A Greener Future for Council Housing: interview with John Boughton

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

In recent months we have seen steps forward in green housing policy in the UK, with a plethora of net zero guidelines and tentative indicators that the government and industry heavyweights might be willing to tighten rules on carbon requirements for buildings. But while momentum might be growing for genuinely greener buildings, the complexities of the housing system continue to extend far beyond a carbon calculation. In his inimitable book Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing, social historian John Boughton traces the social and architectural history of social housing in the UK, highlighting the lines of gentrification scoring through our cities, the devastating effects of privatisation and the demonization of our council estates. IFLA! editor and engineer Martha Dillon asked him what the architectural sector should be considering as it attempts to change its ways.

The government’s approach to housing has not seemed to abate in the last years. What are your thoughts and forecasts since the time of publishing Municipal Dreams?

I’ve veered from hopeful to pessimistic on this one since 2018 and it remains a fundamentally party-political question. Since 2018, local authorities have been allowed to borrow on their assets and the has been a small but significant uptick of new council housing. The UK’s devolved governments and opposition parties are broadly supportive of a renewed programme of public housing. At times, Conservative governments have made positive noises but fundamentally the party remains committed to a supposed gold standard of owner occupation. A definition of ‘affordability’ which includes homes for sale or at near market rents has meant that of 90,000 homes built with financial support from central government since 2016 just 4% have been for social rent. Housing Benefit continues to represent a huge transfer of state money to the private rental sector – of £21 billion annually, around £9 billion goes straight to private landlords. It’s a reminder that we spend huge amounts on housing but there has been an ideological choice since the 1980s that the bulk of that money goes to the private sector. Despite the necessity of secure and affordable housing being demonstrated ever more powerfully by the current crisis, I see little prospect of social housing being given the priority it deserves in the short-term without a change of government.

We spend huge amounts on housing but there has been an ideological choice since the 1980s that the bulk of that money goes to the private sector

Have you been following the ’green’ elements of new social housing – Passivhaus projects or the RIBA Award-winning Goldsmith Street? When did these trends start becoming apparent, and what have you thought of them?

There’s been some interest in ‘greener’ housing for some time, well before that term was used. Back in 1947, the then Ministry of Fuel and Power was trialling designs of more energy-efficient homes with better insulation and what they called ‘whole-house’ heating – central heating to us. The Parker Morris Report, ‘Homes for Today and Tomorrow’ – which set housing standards in the new, more modern Britain of the 1960s – addressed thermal efficiency and recommended better insulation and double glazing. Conversely, there’s a good case to be made that the mass public housing drive of the era – or its form at least – was based on cheap and plentiful energy supplies with little or no thought given to the environmental issues that preoccupy us today.

I think there has been a growing interest in energy efficient social housing for a decade or two, perhaps originally rooted in a ‘common sense’ desire to conserve energy and reduce household bills. Fuel poverty affects lower income social housing tenants disproportionately so in this context sustainability has an immediate and practical impact.

Fuel poverty affects lower income social housing tenants disproportionately so in this context sustainability has an immediate and practical impact

But as the full extent of the climate crisis has become clear, the green agenda has become much more explicit and ‘ideological’. The Chester-Balmore scheme in Camden opened in 2015 claims to be the first social housing scheme completed to Passivhaus standards. The Goldsmith Street scheme built by Norwich City Council – 100 percent social housing and another Passivhaus development – was awarded the Royal Institute of Architects’ Stirling Prize as best new building of 2019. In Portsmouth, Wilmcote House, a system-built block of the late 1960s, has been retrofitted to Passivhaus standards. Across the country, a large number of new developments feature ‘eco-homes’.

For me, all this is a sign of what local authorities can do best (though they haven’t always done so) – that is, providing cutting-edge housing at affordable rents to those in greatest need and, politically, setting standards for a profit-driven private sector to follow.

I found your observation that policy is typically more important than form in developing safe, well-cared for, effective homes very powerful. You call for greater faith in councils and governments as a housebuilder – does that still stand regardless of the government in power? Is there a role for impassioned architects and designers who, in another climate, might have been those in the municipal architectural offices? 

I think my overall argument here is that all kinds of housing – provided the basics are met in that it is well constructed, has decent space standards and good facilities – have provided decent and valued homes. I’ve seen tower block flats and suburban semis described as ‘Buckingham Palace’ by grateful tenants. While fashions change and hindsight is golden, the long view suggests we should be humble in our judgements. And, crucially, we should understand that context is all: that, in most cases, so-called ‘sink estates’ failed because we failed them – that working communities stopped working when devasted by external circumstance: by unemployment, poverty and weight of disadvantage.

In most cases, so-called ‘sink estates’ failed because we failed them

For the most part I think, councils are keen to build more social housing – this is as true of many Conservative-controlled local authorities as it is for the more obviously progressive ones. But in England, it’s Westminster that sets the rules and controls the purse-strings and the central state has clearly not been supportive of council housing for many decades. (The Scottish and Welsh parliaments have been more supportive.) So my hope is for a central and local state that works in tandem to build much needed social housing as it did before 1979.

You’re right to focus on the role of committed architects and designers – I would add planners to the mix – and the lack of qualified staff is one of the huge obstacles councils face as they attempt to re-launch social housing programmes. In the mid-1970s, almost half of Britain’s qualified architects worked in the public sector; now that proportion is around one percent.

I’m conscious of the good work of some of the biggest names of the past working to, but often improving, local authority briefs – Ernő Goldfinger and Denys Lasdun spring to mind and, of course, Berthold Lubetkin for whom ‘nothing [was] too good for ordinary people’. I also believe there are current architectural practices – Mikhail Riches which designed Goldsmith Street is an obvious example, and others such as Peter Barber and Karakusevic Carson – who bring a genuine commitment to social housing and its purpose to their work.

We need a financially viable and empowered local government sector with the money and capacity both to employ its own staff and harness effectively private sector expertise

Finally, I’ve seen university architecture departments collaborating with their local councils on social housing and planning projects and, having talked to many of the students, I’m keenly aware of how many want to bring social ideals and purpose to their future careers. In short, then, yes absolutely, there is a role for architects and planners that should be encouraged and enabled. One small step in that direction has been taken by Public Practice, a not-for-profit social enterprise operating in London which organises placements for private sector professionals from a range of environmental, planning and design disciplines in their appropriate local government sector. There are hopes to expand the scheme.

Meanwhile, of course, councils continue to face unprecedented cuts in funding; the Local Government Association calculates councils have lost £16 billion in central government support since 2010 – and this before the huge additional burden on local resources imposed by the current pandemic. So we need a financially viable and empowered local government sector with the money and capacity both to employ its own staff and harness effectively private sector expertise.

I’m interested by the tensions over high-rise you explore. High-rise is arguably good for the environment – lots of people yet a small footprint. Have there been scenarios where people have embraced tower blocks, or do you think Grenfell will cast too big a shadow?

Grenfell, of course, has had a huge impact and it’s a sad irony that much of the unsafe cladding applied to tower blocks in recent years, when not promoted on cosmetic grounds, was justified as a means of improving thermal efficiency. The shocked reaction to this man-made tragedy is entirely understandable but the categoric rejection of high-rise that followed on the part of some commentators is, in my view, wrong-headed. Grenfell stands, above all, as a monument to policies of deregulation pursued since the 1980s – the symbol of a state which abandoned its basic duty of care to its people by weakening building regulations and privatising building inspection. Before Grenfell, there was Ronan Point, an east London system-built tower block that partially collapsed, killing four, in a gas explosion in May 1968. It marked the beginning of the end of an earlier era of high-rise building but its cause lay in botched construction – a problematic form of prefabrication which was appallingly implemented – rather than in multi-storey living as such.

Grenfell stands, above all, as a monument to policies of deregulation pursued since the 1980s – the symbol of a state which abandoned its basic duty of care to its people by weakening building regulations and privatising building inspection

The English attitude to high-rise is complicated; Scotland which has a long tradition of multi-storey tenement living is different as is most of continental Europe. The received wisdom is that the English prefer two-storey houses with gardens front and back and, to be fair, there has been much polling and anecdotal commentary that supports this. It is, as you imply and as was argued when planners first inveighed against suburban sprawl in the interwar period, an environmentally costly option so the question you raise is an important one.

High-rise emerged in the 1950s for a number of reasons, including environmental ones, but one of major factors was that there were many smaller households without children on council housing waiting lists who were not only willing to live in multi-storey flats but preferred to do so. And, once settled, the large majority valued the space and improved facilities of their new homes. Beyond that, I’ve come across many high-rise tenants praising the light and air and views of their flats as far superior to the dingy terraced streets most had come from. ‘You think I live in council housing. I’ve got a penthouse', one resident of the multi-storey Park Hill Estate in Sheffield said.

My sense is that, contrary to stereotypes, most high-rise residents have liked their homes, provided, of course, they were well-built and the lifts worked! Social housing blocks now have secure entry-systems, in some cases concierges, that have eradicated problems of antisocial behaviour that sometimes plagued them in the past. A number of tower blocks have been converted to provide assisted living accommodation for elderly people. A high-rise flat isn’t for everyone and the initial presumption – neglected but now increasingly re-applied – that they shouldn’t house young families should stand. But I think there’s plenty of evidence, past and present, to support the view that they can provide good homes for many people. The key, as ever, lies in the quality of accommodation provided.

The embodied energy of new builds is enormous. While you call for renovation over demolition, there is a worry that councils may not want to build new homes to try to achieve their net zero policies – their psyche feels impenetrable for those of us less literate in their history than you. What have been the arguments, moments and movements to inspire councils to build that stand out for you?

I suppose the simple and glib response to your question would be that sheer necessity has always been the prime driving force behind public housing – an acknowledgement of the intolerable housing conditions suffered by so many and an understanding that the private sector and free market were incapable of meeting the need for decent and affordable housing. But, of course, politics is always the determinant and since 1890 – when council housing on a scale and in a form that we would recognise today emerged – those political drivers have varied. For the late Victorians, you could point to the conjuncture of genuinely humanitarian concerns with elite fears of an unruly, unhealthy and uncompetitive slum working class. In 1919, prime minister Lloyd George wanted to both reward wartime sacrifice and avert the threat of revolution. In 1945, the first majority Labour government was elected on the slogan ‘Win the Peace’ – a demand, in contrast to previously betrayed promises, that this time the common people should be the true beneficiaries of the new Britain to emerge. The partial fulfilment of that pledge gave energy to the determination of a more affluent country to finally end ‘the scourge of the slums’ in the mass public housing drive of the 1960s.

It may seem that our present circumstances are very different, that we don’t suffer that problem of slum housing on the scale that motivated past efforts, but I think the scale of housing need remains. Owner occupation has declined and is an impossible goal for most in Generation Rent. An expanded private rental sector is expensive, insecure and, in too many cases, dangerous – almost a fifth of privately rented homes contain a Category 1 health hazard. Street homelessness and informal homelessness – sofa surfing – are on the rise. Around 1.1 million people are on social housing waiting lists. When or whether that pressure from below combines with political will at the centre remains a moot point.

Municipal Dreams: the rise and fall of council housing is available via Verso Books. Follow more of John’s thoughts and writing at the Municipal Dreams blog.

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