In the face of inimical government policies, Peter Barber addresses London’s housing demand, calling on the UK’s rich tradition of council housing
The five-minute walk through Barking, east London, from the station to Peter Barber Architects’ newly completed homes at North Street, gives a clear indication of why, over the last decade, council housing has acquired a totemic status in debates about the city. The neat island of council houses stands out among the chaos of hoardings, cranes and trucks that come with large-scale development. Gleamingly new, its detailed brickwork exudes a sense of permanence that is rare in today’s London, where the housing and jobs that once anchored our lives are now, for many, perpetually in flux. The project provides 14 households with the fundamental benefits of council housing; secure tenure at a controlled rent. Today, with 7,000 people sleeping on the streets of London, and 150,000 more living in housing insecurity, it’s an increasingly rare privilege to be able to retreat into the privacy of your own home.
‘New Labour – echoing previous Conservative Party policy – only gave housing associations grants to build a fraction of the new homes built by councils in the past’
Vocally socialist, Peter Barber advocates a massive programme of housebuilding for council rent. He believes that, in order to solve today’s housing crisis, we need to redistribute economic activity away from London to parts of the UK that have thousands of empty and underused homes. He wants to see an end to Right to Buy, with councils instead given funding to buy up the private rented sector. It’s essentially a return to the housing policy platform that was dominant until the late 1970s.
Barber was a student in 1979, the year when the proportion of the British population living in council housing peaked at 42 per cent (today the figure is approximately 8 per cent). Britain’s first few council houses were built in the 1860s as a response to the state of the city of the Industrial Revolution, where those on average and low incomes lived in often appalling slum conditions. But it was only in the aftermath of two world wars that central government ramped up funding – first in 1919 and then again in 1945 – for council-house building to gain real momentum. Completions peaked with around 150,000 homes built each year.
While early housing tended to be cottage-style homes built on the edges of towns and villages, by the 1950s it increasingly comprised Modernist flats built on complex inner-city sites. This new housing order wasn’t without its critics: from the late 1950s, questioning voices argued that the demolition of large swathes of city in the name of slum clearance risked breaking up communities and social bonds, a process catalysed by politicians fixated on hitting housing completion targets. Yet, more-enlightened local authorities evolved new ways of improving housing without this social dislocation: municipalisation – buying up thousands of privately rented flats, modernising them, and giving their residents secure council tenancies – was a way of conserving much of the urban built environment and social fabric.
Alongside this, a new generation of architects pioneered dense housing types that preserved the idea of the street in continuity with the surrounding city. This architectural approach, laid out in Camden Council architect Neave Brown’s 1967 essay ‘The Form of Housing’ in Architectural Design, rejected the Modern Movement’s preoccupation with ‘building in space’, instead returning to the scale and patterns of the traditional street. This was an approach to the city that would become central to Barber’s work.
Barber qualified as an architect in 1985 at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Her right-wing government rejected the postwar settlement, presenting the inner city – and specifi cally the council estate – as a nightmarish space of crime and transgression. This mythology was given spurious academic credibility by geographer Alice Coleman, who earnestly mapped the distribution of things she considered to be indicative of urban social breakdown (including deck access to fl ats, and each pile of excrement ‘both human and animal’ she encountered underfoot) to argue that the Modernist architecture of council estates created deviant behaviours in their inhabitants.
‘For decades, the ideal of owner occupation has been hardwired into British politics’
With a rhetoric tailored to her core voters’ homophobia and Powellite racism, Thatcher used this essentially cultural critique to justify her war on the municipal conception of the city. Local government’s powers were curtailed and its teams of expert staff disbanded, while it was forced to sell off its council housing at knock-down prices to its occupants. New council-house building was prevented with strict new fi nancial restrictions on local government’s taxation and borrowing powers and, in the case of London and the big conurbations, she abolished their elected strategic citywide authorities – replaced by direct rule from Westminster. Even those renting privately were not spared in the assault: all new tenants lost the vital dual protections of a secure tenancy and rent control.
Peter barber ordnance road london drawings
It was in this context that Barber went to work for Richard Rogers following a stint at Jestico + Whiles, and it was Rogers’ Urban Task Force – set up by New Labour after Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide election win – that would provide the framework to enable much of Barber’s later work. Rogers rejected Thatcherism’s suburban, anti-urban bias, envisaging a walkable, car-free urban environment, densely built and celebrating the mixed urban society demonised by Thatcher. As these ideas became policy, Barber saw it opened up the possibility of a new kind of housing.
The Donnybrook Quarter, Barber’s breakthrough project for housing association Circle 33 completed in 2006, reasserted Neave Brown’s ideas of a dense, street-based urbanism in a design response to the Thatcher-Coleman critique of the inner city. The project packs 42 homes into a tight urban site in Bow, east London. The practice’s low-rise solution gave each home private outdoor space and its own front door, opening onto pedestrian-only routes through the site. To the east is a banal 1990s development that exemplifi es everything Barber rejects; flats built at a suburban density, stranded behind a double barrier of gates and car parking.
Peter barber north road london drawings
Rogers’ Urban Task Force aspiration was to create mixed communities, protecting lower-income citizens’ place in the city. Yet while the New Labour government rejected Thatcherism’s cultural mood music – the racism, the homophobia, the overarching anti-urban bias – it gladly retained Thatcher’s economic reforms, now no longer contingent but established as the new neoliberal order. It ensured council-house numbers declined by failing to build new homes, while continuing to sell off existing stock. It insisted – echoing previous Conservative Party policy – that housing associations could instead take up the slack, yet only gave them grants to build a fraction of the new homes built by councils in the past. It also encouraged housing associations to mix their housing with new homes for private sale. Only 25 per cent of the homes at Donnybrook Quarter were built for secure housingassociation rent, with the rest constructed for private sale at market price.
Hannibal road gardens by peter barber architects drawings
With Britain’s post-industrial economy dependent on the financial sector, New Labour saw expansion of private housing backed by mortgage lending as an essential element in supporting this key industry – even if, increasingly, the mortgages were not paid by owneroccupiers but by private tenants in insecure buy-to-let rentals. To protect this newly growing area of the economy, New Labour refused to reintroduce tenants’ security of tenure or the rent controls removed by Thatcher’s government. Rising house prices drove profits in the Square Mile and local authorities were encouraged to ‘regenerate’ their housing in partnership with developers, a policy that led to thousands of lower-income Londoners being displaced from their homes to make way for higher-value, middle-class housing. The policy reached absurd extremes with the Pathfinder scheme, in which local authorities in economically depressed cities were given extended powers to compulsorily purchase homes to demolish them – in the hope that scarcity would drive up prices in the remaining housing.
Barber is highly critical of New Labour’s record but argues that their approach to housing the homeless stood out as genuinely progressive. He has a deep personal commitment to providing housing for the most vulnerable in society; his Redbridge Welcome Centre in east London, commissioned in 2008, combined housing for the homeless, a garden and a community centre. All funded by taxation outside the era’s obsession with capturing land-value uplift, he describes it as ‘a magic condenser’. More recently, Holmes Road in Camden, north London, has created a square of tiny cottages as a replacement for institutional accommodation for the homeless. The space, enclosed with playful undulating brick walls, is a gentle conception that sadly contrasts with the growing cruelty of mainstream housing policy.
By the time the Redbridge project opened in 2011, New Labour had lost power and Britain was governed by the Tory-led coalition. The new government ratcheted up the marketisation of housing, forcing housing associations to fund up to 90 per cent of their projects with commercial loans secured against their housing stocks – meaning that their ability to provide new homes is dependent on housing costs rising. With growing pressure to deliver ‘affordable’ housing targets, but without funding to buy land to accommodate it, existing low-rent council and housing association homes are increasingly threatened with demolition to make way for new homes to be put up for sale or with higher ‘affordable’ rents – accelerating the destruction of settled urban communities initiated under New Labour.
For decades, the ideal of owner occupation has been hardwired into British politics – and shared ownership is the latest policy contortion that pretends to deliver a vague imitation of this fantasy. Completed by Peter Barber Architects’ earlier this year, McGrath Road in Newham, east London, is made up of 28 shared-ownership houses built by the council for those too well paid to be considered for a council tenancy, yet without the capital to buy at everescalating market prices. The beautifully designed back-to-back houses are set around a courtyard, each with its own front door at ground level, and a terrace and light-filled double-aspect living area on the top. The offer is not just that muchcontested word affordability, but the possibility of being able to put down roots.
Paradoxically perhaps, Barber rejects intermediate forms of tenure such as shared ownership, calling for an end to the ambiguous mix of ‘affordable’ housing models; he thinks, in an ideal world, this scheme would be council housing for rent like the postwar blocks next door. On the other hand, at Ordnance Road completed last year in Enfield, the practice’s work for the local authority suggests there is an alternative. Barber proudly describes it as ‘proper old-fashioned council housing’ all for council rent, built on the site of derelict garages – a scrap of land already owned by the council reused to ease extra housing into an existing community.
In showing the promise of what good publicly funded projects can deliver for society in an age where private interests dominate, the work of Peter Barber once again tests the limits of what is possible in our current political context. Asked for a solution that can be scaled up in the face of a housing market that prioritises profit over housing needs, Barber’s answer is that the problem is, once again, a political issue, and not one about design. ‘Some people might say the ending of private property. We have to do something pretty radical don’t we?’
All photographs by Morley von Sternberg
This piece is featured in the AR July/August issue on AR House + Social housing – click here to purchase your copy today