Challenging stigma – building better

When we founded the SHOUT campaign in 2014, one of our primary objectives was to challenge the stigma surrounding social housing. The problem persists. I was looking through Facebook the other day and came across several sites that denigrate and stereotype the residents of social housing estates.

One aspect of this stigmatisation is the physical look of social housing. Our homes often stand out because of their appearance, whether it’s cottage estates built before and after the war or brutalist tower blocks and low-rise estates built in the 1960s and ‘70s. They are immediately identied in the public mind as “council housing” regardless of whether they are owned by a council or a housing association.

The late Bob Crow used to say, “I was born in a council house and I will die in a council house”. (In fact, he was living in a housing association property, but in his mind, as in the minds of many, social housing IS council housing.) This is despite the fact that around one in five homes on a typical estate will have been sold under the Right to Buy. Most estates are mixed communities, but the stereotyping persists.

Yet too often, the residents of social housing are offered little opportunity to shape the way their estates present themselves to the outside world. I recently visited Vauban, an eco-township in Freiburg im Breisgau in south-west Germany. It is built on the site of an ex-French army base (the French occupied the area after WW2 and only left in 1992). Squatters and hippies occupied the site and some of their ethos informed the design of the new development. It’s now home to 6,000 residents. Million-euro owner-occupied homes stand next to social rented homes and it is hard to tell them apart. Trams and cycle lanes run through the township and 70% of residents have no private car. There is a local power station and many of the homes are built to Passivhaus standards. All houses and many of the flats have private gardens or allotments and there are trees and bushes in abundance. Open spaces have a clear function and there is still a slightly ramshackle feel, with some gardens containing wacky sheds and shepherd’s huts. It is a vibrant eco-friendly community where residents have a big say in governance.

Compare and contrast to many English social housing estates with their acres of unused and unusable grass, their ‘No Ball Games’ signs, their lack of private gardens and defensible space, their restrictive management practices

Inside Housing used to run a feature called ‘Development of the Week’ (perhaps they still do, I never see the magazine). If this was our best then I would hate to see the worst.

Invariably, the photographs showed unimaginative design, brickwork lacking in variety or decoration, shallow roofs without eaves, or high pitched roofs with no useable space in the loft, plastic windows flush with brickwork, stick-on porches, knee-rail fences, acres of tarmac and useless grass, bleak private gardens, or none, unimaginative planting, grass areas with little amenity use other than for dog-messing, the ubiquitous ‘No Ball Games’ signs. Only one thing was missing from these photographs, a big sign with a pointy arrow saying “SOCIAL HOUSING – POOR PEOPLE LIVE HERE”.

We can and must do better. There is an old adage, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’, and the same could be said of social housing – ‘build cheap, build twice’. I have recently been reading ‘Cook’s Camden’ – a description of the homes built under the leadership of Camden’s Borough architect Sydney Cook in the 1960s and ‘70s. Over this period, Camden was building up to 3,000 homes a year and many of them were high quality, bespoke homes in some of the leafiest parts of the Borough (often in the face of fierce opposition from rich nimby neighbours).

Today, architectural students from around the world make the pilgrimage to view them and no objective person would immediately label them as social housing. They epitomise the vision of Aneurin Bevan of “...the living tapestry of a mixed community… where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”.

Whatever the constraints of grant or funding, if we are to challenge stigmatisation, we absolutely must do better, by building homes that are well-designed and spacious, that blend into their surroundings and will still be popular a hundred years from now. Above all, residents must be better involved in shaping the appearance of their homes and their neighbourhoods.


(This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of HQN’s Governor magazine)

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