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What would Labour’s land reform proposals mean for architects?

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Land for the Many, a new report to the Labour Party published this month, puts forward the most radical re-imagination of land ownership proposals for a generation, writes architect Mark Rowe

Mark rowe

In among the continuing furore around Brexit, elections, referenda and ever-stranger revelations of Tory leadership hopefuls’ drug habits or domestic behaviour, a Labour Party-commissioned report, edited by the respected environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot, was published earlier this month almost wholly below the Westminster, media and architectural radar.

Despite that, Land for the Many might be considered the most radical re-imagining of the principles of land ownership, taxation and development to have been entertained by a major political party in a generation.

With its roots set firmly in the socialist, even, perhaps, communist, tradition and seemingly suggestive of a new people-led anarcho-syndicalism for the 21st century, at its heart is an aspiration for a fundamental redistribution of wealth in this country, as opposed to merely clipping the wings of market forces or nudging the behaviour of private developers.

Of course, none of this may come to pass but, with the current flux and uncertainty coursing through British politics, we cannot guess who will be holding power within the next 12 months. A Corbyn or McDonnell-led government implementing these proposals even partially would result in significant upheaval for the UK development and construction industries and for an architectural profession which relies predominantly on their patronage. So what might that mean practically?

The key and explicit intentions to ‘discourage land and housing from being treated as financial assets’, to stabilise house prices and to shift commercial lending away from real estate could be seen as the death-knell for the leveraged funding model which drives so much of the development in this country and keeps many architects busy.

On the other hand, the reiteration of Labour’s commitment to ‘an ambitious social housing programme’ might be expected to fill that hole in the industry’s workload.

But will that work fall into the laps of the same practices? Or might we see a rebirth of Local Government Architect departments, as foreshadowed by the Public Practice initiative to place more designers in councils?

Backed up by land purchase rights, government-backed lending and planning regulation changes, proposals that development should generally not be led by the private sector further reinforces a clear aspiration for community groups – through such vehicles as Community Land Trusts, as much as local authorities – to claim a new central role.

How might the profession best support and inform such an evolving model? Architects currently working with co-housing communities, such as Mole Architects at Marmalade Lane in Cambridge are already building on the work of others to map out this innovative territory in terms of process and design.

More generally, community consultation would be expected to complete its return from the realm of expectation management to democratic co-creation; an implication we are already beginning to see as the natural conclusion of the GLA’s first mandatory resident ballots for estate regeneration in London.

Whether you see any of this as an idealistic fantasy or as a necessary rebalancing of society, what the publication of the Land for the Many report reinforces is that the power to make significant changes in the supply of homes, the cost of homes, the quality of homes and of the places in which they sit lies predominantly in the realm of our political institutions, with their ability to harness the big levers of taxation, regulation and capital spending.

Parallels can easily be made with the challenges of tackling the climate emergency and questions raised as to why, with notable exceptions, architects often fear to tread in this political realm.

Over my 20-odd years in the industry, we have come to accept the almost absolute hegemony of the free market, despite often critiquing or seeking to mitigate some of its less positive consequences. Might we all have to entertain the possibility for things to be done a bit differently in future and be ready for what that could mean for both design and practice?

Of course, Boris, Nigel, Kier or Jo might think otherwise if they are calling the shots, but it may be that we are on the cusp of one of those rare moments where the machinations of Westminster cause significant change in how we work.

Mark Rowe is a partner at Penoyre & Prasad

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Readers' comments (2)

  • It seems there was no examination of Land FROM the Many: in London Labour Councils are literally taking land owned by the many - on housing estates such as the Heygate and Aylesbury - and selling it at knock-down prices to private companies Lend Lease and Notting Hill Genesis. Labour is responsible for the greatest loss of publicly owned land. The authors should have looked at reality rather than propaganda: Land FROM the Many.

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  • John Kellett

    Revolutions never work out well. An evolution of the present system to bring back, slowly, public sector architects departments from the brink. Saving money and increasing efficiency by carrying out design work ‘in-house’, even using direct labour to build them will be more attainable and feasible with modern technology. Gone are the days when teams of people were needed. I know for a fact that multi-million pound projects only need one architect, one chartered services engineer, one chartered structural engineer and one chartered quantity surveyor with a varying number of support staff on an ‘as and when’ basis is perfectly feasible. Even the smallest Councils would benefit from rethinking their procurement processes.

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