Council housing. I imagine reading this phrase doesn’t exactly make your heart leap. If so, this is a shame, because the provision by a city of well-designed affordable rented housing for its citizens ought to be a matter of pride.
If it isn’t, it’s probably largely because of our inheritance of the huge number of poorly-designed and poorly-constructed dwellings built by local authorities in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, under pressure from national governments. Among the most ambitious and productive local authorities was Birmingham, which in the peak year of 1969 built almost 11,000 dwellings. Work that out – that’s an average of 30 completed houses and flats handed over every day.
In order to meet the targets, output was mechanised and standardised – not so much the making of distinctive places to live in, but the mass production of units, rather like the British Leyland production line.
Areas like Newtown and Highgate in the inner city, and Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood on the urban fringe, were the unhappy result.
Perhaps influenced by this, the first Thatcher government in the 80s took the ideological decision that providing rented housing was not the job of local authorities, and stopped councils from building. It also extended the tenants’ right to buy, which stripped councils of all but their least attractive dwellings.
Demolition of structurally-defective tower blocks further reduced the housing stock.
The ban on new council house building continued under New Labour.
But in 2009, the ban was lifted, and the city council created the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. It was once again able to start building council houses for rent. So far it has completed 1,200 dwellings, with another 600 on the way – a modest achievement compared with the 1960s boom years. We are never again going to see that huge municipal production, but BMHT will make a significant contribution towards the 80,000 new dwellings which Birmingham calculates it needs to build by 2031.
What kinds of buildings are the new council houses, and what kinds of places are they making? I took a walk around Newtown and Lozells, to the north of the city centre, to look at what BMHT has built in one of its biggest concentrations of activity.
This area was torn apart and rebuilt in the 60s and 70s, in the replanning process known as comprehensive redevelopment.
Tower blocks were built, but most of the new 70s housing was low-rise, built on a disjointed and confusing tangle of streets and pedestrian alleys.
This was thought at the time to be preferable to the simple 19th century grid of terraced houses which it replaced. But the 70s housing was mostly unattractive and unpopular, with many constructional defects.
In its design, the new council housing is trying to achieve two things which are rather contradictory.
On the one hand, it is reacting against the way the 70s redevelopment fractured the integrity of the 19th century inner city: the street grid broken up, houses on pedestrian pathways instead of streets, and anonymous geometric blocks of houses scattered around useless bits of leftover space.
To repair this damage, the new council housing re-establishes the joined-up network of streets, and places houses facing the street at a fairly compact density, most of them joined up in terraces.
But on the other hand, BMHT doesn’t go so far as to rebuild the dense 19th century inner city of uniform terraced houses, because it recognises that, as well as having the advantages of living near the city centre, tenants expect to enjoy some of the qualities of suburbia.
So houses have private parking spaces outside the front door, they have family-sized back gardens, and they display a variety of heights, shapes and materials.
In Newtown BMHT is building about 300 dwellings in partnership with the developer Keepmoat, with many already completed and occupied on Wheeler Street and Clifford Street.
They are a mixture of houses to rent and houses to buy, which is now orthodox practice to achieve social diversity. They are designed by BM3 Architecture, one of the seven architects on BMHT’s panel.
BM3 do well in resolving that contradiction between urban and suburban values. The houses are mostly joined up into compact terraces, but without uniformity.
Two- and three-storey houses are interspersed, some in brick, some in a mixture of brick and white render. The brick is buff-coloured, gentler than the familiar inner city red brick. Shapes are cleanly articulated, and the detailing is sharp. Special house types stand on street corners.
Above all, and in contrast to the earlier 70s housing, there are plenty of references to traditional and popular house imagery.
Roof slopes are steep, some with photo-voltaic solar panels. They make big house-gables – some eccentrically mono-pitched, some more conventionally dual-pitched. Windows are generously sized, and placed to make interesting domestic compositions.
These are houses that look like houses. They are attractive, but not extraordinary.
I mean to compliment the designers when I describe the architecture as having a high standard of ordinariness. Urban housing is about making places for living in, not landmark buildings.
Lozells and Newtown are socially disadvantaged places, with a reputation for gang crime and antisocial behaviour. An important question for architects, but one almost impossible to answer, is to what extent this has been caused by a badly-designed environment and poor housing, and to what extent this can be mended by providing better-designed housing?
I would like to think that well-designed housing can help, although it is not going to remove deprivation and social alienation on its own. A danger inherent in inner city renewal is gentrification.
A better-off social class displaces a less-well-off class: poor people and their problems are shunted off somewhere else. Can BMHT’s renewal policies bring about a better inner city without gentrification?
I think they can, and I hope they will.
* Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer