that has had,’ says Renard. ‘We will see that come to fruition over the coming years and see the numbers [of new council homes] really start to increase quite dramatically.’
Of the three city councils contacted by the AJ – Sheffield, York and Norwich – two say they have plans to ramp up their house-building with money borrowed via the HRA. Sheffield City Council had plans approved in October to borrow around £200 million from its HRA over the next seven years. It will use the cash to support the construction and acquisition of 3,100 homes.
City of York Council has just begun work this year on the first phase of a 600-home housing delivery programme. It plans to use borrowing to supplement money raised through Right to Buy and the sale of private housing.
Bartlett academics Janice Morphet and Ben Clifford have observed another reason why councils are increasingly building homes: to create better living conditions. ‘A desire to improve design quality has noticeably increased as a motivator to engage in housing development,’ they wrote in a report published last summer.
As Jay Morton, associate at Bell Phillips Architects, points out: ‘Local authorities often have a stake in the land beyond the boundary, providing opportunities for placemaking and improvements to the public realm to ensure schemes knit-in within the surrounding context.’
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York Council has underlined its commitment to design by producing a 16-page Housing Design Manual for its housing delivery programme, which it insists project managers and architects read.
The document suggests that good design can improve lives in a way that also could lower the council’s burden across schools, mental health services and social care. Its design guide notes that good design ‘creates … healthy activity, self-supporting communities and safe and secure homes which improve educational attainment [and] mental wellbeing’.
Unsurprisingly, Norwich Council also takes quality seriously. A panel of tenants is consulted on a wide range of factors for new-build projects – including what materials and colours they like. Sheffield, meanwhile, says it has embedded larger-than-average space standards because it wants to ‘help meet future lifestyles’.
Kieren Majhail, who heads Karakusevic Carson Architects’ new Birmingham studio, says examples of good housing built by Norwich and progressive inner-city councils have inspired other councils to ‘increasingly focus on architectural quality, materiality, delight and environmental performance’.
Savvy authorities also know there is a long-term argument for investing in quality up front. Barring homes lost through Right to Buy or otherwise sold off, councils own and operate their stock in perpetuity. Low-maintenance homes, designed and built to a better standard, can save money.
‘It will take 10 years for local authorities to get sufficient skills to deliver a “meaningful” number of homes’
But they must build them themselves as there are not many that can be bought from landowners or developers. Indeed, Hackney Council this week announced its intention to spend £10 million a year buying back former council housing previously lost to Right to Buy.
In terms of maintenance, Henley Halebrown associate Daniel Marmot points to ‘common parts, windows which are cleanable and replaceable from the inside, easy access to fix things on the roof’ as a priority when designing council housing.
A concern for quality has, it seems, produced a welcome shift away from lowest cost in local authorities’ procurement. ‘London councils procure 30 per cent on cost and 70 per cent on quality,’ says Marmot. ‘It has changed over the last year or two – it used to be 40/60 or 50/50.’
HTA Design partner Caroline Dove agrees that some councils have given ‘design a much higher weighting than price’ in recent years.
Majhail says Karakusevic Carson is ‘nervous of entering projects where the scoring criteria is 60/40 or 50/50’ as the cheapest bidder often wins. But she reports that council design officers are increasingly integral to writing and evaluating briefs – which helps boost quality.
Nevertheless, the price tag is never out of the equation. ‘There’s been a definite increase in the importance of good design, but price still rules,’ says PRP senior partner Brendan Kilpatrick.
Henley Halebrown’s Marmot agrees: ‘If you assume that practices all score pretty well on design quality, it may well still come down to cost.’
He also begrudges the lengthy two-stage tender processes, where practices have to win a place on a framework and then win another mini-tender for each contract. ‘Procurement is quite a big issue in council housing,’ he says. ‘It can be arduous doing tenders, and you have to spend a lot of time and energy on unsuccessful bids as well as successful ones.’ The work can also be difficult to break into as ‘you have to prove your track record in the sector’.
The 4,010 council homes completed last year are a drop in the ocean measured against the 138,580 delivered by the private sector
For this reason, says Metropolitan Workshop founder Neil Deely, ‘frameworks are the scourge of design procurement’. Although the public sector values design quality, he suggests, ‘most of the work is being offered to a relatively small number of practices on open frameworks such as the Greater London Authority’s Architecture Design & Urbanism Panel – a gravy train for the chosen few’. But, he says, ‘many local authorities are fed up of that and are looking for ways of introducing new voices.’
Even once an architect has won a job, things take a long time in the sector. ‘With one or two exceptions, things can take a lot longer when working with local authorities,’ says PRP’s Kilpatrick. ‘Local authorities often employ consultants on relatively short contracts, creating continuity issues and lack of buy-in to projects.’
Council housing requires a lengthy engagement with communities and buy-in from stakeholders inside and outside the council. There can also be viability issues around social housing reprovision for those whose homes are being demolished and for achieving the proper balances of tenures, adds Kilpatrick, as well as challenges on phasing estate regeneration.
But there are also problems with capability. ‘It is fair to say that local authorities have got out of the habit of building houses,’ admits the Local Government Association’s Renard. ‘I think we are at a fairly low base in terms of that expertise and it is something we need to grow.’
Deely thinks this is an understatement. Good development management ‘has been all but wiped out [from councils] in the last couple of decades’, he says, arguing that it will take 10 years for local authorities to get sufficient skills to deliver a ‘meaningful’ number of homes. But he adds that there is ‘a great deal of young talent being attracted to public housing programmes’.
If councils are going to start seriously ramping up the number of homes built, they will also need to swerve a shortage of builders in the private sector.
York Council tells the AJ it is already ‘finding skills shortages in the construction industry’. Local authorities are in a weak position to be able to poach plasterers and bricklayers out of existing supply chains in the private sector, but those that develop without a private-sector partner are increasingly looking to off-site construction as a potential answer.
While the council housing sector is growing, the UK is not on the brink of a full-blown renaissance. The 4,010 council homes completed last year are paltry compared to the 165,650 finished in 1975-6. They are also a drop in the ocean when measured against the 138,580 delivered by the private sector in 2018-2019.
Nevertheless, the number of homes being developed by councils is larger than that former figure suggests, with local authorities building units for private sale to cross-fund new social homes. But crucially, not all councils are in a good position to develop council housing.
The government could further boost house-building by letting local authorities keep 100 per cent of the receipts from Right to Buy – currently they pocket only 30 per cent. Councils are desperate for this change and the government is desperate for more homes.
For now, though, council house-building is concentrated around city authorities. London boroughs such as Camden, Hackney, Enfield and Brent are notably leading the way. While there are technical challenges around designing for infill or other brownfield sites in these areas, inner-city councils are blessed with owning land that has a very high value.
Goldsmith Street is a beacon, having set the quality bar high and achieved Passivhaus status. But with councils taking more control of a growing pipeline of social housing schemes it may not be alone for long.