“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.

 
 
 
 

Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.