The everyday radicalism of good housing

All the snazzy building innovation in the world can't replace what matters most: building good quality homes, with residents' needs in mind

November 05, 2019
Being able to invest in our communities and where we live was life-changing. Photo: Prospect composite
Being able to invest in our communities and where we live was life-changing. Photo: Prospect composite

Growing up, I lived on a council house-lined street that, because our council was so struck for cash, was decaying. With very little esteem for our homes, we felt abandoned until, one day, they asked social tenants on the road how their houses could be improved.

Consultation afforded us a voice. With a few basic, cost-efficient solutions—such as new doors, re-tiled roofs, and solar panel—it also reinvigorated the street. We had finally been listened to and our housing, and subsequently the community, were better for it.

The distinction between high quality and low-quality homes clearly has an impact on wellbeing and esteem. The criminological ‘broken window’ theory, which proposes that a run-down, crime-ridden community encourages only more degradation, is well-trodden—but there remains something to be said about the impact of a place’s beauty on how someone feels about their world.

Whereas on my street we found a voice, in the private sector, renters often face severe neglect, scrambling for box rooms in moldy homes that barely reach the threshold of legality. We live in the remnants of poor planning, and of austere conditions in which councils for a long while have not been able to build adequate new stock, meaning private developers replace them, creating new homes which are “ingenious” to the point of ridiculous.

The story that broke this summer of homeless families living in shipping containers should have provoked more reaction and action than it did. The government that has allowed this to happen has overseen an unfettered free market that has created a cataclysmic housing crisis. Such solutions to this crisis are normal, now. The residents attracted little sympathy and certainly no clear response, adding to this sense that poor tenants are undeserving of anything more than the most basic life necessities if even those.

While of course not equal in severity, developments like the London-based PocketLiving expose the extent to which developers have utilised solutions even for new, young homeowners that, perhaps just a decade ago, would have elicited a grimace. Built from purpose-built containers stacked on top of each other, for local residents there is a considerable discount.

However, whilst it is aimed at first-time buyers, the average Pocket buyer earns £40,000, well above the London average. Not only are its buyers middle class, but the middle class themselves are now restricted to homes that can be smaller than a Tube carriage.

Other new projects, however, show a better way forward.

This October, a council housing project in Norwich was awarded a RIBA Stirling Prize for its “high-quality architecture” in an “environmentally and socially conscious form.” Made from actual brick, designed up against actual standards, and actually insulated, these afford social tenants a legitimately quality and cost-efficient home. Not a shipping container in sight, the council found a way to fund, through a mixture of methods and tax receipts, a scheme that will create a community that feels as though its needs have been listened to. They were built conscious of people. Eco-friendly, the homes are run on a solar scheme, which makes their energy bills 70 per cent cheaper than average households; they are built to receive sunlight to make them light and airy, and personal touches have been added for residents, such as different-coloured doors and private balconies.

I talked to Tom Copley, Chair of the Housing Committee in the London Assembly, on what goes into a good housing scheme. He told me good schemes are built from consultation with and participation of the communities they affect: “councils have begun to build again for the first time in a generation, and most of what they’re building far outdoes the private sector in terms of quality. Unlike private developers, who are incentivised to build as cheaply as possible at the highest density possible, councils have different motivations.”

Crucially, he says, “They consult closely with communities, often meaning schemes will go through major alterations between the initial design and what is eventually given planning permission.”

Like Norwich, consultative schemes have arisen from an array of innovative councils. Among many seeking the opinion of its residents, both for new and otherwise damaging regenerative schemes, councils such as those in Hastings consulted with its community, presenting proposals to and hosting events with residents; while Brent consults regularly with Public Exhibitions on ‘community design priorities’ for rebuilding its estates.

Copley also notes, as with Norwich, of the success of schemes where experts are listened to as well: “Councils have also engaged smaller, more innovative architect practices who have produced exceptionally designed schemes.”

Everyone deserves a quality roof over their head, and to be listened to when faced with poor housing. They should feel deserving of a cohesive and attractive community. Norwich has shown this is possible. It is possible through deliberation, thoughtfulness and consultation triumphing over neglect, and local government is winning—by a considerable margin—over private developers.