Ellis Woodman - editor
An exhibition on council homes in the sixties demonstrates how current procurement processes hamper good quality social housing
Visiting Cook’s Camden, the newly opened exhibition on the social housing built by Camden Council in the sixties and seventies (see Culture page 22) makes for a humbling experience.
One is left to wonder quite how – as recently as 30 years ago – it was possible to build housing for low-income families at a scale and to an architectural standard that is simply unimaginable today.
What happened? The death of the local authority architects’ department may be part of the answer, but there is surely no shortage of private practices that have shown they have the skills to design affordable housing and the appetite to do so working in the UK today.
The programme to build a series of affordable housing schemes around south London’s Elephant & Castle has long promised to be a demonstration of some of that talent. It may yet achieve that goal. However, it has been painfully slow in coming and for many of the people that it was originally intended to serve it has simply been delivered too late.
These are the residents of the 1974 Heygate Estate, the vast scheme at the heart of Elephant & Castle on which the first phase of demolition work is soon to begin. The new housing was meant to accommodate them close to the site of their vacated homes, but the slow pace of delivery has ensured that they have been dispersed very much more widely. To all intents and purposes, a community has been squandered.
Slow delivery means that, to all intents and purposes, a community has been squandered
The blame lies with a procurement route that was infinitely more complex than that by which the monuments of Cook’s Camden were delivered. Southwark Council owns the land on which the projects are being realised and conducted the competitions by which an exceptional roster of architectural talent was assembled. However, the council then passed responsibility for the projects’ construction to a group of registered social landlords, on the basis of agreements about how many of the units in each scheme would be market housing and how many affordable.
Maintaining this crucial development equation did not prove easy, not least because the RSLs were being asked to carry a considerable level of risk. The schemes had yet to secure planning permission and a number of them struggled to do so.
Further delays resulted from the council’s failure to describe the boundaries around a number of the sites properly. All this played out against the backdrop of a collapsing housing market, with the effect that the potential value of the market housing was reducing by the week.
In many cases, it fell to the point where projects had to be put on hold or the development equation recalibrated significantly. A number had to be cancelled outright.
If there is a lesson to be learnt it is that, in such arrangements, it is incumbent upon the local authority to minimise the risks to RSLs, so as to ensure the swiftest possible delivery. Southwark should have taken the schemes to planning itself.
However, this is also perhaps a useful moment to ask whether a procurement method so susceptible to market forces is ever going to deliver the social housing this country needs. Cook’s Camden reminds us that, not so very long ago, there was another way.
05 November 2010