The case for a new Healthy Homes Act

Houses! In Bristol. Image: Getty.

The head of the Town & Country Planning Association on how to fix the housing crisis.

Last week a survey by Ipsos MORI for the Chartered Institute of Housing found that almost three-quarters of people across Great Britain believe there’s a housing crisis – and more than half think it’s not spoken about enough. I appreciate I might at times operate in a bit of a policy bubble, but I feel that there is a lot of discussion about the housing crisis. What is more of a concern to me is the lack of action to tackle it!

We know we need more homes. The government is currently aiming to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. But that is easier said than done. It is going to take policy change and a range of solutions.

One of those solutions will need to be new, high quality, large-scale developments. There are important lessons to learn from the Garden Cities and the New Towns programme, but the TCPA is not, as some might suggest, working to prevent all other kinds of development.

Regeneration and renewal of existing places must be an essential part of any attempt to tackling the housing crisis – and also, as highlighted by the UK 2070 Commission, attempts to address the current, totally unacceptable levels of regional inequality. In some locations that may mean densification. We absolutely must use land efficiently and we need a flexible approach to density as part of high-quality urban design and place-making.

It cannot, however, be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. If we want to deliver better outcomes for communities, regenerating places needs to be considered alongside wider issues including the provision of play space, recreation facilities and green infrastructure.

In the race to deliver more homes, we can surely all agree that the new homes that are built must be of a decent standard? Sadly, we know that some of the homes being built today are not of a high enough quality. The planning inspector’s decision back in July that will allow 15 bedsits to be built in Watford, seven of which will have no windows, is one such example.

To try and make sure that all new homes support people’s health, safety, wellbeing and life chances, we are calling for a new Healthy Homes Act. The Act would set out ten high-level principles that, when taken together, set out what constitutes a decent home. These principles would then be implemented through a policy statement, and subsequent changes to building regulations and national planning policy.


We believe the benefit of having the principles in legislation would be that they carry more weight in the process. The relevant Secretary of State would be required to report to Parliament. And, most importantly, they would provide consistency and certainty for all local authorities and developers.

But, if we really are going to tackle the housing crisis, getting more truly affordable houses built must be a top priority. Over the last six years 165,000 of England’s social homes have disappeared, either changing over to private ownership, repurposed as “affordable rent” or demolished. Long waiting lists for affordable housing, which are seen across the country, demonstrate the need to urgently replace these lost homes.

At the moment, most new affordable housing in England is created through the planning system, a result of negotiations between developers and councils. This poses various challenges and if places are to secure the homes necessary to meet local needs, strong policies in local plans are essential. But developer contributions are not going to deliver the scale of new affordable homes we need.

To achieve that, we need to give more support to local authorities to deliver homes that are urgently needed. Top of that list must be significantly more government funding available for social rental homes as well as other genuinely affordable tenures. This needs to be coupled with a revised definition of affordable housing that links housing affordability to income, and the suspension of the Right to Buy in England, as has already happened in Scotland and Wales.

There is consensus on the need for more homes – but we must not oversimplify the root causes of the problem, or the solutions, if we are to tackle the issue in a sustainable way. The Raynsford Review, for example, proposed a large number of reforms necessary to unlock high-quality housing and place-making, which included a stronger, well-resourced planning system, changes in land taxation and the creation of a national sustainable development plan.

Getting political support for such reforms will take time. But, in the meantime, from a small number of new affordable homes in a village through to large-scale new communities, all have a role to play in tackling the crisis.

Fiona Howie is chief executive of the Town & Country Planning Association.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.