Soft Cities

To meet housing need we need simple, deliverable schemes

First published in The Architects Journal, 30 June 2015 –

To be genuinely effective in meeting dire housing need, we must create simple, deliverable schemes, says Croydon Council’s Colm Lacey

If there is one thing everyone seems to agree on, from Mark Carney to Russell Brand, it is that we are in the grip of a genuine housing crisis. Home ownership is slipping out of reach of many, the cost of renting is steadily increasing and homelessness rates are rising.

So can we local authorities really step into the breach? Evidence would seem to suggest that at the very least we are one of the missing links in the modern housing supply chain. In each of the three decades following WW2, councils built around half of the new homes in England. From 2003-13, that figure was less than one half of one per cent.

Recent changes have unshackled local authorities

Recent changes have unshackled local authorities somewhat, with central government budget cuts to revenue budgets forcing councils to intensify the use of their assets, and be more commercial with it. There have been a variety of responses to this, but what is common amongst them is their fiscal necessity – simply put, we have few other choices.

In Croydon our approach has been to set up an arms length development company backed by an investment fund. The idea is simple – the company becomes the development partner we have always wanted, and the investment fund becomes the socially conscious bank of our dreams. The council can genuinely influence the pace, quality and tenure of housing schemes, and retain both development and funding value to plug budget gaps or invest in essential public goods.

This creates an interesting environment for both council client and architect. No longer do we need to sit on opposite sides of the table, chaperoned by your pesky developer client and their unyielding commercial ways. At last we will be united by common purpose and unsigned contract, free to make beautiful architecture together. Right?

Perhaps not quite, but what councils can certainly offer is a different type of client relationship. While council run development companies need to be as commercially minded as regular developers (that’s the whole point), they are genuinely steeped in local knowledge and discourse. They understand the social, spatial and economic demands of their areas, and when paired with talented architectural input I believe they represent they best chance we have of marrying design quality, commercial efficiency and local need.

In Croydon we are taking a varied approach to finding these fabled ‘talented architects’. In part we are doing it ourselves, setting up a modern version of the council architects department, an internal practice that will design many of our smaller schemes and infill sites. For other schemes we will engage directly with the architectural community through our development company (a non-contracting authority) to build lasting partnerships with practices which we believe can deliver high quality, efficient schemes.

This won’t be a return to the grandiloquent public architecture of the past

What this won’t be then (for us at least) is a return to the grandiloquent public architecture of the past. If this new era of partnership between architects and authorities is to be genuinely effective in meeting dire housing need, it must create simple, deliverable schemes based on a genuine respect and understanding of the need it seeks to address.

For modern local authority development companies, the task is not simply to maximise the amount of ‘council’ space in any given scheme, but rather to deliver a commercially relevant scheme which maximises social benefit. In simple terms, this means that each scheme must simultaneously maximise levels of affordable housing and other planning gain, while also maximising development margin (to be subsequently spent on addressing need elsewhere in the borough).

Plus ca change you may say, and it is indeed true that your new local authority client relationships must borrow much from the commercial constraint and discipline of your traditional developer ones. However, if it works, the legacy of this new relationship will be public benefit not private profit, and surely we will all be better off as a result.

Colm Lacey is director of development at Croydon Council