Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Comment is Free - The Procurement of Social Housing

This article concerns an experience I had while working for a large practice which specialises in social housing. Owen Hatherley is right to criticise the poor quality of provision of new social housing in London, and I would like to contribute to this argument with a discussion about the procurement process, with reference to a particular estate regeneration scheme in Kennington. 

In bullet point form, the outline of this article is as follows:

  • Usually a client employs an architect (i.e. for a one-off house) and the architect responds to the clients need and desires in exchange for fees. The client is also the user. In the case of social housing projects, the client and the user (resident) are not the same, and have different objectives. Follow the money: the residents are not paying the architects.
  • In the private sector, people express their preferences through the market - i.e.. they can move to a different building / location, whereas tenants in public housing have no such control. There is a semblance of control given to residents through the process of consultation, but they are given a Hobson's choice, and ultimately the process serves only to legitimise the clients decisions. Strangely, the more apparent control, the less actual control.
  • In my example, the management of the estate had been transferred from the council after several round of voting ('just keep asking until people say yes' brand of democracy) and part of the transfer deal was that improvement works would begin on the estate in a very short timeframe. So the objective of the client was to get something underway as soon as possible, as cheaply as possible, with the minimum objections from residents. Making the estate a genuinely nicer and more socially successful place to live was not the client's objective at all.
  • So, we need to change the way housing is procured, and the way the consultation process is carried out. Otherwise the years of training and thought which architects have is wasted, as they do what they are told by clients whose interests do not align with the users. The architect needs a new role, as mediator between groups, with a professional responsibility to uphold what is right and good in the built environment.

1 comment:

  1. I liked Hatherley’s article, and I like these points of yours. I get two important things from it:

    1. It’s impossible to separate the ‘strictly’ architectural issues (how do we make nice houses? Is Trespa a good cladding material?) from the cloud of related social, legal and political issues. As you said, the problems with the process in this case come from the fact that the client and user are different, with different interests. Presumably there are other structural features which need to be considered in the same breath as well: the type of legal tenancy rights people have, for example. It looks as though, to do their job well, the architect has to broaden the classical idea of what ‘architecture’ consists in.

    2. People are very good at seeing when a ‘regeneration’ project is in fact merely offering cosmetic solutions on the cheap. Few people are fooled by shiny new surface finishes. And they get very cross when they are disempowered by the process. Sometimes that’s because they are genuinely happy with some of the elements of their present situation which they feel are threatened; sometimes it’s presumably just because they are unhappy about knowing that their homes and living arrangements can be turned upside down as the result of a process in which they have no voice.

    It gets all the more insulting, I think, when we see the phenomenon you mentioned (the ‘just keep asking until people say yes’ process), whereby the appearance of democratic consultation is co-opted as a way of actually de-democratising social housing. As you said, ‘the more apparent control, the less actual control’.

    I’ve just been to a conference on ‘nudge’ techniques in public policy, where I was asked to give an overview of the philosophical issues arising from position papers which various people (computer scientists, civil servants, sociologists, educators, engineers) had submitted. One of the main themes that emerged was that people see ‘nudging’ and ‘choice architecture’ as a way of getting the benefits of coercion while retaining valuable free choice. My worry was that this is just window-dressing: a diminution of free choice which is cloaked by apparent enthusiasm for freedom. I don’t know whether any work has been done on this particular ideological trick in respect of urban design, but I assume that there must be people thinking about nudging in that context too.