Authored article

Affordable housing, off-site construction and estates regeneration

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles writes in the London Evening Standard about affordable housing, off-site construction and estates regeneration.

The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles

London needs more homes. No one disputes that.

Our capital is a city where people want to be. For some it is a magnet for their talent; for others it is a land of opportunity.

However people view their life in London, one thing unites them: they all need somewhere to live.

The Mayor understands this very well, and that’s why he has the most ambitious plan for house building in London since the 1930s.

Things are already moving in the right direction. Last year registrations for new homes in the capital were at their highest level since records began 26 years ago.

Many of these new homes will be affordable, funded through the government’s highly successful affordable housing programme, which in London is being delivered by the Greater London Authority.

Today (23 April 2014) I will visit Rainham to see progress on 1 of these new developments, where 51 new homes for affordable rent have been built on publicly-owned, vacant, brownfield land.

The design for the 34 townhouses and 16 flats has been praised for its high quality, and for achieving the Passivhaus standard. That’s a German word for homes that are warm, high-quality and very efficient. In other words: rather German.

The cherry on the strudel is that these superb new homes have been built in record time, at the rate of 1 a day. This rapid progress was achieved using cutting edge off-site construction technology, where parts are manufactured before being assembled on site.

It costs less to build this way, but it’s not the cheap and nasty pre-fab of past decades. Off-site construction was a technique pioneered by world class British architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, but it’s since been neglected here while being widely used on the continent. Britain needs to catch up.

Rainham shows us how we can use brownfield land, high-quality design and cutting edge construction techniques to quickly build new homes that people will want to live in.

But what about existing homes in London – particularly those high-rise council estates from the 1960s and 1970s, which are only attractive to the architects who designed them?

These are monuments to human folly: poor design and crass planning, from an era of intellectual arrogance by bureaucrats who thought they could tear down centuries of development in favour of a new concrete and pebble-dash utopia.

It didn’t work. These eyesores may have temporarily solved a few social problems, but they created and entrenched many more.

Common sense may tell us to mourn these failures, while putting up with them because their replacement would be too expensive and difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the Budget we set aside £150 million that could be invested to kick-start and accelerate the radical regeneration of some of London’s most deprived housing estates.

Why bother replacing existing homes? The answer is all in the numbers.

The population of London is set to exceed its 1939 peak before 2021. But until recently, all of this growth was absorbed by the outer boroughs, often as a result of emigration from the inner city.

Now that trend is reversing, and there is a huge problem of capacity in central London. Despite record numbers living in the capital by 2021, the inner boroughs will still contain 1.7 million fewer people than they did in 1939.

According to Savills re-discovering just half of this former housing capacity would supply the whole of London’s projected housing needs for the next 17 years.

That means it’s a challenge worth taking on. Our intention is to increase the number of homes on inner city estates, but also to increase their quality. Past experience tells us mere tinkering won’t work. We need to be more ambitious.

Completely re-building traditional streetscapes can provide more housing and commercial space using the same amount of land. These estates would represent neighbourhoods like Pimlico or Islington, with terraced streets of houses, apartments and commercial space.

The result will be more homes that are highly valued by residents. This approach can also increase the value of land in a way that is not possible with the incremental, building-by-building regeneration that has been favoured in the past.

This means more potential for private investment, which over 10 years could lead to several hundred thousand new homes in London.

We want to get on with it. So we are part-funding a comprehensive study by Savills to consider the best way to get started, redeveloping areas while fully involving local communities in the design and planning process. This will report back later this year.

The study will also address the barriers that need to be overcome. These could even be the government’s own rules, which sometimes restrict building the types of homes and streets that people value the most.

Although this will be a London study, it could have wider implications for the commuter belt and in other areas with high housing demand like Brighton, Cambridge and Oxford.

Re-building and regenerating London’s housing estates will not be easy. But it must be done. London needs more homes, and Londoners who have been forced to endure 40 years of these concrete carbuncles deserve better.

Published 24 April 2014