The Rise and Fall of the Council Estate


2 July 2015

In her 1998 book Estates on the Edge, Professor Anne Power defines council housing as “post-war, publicly sponsored and subsidised housing estates built of a large scale using mass-production industrial techniques and targeting at housing ‘the masses’ – a broad band of moderate to low-income city dwellers.”

Powell’s definition provided the basis of The Rise and Fall of the Council Estate, a discussion hosted at RIBA in London last week. Chaired by Daisy Froud, co-founder of east London-based architecture and design practice AOC, the discussion explored the evolution of the council estate.

Current demand for social housing in London far outweighs the supply. In Hackney the waiting list exceeds 20,000, while Lambeth actively warns of its lack of social housing. To quote Lambeth's website: “We are not able to offer a home to most people who apply to us for housing. We receive over 3,000 new housing applications a year, and there are currently about 20,000 people already on the housing list. In 2012/13, we offered 1,350 homes.”

Meanwhile, preservation of early social housing continues to garner column inches. In recent weeks the Architect’s Journal, the Guardian and Building Design have all reported on a group of leading architects (including Frank Gehry, Will Alsop, Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel) who have written to the UK government in support of listing the 1972 brutalist housing estate Robin Hood Gardens, which is currently scheduled for demolition.

The Rise and Fall of the Council Estate was chaired by Froud and accompanied by a panel that comprised Finn Williams, founder of Common Office, Andrea Klettner, founder of the blog Love London Council Housing, Simon Terrill, artist and co-designer of current RIBA exhibition the Brutalist Playground, Tony McGuirk, architect and former chairman of BDP – who was also part of the team of architects who worked on the Ralph Erskine-designed Byker Wall estate in Newcastle – and Paul Karakusevic, director of Karakusevic-Carson Architects.

Below, Disegno is happy to publish a partial transcript of the discussion. In it, the panel reflect on the history of social housing, discuss potential models for its future, and identify the challenges it faces.

Daisy Froud Is the council estate in the sense of Anne Power’s definition – as a defined, sweet area of publicly sponsored housing to meet a particular social need – over? Does it still have some life left in it?

Finn Williams Whether it is over or not comes down to whether councils, and the world of the public sector as a whole, are over or not. We are at a fascinating stage, because housing needs, particularly for affordable housing, are as great today as they were post-war. Perhaps for the first time in this generation there is recognition across all political spectrums that the public sector has to do something about it. The question is what.

We have seen successive governments do everything they can to re-brand the idea of what started out in Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate as "public housing”. It was then council housing, then social housing, then affordable housing, then intermediate housing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next term was “homes for hardworking people”. I am sure that in the future it won’t be called council housing, but I am also pretty sure that the public sector needs to do something about it.

Andrea Klettner I don’t think the council estate is dead as such, it just can’t be financed in the same way. So now the government is setting up special bodies to try and deliver that kind of housing in a different way.

Daisy Froud So, housing that is being provided for the socially needy?

Andrea Klettner Well that is what they say, whether they do it or not is different.

Tony McGuirk Historically, estates were primarily about people needing housing and a change in society. Housing was part of this universal idea that British society and European society had (and which American society didn’t) of public transport, public housing, public services, public utilities etc. Now everything has been eroded.

Paul Karakusevic In London at the moment there is a huge group of people on a lot of these big estates who are desperate for new or refurbished homes. I think there is a massive groundswell in London now to really change things.

It is only in the last two to three years that some of the leading local authorities in London have been forced by residents, but also by local councillors, to transform. There is a renaissance of local authority-driven projects coming forward and it is a very long-term project.

Because the government is essentially bankrupt, these projects have to be cross-funded in some way. I don’t think the mixing of tenders is as politically motivated as some may see it and is often the result of hard economics. Boroughs are trying to rebuild or refurbish for their residents. They are really looking after their estates and trying to maximise the amount of affordable housing that they can create without going bankrupt.

Daisy Froud Do you think communities being providers and procurers of housing themselves is a serious possibility. If so, what is the role of architects in that?

Paul Karakusevic I think there is a huge role. Berlin is an incredible example with its housing co-ops of the last 20 years. Community land trusts here have only in the last couple of years started to get to grips with communities getting together and buying or acquiring land in some way, commissioning offices and then actually building. It is a very embryonic process at the moment in the UK.

In Berlin, something like 30 per cent of all of housing is built through housing co-ops and with very good architectural results – they are commissioning good practices to do great work. I think that is quite an exciting thing. If London in 20 years could be like that, that would be amazing.

Finn Williams We should remember that many housing associations started off as community-led, small scale initiatives. It is the government’s responsibility, as much as local government’s responsibility, to create new opportunities for initiatives like that to thrive.

If you look at the numbers, in London alone we should in theory be delivering around 62,000 homes a year. The official target is around 49,000 homes a year and we are building 25,000 homes a year. Franky I don’t think it is a case of us choosing one delivery model or another, we need all of them as quick as possible.

Community land trusts, new forms of housing associations, and architects experimenting with models of delivery have to be a part of that. To allow that, we need smaller scale parcels of land. The more that we rely on large plots of public land, it reduces our ability to innovate and experiment because the risk of experimenting and it failing is huge.

If we can break those plots of public land down into a small enough scale, I think we can allow new groups of builders, young architects and young community land trusts into the system, but still keep that visionary ambition that was behind past generations of social housing.

Andrea Klettner I think there are lots of people that would like to do that kind of thing but the planning system and the whole bureaucracy around trying to do even a tiny project, especially in London, is so difficult. If you are talking about people that need housing the most, I can’t imagine that they are going to sit around and try and design housing for a site. And maybe that is the new role for the architect, to find those people and help them.

I think there is small steps towards that with community planning forums and neighbourhood plans, but it is still extremely expensive and there is no access to funding. You can’t get money to do those kind of projects.