Overview: The Johnnys-come-lately of social housing

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It could be regarded as a tiny bit cheeky that John Calcutt, chief executive of developer Crest Nicholson, chose to give architects a ticking off while using their head office for a meeting on social housing. He threw down the proverbial gauntlet by criticising them for not being sufficiently involved with this area of need, and he didn't mince his words.

It could be regarded as a tiny bit cheeky that John Calcutt, chief executive of developer Crest Nicholson, chose to give architects a ticking off while using their head office for a meeting on social housing. He threw down the proverbial gauntlet by criticising them for not being sufficiently involved with this area of need, and he didn't mince his words.

"I am deafened by the silence of the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] on these issues. Where is the intellectual lead from the architects? Although architects are producing innovative, stunning structures, they are not entering the debate about solving any of the social problems of today through architectural means."

There was an audible intake of breath when this was put to the RIBA later, while a spokesperson's measured response was that it was an issue constantly under discussion and a major plank of their stated policy. They work closely with the Government on this, and have been instrumental in a new requirement that good design should form part of any planning application.

Now even someone only marginally interested in the role of architects might recall that social housing has been a preoccupation for decades, with, it has to be said, a few pretty horrible results along the way.

But a lack of interest? "That's a bit rich coming from a private housebuilder," said one architect who had more to say on the subject, but preferred to keep his head below the parapet. "They have suddenly woken up to it because planning requires it of them."

At Jestico+Whiles Architects, which is working on a number of projects that are a mix of social and private housing, associate Eoin Keating said that the objective was to design homes for a wide social spectrum, which would not be visible from the outside. "We are very much involved in resolving these social and design problems and there are plenty of examples where we, as a profession, are succeeding."

John Calcutt also emphasised the importance of taking social distinction out of housing and indeed, where Crest Nicholson has done this, such as Park Central in Birmingham, the demand has been huge.

Nevertheless, there is something Johnny-come-lately about some private housebuilders and good design. The RIBA points out that 80 per cent of new housing does not have an architect. And it is not the housing associations who will go it alone, but the volume housebuilders. Perhaps the days of building-by-housetype are numbered.

The market listens

John Calcutt has been raising concerns elsewhere. He is worried that the possibility of further interest rate rises might give people too much pause for thought - which of course was just what Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, intended.

In fact, King has been so successful in forcing buyers to think about life without ever-rising prices, that in some places they have withdrawn to the point of disappearing.

Haart, the estate agency group which covers the lower section of the market, has seen the number of new buyers fall by more than 20 per cent since the first quarter of the year.

"Sellers are being forced to set realistic prices or offer discounts from the asking price to achieve a sale," says managing director Russell Jervis. "This has had the effect of stabilising house prices in the vast majority of the regions. While activity and price rises are subdued, the market remains healthy."

And at the top end, Hamptons International reports it lost two sales on the back of the Mervyn King's comments and that buyers are latching on to recent scaremongering and are refusing to pay inflated prices. All in all, just what the Governor ordered.

Comments