The New Age of Public Housing & City Making

Colville Estate © Hackney Council

Ahead of the Congress, Paul Karakusevic, Partner at Karakusevic Carson Architects, shares his views on new directions in public housing.

Public housing in London is transforming. After years of under investment and polarisation, the city is today embarking upon a new generation of projects with an ambition for architectural quality not seen for decades. Leading the way are London’s boroughs, the city’s local tier of government who, acting under the strategic umbrella of the Greater London Authority (GLA), are building again after a 35 year break and in doing so ushering in a new confident urban age.

The Borough’s as we know them today emerged as part of the creation of Greater London in 1965. They each have their own political life, each their own public housing stock and over the past forty years each has faired differently as the city’s economy and entire urban geography has been transformed. Uniting most however, is a new self-determination to tackle London’s acute housing shortages and integrate new homes with new conscious city making.

Nowhere has this new confident mood been more evident or potent than in the London Borough of Hackney which today has one of the largest programmes of public-led housing anywhere in the UK – an incredible turnaround in a place that, as recently as the early 2000s, didn’t build anything. Hackney was famous for its failing housing estates, the result of decades of chronic under investment and hostile housing policies, and the frequent focus of TV documentary crews.

Working with some of the UK’s best practices and creating opportunities for emerging talent, Hackney is now raising the game and creating architecture of a quality that recalls London’s great municipal housing traditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such a dramatic shift has transformed the image of public architecture in the UK. Hackney’s projects win architecture awards, and journalists from across the world are travelling to see how a new local confidence and willingness to steer and build big projects from design to construction has taken shape.

The origin of our new housing age lies in changes made to rules on public borrowing put in motion by Gordon Brown in 2007 and enshrined in 2011’s Localism Act. After years of lobbying, these changes finally enabled Local Authorities such as Hackney to borrow at higher levels against the value of their Housing Revenue Account (HRA) – the system of public stock value defined by annual rent receipts. The reform of HRA meant that, for the first time in decades, London’s boroughs could access new finance directly, and invest in the housing mix and type they needed. Hackney, alongside other progressive boroughs such as Camden, Enfield and Croydon, is now demonstrating that, even with the constraints and heated market conditions of the UK capital, another housing world is possible. This provides valuable lessons for cities across the world.

Embracing a range of strategies including stock refurbishment, strategic infill on small sites and large housing estate redevelopment, Hackney uses public land and acquires new sites to reverse years of underinvestment and inaction. Instead of simply disposing of land to developers and walking away, Hackney has embraced public leadership and developed a new ambition for design within an expanded housing team – a process supported by the GLA through planning, training and enabling funds and subsidies.

This shift has been essential in the success and stewardship of Hackney’s housing programme and it has kept standards high. By developing a robust vision of place, the council has worked hard to ensure new projects are integrated into the life of the rest of the city and that opportunities for wider neighbourhood links are realised. By retaining architects and clerk of works, it has ensured value for money, quality and design intent is upheld and delivered for tenants of all tenures.

In tandem with great architecture, the borough believes passionately in its programme and its public responsibilities, which it communicates with refreshing honesty. On bus stops and construction hoardings all over the borough, it has adopted an up front and straight forward approach to telling it as it is – that the council receives limited public subsidies and so it has to seek out alternative models to finance housing as well as other core services.

Acknowledging financial constraints, Hackney has introduced cross subsidisation on a number of its larger projects. Where this occurs, the borough has worked with private-sector partners to develop for-sale properties that then help fund future stages of development, introduce a mix of home types, and support a range of local community facilities and infrastructure such as new parks, leisure amenities or schools. With the borrowing cap now lifted, the council will in future have much greater flexibility to fund more affordable housing and do even more direct development.

In the case of Hackney, its buoyant local economy and urban desirability within the creative powerhouse of east London has ensured its mixed funding approach can be made to work. At the borough’s Kings Crescent and Colville Estates, cross-subsidy has brought forward multiple phases of architecturally distinctive mixed-tenure homes, which council tenants and leaseholders are now starting to move in to. Such is Hackney’s self-confidence that there are now also projects exploring new types of mix that, like in European cities such as Vienna, support community and self-build options alongside market and direct public delivery across all types of tenure, ensuring all value is retained by the city.

Kings’ Crescent © Jim Stephenson

At Kings Crescent, an estate partially cleared in the late 1990s and left idle for much of the 2000s, our masterplan for 750 homes has been developed, with a new open street at its heart, that embraces the scale, grain and traditions of urban London to increase densities and integrate new buildings with their surrounding townscape and the adjacent Clissold Park. Existing council rented homes in blocks dating from the 1970s have been refurbished and extended with new ‘mansion block’ typologies enclosing shared gardens and creating new streets.

The masterplan we developed for 925 homes at the Colville Estate, will deliver an approximate 50/50 mix of new, truly affordable and replacement social rent homes, alongside new market housing. Working with a developer on just 4% of the site area has enabled and paid for the project to proceed with an architectural vision for the neighbourhood created through close engagement and agreement with the local community who informed decision around typologies and materials. In the development, 198 market units are accommodated neatly in two sibling towers in two complementary tones of red and grey brick. The high density and slim profile of these buildings has kept their footprint small. This has meant more space and opportunity to develop new, low and medium rise courtyard blocks that house other tenure types, as per local resident and tenant preferences, with new streets, a mix of materials and varied skylines adding to the rich local townscape.

In active city making, the role of communities impacted by change is crucial. Hackney, like many boroughs, remains home to areas with high levels of poverty and deprivation. As such it must work hard to ensure that its long-standing or vulnerable residents are not left behind by transformation and the impact of incoming residents and gradual gentrification. Debate in London continues to be coloured by a number of high-profile programmes, where communities subject to change were treated poorly, creating understandable suspicion and raising local tensions. For processes to improve, these cases need to be studied and understood. Boroughs like Hackney are working with the support of the vast majority of their residents, operating a policy of zero displacement and so far delivering on this promise and that of improved or new homes.

Affordable housing is the greatest political issue of our time and is reshaping our thinking about the future of our cities. That the UK government has reversed its own opposition to greater public-led delivery is an acknowledgment of the scale of the challenge not only in London, but also in the UK’s other large cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, who are now developing their own housing programmes. However, if this new age of public housing and determined city making is to succeed it will need more than finance.

Hackney’s story demonstrates the ability of cities and regions to reinvent themselves. While a large part of its turnaround and economic uplift is part of a wider story of accident and happenstance, its robust approach to housing delivery serves as a reminder of the purpose of the public sector in affecting urban change and setting new standards. To ensure we see more of it in the future requires sustained investment in skills, in masterplanning, quality housing architecture and a vision for long term responsible urbanism.

Paul Karakusevic is a Partner at Karakusevic Carson Architects