Forget What You Think You Know about... council housing

In our first episode of the series, Ben Murray explores council housing across the country.

Forget What You Think You Know

Episode 1: Council housing (October 2020)

Norwich City Councillors standing outside the award winning Goldsmith Street Council Housing scheme

In this episode, Ben Murray visits Norwich to find out about their award winning council housing scheme, Goldsmith Street. What makes this scheme so special is that it is the first council housing scheme to ever win the prestigious RIBA Stirling Award, beating off competition from the likes of innovative private developments such as the London Bridge tube station rennovation.

First stop on the podcsast is a visit to RIBA president, Alan Jones to talk about why he has a passion for council housing and what stood out about Goldsmith Street when he was on the judging panel for the Stirling Prize.

RIBA President, Alan Jones sat in his London office

After an insight into why Goldsmith Street is so special, Ben visits the Mikhail Riches offices in Islington to speak to the architect responsible for Goldsmith Street, James Turner. He gives an account on the design aspects of the scheme and highlights what a 'Passivhaus' standard can do for housing and climate change. 

The third visit is to the Goldsmith Street scheme itself to see for ourselves what the fuss was about. Ben is joined at the scheme by councillors from Norwich City Council to hear about what the new estate has done for residents living there and what it's done for Norwich on the whole.

The final stop on the podcast is to Kate Henderson, chief executive at the National Housing Federation. She discusses the national picture on council and social housing and gives us an insight into why it means so much to her.

Please be aware the interviews were recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic but the facts and figures remain similar to today.

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Full transcription

Ben Murray - Hello and welcome to the forget what you think you know podcast I am Ben Murray and today I'm asking you to forget what you think you know about council housing and to help you to do just that I've come to Norwich, to look at an award winning council housing scheme that's been described as an architectural masterpiece.

It's one hundred and one years since the Addison Act paved the way for mass council housing in Britain. Over the last century councils have built more than 5.5 million homes for generations of families. But in the last thirty years the volume of social housing has fallen dramatically. In the period after the second world war, councils were building around a hundred and fifty thousand homes. Fast forward to 2020 and that figure has fallen to just two thousand.

But why is this happening? Councils have argued that current policies like right to buy have made it difficult for councils to replace homes sold under the scheme. Under this policy councils can only spend 30 percent of the money received from the sale of a home to spend on replacements. They also have a three year limit in which to spend it. This means that councils now have to approach things differently… Like Norwich City Council.

Last year the prize for the best new building in the U. K. was awarded to one of the best new council housing projects in a generation. This is the first council housing scheme to ever win the RIBA stirling prize. The project beat a number of other famous developments including the reformed London Bridge station.

But what makes this council housing scheme so special?

Alan Jones (RIBA President) Awards in my mind should go to what we value most. As I say going back to this idea of the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture, last year it had to go to Goldsmith Street.

Ben Murray Alan Jones is president of RIBA and one of the judges for the Stirling prize. He also grew up in a council house in Derry. We went to visit him to get his thoughts on the scheme.

Alan Jones I was keen when I ran for election back in 2018 to let people see where I'm coming from both both professionally and also if you like family background. I've championed social mobility within the RIBA over the last three years. It was dare that I suggest a sort of blind spot not just for architects but other professions are only really getting to grips with that, so as part of the explaining locks as that's where I'm coming from I went back to where my parents had their first house which was a housing estate, council housing estate in east of Londonderry/Derry/City as we would call it in Northern Ireland and that was interesting going back then because that will be housing that would have been built but dare I say I was born in 1964 and it was if you're talking about housing that was constructed post war 1950s, early 60s when one when I went back to begin 2018 you sort of go Hey cool you don't it was well designed yeah clearly defined by an architect or a firm of architecture or locals authority architects but it's robust, the spaces are lovely, the difference between let's say public space semi-public space private space overlooking is good in terms of places for children to play you know the car isn't that dominant in terms of the the site layout and so on and you sort of go goodness maybe we could learn a lot even just standing here looking at this. You underestimate the impact that the early formative years of hot money should go yeah yeah yeah like I I forgot that bit that's there and I'm so on so yes its quietly informed and it's interesting that when you show that fast forward to say for example what was my motivation to study architecture and you realize that actually there's other parts and then you sort of think of private housing yeah and there's absolute acres and swathes of very anonymous characterless, private housing that you drive past on your way into Belfast you know if you're coming in from the north you just go I didn't want to live there yeah it's not where I want to live yeah I just think I'd of just again maybe it's again out of  principal and I have just sorry I would I I want to create spaces that are better than that which actually in hindsight where ie as good as the council estate that we grew up in.

Ben Murray: So that's what's driving on what's goldsmith street demand for the perceptions of council housing what impact is it having nationally.

Alan Jones: Well if you remember that it took ten years from now if you like the initial idea to handing over the keys to the first of the residence. Part of that was actually to do with funding yeah you know and you know but all the various sort of procedural things you know so it didn't take that long to design and build it there were sort of fallow periods in the program when things weren’t going all and so do that you could argue that the impact I thought you know that I think it'll take a number of years so that let's see what's the impact of Norwich you might not see the impact of Norwich in terms of built form for two or three or four or five years you know but that way it will have a lasting impact. Where its immediate impact has been for example government ministers wanting to go and see that we have Manchester Council wanting to know who do we contact in Norwich Council to talk about Goldsmith Street. When you consider that its changed the agenda on the discussion about consultation we're still getting a lot on a daily basis maybe half a dozen calls a day yeah about that project on the impact of what and it's really sort of kicked off I think a real conversation about if Norwich can do it why can't we yeah.

Ben Murray: Norwich city council wanted Goldsmith Street to set an example to the country on how housing can be done in an environmentally friendly way. This is where the passive house standard comes in. A passive house is an energy efficient building designed to help reduce its heating needs an energy demand therefore reducing its overall impact on the environment. When planning to design and build a passive house there are certain standards that must be met in regards to heating, cooling, air leakage and total energy consumption. Houses on Goldsmith Street meet these standards. There are currently only one thousand units in the U. K. which reach passive house standard which shows you how innovative goldsmith street really is.

Alan Jones: it's a mixture of the full traditional block and brick and also timber frame but also with brick on the outside and it's built to a very very exacting environmental standards called passivhaus which is a German standard, but that means it's very air tight yeah so it means that you control the ventilation and that means it has very high levels of insulation so it means that they were reporting last year that the average energy bills for heat and light and power was one hundred fifty pounds a year, you know and and that's fantastic. In terms of how we think of fuel poverty you you hear of families and individuals having to decide to like heat or eat an so that's another whole aspect to it.

Ben Murray: would you say that it's not just kind of council housing that that needs to follow the Norwich example it's private development as well?

Alan Jones: Oh you have hit the nail on the head. Absolutely, when go back to even what I saw in the seventies around Belfast it's just that sea of anonymous and I was actually speaking on LBC radio there last week and I was being asked about what what's the impact of just having what what was what sort of I I had referred to these sort of developments of being soulless, cut and paste and you know and you sort of realize that actually you don't know what your house is, you don't know what every your house is the same as everybody elses. Your street is the same as everybody elses street so I used the illustration I should remember the madness song, you know our house our house which means we know our house, we can if we can identify where our house says we understand how it works and so on in our street. So our house in our street which is about understanding where it is the fact that you do you have one component which is your house in your street which is about a small community, and the feeling of belonging and so on and then on the other side should have been somebody that asked me the interviewer then said so what happens when it doesn't work he said well I said as the groups says you go mad. As the song says it leads to madness our house in our street but it is it's the that's what it is you know in a way it doesn't matter whether it's council or whether it's private we should be aspiring to create the best environment possible because that leads to the identity and you know if we think again even what's happened in terms of the politics particularly in England just in terms of you know parts of the country feeling left behind, thats to do with investment and quality of their environment you know. So if it is soulless, if it feels there just isn't the quality that's there or the the sense of belonging isn’t there then you think you can understand why people start to become sort of adjugated.

Ben Murray: So is this a step change in how council housing of the future will be produced and are more councils taking this approach to their housing. James Turner is an associate architects of Mikhail riches with a passion for social housing is the man responsible for the design of the spectacle.

James Turner: The Stirling Prize is the award that I think any any architects would be kind of staggered to win I guess and it is it is a kind of real,  I think what makes it really special this year is its the first social housing scheme to ever win the Stirling Prize and I think it shows a real shift from RIBA not just looking at kind of starchitect buildings like opera houses, you know libraries, train stations, but actually schemes that make a real difference to people on a smaller scale so I think there's a real I know Alan Jones is a real advocator of social housing and kind of pushing you know trying to raise the benchmark for it and I think what's kind of been really well received by the practice is that you know a we've been in the same year we won the Niamh Brown award and Stirling Prize it really does put social housing in the spotlight.

Ben Murray: So why has no the council housing projects won this award before? How brave and ambitious have Norwich Council been?

James Turner: Building housing is hard, building housing as a local authority is even harder and then setting your aspirations and benchmark to be a hundred percent passive house and deliver something of real quality under traditional contract, you know Norwich should really be applauded for you know taking that risk as a local authority and I think setting Norwich on a pedestal as a project I think is a fantastic way of kind of saying to local authorities look you can do it and you do have to take a risk, you do you have to kind of embed yourself as a client in delivering the schemes but it shows it can be done and it shows it can be done to an incredibly high standard and in some cases better than a lot of private developers can do.

Ben Murray: So it's hard to do and takes a commitment from all parties, but what makes it stand out? What's the secret to the design?

James Turner: So the scheme itself is based on the idea of a fourty metre Victorian terraced streets so there's an area very close to the side that are typical of a series of kind of typical nineteenth century Victorian terraced streets you'd find in any parts of the country so you know nothing groundbreaking in that respect but what we’ve took the courage to be done is take that kind of concept and so brought into the twenty first century so adapting the site section so you’re kind of getting maximum solar orientation which is effectively turning itself into a free heat, so your massively reducing your energy bills by you know just designing to maximize free energy from the sun. The other thing that we've done along side this is that is the kind of recreation terrace streets of Norwich and I think a lot of people have got onboard with that here kind of not trying oxygen not trying to be this kind of fancy thing it's kind of very legible and very understandable and I think people find comfort in knowing you know we're not creating flats, were creating houses and I think the city really got onboard with the confirmation of creating family houses as opposed to just creating more blocks of flats which you see you know across the country.

This kind of series of terraced streets also has a kind of secondary focus which is small children's play. So residents definitely felt very strongly that small children's play should be really embedded into the scheme and again one of the risks the city have taken is kind of trusting our role as designers to kind of suggest things that would not normally be done and one of those things in particular was the creation of a ginnel space which is kind of a back alley way which all of the houses lead onto that runs down the center of the scheme as a kind of spine. What was been really successful is the we've we've kind of designs things like the garden fences at the low enough that people can talk to each other across the across the fence and actually get to know their neighbors, all those gardens and lead out on to that ginnel space which is locked to each end and which means that you know kids can be allowed to roame free out there and you know we we've been around there when you know talking with residents and kids would actually open the back gate run up to the gate will knock on the window and say can I come play with my mates and it just shows that actually if you offer people these opportunities they can work and I think where the city has been you know I said they were taking risks, you know in all of the various meetings that we had with us it's going to be for the mattresses, it will be a dumping ground it will be full of anti social behaviour, I think it's been anything but and I think it just shows that if councils are willing to take those risks and manage them you know you can create some really fantastic spaces.

Ben Murray: Its been said that 2019 was the year the world woke up to climate change. We continue to see extreme weather conditions around the world which are having a detrimental effect on our environment. Last year this triggered mass protests and pressure is growing on those in power to take action. Local government has a vital role to play in this and in July 2019 local authorities joined together to declare a climate emergency. But what does that mean and how can councils go about making a change locally? Housing is one way councils can make a difference.

James Turner: There's been a real push this year, for you know climate emergencies have been raised by lots of local authorities and disciplines, including architects and a lot of our clients are now coming to us going you know, we we put our hands up and said we have declared a  climate emergency but we're not entirely sure what to do now and I think you know a really good way of starting to do that is to look at your briefs, architects and go right we need to raise the bar we need to really raise the bar and we need to find a way of making it work and I think that passivhaus is not the silver bullet but it does make a huge difference to people's lives and I think it makes sense to put money into the built fabric day one rather than kind of you know throwing it on as a bolt on such as PV's and kind of feel good sustainability things that people can see where it's actually it's the kind of silent ones that I think actually really make a difference to people's lives.

Ben Murray: So you have heard why Goldsmith Street is award winning but what's it done for people living there? What impact has it having on their lives?

Cllr Gail Harris: When we were here with the Stirling prize judges, we had about six of them come to visit and we've spent two hours taking them round, there was a gentleman walking his dog and I just said hello to him. He didn't live in the the new properties he lived just outside but his do had already made friends with another dog in the properties and so that was the community coming together.

Ben Murray: Cllr Gail Harris is Norwich city council's cabinet member for social housing. We paid her a visit to hear about what Goldsmith Street has done for the local community in the area.

Cllr Gail Harris: It isn't just about us winning awards and that’s probably why you are talking to us as well. So the Stirling Prize is wonderful, winning the Niamh Brown Award to hold an integral award for someone who had passionate about social housing was really stunning as well but it's it's it's about people it's about people having good quality homes. So if the Stirling Prize has done anything its given some of us a lot more work and we've spoken at many events but were inspiring other councils to do things, were getting people contact us and saying if you can do it how can we do it, I think it's it's been it's changed people's perception of what housing is like. You know the good reports in the Guardian and the Times it's it's just been it's just been quite amazing really

Ben Murray: So you've heard why Goldsmith Street is award winning from a design perspective but what’s it done for the people living there, what impact is it having on the lives of people living in Norwich?

Cllr Gail Harris: No this is not just about housing its about creating communities. We've been very very strong on that so when you visit the scheme yourself this afternoon you will see that it's very very close to main roads but it's still very peaceful. So they've got the facilities of buses, local post office, local shops, theres walkways that have been created through to some of the existing communities so they’re already integrated and it is about communities is not about housing

Ben Murray: so it's it's a real kind of community hub as you say, you know I've not gone to visit yet and I'm really looking forward to doing that this afternoon but it just sounds like it's got a sense of a neighborhood really I you know that might have been lost over the recent years I think in a lot of kind of estates and stuff like that but it sounds like this is kind of bringing that back.

 Cllr Gail Harris: there is a sense of pride and you know it's it's just a very very stunning development and yet I'm still moved when I go there not being there a lot of times I was there when it is being built, I’ve been there a lot since it's been built and no we're very very proud of it. I’m hoping it will inspire other local authorities to be able to do the same you know because it's not just about providing homes its about providing good quality homes that will become a community. You know people in Goldsmith Street they've they've got more money to spend on doing eating for instance rather more about heating but being part of the community going out and doing things so you know it's it's it's it's it's been a a game changer for some of the people and and they've they've been very open with it and sort of emailed the architects and said you know how different how to how how proud they are and how it's changed their lives and you know it's very hard for them to think of how how where they've moved from and to and and she does it it's it's it's it's not it's just a game it's it's game changing.

Ben Murray: Have you heard of any kind of stories about that then them from kind of residents or any examples that you can give us where they kind of you know where its really positively impacted them.

Cllr Gail Harris: so someone moved in in November and they hadn’t had their heating on once, now I don’t know about your heating bills but not you know however hard you try they are there aren’t they? They’re significant. Envy of my friends and love having people to visit, someone's cared that I liked my home, that means a lot to me. Child friendly, so the architects sponsored a street party last August and you know people you can see people came out they were enjoying the sunshine but this nice open spaces with grass and with nice wooden animals and even you'll see that they're all some older houses around the scheme and people are just enjoying seeing people being part of a community it's just it's just wonderful.

Ben Murray: I’ve just arrived at Goldsmith Street and the architecture of this place is incredible. It feels like a really modern new neighborhood but almost like conservation area. The houses are all built in cream brick which draws inspiration from the city's famous Golden Triangle neighborhood and every home has a different coloured front door. They all look a really decent size and all have back gardens that back on to communal areas. You can feel a sense of community as you walk through this estate and I have to say it's better than what I was expecting. I have been joined by Cllr Paul Neale and Cllr Jamie Osborne. They are two Norwich City Councillors who supported the development of Goldsmith Street. They took a particular interest in the scheme being developed to a passive house standard.

Cllr Paul Neale: The architects involved with this and the consultants really did do a superb job in the choice of materials and how how it looks and how it feels

Ben Murray: it almost feels like you step into a kind of new town when you walk through the estate, do you know what I mean it's kind of got a different feel to the rest of Norwich I think

Cllr Jamie Osbourne: I think what I find is it's actually nice to walk around its sort of designed for for community spaces for people to walk around. The actual way this is laid out it feels very much like a community, it's not like it's not it's quite different to a tower block you know it's quite low, its actually low rise, family houses really.

Ben Murray: I have to say looking around you would not think these were council houses , I think people would be quite surprised that this is social housing I, I mean I don't know how the architects designed this to make it kind of feel that way but it is just so it's a bit mesmorising you know.

Cllr Paul Neale: Yeah well I've seen this type of this is colour of stone and this sort of design. Its being done for private housing you know it's it's become the fashionable style at the minute and you wouldn't know any difference. Saying that we seem to have this stigma in this country about council housing, social housing is different and and it's it's looks cheap. My wife is from Holland and you cannot tell what so ever the difference but and people don't even think about it, if that’s a social house, or a private house, it it just all looks the same.

Ben Murray: Council housing has a complex history and has gone through some good times and bad. But how does Goldsmith Street compare with council housing of the past?

Cllr Paul Neale: Norwich has had a good history, if you go back to the fifties when the big housing boom after the war came in, I actually live in one and the house is so solidly built and with you know retrofitting they’ve put in you know cavity wall insulation and double glazing, everything,  it's it's fantastic. Then they moved on to the sixties and early seventies and it seems that everything was just done a cut price. It looked like it was and is now proving to be and a noose round our necks really.

Ben Murray: It seems like a no brainer why are other council's not following suit?

Cllr Paul Neale:  I have spoken to some other councillors in the country who have contacted us the council and  myself and they’re trying to work out how they can push their own local authorities to go forward and the biggest stumbling block most of them of come back to me saying is that they've been turned down from their own authority because they say it costs too much. Now, yes at the minute to build the passive house standard probably costs around about ten percent more if it's managed correctly like this particular project was. Last figures I heard it was about 8 per cent more which is not an insurmountable amount but of course if you look at places like Germany that been doing this for for years,  the more developers are involved and understand how the system works the more you build, the more as Jamie said the more material you can source better and I think in Germany they're now getting to almost parity with traditional build so do you know they mustn’t be afraid.

Ben Murray: I'm on my way back from Norwich now and I'm still in ore around the quality of the houses on show at Goldsmith Street. You can see why they are award winning. You could see just from walking around the estate how happy residents were to be living in those houses. There's a real buzz around the place. Moving slightly away from Norwich now. My final interview was with Kate Henderson chief executive of the national housing federation to talk more generally about the perceptions of social and council housing and her personal experience of what social housing has done for her.

Ben Murray: Firstly Kate, I want to know a bit about you. Why did you get into housing in the first place?

Kate Henderson: I go into housing for personal reasons in first really understanding how important is that we have social and affordable housing and that's because my younger sister is severely disabled and she went off to university and then after university we needed to find somewhere for her to live. And actually our options were pretty limited and then we found the most amazing housing association called Habinteg and they provide specialist accessible housing for people with disabilities and they were brilliant. She ended up with an adaptable home, it was the first opportunity she had to live independently and they supported her in that, not just with erm you know the bricks and mortar side of it but also with setting her up with access to care and support and working with the local authority to get that. She doesn't live without housing association now she lives with another one because she moved into a different area but actually that human aspects of having access to accessible affordable secure homes kind of underpins who we are and how we get on in life.

Ben Murray: So why is it important that we strive for better quality housing? What can it do for an individual?

Kate Henderson: Housing matters to everyone of us. It underpins our ability to feel well in terms of of physical and mental well being, it's a place of sanctuary, but it's more important than that, for children it's a place to feel safe it's a place to do your homework, to have stability to go to school in your local area, as adults it's having the stability for an address so that you can get a job and in old age it's having somewhere to retire and to be comfortable to be able to live in and housing really does underpin all of that. Having a a safe secure, affordable warm home is really fundamental to how to get on in life.

Ben Murray: So housing matters. Like food and water it's a basic need for us. With that said there is still around one million households on council house waiting lists and many more classed as homeless. What's stopping social housing being built? Is it the perceptions around it? I want to find out Kate’s thoughts. So you touch a bit on the quality of social homes there. You know I I think that that might have been a bit of negative perceptions around council and social homes in the past. Do you think perhaps they are shedding that kind of perception these days?

Kate Henderson: I think we have the ability to build fantastic high quality social housing today and that might be homes that are social rented it might also be other types of affordable housing like shared ownership when you part rent and you part buy. We also have some amazing social homes that have been built over the last hundred years or longer, erm homes that were built with really good space standards, and really high quality materials with a really really good sensitivity to place-making and design and livability but that isn't how all social housing has been built so a lot of our social housing was built following the second world war and we were a country that had suffered severe damage from from the war and the need to provide homes for heroes and quickly, returning service personell, and actually what was built was quite often built very very quickly and with cheap materials, it was also in the fifties/sixties time when we led architecturally to build lots of tower blocks and that isn't necessarily how everybody wants to live. Those houses actually in towers quite often have brilliant spaces standards but some of them need to be refurbished and looked at to be fit for the future, but in terms of whether social housing is good quality or not I think I actually on the whole it has been built with a really strong social ethos and with quality and livability in mind.

Some houses in social housing sector but houses in general need refurbishment because they were only designed you know for fifty years or a hundred years and they need investment. Now I think the broader question for how we view it as society is a kind of a mixed one and there is some very negative perceptions of social housing in the media and I think we see the actually in TV, I mean if you watch things like Silent Witness or Luther you quite often see what that trying to portray of the crime situation or the poverty situation would be one of social housing. It will often be the tower blocks of concrete estate and actually to me, I spend my life traveling around the country visiting our members and this and this is not what I see of social housing. I see people living in sustainable communities and good quality housing where they do know their neighbours and they’re just getting on in life , they’re going to work, they’re being involved in the community it's very different image but we absolutely have some work to do to change that that narrative on that

Ben Murray: Why are we not building more council and social houses?

Kate Henderson: We really should be building more council and social housing and social rents, rents which roughly fifty percentage of market rent so that varies depending on where you are in the country is much more affordable and it's much more suitable for low income families. Social housing isn't just about the affordability it's about security that you have, the stability you have, knowing that you can stay in your home, your kid can do to its local primary school, that you have a network of support around you. Temporary accommodation is not a suitable place for children to grow up . Growing up in short time B&B accommodation, were you having to share bathrooms sometimes your having to share kitchen facilities, you have absolutely no privacy as a child in space you know will have profound consequences on how you get on in life, have huge consequences on the parent's mental health and as you said it costs the taxpayers lots of money. The solution to this in the long term is building a lot more social rented homes for families.

Ben Murray: So just going back to kind of you know temporary accommodation, people who are you know officially kind of homeless and those sleeping kind of rough on the streets as well you know it's a big issue in Britain today, is social housing the answer to eradicating it completely do you think or do other things need to happen as well?

Kate Henderson: Building safe secure affordable homes for people, building social housing is one of the main ways we can alleviate homelessness and actually prevent it in the first place. A lot of homelessness is caused by people living in unaffordable insecure private rented accommodation, being evicted at short notice and finding themselves in debt and unable to afford the housing costs and so they’re ending up in temporary accommodation. It would be so much better if they were able to to live in a social home with a secure tenancy where they were able to put down roots and know that they can afford their rent and that's why we are really calling for an investment in social rent but of course there are other causes of homelessness, there’s welfare reform, there are people’s personal circumstances as well, issues of alcoholism and drug addiction but actually housing having security of housing is really fundamental to overcoming those problems too.

Ben Murray: So there you have it… Goldsmith Street provides a vision for how council housing of the future should be. It provides safe, secure homes for residents, brings together communities, looks nice on the eye and could hold the climate change key for housing. What more could you want in a home? No wonder it was award winning.

It seems to me that more quality social and council housing like Goldsmith Street is necessary in tackling this housing crisis we find ourselves in today.

It is true that we will have to build our way out of this but we must build in a way that benefits our communities, our environment, and our economy.