27/06/2019

The new generation of council housing

It's back and it's beautiful – after a four-decade hiatus, council housing is sweeping Britain, with quality, innovation and design now a priority.

A broad arched entranceway leads into a tree-lined courtyard where a playground is overlooked by balconies full of plants. Banded brick walls frame stone stairwells with deep oxblood and creamy white tiles. These connect to spacious decks of homes, each identified with a numbered tile.

This splendour is just what you would expect to see in the Bourne Estate in Holborn, which boasts some of the finest public tenement housing of Edwardian London. Yet these blocks are not part of the 1905, Grade II-listed estate but a recent addition built by Camden as part of its new generation of council housing.

Designed by architect Matthew Lloyd, the buildings exude a quality rarely found in developer-built flats – handsome proportions and crafted details mirroring the love and care that went into the surrounding estate, only brought up-to-date with bigger windows, higher ceilings and more generous spaces.

It might sound like an anomaly, but this group of 75 homes is one of many such developments now appearing across London, as local authorities have begun to build their own housing again. They are mostly doing so for the first time in four decades, since Margaret Thatcher took away their powers to build. These were only returned in 2012 and, in the seven years since, London councils have built over 2,000 homes – compared to only 70 in the seven years before that.

But it’s not quite social housing as we once knew it. Given the continued lack of central government funding, councils have turned to a more entrepreneurial model, usually including a substantial number of flats for private sale to subsidise the council accommodation.

Hackney recently built a pair of David Chipperfield-designed towers, the sale of which helped pay for the regeneration of the Colville estate next door. In Camden’s case, its boutique apartments are marketed as the Camden Collection, with the breathless marketing spiel you would expect from a luxury developer. At the Bourne Estate there are 31 such flats – including two-bedroom ones on sale for £1.3m – in order to fund 35 new council flats and 10 at intermediate rent, leased below market rates.

People might think it’s strange for a council to be behaving like a developer. But with the current constraints, it’s one of the only ways of funding investment.

Danny Beales - Cabinet Member for Camden's Community Investment Programme

Camden’s Community Investment Programme (CIP) is an ambitious 15-year plan to pump over £1bn into schools, homes and community facilities across the borough, funded in large part by the sale of flats built on public land. Exploiting the high value of its central London location – described by the Labour council as its “North Sea oil” strategy – Camden has one of the biggest house-building programmes of all, with over 3,000 homes planned, 862 of which have been completed so far, around half for social and intermediate rent.

There are signs that the next wave of development might be better focused on delivering homes for those in urgent need. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, responded to local authorities’ pleas last year, negotiating a £1bn fund from central government to build 11,000 new council homes over the next four years, set explicitly at social rent levels.

It’s still not enough, but with Newham, Ealing, Hackney and Southwark each planning to build around 1,000 units from this pot, we may be inching towards a time when public housing is no longer an endangered species but a source of well-designed, high quality homes to be proud of.

As featured in The Guardian. To read the full article, please click here.

Sign up to receive regular updates from Scape, including the latest news and Insight Magazine.

Your subscription has been confirmed. You've been added to our list and will hear from us soon.

Back to top