“Politicians can sit there and blame everybody else in the world, but as far as I’m concerned, the state has a responsibility to provide homes for those most in need.”
Architect George Clarke is the amiable presenter of a host of Channel 4 home building and home improvement shows. On programmes like Restoration Man and Amazing Spaces he follows inspirational architectural projects offering an expert’s eye and warm support to dreamers building brighter futures. The shows have made him a national treasure.
But Clarke is furious about the housing crisis and the way council housing has been undermined, sold off and almost fatally diminished in recent decades.
His new documentary – released to mark the centenary of the Addison Act, the almost revolutionary Parliamentary bill which in 1919 heralded a state-built housing boom in Britain – is vital viewing for anyone with an interest in housing and frustrated by a failure to fix the current crisis.
Clarke is on fighting form when he welcomes The Big Issue to his production offices in Brixton, South London.
This is, he says, a passion project.
“I was brought up on a council housing estate and I saw how really good, well-designed houses in a well-designed estate with great public spaces and amenities created a great community,” says Clarke, who revisits his childhood home in Sunderland where his mother still lives as part of his new film.
“When I was 16 I used to walk from my council estate to the architect’s practice where I did my apprenticeship every day. That is when I got a massive passion for homes and housing.
“Until those in power really fully understand how transformative a good, affordable, decent home can be for people we are never going to solve the housing crisis.”
A century ago the government cared.
The Addison Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th century. It transformed housing provision in Britain, placing a duty on councils to provide homes for people most in need, establishing council housing as we came to know it.
The plan was ambitious. If the target of 500,000 new homes, to be built with government subsidy, proved hard to meet (as have, it seems, most government housing targets in the intervening years), the 213,000 homes that were built laid the foundations of a new system.
It was sparked by the need to house returning soldiers from the First World War. Homes Fit For Heroes was the tagline, and politicians of all stripes got behind the idea of state provision of housing.
The Becontree Estate in Dagenham was among the most ambitious and extensive new neighbourhoods. “This says to me that 100 years ago the government cared,” says Clarke in the new film, surveying the quality of design of the houses and the neighborhood spaces the residents enjoyed.
It shouldn’t be hard to do it again, he says, to have some actual inter-departmental joined-up thinking.
“The Addison Act was revolutionary because it was the health minister Dr Christopher Addison – not the housing minister – who said that truly affordable, state-built, well- maintained homes would be the staple of a modern and new society, providing housing for those most in need.
“Now, wouldn’t it be amazing if the health minister said the same today? Wouldn’t it be amazing if the health minister talked to the housing minister talked to the education minister and realised that if we provided a huge amount of good-quality, affordable, stable homes for people most in need, it would transform the health of many people, it would transform the mental wellbeing of many people, and it would even transform the standard of education that our kids are receiving?”
Clarke points out of the window towards Dawson’s Heights in Dulwich, built in 1964. This imposing and impressive architectural marvel was designed by Kate Macintosh when she was just 26 and working for the London Borough of Southwark’s architecture department. Imagine that happening now.
The 300 high-quality new homes were built after crucial legislation based on the Parker Morris Committee’s 1961 report, which set down minimum standards for new homes. A focus on quality as well as quantity followed the housebuilding boom in the wake of the Second World War.
“Loads of people want to live there,” says Clarke. “One problem now is that with so many cutbacks councils don’t even have architectural departments. The Greater London Council used to employ hundreds of architects doing the social good, doing the right thing for society. All that expertise is gone. Which is why it is easier for governments today to go to private industry.”
This, says Clarke, is a huge problem when it comes to providing homes for those most in need.
“There are some terrible developers out to make a massive amount of money to the detriment of communities and society,” he says.
“One of the biggest problems is that the home to them is not much more than a commodity to be traded and transacted, rather than home being an affordable place to live.
“There are some big, big, big powerful housebuilders out there whose only interest is to make a shitload of money and push up their share price. They move on from one site to the next without any regard for what is being built and how long it is going to last. And when it comes to council housing, they want to get rid of it.”
One century on from the Addison Act, hundreds of people in need of homes are now being offered temporary accommodation in converted shipping containers. Some accommodation has no windows as rules about minimum space for dwellings are circumvented thanks to new laws in 2015 about converting offices to residential use.
“We have massively gone backwards,” says Clarke. “In the 1950s and 1960s, if you weren’t doing the right thing on housing, you were unelectable. Now, they don’t give a shit.
“And the reason they don’t give a shit is because they in effect privatised the whole system so it is not their problem. The Welfare State was built on health, education and housing – if you decide to ignore housing, it’s a farce, isn’t it?”
The Right to Buy was was a clever policy by Thatcher to buy the working-class vote.
How did it come to this? When did society’s safety net stop working with regard to housing? When did we become beholden to profit-chasing developers and in a race to the bottom regarding standards?
The big change came in 1980, one year in to Margaret Thatcher’s government. The Right To Buy policy was heralded as making home ownership a possibility for thousands of working-class and low-income people and families. More than one million council homes were sold off in the 1980s alone. Expanding home-ownership to those for whom it had been cut off was not a bad plan. What came next was. The problem was the tiny, tiny proportion of housing stock that was replaced.
“My own very, very, very personal view is that it was Tory bribery. It was a clever policy by Thatcher to buy the working-class vote,” says Clarke.
“I have seen lots of people benefit from Right To Buy. It has given them stability. It has given them home ownership.
“But it is bribing one generation and pulling up a ladder from the next generation coming through. And that is why we are in the fucking mess we are in. I would scrap Right To Buy. We are at a time of national emergency.”
An increasing share of income raised from Right To Buy went directly to the Treasury, rather than the councils who were losing their housing stock alongside a guaranteed revenue stream. Council housing numbers plummeted, from around 6.5 million in 1979 to just two million by 2017. If selling off the family silver was harmful, failing to replace it then renting it back at vastly inflated prices seems positively reckless.
“Selling off state assets at a massively discounted rate and not replacing that house is just stupid,” says Clarke. “And worse still, more than 40 per cent of all the homes that have been sold off under Right To Buy are now in the hands of private landlords – who are renting them out at considerable profit, quite often to people on housing benefit. It is then costing the state a shitload of money. That, to me, is one of the biggest scandals of all.”
Grenfell is the tip of the iceberg. It could have happened anywhere.
The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire should have been a moment to take stock. If ever there was a time to look at how this country can do housing policy better, and to ensure secure and safe housing comes before profit, it is surely now. Clarke lives less than 100 metres from Grenfell. He is unimpressed with the political response to the 2017 tragedy.
“It is more bollocks from the government,” he says. “If they listened to people in the industry who really understand, the changes should have been made already. Secondary means of escape, proper equipment for the fire brigade, the list is a very easy one. But the government are weak.
“Grenfell is the tip of the iceberg. It could have happened anywhere and it can still happen in the 160 buildings that still have combustible cladding. If it had happened in Sunderland or Glasgow, we’d think it was because they had no money. But it shows it can happen not only in the wealthiest borough in Britain, but also in a building that has only just been refurbished. Isn’t that 100 times worse?
“It is a scandal on the biggest scale you could imagine. It should bring the government down but the fuckers wouldn’t even turn up and pay their respects until they were put under pressure. You can tell how angry I am.”
So what would Clarke do? You are housing minister, I tell him, I have just appointed you. What are you going to do on your first day in office? He barely blinks before launching into a long list of proposals. “I would do about 20 things in the first half hour. I would bring in a policy to build more council housing. I would give councils the power to be able to build again.
“I would put in a long-term housing strategy and get cross-party consensus so that policy would be set in law and be followed for 40 or 50 years, I would do everything to eradicate homelessness – and set myself the target of doing it in one year. I would make sure the money is there, even if it meant higher taxation.
“I would ban combustible cladding and say there needs to be secondary means of escape, smoke alarms, sprinkler systems and proper maintenance programmes for every high-rise building. I would make sure there were controlled rents and a minimum standard for housing. I would increase building regulations – everyone says that would put up house prices, but that is an urban myth, a threat by the private housebuilding industry to stop governments improving building standards. And I would say that all housing in Britain by 2030 has to be zero-carbon.
“It would be a long day in the office and everybody would say that the state can’t afford to do it. Well, we can’t afford not to do it.”
I have a lot of sympathy for councils, because they are battling against central government and failed policies from parliament.
Clarke is not yet in charge of housing policy, although he may get a few votes based on the above. However, he is actively seeking to improve council house provision.
We need, he says, to build 100,000 new council houses every year for at least five years. To show how it can be done, Clarke is working with Manchester City Council on a new development.
“It is a big step by Manchester Council to commit to building council housing when everything is stacked against them,” he says.
“We want to build housing that is truly affordable while raising the design and space standards. I am hoping it will help eradicate, or at least minimise, the stigma associated with council housing.
“We are building a low number which I am gutted about. But we have to start somewhere. We are doing 27 houses and some apartments. I want to work with councils, not against them. I have a lot of sympathy for councils, because they are battling against central government and failed policies from parliament.”
Clarke is spearheading a campaign to persuade other councils to follow suit. The centenary of the Addison Act should spark a new wave of state-built housing, he says. Housing fit for the way we live now.
“This is going to be one of the most hard-hitting things I ever say. But the government doesn’t care. Because if it did, it would radically change its policies. It is about action, not words.
“I am sick to death of hearing the same headlines. We all know what the problem is. We all know what the solution is. We as a nation should be standing here, proud that we have solved the housing crisis, that we have built fantastic state-owned homes, that we have provided homes for those most in need. If we can’t do that there is something fundamentally wrong with the entire system.”
Read this interview and much more in this week’s Big Issue, available from your local vendor.
George Clarke’s Council House Scandal airs on Channel 4 on Wednesday July 31 and is available on catch-up here.