The ‘6 radical experiments in social housing’, which include the Spa Green estate (1946-49), Keeling House (1954-59), the Alexandra Road estate (1968-78), and the Byker estate (1969-82), currently on show at the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of council housing, and by themselves don’t justify a new exhibition. It’s the new ‘experiment’, Lion Green Road, designed by Mary Duggan Architects and currently being developed by Brick by Brick in Croydon, that’s the real focus of the exhibition, the purpose of which is to give legitimacy to the kind of development being carried out today under the guise of ‘social housing’ by placing it within the history of UK council housing provision. However, as is typical of architectural discourse in this country – and of which the review of the exhibition in Arch Daily is another example – this history will remain a purely formal one, without any of the information by which a visitor to the show (or reader of the article) can make a judgement about whether this scheme is a continuation or betrayal of the preceding architecture. As is repeatedly the case, therefore, it’s up to ASH to provide that information.
The Lion Green Road scheme, which has financial support from the Greater London Authority and has received planning permission from Croydon council, is being built on a council-owned carpark, rather than on a demolished council estate; so in this respect it’s a-typical of new so-called ‘social housing’ schemes being developed in London, which are invariably built on land on which hundreds of council tenants previously lived and from which they have been evicted by the council. Last year ASH identified 237 such estate ‘regeneration’ schemes in London that have resulted or will result in the net loss of homes for social rent. Brick by Brick, however, to whom the publicly-owned land has been sold, is a private development company owned by Croydon council. Even though the exhibition describes this arrangement as a ‘blurring of public and private’, and calls the scheme ‘council-led’, in practice this means 1) the viability assessments on this and other developments are not available for public scrutiny, and 2) Brick by Brick has an obligation to make a profit for its investors by building the highest-cost housing possible. In this respect, therefore, this scheme is more representative of the privatisation of housing being implemented under the guise of ‘regeneration’ schemes by London’s local authorities.
Most representative of all, however, is what is being built in this so-called ‘radical’ and ‘experimental’ scheme. Even without the costs of demolishing an already existing estate, of compensating leaseholders and tenants for the loss of their homes, of rebuilding the demolished homes, and with developer profit at only 11.4 per cent rather than the 20-25 per cent developers usually take (and which is supposed to make Special Purpose Vehicles like Homes for Lambeth, Wholly Owned Companies like Homes for Haringey and Newham’s Red Door Ventures, and Arms Length Development Companies like Croydon’s Brick by Brick the key to building ‘council housing’), Lion Green Road’s 157 properties will still comprise 78 for market sale (50 per cent of the total), 46 for shared ownership (29 per cent of the total), and 33 for affordable rent at up to 80 per cent of market rate (21 per cent of the total), with 0 homes designated for social rent.
I suppose this is radical, in the sense that Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy was radical, or Blair’s programme of privatisation was radical. But in the history of council housing in the UK, Lion Green Road represents a regression in housing provision in this country, targeted at middle-income families subsidised by Help-to-Buy funding, Buy-to-Rent landlords and overseas investors in London property. Far from building ‘A Home for All’, as the title of the V&A exhibition advertises it, this scheme will do nothing to address the housing needs of the more than 5,000 households on Croydon council’s housing list or the 2,000 households living in temporary accommodation in the borough, who will not be able to afford its half a million pound house prices, its dodgy shared ownership deals or its so-called ‘affordable’ rents. And far from being radical, Lion Green Road conforms exactly to the privatisation, marketisation and financialisation of housing that is being implemented by local authorities across London under GLA policy guidance and funding and government legislation.
So why is this apologia for these failed and failing housing policies being exhibited in the Victoria & Albert Museum? Well, I imagine the former Labour MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt, being the V&A’s new director might have something to do with it. But I would hope that, if they saw what is being exhibited under their names, Berthold Lubetkin, Denys Lasdun, Neave Brown and Ralph Erskine, the architects whose work is also on display, would denounce this scheme for what it is: a betrayal of the socialist principles behind their own, genuinely radical because socialist, experiments in social housing.
Architects for Social Housing
Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, please make a donation through PayPal: