Catherine Slessor on why the government needs to reverse 40 years of ’catastrophic inaction’ if we want more council housing like Goldsmith Street
That a public housing scheme has finally won the RIBA Stirling Prize after 23 years says much about the state of public housing and architectural awards.
In the centenary year of the Addison Act, which made housing a national responsibility, there is an obviously pleasing symmetry in bestowing such an exemplary project with architecture’s ultimate accolade.
And, after last year’s win for the billion-pound Bloomberg City HQ, which merely proved that you can make ‘great’ architecture providing the budget is sufficiently stratospheric, the RIBA press officers must be hugging themselves with glee.
Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley’s Goldsmith Street, a development of 100 houses in Norwich, built by the city council, offering secure tenures at fixed rents, is that rare thing – actual social housing – in a reincarnation of the Victorian terrace model that is contemporary, rather than cloying.
Unlike their 19th-century predecessors, however, the dwellings are ultra-parsimonious in their use of energy. Annual heating bills should be about £150. In devising and implementing a scheme with such impeccable social, environmental and architectural credentials, Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley, in tandem with their client, Norwich City Council, have shown what might be possible, hinting at a new sunny upland of British public housing.
Sadly, Goldsmith Street is still the exception rather than the rule, a comet fizzing fitfully across a deeply leaden sky. In 2018, there were 1.11 million households on local authority waiting lists and, despite repeated promises of bold new housing programmes, now being given renewed huckstering emphasis as a general election looms, there is still a gaping chasm between what exists and what is required.
Decent, affordable housing should be at the heart of any government agenda, but current ministerial arrangements do not inspire confidence. Spotted flicking her blow-dry in a photo op around Goldsmith Street, Esther McVey, of ‘architects doing it on computers’ fame, is the ninth housing minister in 10 years. Her glib assertions about food banks and the impact of Universal Credit delays, coupled with a dim-witted Tory leadership campaign, suggest she is another career mediocrity who will sink without trace.
With the lifting of the borrowing cap on local authorities, announced last year, there have been signs of tentative movement in the public housing sector. At present, local authorities are obliged to enter into Faustian pacts with private developers to deliver certain a proportion of ‘affordable’ dwellings. Housing charity Shelter estimates that lifting the borrowing cap could increase new social housing provision to 27,500 dwellings annually, from just 5,000 built in 2017. Yet it is still a drop in the ocean, and the UK still has some of the smallest space standards in Europe.
The fundamental problem remains a lack of political will and impetus
Aware, perhaps, of the Stirling Prize’s propensity to reward big-ticket architecture, the RIBA recently inaugurated a dedicated award for ‘affordable’ housing, named after the late Neave Brown, whose work for Camden Council represented an apogee of modernist design, delivered by well-resourced borough architects’ departments.
Yet, despite the new award’s admirable ambitions, it has generated controversy over its definition of affordability and thrown up a rather lacklustre shortlist (though it did include Goldsmith Street, the eventual winner), reflecting the distance travelled since Neave Brown’s more swashbuckling days. From helping to drive and implement a progressive social agenda for housing, architects now find themselves increasingly on the sidelines.
Awards schemes can do so much, but the fundamental problem remains a lack of political will and impetus. After 40 years of catastrophic inaction in the public housing sector, there is an urgent need for a reframing of priorities across the board, in terms of funding, procurement, design and delivery. ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people,’ Berthold Lubetkin once said. Shamefully, it still needs saying.