In 2014, Enfield Council found itself in an unusual position. David Cameron’s revamp of the Right to Buy scheme in 2012, which increased the discount on the sale of council house properties to £75,000, sent the loss of council housing through the roof. Cameron argued that the reform was a way to give tenants a “vital rung on the property ladder”.
According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, 2,368 sales of council property in 2012-13 multiplied fivefold to 11,929 during 2013-14. Since 2014, Enfield has seen the amount of its council homes passing in to the private hands increase to over 50 per cent compared with what it was when Margaret Thatcher introduced Right to Buy in 1981.
The council responded by doing the only thing it could – setting itself up as private landlord and bidding for properties against individuals. Through its wholly-owned private company, Housing Gateway, officials viewed homes and made offers, many of which were accepted. The credit facility was £100 million, and the company imposed targets for the number of units to be snapped up every month.
Ahmet Oykener, the council’s cabinet member for housing and estate regeneration at the time, told the Guardian: “I think increasing the right-to-buy discounts was a bit irresponsible.” He duly ensured that tenants in the homes that Housing Gateway bought would not be able to take advantage of the scheme. This seemed to epitomise the lengths local authorities had to go to in the coalition-austerity years.
Move forward to today, and “modern social housing” seems, more than ever, an oxymoron. Mention the subject to most people and they will likely recall the Grenfell Tower tragedy, with its harrowing portent of poor regulation and exposure of dangerous cladding. Published in Grenfell’s wake, John Boughton’s book Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing reads simultaneously like a defence of and an epitaph for social housing. Integral to the book’s argument is the identity of council house building practitioners as, rightly or wrongly, “utopian”, a trait that is considered naive in our more cynical, post-industrial climate.
Glancing at the portfolio of architect Peter Barber, one would be inclined to concur that this innocence is pervasive within the architectural profession. He fills his Instagram account, called One Year 365 Cities, with a roster of ambitious but ultimately unrealisable sketches of townscapes in the modernist vein, one ostensibly to be built each day. He says, in an interview with Metropolis Mag, that, “I think it’s good, from time to time, to step outside a different set of constraints. Imagine a world in which we’re building 150,000 social houses a year.” He is simply trying “to imagine things being better.”
But travel to the little-known corner of Ordnance Road in the working-class community of Enfield Lock, and you will find a Barber project what was completed and discover that modern social housing is possible. Numbers 65-69 Ordnance Road comprise a fantastic terraced development of 18 houses – 100% council housing – with reclaimed brick and iconic parabolic arches. On Twitter, Barber has responded to one of his admirers that he hopes Right to Buy won’t destroy its holistic vision: “Surely Right to Buy’s days are numbered…Moronic idea.”
Despite such beacons of light, no-one would deny there is a serious housing crisis in London. Enfield borough is particularly hit, as people pile into it from Inner London seeking its lower density housing and cheaper rents. Creative councils and architects are well and good, but what says national government?
In June, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange published the report Building More, Building Beautiful: How Design and Style Can Unlock the Housing Crisis, co-authored by conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and former Labour Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales. It sparked in November the instigation of the government commission Building Better, Building Beautiful, which promises to integrate more aesthetic considerations into the planning process and features Scruton as its chair.
Scruton is known for his intense antipathy toward modernist construction: “I want to give the public the opportunity to have the kind of architecture they would vote for, not the kind that is imposed on them by the disciples of Le Corbusier and Mies, for whom popular taste is merely an obstacle to ‘progress’,” he said. “Whether this is reigniting a culture war I do not know.”
As the commission takes place, I merely wonder, does it not presuppose an aesthetic solution to a functional problem – that of the Right To Buy, such a large part of the housing crisis? The report’s recommendations included that planning should be sped up in locales where residents agree with the “design and style codes” – dogwhistle for fashions imitative of Georgian and Victorian architecture.
We have seen that councils and architects know in large part what they are doing. They just need a government to back them properly, with proper local funding and less of an obsession with putting people on the property ladder. Architect Sam Jacob says that the commission is an attempt to simulate an “ahistorical fantasy” that appeals to “blinkered, quasi-fascist old white men”. I wouldn’t go so far, but the entire enterprise does seem to function as a way to distract us from discussing social housing as opposed to facing up to the need for more of it.
Joe Mathieson is a resident of Enfield and a history undergraduate. The image is from a Peter Barber Tweet.