New housing: old models – Estate of the Nation

Having spent a stunning winter’s day in the sun on the Whittington Estate in Camden, I walked back home reflecting on CABE’s ‘Estate of the Nation’ seminar hosted by NLA, writes Jo McCafferty of Levitt Bernstein.

It was an event held hot on the heels of the NLA’s The Great Estates exhibition, and focused on some of London’s greatest housing schemes. From the rallying cry of Alan Powers to ‘protect our 20th century heritage’ to Dickon Robinson’s refreshing questioning of the quality of the Green Belt and opportunities to develop it, rather than ever densify the city, it proved a stimulating evening.

However, looking around the audience of eager architects, planners, developers and local authority officers, it was hard to understand why provision of new, well designed homes seems so elusive. Clearly it is the greatest challenge of our times and yet really is there just one solution to this vast problem? Conservation versus new build, estate wide regeneration versus infill, private versus public funding, densification versus urban expansion?

Of course not. It will take all of these alternatives and more to provide the number of good new homes we need. I often find myself thinking about the days when Camden, led by Sydney Cook completed some of most progressive social housing of its time and longing for singular state-subsidised house building programmes. It’s easy to be seduced by the aesthetics of these schemes but there is so much more to appreciate.

The days of wholly government funded housing are long gone. It is up to us to learn the lessons of quality, flexibility, light and space that these homes have provided families for decades and work out how we can ensure dwellings of the same quality can be built now. Whether the projects are large or small, conservation or new build, central or peripheral we need to harness the same ambition, ingenuity, commitment and intelligence demonstrated by these heroic schemes of the 1970s and make it happen.

Jo McCafferty is a director at Levitt Bernstein