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Council housing returns with a new emphasis on quality

Emily Booth
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Good social housing is a habit every council needs to get into says Emily Booth

Council housing is back. Not on the scale of the massive building schemes of the 1960s and 70s but, still, there’s a noticeable uplift. Across the UK, councils constructed more social housing units in 2018-2019 than in the whole of the first decade of the millennium.

And, in the same reporting period, English and Scottish local authorities started construction on more social housing than in any year since the start of the 1990s.

As Will Ing’s excellent analysis considers, this is due in part to the large number of people on council waiting lists, many of whom lost their privately rented housing after getting into financial difficulties. Temporary accommodation costs are sky-high and it makes much better financial sense for councils to invest in their own properties.

We can also look forward to the effects of the 2018 lifting of the cap on local authorities’ freedom to borrow and invest in housing, which should increase activity further.

What’s refreshing about this welcome building uplift is how it goes hand-in-hand with good design.

As Bartlett academics Janice Morphet and Ben Clifford note in a report published last summer, ‘a desire to improve design quality has noticeably increased as a motivator to engage in housing development’. There is increased awareness and care about good placemaking.

Money spent on good design now means money saved later

Nobody – especially councils – really wants to build shoddy homes. Money spent on good design now means money saved later. Many local authorities are putting an increased emphasis on quality over cost. (And, if they aren’t, architects should be wary of engaging with them).

Quality design also feeds into sustainability issues. There is much sensible talk now about efficient, high-quality approaches, which are inherently more sustainable than inefficient and poor-quality ones.

Why spend money on finishes that can look shabby very quickly and need to be regularly fixed/reapplied and updated (such as paint), when high-quality honest construction materials (such as brick and stone) will last longer and need much less maintenance? 

Great materials and sensible, sustainable approaches will help make social housing better for everybody. Good social housing is a habit – one that every council needs to get into. RIBA Stirling Prize-winner Goldsmith Street has set the bar high, but there’s no reason why it should be a one-off.

Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley    3

Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley 3

Goldsmith Street by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley. Photo by Jim Stephenson


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