Councils can help tackle the housing crisis – but government has to step up

Tower Hamlets. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Tower Hamlets on solving the housing crisis.

The housing crisis is one of the most serious issues this country faces – and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is right on the front line of that crisis.

The population of the borough recently passed 300,000, and we have over 20,000 people on the housing waiting list. The lack of affordable housing is a major issue and it’s something residents repeatedly raise with me. 

In spite of their duty, the government has failed to take any real action to address the housing crisis of its own making. Instead local councils are expected to pick up the slack and fill in for the government, while major cuts are made to council funding.

Local authorities can do a good deal of positive work to meet residents’ housing needs, but we are limited in what we can do while the Government is unwilling to offer proper support.

A crucial step in addressing the housing crisis is the actual delivery of more homes. In Tower Hamlets for example, we’re on track to deliver 1,000 council homes. We have also provided over 2,100 affordable homes over the past two years. I was recently joined by the mayor of London to unveil 148 new council homes at the Watts Grove development; all of these developments add up.

But for those in affordable housing, rents are often in fact unaffordable. One of the first actions I took when elected was to set up a Housing Affordability Commission to look at what affordable actually means in our borough. As a result, we’ve introduced new rent levels which can save residents up to nearly £6,000 per year.

We also need to ensure that those renting in the private sector get a fair deal, so I introduced a landlord licensing scheme to drive up standards for private renters’. This joins our new Private Renters’ Charter which backs up renters’ rights.

It’s important that local councils properly scrutinise new developments. Our new Local Plan will set out how the Council intends to manage the scale and pace of development and ensure that all residents benefit from the opportunities growth brings to the borough. We have also written a planning document which ensures transparency in the planning process and encourages reviewing viability at each phase of large schemes, bringing much-needed transparency and accountability.

When I was elected, 174 families were living in B&B accommodation for longer than the six week legal limit. This highlights the role that councils can choose to play: we can either do our utmost to secure much-needed housing, or we can put our head in the sand, much like the government. I was adamant we meet the challenge head on and now no families are left to languish in B&Bs like they were under my predecessor.  

Despite all our efforts, the challenge remains that we have a government that is unprepared and unwilling to take robust action to solve the housing crisis. The government should use the Budget later this month to consider removing the cap to enable councils to borrow to build more council housing. 

Tower Hamlets Council, like other councils up and down the country, will do its level best to meet the challenge – but we desperately need a Labour Government that will back us up with solid action on a national scale.

Labour councils like Tower Hamlets have a positive and innovative housing record they can be proud of. Labour councils backed up by a Labour Government are exactly what we need to end the housing crisis.

John Biggs is the elected Labour mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.