Ben Derbyshire: 'Far more cash is needed for social housing'

RIBA President Ben Derbyshire argues that the government should view spending on social housing as an investment for the future

In October, the RIBA awarded Neave Brown the Royal Gold Medal for his outstanding work on social housing. On schemes like the Alexandra Road Estate in London, Brown showed that high-quality homes could be in reach of everyone, no matter their wealth or income. He also demonstrated how careful design can help communities to flourish and be resilient in the long term. That he succeeded is in no doubt: 30 years on, it was the residents of Alexandra Road who nominated Brown for the medal.

The lesson could not have been more timely. After languishing at the bottom of political priorities for decades, council housing is now back on the agenda. In September, Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, declared that we need to return to a time when social housing was ‘treasured’. Then, at the Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May announced ‘a new generation of council houses’, backed by £2bn of additional funding.

This move is very welcome; but huge challenges remain. The first, quite simply, is a question of cash. The money announced by the prime minister will fund an additional 25,000 homes. With Government acknowledging an annual shortfall of around 150,000 homes, and with a million families on social-housing waiting lists, far more cash is needed for public housing.

We should see the funding of social housing as an investment for the future. The Government spends billions of pounds a year subsidising private landlords through housing benefit. Investing in bricks and mortar, instead, is far more financially sustainable. And it provides an opportunity to ensure what we are building is of real quality, creating the communities we want to live in.

Which brings us to the second challenge: ensuring design quality. We all know that design is integral to the wellbeing of current residents, and to make housing schemes sustainable for the future. And we know that this can be delivered in 2017. This year Dujardin Mews by Karakusevic Carson Architects and Maccreanor Lavington, the first council-led social housing delivered by the Borough of Enfield in 40 years, won a RIBA London Award. Another, The Echoes by Bell Phillips Architects, delivered exemplary affordable homes on a highly challenging site, landing it a RIBA East Award.

Yet, too often, housing design comes up short. The reasons for this are complex, but one challenge, regularly raised by RIBA members, is a lack of capacity and expertise in local authorities. This has been confirmed by recent research, which shows that almost half of local planning authorities have no dedicated in-house design capacity at all.

In a context of council-house building, this is particularly alarming. Brown’s success was in part because he was surrounded by a strong in-house team of architects at Camden Council. When we at HTA Design began our long association with social housing back in the Seventies, the authority was just completing the famous Cook’s Camden housing and we were working on its investment programme of high-quality, street property refurbishments. This was a council committed to public investment for the creation of mixed neighbourhoods.

The issue is in part one of resourcing. Local authority planning departments saw a 46% reduction in their budgets from 2010–11 to 2014–15. The RIBA has been pushing for an uplift in fees, ring-fenced for planning departments. But further funding will be required if we are to have a new council house building programme. And more can be done to upskill existing planning departments, perhaps replicating the model in Urban Design London across the country.

We also know that there are processes and tools that can raise the quality of what is built. One is Built for Life, which helps ensure that new schemes create great places to live. The Government would do well to require Building for Life to be built into Local Plans as a tool for ensuring quality. Another is design review, which ensures that schemes have the input of impartial professional advice. It make sense that design review should be a part of any council housing scheme. And the Government should revisit this area more broadly when it reviews the National Planning Policy Framework next year.

The challenges are great, but this is also an exciting time for the profession. If we all get this right, we can leave the next generation with an inheritance of council homes that we can be proud of for decades, or centuries, to come.

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