Is it Time to Build Council Homes Again?
In the first of his articles on the housing crisis in Brighton, author Richard Bingham looked at the planning system and a block of private flats in Hove. https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/yes-in-my-backyard/ Richard’s second article examines the contribution new council housing in the city can make to ending the crisis.
In many ways, the low-rise, high-density development at Victoria Road in Portslade is exemplary. Completed in the spring of 2023, Jay Court and Perching Court together provide 42 one, two and three-bedroomed flats for people on the hard-pressed council waiting list. And more people taken off this waiting list means the pressure on private rentals is relieved.
Both blocks are steel-framed, flat-roofed and clad in two-tone brick (figure 1). There is extensive hard and soft landscaping around them. Designed by Brighton and Hove’s in-house architects, the contractors for the project were Morgan Sindall. A time-lapse sequence showing the building of the apartments can be found here
Squeezed as it is between the sea and the South Downs National Park, Brighton and Hove has little to offer developers in terms of greenfield sites, so the plot on Victoria Road – a main throughfare otherwise best known for its sprawling car showrooms – is exactly the kind of brownfield site that provides a much-needed alternative to building on the urban fringe (figure 2).
In their Housing Delivery Action Plan of 2012, the city council notes that brownfield sites such as Victoria Road bring problems of their own. 1Brighton & Hove Council, Housing Development Action Plan, January 2021, available at https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/brighton-hove-housing-delivery-action-plan-2019, accessed 14th December 2023 In addition to demolition costs, objections are often raised on the grounds of increased traffic, unsightly massing and adverse impacts on neighbouring properties such as overshadowing and overlooking.
The design of Victoria Road obviates these potential objections very well-indeed. Massing has been reduced by dividing the new development into two separate T-shaped blocks that step up as the blocks recede from the main road, culminating in the five storeys of Perching Court (figure 3). Particularly effective is the way that the chocolate-coloured brick extends to just the top floor of Jay Court but the top two floors of Perching Court, thereby reducing the scale of the taller block.
Very few existing residents have their properties overlooked. On its eastern side, the new apartments face a light industrial estate, while to the west they overlook Portslade Cemetery. The existing access road has been preserved and ample on-site parking has been provided, shared with the remaining council offices.
Better than private housing
In many different ways, Victoria Road provides its tenants with accommodation that is superior to that offered by far more expensive private lets in the area. The council development, for example, includes more public space and shared amenities than private developments such as Circus Street, where the high-rise towers make very little effort to create a sense of place for residents.
When I visited the council flats at Victoria Road, I chatted to the father of one of the tenants who said how much he enjoyed gardening with his granddaughter in the fenced-in outdoor area with its raised beds (figure 4). This is in addition to the attractive hard and soft landscaping on the western side of the blocks (figure 5).
It was not possible to inspect the interior of the flats. However, my informant told me that the apartments are spacious and that the quality of the finishes – including the fitted kitchen – is superior to all but the most expensive private developments.
The green credentials of the development are likewise impeccable. The most striking design feature is the green walls (figure 5) which, along with the bat boxes and bee bricks, encourage biodiversity. The contractors also claim that using a steel rather than concrete frame has saved 177 tonnes of embodied carbon. Heating and hot water are provided by heat pumps while the flat roofs are home to a flock of solar panels.
Such energy efficiency not only furthers the efforts of the city council to ameliorate the effects of global warming, it also has the specific benefit of combatting fuel poverty by reducing tenants’ energy bills.
In the past, one of the criticisms of public housing has been the lack of so-called “defensible space” offered to tenants. This refers to insufficient demarcation between public and private space, leading to a feeling of vulnerability. To ameliorate this, the entrances to ground floor flats at Victoria Road have been recessed to form private porches (figure 6). The security light adds a feeling of safety, while the detail of the knapped flint panel and the personal touch of a stand and plant suggests homeliness as well.
Victoria Road is exemplary, therefore, because it is a low-rise, high-density and energy efficient development on a brownfield site that tries hard to add to the quality of life of its residents.
The city needs more developments like this.
Homes for Neighbourhoods
In his fine book, A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates, John Boughton notes that, by 2021, 80% of councils in the UK were directly involved in house building.2Boughton, A History of Council Housing in 100 Estates, RIBA Publishing, 2023 In Brighton and Hove, 1,000 new homes are currently being built through the Homes for Neighbourhoods initiative.3Brighton & Hove City Council, https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/housing/housing-supply/homes-brighton-hove, accessed 14th December 2023 A strategic partnership has been formed between the council and affordable homes developer Hyde Homes. New builds comprise a proportion of affordable homes for sale by Hyde and 50% homes for social rent offered to people on the council house waiting list.
In design terms, Brighton and Hove’s in-house architects have done a much better job at Victoria Road than the third party architects of Clarendon Place, a larger site jointly developed by the council and Hyde on the seafront at Portslade as part of Homes for Neighbourhoods. The boxy seafront flats lack the subtlety of the Victoria Road design as well as the latter’s more imaginative creation of public space (figure 7).
What Victoria Road and Clarendon Place do have in common, however, is that they were both built on brownfield land already owned by the council. This means that it has not been necessary to borrow additional monies to buy the sites, freeing up the Housing Revenue Account to purchase other sites in the city.
In recent years, changes have been made by central government to encourage such developments. Since October 2020, Brighton and Hove has been allowed to charge developers a Community Infrastructure Levy of £175 per square metre in central Brighton and on the seafront, and £75 per square metre in some of the outer wards.4 Brighton & Hove City Council, Housing Development Action Plan, January 2021, available at https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/brighton-hove-housing-delivery-action-plan-2019, accessed 14th December 2023 The levy goes towards paying for infrastructure such as roads and schools on which all new builds rely.
In addition, the Conservative government has lifted the restrictions on the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). This means that councils can borrow money to spend on housing.
Finally, councils are now allowed to buy back Right to Buy council housing under the Home Purchase Policy. By 2021, two hundred of such properties in the city had already been re-purchased by the city council.5Brighton & Hove City Council, Housing Development Action Plan, ibid
But is it enough?
And yet all councils remain hamstrung by the continued existence of Right to Buy (RTB). In the UK as a whole, some 70,000 new social rent homes were built between 2012 and 2021. During the same period, however, a further 210,000 existing homes had fallen victim to RTB – a net loss of 140,000 social rent homes.6Boughton, 2023, (ibid)
For private tenants, the Labour Party’s housing policies will go a little way to ameliorate the housing crisis. Under Section 106 of the planning legislation, developers can be legally obliged to include a certain proportion of so-called affordable homes as part of a larger development. However, this commitment is also subject to a viability review, with developers often threatening to walk away from the development if the proportion of affordable homes means their profits fall below 20 per cent.7Liam Halligan, Home Truths: The UK’s Chronic Housing Shortage, Biteback Publishing 2021
Labour intends to “upskill” councils on how to counteract this kind of gaming of the planning system but says nothing about ending the Right to Buy – something the devolved Scottish and Welsh governments have both already done.8The Labour Party, “Rayner says Labour will deliver biggest boost to affordable housing for a generation”, https://labour.org.uk/updates/press-releases/rayner-says-labour-will-deliver-biggest-boost-to-affordable-housing-for-a-generation/, issued 7th October 2023, accessed 14th December 2023
In his book Home Truths: The UK’s Chronic Housing Shortage Liam Halligan suggests another solution. 9Halligan, 2021, (ibid)Planning uplift occurs when planning permission is granted to a site. Overnight, an acre of land that would cost £20,000 without planning permission is magically worth £2 million. At the moment, that benefit accrues to the developer or land agent who has been savvy enough to buy the land and obtain planning permission.
Halligan suggests that the uplift should instead be split 50:50 between the council and the developer/land agent. This is what used to happen in the UK, and what still happens in the United States – not a country known for its socialist views on housing. Planning uplift can pay for infrastructure but also pay for new houses for social rent to be built. Again, however, the current Labour policies choose to ignore the idea altogether.
Victoria Road is an exemplary start on the road to making new houses part of the solution to the housing crisis. But the road ahead is long, and if more radical action is not taken, it is unlikely we will ever reach our destination.
All photography by Richard Bingham