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None of the parties has a convincing narrative for fixing the housing crisis

mae Architects' Grenadier House in Horseferry Road - balcony view
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While the manifestos all commit to mass house-building, there is frustratingly little detail on how this will be achieved – or crucially what kind of housing will result, says Alex Ely

Alex Ely

The rhetoric cited during the election campaign about improving our housing situation, referring to ‘a dysfunctional market’ and ‘a crisis of supply and affordability’, masks a lack of detail about how any of the parties propose to fix the situation. While there is barely any difference between the main parties’ policies in terms of ambition – with each committing to building 1 million new homes by 2022, and to building council housing on public land – they are all equally short on a convincing narrative about how they propose to achieve this or more specifically what they want to create.

Since successive governments have failed to address the housing problem, surely it’s time to merge all available ideas, to treat housing as infrastructure and as a social service that can help drive productivity. Good housing can enhance family life, health, education and work. Labour’s proposal to create a Department for Housing would give the subject the priority it deserves while making it more evident in government as to who holds accountability. Indeed the title is not new, under Churchill’s government in 1951, Harold Macmillan was appointed housing minister in charge of the new Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Indeed Macmillan is the only minister to have met – in fact exceeded – a government housing target, which was an unprecedented 300,000 homes a year, so political authority is a necessary start.

It would be a tragedy if we built a million new homes without consideration of the places we were creating

Undoubtedly funding is key, and none of the manifestos offers much clarity on what funding might be made available. The Liberal Democrats’ ‘government-backed British Housing and Infrastructure Development Bank’ with its remit of ‘providing long-term capital for major new settlements and helping attract finance for major house building projects’ will add the financial to the political clout. Only the Lib Dems seem to mention lifting local authority borrowing caps, despite all housing agencies advocating it; or using land tax to increase revenue. The Conservatives talk of sharing in the benefits from the uplift in land values, though without the vision that made Edinburgh new town or Letchworth Garden City so successful.

When Edinburgh had occasion to enlarge the city by including the building of bridges, King James VII of Scotland, awarded the city a grant, stating that the proprietors of lands benefiting from the enlargement were obliged to part with the land on reasonable terms. Two centuries later, Ebeneezer Howard also recognised that land value capture was a critical consideration for the garden cities he planned. Fundamental to his plan was that the value would be retained in the community; every citizen was to be a shareholder, with the ‘unearned increment’ ploughed back into civic facilities, rather than to absent landlords or speculative investors. Today, landowners are rewarded for doing nothing when the generated funds could better finance infrastructure and more affordable housing to better enable families somewhere to live.  

Rather than focusing on new garden cities or villages, ask each local authority to identify enhancement areas

So who will build these million new homes? History shows that the only time that we have met housing demand has been when the number of homes built by private developers has been matched by those built by local authorities. Given that local authorities built just 2,000 homes last year – and housing association output fell by 20 per cent to 24,000, increasing public provision of housing means not only taking a leap of imagination but also significantly of resource. Nonetheless, both Labour and the Conservatives recognise that local authorities can play a leading role and propose giving them new powers or establishing ‘council housing deals’.

Our experience at Mæ is that, appropriately resourced, local authorities have the drive and ambition to deliver successful high-quality, mixed-tenure housing. It is surely right that those at the coalface, managing housing benefit and recognising local housing need, can be part of providing the infrastructure that can accommodate that demand.

But just building houses is not good enough. It is our belief that it would be a tragedy if we built a million new homes without consideration of the places we were creating. 

The Conservatives’ manifesto does at least see a role for design: ‘Too often, those renting or buying a home on modest income have to tolerate substandard developments …for a country boasting the finest architects and planners in the world, this is unacceptable. We will build better homes.’ While short on detail, they acknowledge that quality standards (applied presumably through regulations?) are necessary to deliver more and better homes. However, such a commitment to design needs to extend to ideas about total architecture, considering where we build and the social, physical, ecological and cultural infrastructure that forms housing’s context.

In all the debate there is little mention of what kind of places we are trying to create. The two main parties do at least recognise that housing has to go alongside managing a fair spread of economic growth, making reference to ‘Rebalancing housing growth across the country, in line with our modern industrial strategy’ (Conservatives) and ‘Housing as part of a joined up industrial and skills strategy’ (Labour). This would at least imply recognition of a need to create mixed-use neighbourhoods in which to live and to work.

Alongside all of the manifesto policies we believe there are 10 simple ideas that should be developed to ensure that the next government not only builds more homes but better homes. These are:

  1. Make house-building about place-making. Create genuinely mixed-use neighbourhoods that support a diverse social economic mix with employment and with mixed types and tenures.
  2. Build on what’s already there. Rather than focusing on new garden cities or villages, ask each local authority to identify enhancement areas (instead of yet more conservation areas) and use the context, the history and the geography to develop a genius loci for new housing rather than creating yet more designed-for-nowhere and found-everywhere housing development.
  3. A little bit of serendipity. Rather than masterplanning everything or trying to control it all through planning, allow some space for the unexpected. The places we love that have grown over time, have variety and moments of intrigue.
  4. Infrastructure is more than roads and sewers. Invest in ecological networks, environmental infrastructure and social networks that enable communities and nature to grow.
  5. Put people first. The car is never king in successful places, and highways engineering needs to be re-engineered, while the scale and density of development needs to be designed around human comfort.
  6. More, better, quicker. Every government has talked about it but few have really pushed modern methods of construction in a meaningful way. We need the equivalent of the Green Deal for new high-quality and efficient supply chains.
  7. Design homes that work. It sounds silly but too often new homes don’t have enough storage, aren’t sufficiently energy efficient, and are too small to be future proofed for our changing needs.
  8. Allow a house to become a home. We need to see more scope for people to customise their homes, to personalise them and have greater choice.
  9. Stop speculative land trading. More an economic idea than a design one, but speculative land-trading serves only to drive down quality, push up values, reduce affordability and slow down delivery.
  10. Let design lead. Good design is a process that can pull all the above together. Architecture and design is creative problem-solving and now more than ever do we need all design talent to help collaboratively solve this very large problem.

Let’s make sure that politicians start thinking about the places we want to create and not just numbers. Whilst Harold Macmillan has proven that when there is political will we can build the necessary numbers to meet need he was also criticised for sacrificing quality to quantity. His houses were smaller than those built by Nye Bevan and he was much more anxious to be seen as progressive than to worry about the aesthetics of what he was doing.

Creating vibrant, sustainable places is at the heart of what we do at Mæ. By thinking about social infrastructure, by thinking about what ‘location’ really means, by thinking about the quality of landscape around the home, we create developments that add value for our many and diverse clients.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Mæ will continue to act as thought leaders on these issues, influencing policy as well as designing exemplary places.

Alex Ely is principal of Mæ

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Taking the biggest area of housing problems - London - there's surely room for review, exhibition and maybe even guided tours of all the 'infill' developments in the last fifty or sixty years (or more) that embody many of the ideas and ideals expressed here - and, vitally, to highlight how the vast quantity of backland offers so much opportunity.
    Both to increase public awareness and hopefully to galvanise politicians and landowners at all levels to roll their sleeves up and get their act together - legislating, financing and ensuring protection against 'commodifying' and price gouging..
    The annual 'Open House' festivals cover a good deal of individual housing infill, but the amount of 'jungle' in inner suburban London is really astonishing, given the cost of land.
    There's clearly the need to ensure that plenty of greenery is safeguarded, and future infrastructure routes protected, but surely there's room for a very substantial amount of new housing on these pockets of land, and I wonder if there's ever been a comprehensive survey of what's there?

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  • Dreaming is good for the mind.

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