Neave Brown, the only living architect to have all of his UK housing schemes listed, talks to the AJ about the housing crisis and what lessons can be learnt from architects of his generation
What do you think of the current housing situation?
What is happening to London and most of our cities is catastrophic. We are getting segregated communities with people being uprooted and moved out.
People on low incomes can no longer afford to live in these estates. The only people who can afford to stay are the old, or the people who have been here for a long time, but then they get hit with bedroom tax. So people who have brought up their children on an estate have to pay an extra tax. It’s so frightful. I can’t bear it.
When Alexandra Road was built it dissolved the sad distinction between private and public housing. It just looks like housing. The idea that my generation had was that we would make housing not council housing. We wanted it to all look like an integrated city. That is what Alexandra Road is.
How do we get more homes built?
You cannot build homes properly without a programme. It’s all very well to talk about numbers but what we will be getting is the housing the market serving, commercial, building companies will make. At the moment apart from a minority of clients and a few local authorities, they are not turning to socially-committed architects to do socially-committed housing.
There is never any mention of design
We have no structured programme at all for building housing. At the moment all we talk about is numbers, nobody dares to talk about the fact that we don’t have any real standards. There is never any mention of design.
Back when Alexandra Road was built, when Sydney Cook was the chief architect at Camden, we talked about design and about cultural values.
You couldn’t dream of getting the beautiful work of the sixties and seventies architects like Benson and Forsyth or Bill Forrest nowadays. We had to talk about everything to an authority – parking, refuse collection, children’s play, access, and the nature of the space for people to live in. It is all part of a discourse and the architect cannot do it alone.
Architects are undermined by the fact that there is no system.
Within the Parker Morris report, the Housing Cost Yardstick, had a way of factoring – within limits – the cost of all the parts, including parking, open space, dwellings. They also wanted creative, imaginative, new thinking about housing both in how it looked and also in the layout. But very few local authorities had the ability to go to the right architects to do what that was intended to do.
Parker Morris started when we had a Labour government. Camden was Labour. Relatively soon we had Macmillan, what Macmillan did was go to the building industry and set up a programme which asked for prefabrication, bulk buying, and consortia. It was helping the building industry – that was a radical change. Then we had Ronan Point.
Will we never get out of the housing crisis without a programme?
I’m not saying we never will. But we won’t with this current government. If a Tory was here he would agree.
How do you feel when you look back at estates originally designed as council housing and you see the prices of their homes rising and the amount of social housing decreasing?
The schemes have been betrayed by Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy policy. Under a third of the dwellings on the Dunboyne Estate [where Neave Brown now lives and which he completed in 1967) are leaseholders. Two thirds still remain owned by the council but these figures diminish every year. There are lots of leaseholders on Alexandra Road. One of the problems there is that mortgage finance is very difficult to get for a concrete building. People who would become leaseholders can’t get a mortgage. It is utterly absurd.
Do we need to build more social housing?
Yes we certainly should.
[Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn wants to do this, do you agree with him?
Yes he does. It’s almost enough to make me want to vote Corbyn. He is right.
What about affordable housing?
We talk about affordable housing – but that’s a joke. It’s not affordable. It’s just a proportion down from market value.
Do we need standards for homes?
Of course we do.
How do we get better housing?
We need to go back to public housing and proper standards. In England we set it up wrong. The interface between public and private is too complicated. We need a financial concept from the start which is not just about the building of a building but is also about the management of the building. There should be a body responsible from inception to the end of the building. The public and private sector need to work together on this. England set it up wrong after the First World War.
Can we ever get it right now?
It needs to be rethought - it can be. When the Labour government in1944 brought in the Abercrombie Plan, they did rethink the system. They did it incredibly well. They properly separated out the finance system. At that time the government also refused to build incorrectly and too fast. They didn’t compromise the standards that they wanted to reach, so they set up the prefab programme for the meantime. They realised the values inherent in building were so precious to social need. It had a vision.
Are we missing that vision now?
It is entirely missing.
Do architects have a role to play?
Of course they do but it is very difficult to do that role correctly in the circumstances which exist.
Why aren’t we building housing schemes like Alexandra Road anymore?
You can’t build Alexandra Road without a public programme that doesn’t simply think of the scheme as an object.
At Alexandra Road we wanted to integrate the community with the city
Is the joined up thinking and sense of community present at Alexandra Road, missing from housing today?
Certainly – it’s not even part of the thinking anymore. We wanted to integrate the community with the city and the open space is part of that.
What can the architects today learn from your generation on housing?
There are some good people trying very hard. They are trying to do it right within the constraints that there are. We had a different mindset – it was a different era. The challenges are different now.