London witnesses public housing ‘revolution’

Tuesday 28 May 2019

James Murray

London has undergone a ‘revolution’ in the way local authorities have approached council home building, buoyed by a ‘new ambition and appetite’. But councils must demand high quality, not rest on their laurels and push for even more.

That was the view of deputy mayor James Murray as he opened last week's Public Housing: a London renaissance conference at NLA.

‘I’m pleased that council housing is centre stage’, he said, referring to what he felt were the ‘really high quality designs and impressive work going on across London’ as evidenced by the NLA exhibition, in contrast to the ‘massive drop off’ in this area that occurred in the 1980s ‘blip’ under Margaret Thatcher. Public housing now, though, was central to solving the capital’s housing crisis, Murray said, and needs to play a bigger role still.

‘We’re investing £1bn in council home building across 27 local authorities – a four or five fold increase in the level of council home building in these four years compared to the last four years’, he said. ‘So, the level of appetite there amongst councils is really extraordinary and really encouraging’.

Murray said figures from its one year old programme ‘Building council homes for Londoners’ showed it was working. 

‘Last year we started more council homes than in the past 34 years in London; it shows the ambition councils have and that if we put a bit of money in we can really increase what they are doing’…’Across the board, there is no shortage of ambition’.

The half-day conference, the first of a series of events to run alongside the NLA exhibition looked at the ‘renaissance’ that has taken place in the numbers of homes delivered directly by councils, aided by a pledgeby London Mayor Sadiq Khan of £10m to help them boost housing design and planning teams. 

Municipal’s Claire Bennie said that public bodies have a ‘once in a generation’ chance to build a million homes in London ‘which are attractive, robust and popular, and which are still lived in with pride in 100 years’ time’. But there was a ‘hell of a lot’ of work to do to get everybody matching the ‘best in class’ on show at the exhibition. It was an ‘extraordinary change’ that London councils will shortly be producing 5,000 homes a year – 15% of London’s delivery – albeit with a ‘painful’ learning curve attached. ‘Hug a council officer’, urged Bennie. ‘Listen to local authorities and know that they are really trying’.

The conference also included exemplary projects, such as the Agar Grove estate redevelopment. Ian Sumner of Camden Council said that close consultation with local people, the planning authority and other key stakeholders helped inform the design, which includes creating accessible green spaces between homes and improved pedestrian routes. It also enabled all but one tenant to stay on the estate, with a post-occupancy study set to follow shortly. HawkinsBrown’s Seth Rutt explained the approach on the six-phase scheme with Mae Architects further, essentially doubling density and creating streets and squares, but with valuable ‘door-knocking’ forming the bedrock of the project. ‘The affordable homes have been front-loaded in the masterplan’, he said. ‘The masterplan is granular because of the phasing – we’re implying lessons learnt in terms of Passivhaus in the next phases.’ The engineering aspect, meanwhile, adopted a ‘fabric first’ approach to improve energy performance and lead to Passivhaus certification, said Hero Bennett of Max Fordham. ‘It was about putting tenants first’, she said ‘and what that meant in this case was tackling fuel poverty’.

Other lessons included from Lewisham, which is aiming to deliver 1000 new social homes by mid-2022 directly and in partnerships, said acting director regeneration and place Freddie Murray, and the London Community Trust set up by local people to develop and manage homes in the neighbourhood to designs by Archio. 

Finally, a masterplan case study, the Adam Khan Architects and muf architecture & art-designed Tower Court in Hackney, one of 18 projects in the borough’s estate regeneration programme, concentrated on the ‘place’, said Hackney Council’s Ken Rorrison. Councils haven’t built for 40 years, Rorrison said, so it is a ‘bit of a lost art’, that requires skills in-house. ‘We think less about estates now and more parts of the city’, he added. ‘We want to work in a joined up and innovative way to create and sustain high quality, liveable neighbourhoods, where people choose to live, work and visit’.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Public Housing: a London renaissance


The draft London Plan more than doubles the housing targets of some London boroughs, while the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government says that London needs to deliver 100,000 homes.