Housing is not enough – panel

In the centenary year of St Pancras Housing, we held a Panel Discussion for June’s London Festival of Architecture: Housing is not enough/ not enough housing to look at its legacy and today’s social housing.

Panelists John Boughton (Municipal Dreams), Elizabeth Darling of SahGB, writer Ellen Peirson, and Jo McCafferty of Levitt Bernstein chaired by Professor Esther Leslie held a lively discussion.

Levitt Bernstein are architects or a new social housing block in Somers Town and wrote about the event in their blog.

Housing Is Not Enough / Not Enough Housing – How we are making a difference in Camden

On Friday 7 June 2024, Jo McCafferty contributed to a panel discussion to celebrate the centenary of the St Pancras Housing Society. The event, as part of London Festival of Architecture, was organised by A Space For Us, an independent community initiative and museum in Somers Town.

Established 100 years ago, the St Pancras Housing Society set down a visionary example for rebuilding and rehousing our communities. In 1920s and 1930s Somers Town, a grassroots humanist ethos inspired the clearing of some of London’s most notorious Victorian slums and the construction of modern, dignified living spaces informed by values of community and solidarity.

Jo was joined by:

In this centenary and election year, the panel discussed the legacy of the St Pancras Housing Society, the state of social housing in today’s cities and their predictions for the future. The conversation showcased how the association’s visionary ethos continues to influence today’s housing development. The SPHS introduced the concepts of inclusivity and social impact and set an example for how rehousing can be done effectively and respectfully. The LFA’s theme “Re-Imagine” gave the whole conversation an even more poignant light, especially relevant when looking at ground-breaking initiatives, such as the work of Irene Barclay, the UK first female chartered surveyor.

John Boughton captured all of us with his incredibly charismatic historical excursus of how council housing started. From the mid-19th century, during a time marked by industrialisation and a high increase in population that led to housing congestion, giving way to the creation of slums at the end of the century. Highlighted projects included 1844 Streatham Street, Arnold Circus (Boundary Estate) where 5,700 people were displaced and only 11 were moved back, and the influence of the First World War in how new housing was delivered.

Elizabeth Darling linked this wider historical background with the specific achievements of the St Pancras Housing Society, making the most of the 1919 Housing Act, while understanding the critical need for housing above political parties as a fundamental right and social good. The SPHS instilled the idea of re-housing slums as a practical business proposition while other housing associations preferred to raise money independently through philanthropic figures. New typologies in housing were created, better construction techniques were introduced, incorporating electricity, private bathrooms, and communal amenities. This new approach set a precedent that keeps influencing housing developments to this day.

Ellen Peirson highlighted the importance of the association’s communications programme, which had a clear understanding of the value of documenting and raising awareness of the social impact in the community, quoting:

Peirson introduced the works of Irene Barclay, the first female chartered surveyor, and Evelyn Perry, who not only provided the housing association with physical surveys of the buildings, but demonstrated the importance of the human element, introducing notions of social value. From a contemporary perspective, it’s clear how the association’s achievements are incredibly remarkable and forward looking, at the time equally unimaginable as the changes we seek in our housing development today.

Jo McCafferty introduced the history of Levitt Bernstein Associates, from our founders’ education and background to how they started a new housing association, Circle 33, which then morphed into Clarion. David Levitt and David Bernstein approached projects through the notion of “rub the red line out of a plan”, meaning they would always look at the broader context and its communities. In this spirit, she presented successful case studies led by the practice like Vaudeville Court, Sutherland Road and highlighted her recent work in the film ‘The White Flats’ which celebrates the work of Peter Tábori in Highgate New Town and provides a testament to how good design can influence the wellbeing and neighbourliness in communities across generations.

The conversation ended with a shared notion: the fundamental fact is that council housing equals security for residents.

To the question, what should we do and promote for the future of council housing? The audience clearly prioritised rent control, end Right to Buy scheme and Section 21 evictions.

Jo concluded on a positive note, highlighting how we shouldn’t lose faith in our younger generations as they are politically engaged, climate literate and are motivated to shape their future.

John Boughton said we all have a duty to be optimistic, noting the high quality of today’s public housing. He then advocated for a shift in power and finance which is currently too centralised, in favour of a much-needed devolution to local government.

We are very grateful to all participants and look forward to a publication that will result from our work together.

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