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Profession reacts to PM's social housing pledge: 'Warm words won’t put roofs over heads'

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The RIBA and leading architects have slammed the prime minister’s pledge for an extra £2 billion for affordable housing over the next five years as simply not enough 

Theresa May announced the cash injection as part of the Tories’ plans for ‘fixing the broken housing market’ in an eventful speech to the Conservative Party conference today, which was interrupted by the prime minister battling a sore throat and comedian Lee Nelson handing her a mocked-up P45.

But leading industry professionals, including RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, have said the amount of money is too little and that the cash would only help build at most an extra 25,000 homes – an average of 5,000 a year – a figure confirmed in a press briefing document (see Tweet below). 

Derbyshire said: ‘While it’s good news that the prime minister has made fixing the housing crisis a central priority for the government, the extra £2 billion promised today just won’t meet the scale of investment needed to address decades of under-supply.

‘The government spends billions of pounds a year subsidising private landlords because of a shortage of social housing. They need to dial up the approach and investment, moving beyond describing the problems and big rhetoric to delivering solutions and the investment that will make the difference.

‘Warm words won’t put roofs over people’s heads; we need a concerted programme of public investment in new social housing across the country and that means spending a lot more than was announced today.’

While the government hopes to build 25,000 new homes, Luke Tozer of Pitman Tozer Architects said that, by his calculations, the £2 billion additional funding was only enough for at most 10,000 homes, describing the announcement as ‘hardly a solution in itself and not even likely to register given the drop off in council housing over the last 30 years’.

Tozer rebutted May’s statement that the money marked the ‘rebirth’ of UK council housing, saying: ’That’s not a new generation of council homes. The fact that the commitment is a one-fifth of the £10 billion extra announced by the chancellor for Help to Buy says all you need to know.’

Earlier in the conference, chancellor Philip Hammond had announced that the government would invest £10 billion into its Help to Buy initiative. 

The architect added: ‘Once again the Conservatives addiction to the dream of home ownership is too powerful politically for them to set aside in the interests of resolving the housing crisis.’

Meanwhile, Piers Gough, a partner at CZWG Architects, claimed that the £2 billion pledged was the equivalent of ‘just £5 million per local authority’. 

’Relying on house builders to provide enough affordable housing through a flexible percentage system based on ”viability” was never going to work,’ he said. ’Housing Associations have been turned into quasi private developers by successive treasury interference.’ 

He continued: ’But the biggest elephant in the Parker Morris room is the lack of capacity in the construction industry to suddenly ramp up production. Offsite is too fledgling and tiny to make much difference.’

Gough added: ’It will take an awful lot more time, money, capacity building, political inclination and treasury volte-face to restore the position we should never have abdicated of decent affordable housing for all.’

Hari Phillips, director of Bell Phillips, while praising May’s comments, remained cautious on how this money would translate into solving the housing crisis in practice. 

’Finally the penny’s dropped,’ he said. ’The housing crisis is not going away and council housing needs to be a major part of the solution. The speech is promising, even though it’s been a long time coming, but actions speak louder than words. So let’s see whether Theresa May’s words are backed up with a serious, tangible commitment.’

During her speech, May said that the government would ‘encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money’, adding a clear message for housebuilders: ‘You must do your duty to Britain and build the homes our country needs’.

But, responding to this statement, Weston Williamson + Partners senior partner Philip Breese, who heads the firm’s residential team, said: ‘The core issues around land and skills availability are not new, and ‘ensuring’ access to both won’t be quick.

‘Many local authorities and housing associations are ahead of the curve with development teams ready to deliver. Let’s hope smoothing land access doesn’t take another political term.’

However, a number of architects did welcome May’s words and the extra cash boost. 

Alex Ely, principal at Mæ, said the number of homes built by councils today was ‘negligible’ compared with in the past. 

‘Today’s recognition by the prime minister that we need investment in, and the production of, public sector housing is really welcome,’ he said. ‘Today the need for the public sector to get building is considerable, with affordability out of the reach of many, and we have a housing crisis further exacerbated by the poor quality of much existing housing stock.’

He added: ‘Direct public investment will mean we can increase the percentage of genuinely affordable homes. Combined with local authority land assets this could be the new dawn of significant levels of public housing provision.’ 

Assael Architecture director Félicie Krikler described the prime minister’s announcement as a ‘much-needed change of direction in policy after years of neglect’.

She said: ‘Council housing has increasingly suffered the consequences of poor management since the 1970s, with issues of quality still plaguing many of the council’s homes. By giving more power to councils to deliver homes and renew existing estates within their jurisdiction, there will be greater engagement with communities and better responsiveness to local needs.

But she warned: ’We can’t make the same mistakes as before, where council house development has led to social segregation. Our industry must ensure that council homes are of the highest quality, blending a variety of housing types to reflect people’s needs, and where long-term homes are prioritised over short-term gains.’ 

In a recent interview with the AJ, this year’s RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner and social housing pioneer Neave Brown said that ‘after the Grenfell fire, we must never, never, never again do segregated high-rise buildings with those risks.’

He added: ‘We have high buildings, particularly in the Midlands and the North, which are simply occupied by the poor and the unemployed.’ 

Reaction 

Terrie Alafat, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Housing  

We have been calling on the government to invest more in genuinely affordable homes for rent, so the prime minister’s announcement of an extra £2 billion for affordable housing is very welcome.

As we have been saying for some time, social rents, which are significantly cheaper than market rents, are the only truly affordable option for many people on lower incomes, so the recognition that we need more of these homes is a vital step forward.

It’s also encouraging to hear that Theresa May agrees councils have a central role to play in building the homes we need at prices people can afford. The details of exactly how these new homes will be funded and just how many will be for the lowest social rents will be crucial.

The number of homes for social rent funded by the government collapsed from 36,000 to just over 1,000 between 2010/11 and 2016/17. Reversing this trend will be a significant task. How much of this new funding will be dedicated to building these kinds of homes?’

Melanie Leech, chief executive, British Property Federation

We welcome the prime minister’s announcement of an extra £2 billion available for council housing across the UK. We need a housing market firing on all cylinders, with the right signals from government supporting all tenures. For example, council housing, home ownership and Build to Rent must all be supported if government wants to effectively address the underlying issue of affordability.’ 

Andy Puncher, director, pH+ Architects

We welcome the commitment to investment in more affordable housing. It is imperative however that the quality of this housing including the fundamental cross over of shared spaces, which become the meeting points for communities to grow, are not value engineered out of proposals in a quest to maximise financial rather than social value. Investment in expanding community infrastructure (schools, parks, medical facilities etc) also has to be simultaneously increased as Section 106 levels are inevitably being revisited to increase affordability.

Arita Morris, director,Child Graddon Lewis

While we might have all preferred for this funding to have been announced years ago, an extra £2bn to help deliver more council and affordable housing is very welcome. Additionally the certainty of rent levels will, I’m sure, be a relief to many in the affordable housing sector.

However, the total pot is still less than the £10bn available for Help-to-Buy which supports access to home ownership. This will, at best, enhance rather than reverse the constraints on access for households lacking substantial savings – or parental help – to meet minimum deposit requirements.

The ultimate impact of the housing crisis is the huge numbers of people forced out of their homes altogether. The number of homeless households has risen to more than 50,000 a year. To house those most in need, we need more genuinely affordable rented accommodation; hence the use of these funds should be focussed on this area.

The announcement will likely be frustrating to those who need immediate housing. The ongoing skills shortage will slow the speed of delivery; within councils, housing associations, planning departments and contractors.

Ultimately, a genuine reversal of the housing crisis can only happen if it is understood that housebuilding is not a tap that can be turned on and off, but instead requires long term thinking, planning and funding.”

Alan Wright, partner, bptw partnership

We welcome the prime minister’s acknowledgement that we haven’t built enough homes and that this is a disaster for young people in particular. The reality, though, is that schemes such as Help to Buy have been shown by organisations as diverse as Shelter and the Adam Smith Institute to push up prices rather than tackle the underlying problem. Given this, today’s announcement of an extra £2 billion for affordable housing – a sum that would pay for no more than around 10,000 new homes without considerable private investment - is simply not going to fix the broken housing market.’

Paul Karakusevic, partner, Karakusevic Carson Architects

Empowering local authorities is welcome, however the key is to increase their borrowing limits beyond the existing circa £150 million cap once they have a proven track record of commissioning good architecture and resident engagement.

Boroughs such as Hackney, Enfield and Camden are leading the way with some sensitive refurbishment and new build schemes which are delivering new truly affordable homes but they need more help. Resources in the councils are limited and they need to be able to hire high calibre staff and be then empowered to deliver new housing. The GLA are starting to assist with this design and technical input which will really help fast track good schemes.

Social housing and key worker housing needs to be treated as a vital city ‘infrastructure’. The £2 billion is a start but this will seed a series of projects but if the Government are serious about a new era of public housing they need to invest much more.

A few key, immediate actions are needed to get high quality affordable housing delivered:

1. Enable local authorities to employ new skilled in-house project managers and design managers.

2. Fund local authorities to lead the development process with increased borrowing.

3. On council estate projects, ensure council residents and tenants and residents’ associations are pivotal to the management and decision making process.

4. Ensure council procurement of design teams and contractors is transparent.

5. Stop ‘Right to Buy’, especially in London.

6. Where possible, look at refurbishment and infill options and ensure exiting stock is well maintained

7. Ensure contractors are procured at Stage 4A with a full specification to prevent value erosion and cynical ‘value engineering’.

8. Ensure the design teams are novated to prevent value erosion, and ensure there is a design champion for each scheme.

Jonathan Manser, director, The Manser Practice

’It’s no secret that we are experiencing a housing crisis and that home-ownership is out of reach for many. Today’s acknowledgement by the prime minister recognises that we need more affordable homes and is a step in the right direction to tackling this. Councils need to be more directly involved in the supply of low-cost housing in their boroughs and this announcement appears, by implication, to support and encourage that.’

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Chris Roche

    It will not be long before Prime Minister Theresa May is forced out of her home at 10 Downing Street by an unsympathetic Landlord - The British Public. Finally she will realise np-one is immune to the Housing Crisis.

    Chris Roche ARB
    Founder / 1104 Architects

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  • Lets just hope this 2 billion doesn't go towards the creation of more help to buy LEASEHOLD flats and houses. These only serve to line the pockets of FTSE house builders and ground rent investors!

    Government subsidy should only be used to fund homes that people actually own outright!

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  • There needs to be anew approach to the way "social" housing is funded. The £2 bilion if used just to fund the building of new social housing it won't go very far. If it is used to seed fund new social housing schemes - provide the funding to get the scheme under way and then get private sector investment funding in and and ensure the funders will operateand maintain housing efficiently. In that way the capital will be re-cycled instead of being locked up for ever in bricks and mortar. In that way the £2 billion will go a long way and make a real impact into the shortage of "social"housing. Do those who object to this as it is against their political views have a better solution? Owen Luder CBE PPRIBA.

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