Building a better Britain: Why it’s time for a return to architectural idealism

London's Balfron Tower: for all its brutalism, now a sought-after address. Image: AFP/Getty.

The image of British architecture tends to be dominated by the older famous names who build all over the world: Richard Rogers of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and “Cheesegrater” in the City, Norman Foster of Gherkin and British Museum fame, Zaha Hadid with her galleries, museums and London 2012 Aquatics Centre.

But from the 1940s to the 1970s, the profession was very different. Then more than half of all architects worked, largely anonymously, in the public sector, above all on housing and schools. Architecture was politicised: the task in hand post-war was to build a better Britain, and state funds, from Labour and Tory governments alike, were made available to do so.

Then, “commercial” architects like Richard Seifert of Centre Point fame were openly sneered at by their socially-minded colleagues. Now, British architecture is an almost completely private consultancy business and Centre Point is a listed building, now being restored.

But also valued and listed today are the best examples of the social, better-society architecture built by the public sector in the post-war years. Once everyone had got over the “crumbling no-go concrete council estates” reaction of the 1980s, and demolished or fixed the bad ones, it turned out that there was a lot of good stuff as well.

The latest book of post war listed buildings published by Heritage England – officially the best buildings in the land – is stuffed with council housing. Take Balfron Tower in Poplar, a mid-1960s Brutalist masterpiece by Hungarian émigré architect Erno Goldfinger. This is controversially being renovated for private sale, with the existing tenants kicked out.

Such good publicly-funded architecture has been market-tested and (in big cities such as London, Manchester and Sheffield) found to be good. Social cleansing then duly takes place as capital moves in, the estates are tarted up and rebranded, and those in need of social or affordable housing are pushed to the urban edges.

The Brutalist style – so associated with council estates, though in actuality it spanned all building types including Oxbridge colleges and the (of course listed) National Theatre – is now regarded with wonder by a new generation. It’s chic, raw concrete. When I chaired a debate on the style earlier this year, I expected maybe a dozen people to turn up: instead the place was packed out and everyone seemed to be in their 20s and 30s.

 To this generation, it’s social and architectural history. It is almost as if there was a vanished race of giants that built such wonders – and that is true. The giants in question were the unsung architects of the local authority architects’ departments. Photographs of the time bear out the male tweed-and-pipes stereotype, but also recorded the arrival of a new postwar breed of equally committed women architects.

That world of a shared architectural endeavour has of course vanished, along with nearly all the public architecture offices, but it is mourned. In my job I deal with architects all the time and they have a new hunger for the chance to improve society. Understandably: that’s what their very long and expensive training equips them to do.

Architects are in the utopia business. There’s unease about being seen to be associated with, say, the forests of half-empty luxury apartment towers for overseas investors that infect London, or being the lackeys of developers wanting to fillet historic areas like Spitalfields.

So I’m going to test this. I’ve launched a thoroughly journalistic award in the architecture magazine I edit, the RIBA Journal. “The MacEwen Award: Architecture for the Common Good” is named after a splendid pair of Hampstead ex-Communists. Malcolm MacEwen was the political correspondent for the Daily Worker who – after the CP schism of 1956 – helped found the New Left Review and then moved into campaigning architectural journalism. His wife Anni was the prominent postwar architect-planner who first sounded a warning against slicing up cities to build motor roads.

We’re going to award places that offer the most benefit to the most people, across society. Richard Rogers, whose firm has just built a new type of affordable social housing for the YMCA in Croydon, supports it.

Can the new generation of architects get their social mojo back? I sincerely hope so.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at


The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.

More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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