Housing: reform or revolution?

Saturday 28 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1City life

The fire at Grenfell Tower and the tragic loss of life that ensued has brought into the open the simmering tensions created by a housing crisis that has been long been admitted, but to which few convincing solutions have been offered. Even though many experts admit that we need to build around 250,000 – 300,000 new houses a year to keep up with demand, we are barely building half that. With spiralling prices and rising debt, whatever is built is often out of the price range of ordinary people.

The perversities of the current situation are manifold. Luxury blocks go up, only for many apartments to lie empty, while those who rely on social provision are left in shoddy, even dangerous conditions. Britain’s much-vaunted home-owning democracy sits alongside continuing homelessness. There is clearly something seriously wrong in the construction of houses and the provision of decent and affordable homes. Clearly, there are not enough homes being built, and what is being built tends to be basic and unimaginative.

Although population growth gathered pace from the 1970s, levels of housebuilding had already slumped rapidly from their highpoint in the late Sixties. Yet it was not until the Barker Report in 2003 that the problem of chronic undersupply became firmly fixed in policymakers’ thoughts. The period since has seen a steady stream of initiatives that have attempted to kickstart the building of new homes, fuelled by incentivised schemes such as ‘growth areas’ and ‘affordable’ homes, ‘keyworker housing’ and ‘shared ownership’. However, in early 2017, The Economist noted more than 200 new housing initiatives since 2010, but concluded that ‘Britain’s housing market is broken’.

There is clearly a need for new ideas. For example, Britain’s housing construction industry seems to be as slow and labour-intensive as it was in Victorian times. While other industries have benefited from mass manufacture, the use of robots and many other technological developments, there seems a remarkable lack of innovation when it comes to building homes.

Critics have tended to point out the housing iniquities and community alienation arising out of gentrification, green belt protection and the rise of private landlords. Some argue for the protection of historic council estates, like Robin Hood Gardens in London, while others want to demolish and rebuild it to more modern standards. Ironically, it is left-wing activists who are the fiercest proponents of the conservation approach, while modernisers are often portrayed as right-wing neo-liberals.

Architect Patrik Schumacher argues that housing should be provided by a ‘freely self-regulating and self-motivating market process’ and advocates cheaper, smaller homes, the size of which will be ultimately determined by the market. Other fashionable contemporary solutions include new developer-led co-housing initiatives to create communal living and ‘naked homes’ – spartan apartments that keep costs down by stripping out everything not considered essential, including partition walls, wall finishes and flooring, all while offering only basic plumbing. Should we welcome the social benefits of sharing or bemoan a retreat from the dreams of owning your own home? Does architectural journalist Owen Hatherley have a point when he says that self-build won’t cut it? ‘To really solve the housing crisis’, he says, ‘would involve resorting to the dark arts of mass housing: scale, industrialisation, universalism’.

So is there a big idea? Is this a problem caused by over-speculation or by a cautious and risk-averse market? Should we look for the cause in the collapse of public provision, the dislike of a rental sector, pressure from immigration or a refusal to provide? Is a potentially productive housing sector being dragged down by government over-regulation? Or is the real problem a political vacuum of ideas?