Large-scale house building doesn’t have to mean sacrificing quality

Philip Glanville

This year, Hackney is marking two anniversaries in the history of social housing. The first is the 100 year anniversary of the Housing and Planning Act 1919, popularly known as the Addison Act after the Shoreditch Liberal (and then Labour) MP and Minister Christopher Addison. This act ushered in ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ and the first era of council house building in Hackney, many of which are still standing today. It set out a clear sense of national mission that only returned under the 1945 Labour government and, despite all the Macmillan rhetoric, our weakened Tory architects of the current housing crisis have singularly failed to match.

A more contemporary anniversary is also being marked. It is ten years since, under Labour, Hackney returned to this legacy and started to directly build council housing again. This was only possible given the financial and policy freedoms of the last Labour government, led by John Healey, then Housing Minister (now our excellent Shadow Secretary), who started the Local Authority New Build Programme.

We have learnt a lot in the past ten years, from how to give residents a meaningful voice in the building and design of their new homes to continuing to fly the, dare I say it, ‘red flag’ of council housing when many on the left and in the sector abandoned real council housing under Tory and Lib Dem attacks.

Social house-building has never been more important. That is why, despite little support from central government, Labour in Hackney is building thousands of council homes. Our in-house direct delivery programme, which focuses on us building council homes on council land, is delivering – to date we have built 912 homes across the borough. 62% of these hundreds of new council homes delivered between 2010 and 2018 are genuinely affordable – either for social rent or shared ownership. All were directly built and funded by the council, and will continue to be managed by it on council-owned land.

We are creating modern, high-quality, well-designed and spacious council housing that is built to last. Crucially, these homes are in mixed communities with the same high-quality lobbies and entrances for all residents, no segregation of public space or facilities, retaining ownership and management whether you are a private buyer or new council tenant.

We also continue to innovate developing an in-house non-profit estate agent Hackney Sales, which ensures our shared ownership homes or private sales homes (that we still need to sell to invest in council housing) are marketed and sold to local people first. At King’s Crescent, working with our construction partner, we ensured that none of the private sale homes were sold to foreign investor buyers and 97% went to owner-occupiers. We’ve made good on the idea of ‘first dibs’ for Londoners, and attracted international attention in the New York Times.

Frankly, compared to much of the social housing that was built in the past two decades, we are firmly saying that social tenants deserve the very best good quality homes. They deserve homes that would be the envy of any luxury developer brochure, but at true council rents and tenancies. Learning some of the clear lessons from our own past that we cannot afford to sacrifice quality for volume is something that a future Labour government committed to volume public housing delivery will need to learn from pioneering Labour councils like Hackney.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t acutely aware that Hackney residents are at the forefront of the capital’s housing crisis. In Hackney alone, it is a sad reality that there are currently more than 13,000 families waiting for a council home. More than 3,000 of these are living in temporary accommodation.

Following the support that the mayor of London has provided through the ‘Building Council Homes for Londoners’ fund, this month we will set out where we’ll be delivering over 100 more council homes for social rent than we could have without this desperately needed funding – homes that would otherwise have been for shared ownership or outright sale. That means 100 more families living in new, modern, high-quality council homes.

I am proud that as mayor, Hackney’s Labour council will more than triple its record of housebuilding over the previous two terms ─ under our 2018 manifesto we will directly deliver nearly 2,000 new homes, three schools and a new leisure centre. Over half of the new housing will be genuinely affordable – for social rent and shared ownership – and, just as importantly, these homes will be high quality and built to last. These homes are for local people and are designed in partnership with them, following the principles in the mayor of London’s Estate Regeneration Good Practice Guide, which Hackney’s approach helped to shape.

Our approach is focused on placebuilding ─ on building good quality homes that stand the test of time and that all our residents can be proud of. Alongside high quality architecture, we prioritise the highest environmental standards including plans to integrate new localised energy generation into a council-owned company. We also ensure that the London Living Wage is paid in the supply chain, create new apprenticeships and embed local recruitment through Hackney Works.

This month, we are also laying out how we will invest in new affordable work space, held by the council in perpetuity. We’ll make sure that the new developments we create address not just housing inequality, but economic inequality too ─ helping to bridge the gap and build a more inclusive local economy.

Rather than just talking about building homes, we are doing it. We as Labour must be proud of the ambitions of the past, channeling them into a new era of Labour-led public housing delivery, while avoiding some of the pitfalls by putting people and quality at the heart of everything we do. What better way of marking 100 years of local council housing than by uniting to win the local elections in May and making certain that mayor Khan is re-elected next year in London. We are clearly showing the difference that Labour in power can make and laying the building blocks for a radical Labour government that will truly invest in council housing – so that boroughs like Hackney are able to do even more.

This piece was commissioned by Tom Copley, who is guest editing LabourList today.

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