“Why aren’t we relevant?” Architects and their place in Britain’s housing crisis

A misleading impression of the architect's job? A scale model of London on display at last year's MIPIM real estate conference. Image: Getty.

Even post-2008, Britain’s worsening housing crisis still lingers around the fringe of the political radar. In London, while official figures put house building requirements at 49,000 units per year – and economic research suggests a figure closer to 60,000 – output in 2014 was a meagre 18,700.

Double-digit growth in property values, a depleted social housing stock, exploding private rents and continued foreign investment have culminated in the all-too-familiar reality of a crisis of affordability – not to mention a rapidly rising £25bn housing benefit bill, of which a quarter is spent on private rents in London and increasing homelessness.

Suggested solutions to these problems are not in short supply, and go beyond simply building more homes. We could allow local authorities the finance to engage in their own house building programmes, for example. We could introduce rent caps within a more regulated private rental sector; tackle the issue of land banking; encourage smaller independent contractors and self-builders to create a more diverse end product. All are plausible reactions to this situation.

The role of architects in all of this lies in a somewhat hazy landscape determined by the mechanisms of politics, powerful house building firms and the complex nature of the real estate market. In effect, architects succumb to the reality of being employed by a client, normally to carry out works within a highly regulated framework, and arrive far too late in the political and real estate food chain to be of any real significance in initiating how the built environment is produced. The overarching failure to solve the housing crisis has not been down to the architects, or even developers; rather, it’s because of limp public policy.


Architects are, to their credit, well-trained in spinning several bureaucratic plates at once, managing, coordinating and tip-toeing their way to the end goal of practical completion. Balancing numerous vested interests and regulatory risks, while possessing enough business acumen to make the task worth their while, the architect has clung on for many years while being derided from all corners and accused of leading the built environment to ruin.

In a process captured in the grainy black and white images of dreary Modernist estates, public trust has been slipping ever further away from architects for decades. Yet the fact is that the vast majority of what we build has little to do with an architect at all.

For example, a high proportion of architects in southern Europe currently fund themselves unemployed as commissions, except for a few pre-crisis top-down investment projects, have become increasingly scared. As the construction industry began to falter, architects were among the first to be deemed disposable and wholly unnecessary as budgets were increasingly squeezed. This is not down to “bad” architects: it is down to the fact developers rarely actually need to use architects, or spend any time or money on design.

However, we now live in a time in which we are seeing a subtle, yet potentially potent, shift in future models of housing, particularly in London. The market has failed us; now we are gradually seeing cash-strapped second-tier level government bodies and councils motivated by targets in the housing sector.

In isolated examples such as Camden and Hackney, councils are becoming their own developers. Benefiting from the absurd levels of property value growth in London, the boroughs are seeking the opportunity to cross-subsidise their own schemes by providing private as well as social accommodation.

Last November, a report revealed that 40 per cent of brownfield land in London is still owned by the public sector: that means that effective house building by local authorities would go some way to plugging the gap. Where the local authorities remain impotent, however, is in the resources and know-how to carry out successful development of the sites which they hold.

This is where architects have something to offer in a world which fails to produce high quality housing. They often find themselves retreating into comfortable fields of design, based purely on formal properties – a phenomenon undeniably caused by the way in which architecture is generally still taught in the UK.

But knowledge of proportion, light, space and so on form the architect’s most reliable set of skills. Instead of considerations on form, the tools and knowledge which architects pick up across other fields, almost unknowingly along their career path, have huge potential within an institution which has a genuine necessity to build, namely local government.

All this runs the risk of appearing overly nostalgic. Older members of the profession have long reminded us of the golden days, reciting to younger colleagues their favourite bedtime story of times during the 1970s when the public sector employed half of Britain’s architects.

Yet as we speak, programmes are being drafted which provide placements for young architects seeking experience in the public sector: these should be wholly encouraged. Issues of viability, strategic development and planning policy are all inevitably part of the architect’s remit: often, though, they do not feature in their day to day work, because of the which in a building is procured.

One solution to the housing crisis is to provide the facility for local authorities to engage in their own house building programs: this is a far better alternative than creating a liberalised planning system, which will weaken the very last powers of the architect to act as guardian of quality and longevity.

Architects must have faith in public and semi-public organisations to maximise the benefits of the huge swathes of land which remain in public hands – and develop these as part of an overall long term plan.

Thomas Feary is an MA graduate in architecture, and works in practice and as a writer in London. He tweets as @thomasfeary.

 
 
 
 

There is one good thing to be said for the Beeching Axe

The Alban Way, near Hatfield. Image: Claude Lynch.

In the early 1960s, Harold Macmillan’s government commissioned a report intended to modernise Britain’s railway system, and to make it profitable for the first time in ages. Victorian “railway mania” had generated some of the most impressive railway routes in Europe, but it had come at a cost: early investment in railway infrastructure had grown and grown, even in areas where it was economically unsustainable. The changing transport habits of the post-war period proved the final straw: by 1963, fully half the train stations in the UK only brought in 2 per cent of the revenue, with many routes running almost empty trains at a heavy loss.

This problem, outlined by the report, was not controversial; indeed, it was factual. But it was the solution, proposed by the now infamous Dr Beeching, that proved so radical: closing almost half of the United Kingdom’s railway infrastructure for good. The “Beeching Axe” has been loathed by public transport pundits ever since, with the likes of Lord Andrew Adonis urging for it to be reversed, condemned and, I presume, consigned to the dustbin of history. We’re still dealing with the repercussions of the today.

But the public perception of the Beeching Axe is incomplete. For one, it was written at a time when car ownership was skyrocketing and replacing travel on the railways. Beeching’s recommendations came not only from his presumed visceral hatred for public transport, but also the time in which he was writing.

Moreover, the railway lines that have been reopened since Beeching are those that have seen substantial housing development in the interim. We demonise Beeching because we now understand just how important rail travel is for a sustainable public transport network – but he couldn’t have known the in-and-outs of harmful nitrous oxides or the horrors of the motorway box.

In any case, there were some lines axed by Beeching that are hardly worth resuscitating: railways easily substituted by bus, railways that were single track requiring widening, or railways that have simply deteriorated too much and face costs too high to be worth rejuvenating.

But it’d be a total misstep to write these disused railways off and sell the land back. After all, even if they can’t carry trains, they can still carry people; and what a great windfall that turned out to be. Because we got to replace our extra railway lines with the best cycle paths in the country bar none.

Labelled as “rail trails”, many disused railway lines across the country later became public rights of way. And with sleepers and rails removed, the paths are often extremely straight and have shallow gradients, making them perfect for leisurely cycles or even commutes.


In Hertfordshire, for example, rail trails run between St. Albans and Hatfield, Rickmansworth and Watford, and Harpenden and Hemel Hempstead. They’ve all got fashionable nicknames and, in places, the former infrastructure remains as a homage to the era of railway mania – platforms turned to flower gardens and so forth. Other routes are more bucolic, such as Cornwall’s Camel Trail or the Downs Link between Surrey and Sussex.

All this may sound idyllic, but what are the tangible benefits of these rail trails, as opposed to returning them to their original use? For one, they’re far cheaper than railway infrastructure, both to build and maintain. They also offer easy, direct routes between town centres in parts of the country where segregated cycle paths are otherwise rare (essentially, anywhere outside London). This encourages novices to give cycling a go in a welcoming, safe environment, and encourages commuters to try cycling to work. Moreover, and perhaps most obviously, rail trails provide easy access to a green spaces within urban areas that are quiet, pollution-free and welcome to all.

But there’s still work to be done – many potential “rail trails” are in the administrative doldrums despite the relative ease of their creation. In my home county of Suffolk, there’s a rail trail that runs halfway between Ipswich and Hadleigh, but it abruptly ends: one can only presume that farmers bought up the disused railway land.

Meanwhile, there are council areas where building new cycle infrastructure simply isn’t a priority; road building still holds the sway. Before we can build more rail trails, people need convincing of their benefits. Of course, that’s simply done; just point to the nearest one and give it a go. After all, they’re ubiquitous in some pockets of the UK.

There shouldn’t be a single disused railway line left in this country when the cycle paths they could become provide such an excellent blueprint for new cycling infrastructure. They’re not just a swan song to Victorian railway innovation; rail trails are our chance to approach cycling today with the same zeal and enthusiasm as we did with trains in the age of railway mania. The best is yet to come, and, oddly, it’s all thanks to the venerable Dr. Beeching.