Owen Hatherley: Historic solutions to the modern housing problem


“Build More Bloody Houses”, goes the slogan; “Build More Bloody Council Houses”, goes the more leftist version. It’s hard to argue with either. Although the root cause of the problem is regional unevenness rather than a lack of homes in Britain per se, there’s no doubt that a lot more housing needs to be built, in the south-east especially. There’s also no serious doubt that the market has failed to provide what is needed, and has failed even more dramatically in providing it at a decent price and a reasonable quality. But now we’ve established this is what we’re going to do, what happens next? How would new social or council housing be built? What should it be like? What can it do for those that live in it?

Along with the demand for a mass building programme, there have been more complex ideas expressed about how it should be provided. In order to circumvent a largely hostile building industry, John McDonnell has spoken about reconstructing something similar to the municipally owned ‘direct labour organisations’ that built a huge amount of housing until the 1960s. The New Models of Ownership paper, meanwhile, suggests that there are potential models other than total state control for taking housing out of the market. Even so, the major debate over what to do next will centre on a divide – roughly analogous to that Jeremy Gilbert has claimed exists between ‘statist’ and ‘libertarian’ wings of Momentum – between mass housing, and 1970s ideas around self-build and ‘community’ housing.

At the end of the 1970s, the last time council housing was built in any decent quantity, three housing schemes showed what was possible. Alexandra Road, in Camden, was a huge ziggurat-like street of raw concrete housing 500 households, designed according to the principle of ‘Low Rise, High Density’. It was finished to huge controversy, bitterly condemned by New Left councillors for its cost-overruns and its avant-garde design. It is now loved by its residents – who made a film on it, Rowley Way Speaks for Itself – and its architect, Neave Brown, who built nothing in Britain ever again, won the RIBA Gold Medal this year. In Newcastle, the long-running incremental rebuilding of Byker to a design by the Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine, with the close collaboration of its current and prospective tenants, was nearing completion. And Lewisham Council was offering some of its less attractive bits of land to self-builders working with the German architect Walter Segal. All three of these suggested ways out of the conundrums mass housing found itself in both in the market-driven ’30s (when it was for those who could afford it, mostly in the south and the Midlands) and the council-driven 60s (when the pursuit of numbers at all costs too often led to desolate peripheral estates, compounded by some poorly constructed experiments in prefabrication). Alexandra Road was an astonishingly cohesive image of community, built from the top down; Byker a visually contrasting experiment in differing heights, materials and types; and the ‘Segal houses’ lightweight, clear and individualistic suggestions that councils could be put to unexpectedly anarchistic uses.

Some of the ideas behind these fed into how housing was done under Labour from 1997 to 2010. Consultation became essential, although often a matter of rubber-stamping; and a desire to avoid the ‘social exclusion’ that allegedly came with mass housing led to the ‘pepper-potting’ of social tenants with wealthier owners in developments like Greenwich Millennium Village (something that was rather abortive – check the resident’s forum to find endless complaints by richer residents about their ‘chav’ neighbours). Tiny experiments like Islington Square in Manchester or BedZED in Croydon were small-scale showcases of resident participation and sustainable energy, respectively. But mostly, housing in the 2000s was a matter of high-rise, high-density in the city centres and cul-de-sacs outside them, nearly always provided by developers, with flats smaller and public spaces sparser than the worst housing of the 60s. Councils were suppressed as providers of the increasingly residual social housing, in favour of Housing Associations that have often become glorified property developers, and Arms Length Management Organisations that have been no more accountable to tenants than councils. Grenfell Tower, notoriously, was run by the country’s biggest Tenants Management Organisation, heavily criticised for patronising and obstructing tower residents’ attempts to raise safety concerns.

Self-build has become a minor cult recently, with exhibitions and publications about the Lewisham houses – an obvious influence on new ‘community’ architects like Assemble, who won the Turner Prize for their refurbishment work in Toxteth, but it has never been adequately explained how it can be done at the sort of scale needed to even make a dent in the (already massaged) council waiting lists. Mass building is going to be needed, and it simply can’t plausibly be done through a system where everyone knows each other and there is no division of labour. Many estates that are successful now – like Alexandra Road – have become so because they’ve had time to grow up properly, with social links established, trees growing up and memories established. Anything freshly built is going to lack this. New housing should combine the accountability and incremental planning of a Byker, the confidence and sweep of an Alexandra Road, and the democracy and lightweight, sustainable construction techniques of the Segal houses.

Councils, unlike Housing Associations or Co-Operatives, are uniquely equipped to build at scale and to allocate their housing to those who need it, rather than to who might be a good member of the Co-Op; most have neither the time on their hands or the stability in where they live to devote their lives to the management and building of their own housing, and in an age of precarity, the stability and predictability of universal housing is more important now than it was in the era of full employment and the nuclear family. However, each estate should be built with the participation and input of the people who live nearby, and the tenants who are going to live there. Tenants Associations should be mandatory. Maintenance should be factored into design and costing from the start. Then, we might be able to avoid the many problems that have arisen when we’ve decided that we need to build, fast.

Owen Hatherley is a journalist and writer who focuses on housebuilding. 

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