The light that never comes on

George Clarke’s recent Council House Scandal on Channel 4 highlighted an office block in Harlow that had been converted into tiny flats, using Permitted Development Rights (PDR); in other words, no planning permission was required.

One of the more extreme recent examples of PDR was in Watford where a single-storey industrial building is being converted into 15 “homes” of which seven have no windows. The flats will range in size from 16.5 to 21 square metres. There’s no parking at the scheme and residents will not be allowed to apply for a residents’ parking permit.

Watford Council sought to block the conversion, noting that the flats “would not provide any meaningful outlook, daylight or even appropriate ventilation”, and that the upper floors “would have no means of escape in case of fire” and that “the oppressive environment” would have “a serious impact on the health of future occupiers”.

But a government-appointed planning inspector allowed the scheme to go ahead, arguing that none of the council’s objections were relevant to PDR.

“I recognise that the proposed units are small” he said, “and that, for example, living withouta window would not be a positive living environment” but the creation of “cramped living environments with poor outlook and the lack of windows” was irrelevant because the PDR made no mention of these matters.

So, PDRs are allowing homes to be created that are cramped, unsafe and basically unliveable. In the centenary year of the Addison Act, which set out generous space standards for new homes, we seem to be heading back to the 19th century.

It’s worth rehearsing how this appalling situation has come about.

Since 2013 the government has sought to liberalise planning laws to encourage the use of empty buildings and stimulate the construction sector. This started when homeowners were given greater freedoms to build house extensions. This was followed by PDR for taller mobile masts, click and collect services in shops, and suchlike. It’s now been extended to a wider range of developments.

For planning purposes, properties are categorised into four main classes:

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The eye of the beholder

Do you remember the house that looked like Hitler? It was a big news story a few years ago. There is also a great website called Ugly Belgian houses that highlights some of the planning-lite horrors in that odd country.

Yes, these properties are ugly, but to their occupants I am fairly sure that beauty comes low down their list of worries. Let them be warm, dry, affordable, safe and secure and then let’s worry about how they look.

This is the main quibble I have with “Creating space for beauty” the recent report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It has a whiff of the upper classes preaching to the plebs about their ugly homes.

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Johnson on housing

(N.B. I wrote this on the 15th July, a week before Boris Johnson was elected as Leader of the Conservative Party with 66.4% of the vote)

I’m going to take a punt and predict that Boris Johnson will become prime minister on the 22 July with at least two thirds of Tory members’ votes.

(If I’m wrong, and Johnson loses, then stop reading now!) What, then, will a Johnson premiership mean for housing?

In the short term, probably very little. He will be pre-occupied in the first few months with Brexit and its aftermath. Perhaps he will also call a snap general election.

But thereafter, what do we know about his track record and his views on housing, and affordable housing in particular?

His published writings offer an insight. In an article last year titled We need to kickstart the housing market by kicking developers who treat buyers like serfs he attacked Persimmon for building shoddy homes and commented on the problems faced by first time buyers:

“This is meant to be Britain, the great homeowning democracy, but we now have lower rates of owner-occupation, for the under-forties, than France and Germany.”

“In the seventies we were building about 300,000 a year…By the time of Tony Blair’s Labourgovernment, that number had fallen to 156,000… the underlying problem is supply.”

The answer, he concluded, was to liberate brownfield and public land, reduce stamp duty, tackle landbanking, and to “…tell Lefties like Sadiq Khan to stop their ideological obsession with quotas for affordable housing on each development”.

So, Johnson is very much on the Policy Exchange wing of Conservatism. He wants to build, build, build, but his priority is on boosting the overall supply of market homes, and thus pushing down prices (he hopes), rather than any focus on traditional social housing.

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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)