Each year the Housing Design Awards recognise schemes that help raise the bar for quality housing in the UK. But who will actually build the 300,000 homes the UK needs, and how? David Birkbeck of Design for Homes shares his observations from this year's awards.
Endless Saharan skies this summer will have dazzled many trying to catch up with relevant industry news on their smart phones. So what might you have missed? The temperature of housing politics followed the mercury upward. In early August Treasury secretary Liz Truss said her party had to ‘get used to’ homes being built through greenfield release, ‘a lot more’, or ‘end up with Jeremy Corbyn as PM’. In late July Jacob Rees Mogg stopped policing Brexit to condemn the ‘sclerotic planning system’, highlighting how France had built 8 million homes to Britain’s 2 million. If it feels like these ambitious planning targets deliver little change, a revised National Planning Policy Framework slipped out introducing tough penalties for local planning authorities which don’t get the homes built that their ambitious targets promise. Parliament is crunching through the gears as it tries to get near its promised 300,000 a year by 2023. But who will build them?
Curiously, Labour councils will be helping. The first round of funding cuts hurt Labour councils hardest. They were first to project how the squeeze might end – London’s Camden Council published its Domesday projection in 2013 warning 2023 would see services cut to a ‘bare legal minimum’. So it chose to act. The borough set up a development arm to start building new council homes subsidised by market sale properties. Camden is lucky because its tired council estates are in high value areas like Holborn so the land values underpin estate regeneration. But that doesn’t lead directly to the quality of what Camden has been up to. There have been some detailed write-ups on its Bourne estate and even a very insightful film so I won’t add anything here. But when schemes procured by councils trounce those by Berkeley Homes or Urban Splash unanimously for Housing Design Awards judges, you need to pay attention. Councils are building stock they aim to sell high, or hold for ever for rental income, while New Homes Bonus from both streams also earns desperately needed funds.
It’s not just Camden (which won 3 Housing Design Awards). Salford City Council, Lewisham, Mid Devon District Council (for a scheme in Tiverton) and Croydon Borough Council all won in a year when only Barratt Developments shone among the majors. Croydon’s Brick By Brick programme could be a model for many other councils. The borough has chosen to turn its landbank of odds-and-sods – think blocks of precast concrete lock-up garages, sites with awkward topography and backlands infill between low-rise estates – into a housing programme which already has some 1200 units in planning. Each design is bespoke because of often very different site constraints. So to control costs the structures of each housing scheme will consist wherever possible of a limited set of timber components designed by modular pioneering architects HTA with Coventry based SIPs manufacturer Innovare Systems. There are many more councils that could do this and many more now will try after watching Croydon’s break out.
These developments are among the first fruits of a change made by then Chancellor George Osborne back in December 2013 when caps on councils borrowing to fund home building were relaxed. It’s taken a while for the fiscal freedoms to be exploited but the evidence is that councils are gearing up to build in volume again. It will take another decade to get anywhere near the largescale municipal programmes of the 1950s and 1960s, but coupled to a newly muscular Homes England with its emphasis on supporting local partnerships of councils in providing new homes, the state’s homebuilding activity has gone from utterly pitiful to very promising. Time to take a proper look at the most dynamic sector of the housing market.