Who Are the Winners and Losers in Social Housing Schemes?

Partisan hosts Eighty Twenty, a regular, fortnightly breakfast event for business leaders and professionals connected to the built environment.

This time, the focus of our discussion was on social housing schemes and the challenges that come with building affordable housing in the UK.

The Decline of Social Housing

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has reported that between the early 1980s and the early 2010s, the proportion of the UK living in social housing halved.

Two things caused this drop:

  • The introduction of Right to Buy in 1980
  • A decline in the amount of social housing being built.

By 2014, there were under 5 million homes for rent from either councils or housing associations.

In contrast, the number of private rental properties available has boomed, rising to 4.5 million in 2017, from a figure of 2.8 million in 2007, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Whereas there is a widespread view that the UK needs more affordable housing, there are serious issues about what form this should take, and how to deliver it.

The Cost of Enlightenment

Goldsmith Street has won the RIBA Sterling Prize 2019. This social housing scheme for Norwich City Council is a development of 105 brick buildings on the outskirts of Norwich.

The scheme has been designed with both high quality and eco-friendliness in mind, delivering something the RIBA has described as, “A coherent visual field that communicated the best of enlightened modern domestic European architecture from the outset.”

London firm Mikhail Riches designed the Goldsmith Street estate, building it to German Passivhaus standards – combining high comfort with low energy use for heating and cooling.

But however admirable the Goldsmith Street scheme is, how realistic a role model can it be for future, sustainable social housing in the UK?

The two big issues facing any social housing development scheme are quality and funding.

Is the Passivhaus solution in Norwich adaptable and affordable across other parts of the UK?

Winners and Losers in Housing

Goldsmith Street represents a win for architecture, and its residents are reportedly largely happy with it, but would it work elsewhere?

The LSE devised a mathematical model back in 2010 which reveals the likely winners and losers in housing in the UK.

One of the main factors restricting residential building has been restrictions on land development.

This has tended to push up prices.

For any councils or housing associations looking to create new social housing schemes, they must first find the funding.

Then it is a question of balancing this against the kind of quality they wish to achieve and, vitally, the numbers of houses they can then build.

Is zero carbon housing missing the point, for example? Would any government pledged to build more social housing be able to build more if they were 80% carbon neutral rather than zero carbon rated?

Is Funding Restricting Social Housing Innovation?

Social housing providers face huge challenges. The National Housing Federation says that England needs around 145,000 new social housing homes each year, and 90% should be below market rent.

In 2018, only 6,000 social rented homes were built.

Risk comes into play here, at the development and construction stage of a development, because spending on innovative designs and materials is a big commitment when the returns are, to put it bluntly, less profitable.

This may drive what sort of social housing developments the country continues to get.

Breaking the current cycle will require more than just funding, however. It also requires bold thinking, and a willingness to compromise alongside the urge to innovate.

It’s also worth noting that currently under Right to Buy, tenants at the award-winning Goldsmith Street scheme will be able to purchase their homes outright. 

However innovative the development is, it is still subject to the same thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.

Our Guests This Time

The guests at Partisan’s Eighty Twenty breakfast event included:

Paul Gosling, Dyson
Timothy Grover, Vincent Solicitors
Nick Moss, Sixtwo Architects
Phillip Robinson, Pegasus Group
Jerome Roith, Carrington Group
Gavin Sorby, Buttress


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