Social housing is good. But let’s make it beautiful too | Zoe Williams

The big parties speak only of practicalities. Perhaps they should try focusing on aesthetics for a change

Ostentatious parsimony was the phrase used by Kate Macintosh, the woman responsible for some of the most ambitious local authority housing of the 1960s and 70s, to describe the spending environment for the social architect. Housing ministers would speak with pride of stripping out unnecessary extravagances, such as balconies and windows.

The philosophy went beyond thrift. In social housing, anything above the bare minimum was lavish, and anything lavish was an insult to the public purse. In the 90s, as PFI contracts took hold, the ostentatious parsimony of the state met the carelessness of the investor. How much does a landlord care about liveability – about grace, light, views and carbon emissions?

The result was not so much universal declining standards – architects, unavoidably, still have talent, energy and ambition – but the dishevelment of public housing. We lost all confidence in our collective ability to create a proud and, in the old-fashioned sense, awesome built environment.

In their manifesto last week, the Tories promised to build a million homes by the end of 2020, 500,000 more by the end of 2022. This is semantically more than Ed Miliband’s promise at the last general election of “up to” a million by 2020, and atmospherically equal to Jeremy Corbyn’s “over a million new homes” by the end of the next parliament. There is almost no detail in Theresa May’s plans as to how the housing is funded, or who it would be for, except that 160,000 homes would be built by the government on its own land. The Tories are clear on what they are against: poor-quality homes, careless developers, high land costs and poor planning. And they raise an idea that they obviously consider meaningful, since it’s capitalised: new Council Housing Deals, to support “ambitious, pro-development local authorities”.

Yet there is no sense that any of those modern ills are within the government’s power to control – no sense of how to enforce better quality, how to make developers care, what to do about land costs, or what better planning looks like (for instance, would it be more centralised or more devolved?). What is an ambitious, pro-development local authority? One whose ambitions are to sell its land to developers for private homes? Or one that is developing its own land for the housing of its own residents? This is more than strategically ambiguous: it is completely opaque. Likewise, those 160,000 homes built by government - in private partnerships? Or are they going to insource construction? And who would those homes be for?

Labour is clearer: at least half its million homes would be built by councils or housing associations to be “genuinely affordable” (this is framed as a break from the current definition of affordability, 80% of local market rent). They’re also explicit on building carbon-neutral housing, and on minimum space requirements.

In short, everybody can see there is a problem. Very few people celebrate the housing solutions of the past: Margaret Thatcher’s council house selloff that delivered social housing into the hands of private landlords and left the government with a colossal housing benefit bill. Scarcely anyone, from any point on the political spectrum, favours a hands-off state approach (except Ukip, whose answer is to let developers build anywhere, on anything – except golf courses).

Yet there is a fundamental implausibility to all these promises: nobody really thinks they themselves will end up living in one of these million, or more than a million, homes. The only people who think they’re a possible candidate for social housing are those who are already on waiting lists, but the number who can’t afford private rent is far greater. Any housing that isn’t specifically ringfenced as social is assumed to end up in the hands of an investor.

The rhetorical fixation on “rabbit hutches” (everyone pledges not to build those) conjures a future in which developers develop faceless, high-density blocks, and a planner goes round with a ruler to check they’re suitable for dwellers larger than a rabbit. When parties promise a million homes, we imagine a million little boxes that we can’t afford, or won’t be for us.

Two years ago I started kicking about at an architectural practice called Studio Egret West. They wanted a book about their philosophy; I wanted to think about something other than politics, which – as improbable as it sounds now – was very boring just before the 2015 election: small, consumer policies from cantankerous men. The architects’ conversations were in fact intensely political: approaching housing aesthetically is just a different kind of politics.

They talked about how putting a million more houses in a country changes that country, and how that needn’t be for the worse. You can densify a city and make it greener, not greyer, with living walls, winter gardens, landscape planning that marries the botany to the building, parks in the sky, and ideas to restore to nature the space that the building appropriated, turning it seamlessly into a vision of sustainability and zero-carbon living. Equality came up as a function of design: how do you create a sense of community in a mixed-income development, except through shared space?

Neighbourliness cannot be handed down by diktat. They described how to meet the constraints of space with more imaginative ways of shaping and using it, and how housing should never be tucked away and separated from the industry and activity that is the pulse of its city. They talked about how to build upwards without devastating the skyline or oppressing the people on the ground.

They described how understanding the history and the narrative of the architecture that came before would imbue new buildings with a sense of modernity through continuity, instead of a jarring newness. They described a future city that could properly house its people without turning them into extras in Bladerunner.

And if you ever said, “this sounds expensive”, they said there is nothing more expensive than something ugly that has to be demolished. Concrete accounts for 5% of all human-generated CO2 emissions. As Macintosh says: “What is barely acceptable to one generation becomes an insult to the next. It is always good economics to provide the best and get it right first time.”

I didn’t write the book, in the end: they wrote it themselves. But I realised what’s missing from this conversation, why the promises never stick. It’s not the detail, the intricate plans on who will build what, who will pay, in what private-public permutation, and who will live in the homes. That’s missing too. But what is missing in the first instance is beauty.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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