Housing

Building social housing is one thing. Building communities takes a different vision

The design of buildings and social housing estates can hugely enhance the quality of life of a community

Illustration of colourful houses

Illustration: Mateusz Napieralski

We need to build 3.1 million homes over the next 20 years, according to Shelter. That number may seem daunting, but it’s far from unprecedented. From the Second World War to 1980, around 126,000 social housing properties were built every year.  

The cost of 3.1 million homes, estimated at £10.7bn per year by Shelter’s calculations, goes down to £3.8bn “when savings in benefits and increased taxes are considered”. This comes to £76bn over 20 years. (If that still seems like a lot, it’s still less than HS2’s projected cost.) 

But for the last few decades there has been little political will to push for social housing. It’s often depicted as poorly built and maintained; hotbeds of antisocial behaviour and crime. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

There is some truth to it. Councils don’t receive enough funding from central government to consistently build homes and adequately maintain them. Social housing can create strong communities, however. The key is the design of buildings and estates which can enhance quality of life. 

“The taller you go, the further apart you have to build,” explains Alice Brownfield, an architect at Peter Barber Architects (PBA). “Where you have high-rise housing and buildings become further apart, you get space, which is not well overlooked. It might feel less safe.” Brownfield speaks a lot about the importance of spaces that are “legible”: areas where it is fairly easy to situate yourself and navigate. Recognisable landmarks, street patterns, shops or a pub all contribute to legibility. Neighbourhoods then feel safer because there are fewer hidden spaces where antisocial behaviour or illegal activities might take place. They also facilitate more chance encounters with neighbours, which can foster a sense of community. This may seem insignificant, but these types of small interactions could be a lifeline for many, especially with loneliness at record levels.

The work Brownfield does at PBA is focused on lower rise, street-based social housing. “You have the ability to not only give people their own front doors off the street,” she says, “but also to sort of pepper different uses around the street. So you might have a corner where you have a cafe, for example.

“Rather than walking down a corridor, you’re in a street where you might stop and sit on a bench or notice whether your neighbours have drawn their curtains or not.” 

Perhaps this sounds too ambitious, too utopian. But council estates with this vision predate PBA. Dawson’s Heights in the London Borough of Southwark was completed in 1972, and its architect, Kate Macintosh, designed it with communal access every three floors.

Another famous example is the London Borough of Camden’s Alexandra Road estate, completed in 1978 and designed by Neave Brown, after whom the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) Neave Brown Award is named. Brownfield is the chair of the award’s judging panel in 2023; it ‘recognises the best new examples of affordable housing in the UK’.

Erika Thompson lives in a flat in the Alexandra Road estate. “There’s a red brick path in the middle, and everyone can see what’s going on there,” she says. “You can’t do anything silly without people seeing it. It’s like constant Neighbourhood Watch. And because there’s a lot of families, there are kids running around all the time.” 

Brownfield says a lower rise approach has other benefits. “When you build tower blocks, you’re building lifts or stairs or bin stores,” she says. “And when you build street-based houses, you don’t have to build that. You can rent or sell every square metre that you build because everything is usable.

“That means that those projects are more viable for local authorities, because you’re able to make the most of the land, and you’re doing so in a way which hopefully creates more of a socially active community.”

Cian Kinsella is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rents in UK are rising at highest rate in decades. Will they keep going up?
rents uk
Renting

Rents in UK are rising at highest rate in decades. Will they keep going up?

Scotland needs real-time rough sleeping count to save lives
rough sleeping and temporary accommodation in Scotland is under the spotlight on Buchanan Street in Glasgow
homelessness

Scotland needs real-time rough sleeping count to save lives

'More bad news for renters': Rental crisis continues with steep rent rises despite inflation falling
inflation is falling but rents are still rising at a faster rate than wages
RENTING

'More bad news for renters': Rental crisis continues with steep rent rises despite inflation falling

Labour promises wave of new towns if elected. But will they make a dent in UK's housing crisis?
Angela Rayner announces Labour new town plan
Housing

Labour promises wave of new towns if elected. But will they make a dent in UK's housing crisis?

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know