Housing crisis could be good for us

Housing crisis could be good for us

Having to re-think our approach to housing should be one of the few good things to emerge from the economic crisis, the internationally acclaimed architect Alan J Smith tells BQ.

We ask people today to live in flats that are the smallest in Europe, we’ve let the nation’s stock of council houses dwindle from 6.1 million to 2.5 million since 1981 and we are facing an economic crisis more complex than any before.

Why? The internationally renowned North East architect Alan J Smith argues it’s because we treat houses and flats as something largely to profit from.

“We haven’t been building homes and treating them as part of the community. Without community, you have no social cohesion. Then people go out and start stabbing and cheating each other.” You don’t hear your estate agent, bank manager or many politicians talk like this, but Alan Smith OBE is adamant. Over the last 20 years, his Newcastle practice, Red Box Design, has designed and built more than £2 billion-worth of buildings - more than 3,000 homes, 2.25 million sq ft of leisure and retail, and 6 million sq ft of commercial space. He cites a ‘catastrophic’ link between housing policy and anti-social attitudes and suggests: “There’s no happiness in housing now.  We don’t build communities.  If people are happy in their communities, if they love living there, anti-social elements are reduced.” He explains: “I was weaned on Parker Morris [a housing standard used from 1968-1982] in the early days at Washington New Town.  It was a bible that the public and private sectors both adhered to.

“If you look at housing, pre-war and post-war up until 1982, space went up and up. Yet post-1982, standards have, in the main, gone right down. We now build, in many cases, flats smaller than the living rooms Parker Morris recommended.” This is not simply nostalgia. Smith is an architect of international repute who is at present designing a £50 million nanotechnology centre in Moscow - his second big Russian commission in four years. Yet he continues to concern himself about the lack of direction in housing at home.  Many people, he says, have to buy property they don’t intend to stay in for very long, yet Parker Morris urged that residents should have the opportunity to enjoy their homes for years.

“You show me someone who can enjoy a 240sq ft flat – 12ft by 20ft? That’s what people are building.  Where do you store the vacuum cleaner? The ironing board? Where do you store a suitcase? “People don’t deserve that.  I don’t think they can be happy.  I accept some people do treat their houses differently now, sometimes almost like a hotel room, but that doesn’t negate my point.  A sense of community is lacking.

“Two years ago, we could guess a financial crisis in housing was near.  So we need to ask, what are we going to do now, and not just in financial terms. We need to realise we’ve been doing some things wrong. Give someone a 105 per cent mortgage and you put them 5 per cent into negative equity instantly.  How crazy is that? “Equally, in socio-economic terms, we haven’t been doing punters any favours.  Maybe we ought to be providing better homes, better environments where people can feel a greater sense of community.  Builders may say I’m a dreamer, but why can’t pension funds and commercial banks that fund only commercial property be persuaded or enabled to fund major housing developments? “Lots of schemes in London are being mothballed by the likes of Taylor Wimpey because they can’t afford to finish them.  It would be lovely if a pension fund walked in, bought all the flats and let them.

Actuarially, over a period, nobody’s going to make money out of those flats.  And there’s nothing wrong with rented housing, nothing wrong with living in council housing.  We have lost the whole concept of council housing.” A fortnight before this interview, a junior government minister calling on the NorthEast had tapped into Alan’s mind. The day after this interview, it leaked from Westminster that the Government was contemplating a new era of council housing by helping local authorities to buy repossessed and unsold properties to offer struggling borrowers, in return for a small stake or outright ownership.  It also emerged that Newcastle City Council was working on just this idea, at a time when house values in the North East were down by up to 20 per cent.  Is all this coincidence? Discussions with Smith may have been a verbal cold shower.

When the minister mentioned ‘social housing’, Smith asked what he meant.

“Social housing is just a buzz phrase, a sound byte, a tag line,” he says.  “There’s nothing wrong with people living in council housing. Some couples on joint incomes of £18,000- £20,000 will never really be able to afford to buy their own house.

“What’s wrong with that? They’re probably lovely people, making a great contribution to society, happy in what they are doing, not jealous of anyone who has bought their house.

At the moment, if they rent they seem to be provided for by Jack the Lad who gets a buy-to-let mortgage then rips them off.

“It also goes on in an institutionalised way.  Housing associations try their best, but they tend to veer towards the private sector model: shared ownership and all that.  Very laudable, but they ape the private sector rather than speaking with their core values by providing quality housing to a good standard, with a nice sense of space.” He adds: “Not everybody truly aspires to personal property.  Many have been conned into that.  People like living in good environments, happy environments.  I’m certain lots of people would trade life in their own property for life in a safe community.” Hopes of the three major political parties accepting his assessment seem in vain, for now at least, despite the depressing prospect that money which could have been spent on creating better communities looks likely to be spent on more policing instead.

He observes: “While the Government seems to have made some gestures towards the house-buying public in an attempt to ease the burden on first-time buyers and on vulnerable families careering towards repossession, and indeed has also pledged £400 million of funds from existing budgets for social housing, none of the three parties in their recent annual conferences seems prepared to acknowledge that the focus still appears to incline towards the quantity of new housing stock, rather than quality of new homes and communities.

“All our efforts and endeavours must be geared towards creating better places, majoring on happiness in our new housing developments, to restore our faith in a sense of belonging to a community.”