Julia Park manages to find a few things to cheer as she looks back over the last decade
I’ve always felt ambivalent about “look backs” but a decade is a decent length of time to reflect on what’s changed in major areas such as housing.
Context matters. 2010 brought a general election that ended Labour’s 13-year reign. The fall-out of the 2007-8 global financial crash was still all too evident; lending had been tightened and, outside London, housebuilding had almost ground to a halt and nothing was selling. The Cameron-led, coalition government set out plans to re-boot the housing market in a climate of localism, liberalisation and austerity while promising to be the “greenest government ever”.
Against that backdrop, it would be fair to characterise the 2010s as a decade of housing recovery, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Fresh challenges, opportunities and errors of judgment crop up all the time. Here is my list of 13 things that changed, for better or worse:
1. The realisation that climate change must be tackled
2. The return of council housing
3. The improvement in the quality of specialised housing for older people
4. The resurgence of MMC
5. The birth and boom in build to rent
6. The increase in net completions
7. The review of housing standards
8. The inadequacy of safety legislation
9. The obsession with home ownership
10. The slashing of grant funding
11. The misuse of Help to Buy
12. The scourge of PDR
13. The rise in homelessness
The roughly equal split of good and bad belies the overall picture. The last 10 years have been heavily focused on deregulation, increasing supply through private provision, and home ownership. And, no, the setting up of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission didn’t make it on to the good section of the list though it was a close contender for the second half…
Looming over all of this is the lack of any kind of strategic vision for housing. The constant churn of secretaries of state and housing ministers as well as three prime ministers, is partly to blame. And then there was Brexit.
Nonetheless, while mitigating climate change is still largely an ambition (the revolution Cameron promised never really got going), and the second wave of council-built housing is still in its infancy, the top two on my list deserve double points at least. Despite the spending cuts and put-downs they’ve had to endure, councils across the country now seem more invigorated than I can remember. Stirling Prize winner Goldsmith Street proves that it’s possible to produce high-quality, affordable, zero-carbon homes when committed public sector clients work with talented architects. The downside is that it’s taken the entire decade for the project to come to fruition.
Next up, the marked improvement in the design of housing for older people, due largely to the 2009 HAPPI project. The range of options has increased and the quality improved, though numbers are still low. New Ground, the older women’s co-housing scheme in Barnet designed by PTE Architects, has attracted huge interest: 4.5 million people watched the BBC coverage of moving-in day, and more than 400 applied to live there – enough to fill its 26 flats16 times over.
Number four on the list is mostly good, but I wasn’t the only one who felt relief when Paul Karakusevic and Cany Ash voiced their reservations about some forms of MMC at a recent event. Most of the huge new modular towers are bland and overbearing, and a good proportion of the factory-made suburban housing has also been disappointing so far. MMC is eminently sensible in principle, but the industry will need to work harder if we are to achieve subtle, sensitive, and contextual buildings that feel solidly rooted in distinct places.
I have similarly mixed feelings about the rapid rise of build to rent in major cities. Undoubtedly better quality and better managed than the average privately rented HMO – but that comes at a price. Long, double-banked corridors seem to be ubiquitous and the internal layouts are institutional as a result.
It would be churlish not to welcome the increase in overall housing numbers, but the tenure balance is disappointing, to put it mildly. And a significant proportion of the uplift is due to the sub-standard office conversions that earn their own place on the list.
Mixed views about the Housing Standards Review too. Despite being part of the wider deregulatory agenda and ultimately subject to “one in, three out” (pounds that is), some rationalisation of hitherto locally set standards was needed. In short, the right idea but for the wrong reasons and poorly implemented.
Still ubiquitous, still dull, still car-dominated but apparently now with even fewer cavity barriers than we thought
Had it not been for the Grenfell Tower fire, undoubtedly one of the defining events of the last decade, the Building Regulations and Approved Documents might have continued to limp along with minor tweaks. Everything, from the re-housing and re-cladding to the reviews and the amendments to Approved Document B, has been painfully slow. Hopefully, Hackitt’s “golden thread” will have a positive impact on procurement and the architect’s role, as well as on fire safety and the wider regulatory framework.
It’s unequivocally downhill from here, I’m afraid. The obsession with home ownership, the slashing of grant funding, the misuse of Help to Buy, the scourge of PDR and the rise in homelessness need little explanation but require urgent attention.
>> Also read: A new low in office-to-residential conversions
>> Also read: ‘The level of ambition is worryingly low’
Just one each from my two other lists: “What didn’t get started” and “What didn’t change at all”. The subject of my first BD column in February 2016, starter homes always felt like a non-starter. Classing them as affordable housing (despite being for sale) was yet another sign of the cynical determination to redefine “affordable” and allow social housing to all but disappear.
No surprise about my choice for what didn’t change. You may have heard me say before that most new suburban speculative housing remains doggedly similar to that built in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Still ubiquitous, still dull, still car-dominated but apparently now with even fewer cavity barriers than we thought.
It shouldn’t be difficult for the next decade to better the previous one. Beyond tackling the large mound of unfinished business from the 2010s, we need a positive vision for the future. The public sector must be given a greater role in housing delivery and set a standard for others to follow. Climate change mitigation must be part of every conversation and robust regulation must be effective in catching those who drag their feet. If it helps to have a catchy summary of priorities, “people, places and the planet”, the title of the RIBA’s latest manifesto, will do nicely.
Julia Park is head of housing research at Levitt Bernstein