Flora Samuel: Design value and the revival of council house building

Something is changing in local authority housing departments. Ever since the housing white paper 2017 came clean about the broken housing market it has been OK to admit that the private sector is incapable of producing the housing that England needs, either in terms of numbers, quality or inclusivity and that, just maybe, local authorities have the leadership that we need. Further, Janice Morphet and Ben Clifford’s important review of local authority direct provision of housing has shown just how much local authorities have been capable of achieving even in the most constrained of circumstances. And now that local authority borrowing caps are to be abolished, we would expect to see local authorities further ratcheting up their housing supply. High profile local authority spin-outs like Croydon’s Brick by Brick development are starting to produce really thoughtful, well-designed homes and the extraordinary bottom-up initiative, Public Practice, is exploiting policy pressure to outsource by placing ‘a new generation of planners within local government to shape places for the public good’. At the same time, a new generation of architects are coming through the system who really want to work for local authorities on the design of housing because they actually want to do some good in the world. The signs are really good.

2018 has also been the year of publication of economist Mariana Mazzucato’s remarkable book The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy. In it, she argues that ‘public value’, the value generated by civil servants, local authorities and policymakers have been purposefully omitted from calculations of wealth generation, for example, GDP and the public sector has therefore been characterised as stodgy, dull and wasteful.

Public institutions can reclaim their rightful role as servants of the common good. They must think big and play a full part in the great transformations to come, squaring up to the issues of climate change, ageing populations and the need for twenty-first century infrastructure and innovation. They must get over the self-fulfilling fear of failure, and realize that experimentation and trial and error (and error and error) are part of the learning process. With confidence and responsibility, they can expect success, and in so doing will recruit and retain top-quality employees. They can change the discourse. Instead of de-risking projects, there will be risk-sharing and reward-sharing (p.266).

Although Mazzucato doesn’t dwell on housing the implications of her words for this sector are profound. Cynics, like Mazzucato, might argue that the government’s recent interest on housing provision is the result of fears about the falling away of young voters unable to find a home. Mixed messages are coming from a government which receives major funding from the Volume House Builders and which itself includes a significant proportion of private landlords. It is hard to imagine that they will be fueling the public sector housing boom that we so desperately need any time soon. Lack of clear leadership in this area is perhaps best seen as an opportunity for local authorities if they are allowed to continue working creatively beneath the radar, though caps on borrowing seem to be a major hindrance to growth. The important achievements of housing associations in keeping the flag flying for affordable housing against extreme odds also provides instructive lessons not dealt with here.

Having set out the historical context of public rented housing in England, the reasons why we are where we are, the CACHE Social Housing Policy Working Group Briefing Paper: Promoting design value in public rented housing, an English perspective offers several recommendations to local authorities who are thinking about expanding their public rented offer. These coalesce around a need to work with communities to support innovation, the collection of robust data and knowledge of what works. The growing recognition of social value in procurement is an important step along the way, as is a more holistic, intelligent and long-term view of Land Value Capture. This requires in-house technical knowledge in local authorities to enable them to play private investors at their own game. It is the absence of long-term learning across multidisciplinary teams that has been one of the housing sectors most profound problems, one that has had a knock-on effect on the impact and productivity of other sectors such as the creative industries and health. It is also core to the opportunity offered by CACHE.

The paper has gone through multiple iterations and consultations with some of the leading thinkers in this area, the main message from them being that, while the energising of local authority housing is welcome and important, the time has come for a major shake-up of housing delivery, value capture and land supply. There is no lack of successful examples from mainland Europe to draw on should we so wish. As Mazzucato concludes ‘it is only by thinking big and differently that government can create value – and hope’ (Mazzucato, 2018, p. 269). If, as Shelter statistics suggest, there are 1.8 million households on lists waiting for a public rented home it is more than hope that is needed here. We need to celebrate and promote the leadership in local authorities who, as Morphet and Clifford have shown, are more than capable of delivering good housing.

Professor Flora Samuel is a Co-Investigator at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and a Professor of Architecture in the Built Environment at the University of Reading. Within CaCHE, Flora leads the ‘Place’ theme.


Date: October 11, 2018 11:44 am


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