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Let’s hear it for the return of council housing

Paul Finch

Local authorities like Enfield and Newham are providing the homes central government and the free market are incapable of supplying, says Paul Finch

Later this month, RIBA Publications will launch a book on social housing which is proof positive that, after decades of being squashed by government, local authorities are re-asserting their responsibilities to house their populations in a civilised manner.

Watch out for the reaction. There are those who will claim that it is only the private sector that can provide the housing we really need (pause for laughter); that ‘council estates’ are a failed model (as though they cannot be redefined); and that the entire idea of a dirigiste public sector is an offence against the immaculate conception of the ‘free market’.

Being of a pragmatic disposition, I warmly welcome the new intelligence that is pervading local authorities in respect of public housing. Having been brought up on council estates built by Westminster City Council in an era when Conservatives had a commitment to social equity, I have never believed that local authorities are incapable of providing homes for those unable to meet the financial hurdles of the private housebuilding market.

Frankly, the idea that London is incapable of providing necessary housing within its own boundaries for anticipated population increases over the next 20 years is nonsense. A cursory glance at, for example, the Lower Lea Valley tells us that we do not need to start splattering low-density estates over Home Counties green belt in order to meet anticipated demand. That policy is about meeting the desires of the housebuilding industry, which is incapable (I do not blame it for this) of meeting overall demand for decent housing for all.

The refreshing thing about current London housing initiatives is the extent to which the boroughs are starting to take a lead, rather than simply reacting to what the private sector is up to. A good example is the proposal for Stephenson Street in Newham, where Patel Taylor is masterplanning a 3,700-home project on Greater London Authority land. The mix of units is being determined by the GLA, even though the private sector partner on the project is Berkeley Homes. That is to say, the question is not the proportion of affordable homes, but the proportion that might be sold to make the entire project tick.

Of even greater significance, however, is a huge project being masterplanned by Karakusevic Carson for Enfield Council called Meridian Water. This will produce 10,000 homes on a regeneration site on the edge of Edmonton, and will include an admirable range of mixed uses in terms both of conventional employment and cultural initiatives. This is a long-term project, partly dependent on infrastructure improvements. However, the first phase is about to start, with Barratt London as a housing partner.

Critically, Enfield is raising the funding itself via the European Investment Bank and our very own Public Works Loan Board (remember them?). Like other London local authorities referenced in the book mentioned above, Enfield is part of a movement, minded to determine its own future, rather than remain a combination of punch-bag and/or supplicant, endlessly bemoaning an inability to produce the housing it knows is necessary.

A strong, committed and devolved public sector will be essential to meeting future housing demand

A strong, committed and devolved public sector will be essential to meeting future housing demand in London and elsewhere. The Karakusevic Carson client list is ample evidence that there is the political appetite to re-assume responsibilities shuffled off for all the wrong reasons in recent decades.

What is particularly encouraging about current initiatives is the understanding on the part of public authorities that smart design, from masterplanning to individual building proposals, is not the province of a particular procurement ideology, but a matter dependent on skill and commitment to the desired outcomes.

Let’s hope the message reaches Whitehall.

This column was published in the Built to rent issue – click here to buy a copy 


Readers' comments (2)

  • Is this the same Paul Finch who recently wrote "I don’t see any way of providing what is necessary without a dirigiste public programme (delivered by the private sector), managed ruthlessly by a fearless deliverer of high-quality design." He clearly had had a certain Patrik Schumaker in mind who had just presented his vision for a city without any public streets or parks (never mind no public housing). This doesn't seem like very consistent thinking from Mr Finch. Perhaps he's taking a leaf out of Donald Trump's playbook.......

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  • What I said was straightforward and consistent, unlike the strangulated and erroneous deductions above.

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