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Are we witnessing a renaissance in social housing?

The annual RIBA Stirling Prize normally favours ambitious public or commercial projects; previous winners include the Scottish Parliament building (2005), The Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (2014) and Hastings Pier (2017). Which makes it all the more surprising that this year’s recipient of one of the most prestigious prizes in architecture is a community of newly built council houses in Norwich.

Precisely a century since the Addison Act of 2019 officially kicked off a countrywide programme of council housing development, the award for best new building has been given to Goldsmith Street, one of a vanishingly rare breed built directly by the council and let to tenants for a fixed social rent. And, while the development’s social credentials are admirable, its architectural merit is undeniable. Described by the judges as ‘a modest masterpiece’, each of the 105 houses has also been constructed to Passivhaus standards, which keeps energy costs super-low for incoming tenants.

It’s obvious that much thought has gone into making the homes bright, modern and comfortable, at the same time ensuring that the foundations have been laid for a proper community to grow and flourish. Houses and flats all have some private outside space but there’s plenty of landscaped public space, too, and parking has been consigned to the fringes of the development to give priority to people instead of cars. Homes have their own front doors on the street, with back gardens giving on to a secure ginnel with communal tables and benches and room for children to play.

One of the reasons Goldsmith Street is such a rare beast is that current rules only allow councils to use income from existing housing stock sold under right to buy to cover 30 percent of the cost of new homes, subject to a strict development time limit. In the event, Goldsmith Street was funded by a combination of borrowing and right-to-buy receipts plus some money from council reserves. It’s not the only social housing scheme that’s attracting attention. Bourne Estate in Holborn is home to public tenement housing that dates back to the early years of the twentieth century. A recent addition to the development was built by Camden as part of its drive to create new council housing and mirrors the proportions and quality detailing that’s a feature of the original building.

This group of 75 new homes is among a number of authority-built developments that are now appearing across London; in the last seven years London councils have built more than 2,000 homes, compared to just 70 in the previous seven years. Most councils are taking a more entrepreneurial – and more controversial – approach in which a number of flats are sold privately to help subsidise the council accommodation. At the Bourne Estate, the sale of 31 such flats funded a similar number of council flats.

Away from the capital, though, social housing remains moribund. Despite the success of Goldsmith Street, Norwich – in common with many provincial towns and cities – continues to lose hundreds of homes as a result of tenants exercising their right to buy – a policy that many would argue has merely expedited the wholesale transfer of public assets into private hands. While more and better social homes need to be built, it’s clear that more could be done if right to buy legislation was reformed.

Nevertheless, this year’s Stirling Prize does serve to send a clear signal that it’s possible for forward-thinking councils to engage directly in the business of building proper social housing that’s not only fit for purpose but that offers residents safe, dignified and high-quality homes for families who struggle to find secure tenancies when shorthold agreements are very much the order of the day. Hopefully, we’ll see a time when projects like Goldsmith Street are so commonplace that they’re no longer making headlines.

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