Affordable housing may be one of the few lifelines for builders at the moment, but we must make sure we don’t fall back into the trap of creating ghettos for the poor

It is well known that housebuilding has been hit more severely by the recession than almost any other sector. The steep fall in property prices and consumer confidence, coupled with a dramatic reduction in the availability of mortgages, has proved toxic. The number of new houses built in England last year fell by half, and this year’s figures are expected to show a further fall.

Against this background, a lot of hopes are being pinned on the social and affordable housing programme and specifically on the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). Given the pivotal role that the HCA is expected to play in countering the impact of recession, it is salutary to remind ourselves that it has been in existence for fewer than six months. In that short time, Sir Bob Kerslake and his colleagues have won widespread plaudits for the energy and determination they have displayed in tackling the huge problems they face. Already, a number of major development schemes that would otherwise have died are still on course.

However, there are risks in the heavy reliance that is being placed on the HCA and on public funding to drive recovery. The social and affordable housing sector accounts for only a minority of normal housing activity – 70% of the population live in owner-occupied accommodation and a further 10% rent privately. A full recovery will depend on those markets functioning properly again and the availability of mortgages is crucial to this.

Furthermore, we have learned a hard lesson from the over-rigid division between owner-occupied and social rented housing that characterised 20th-century policy. It became acceptable for them to be developed in separate locations, as if it was unthinkable for people in different tenures to live next door to each other.

Yet that has been the norm for most of the 5,000 or so years of recorded history. Not only did people of different economic and social status live in the same street in medieval England, they often lived in the same home, with a few animals thrown in for good measure! The rule that people of different economic status should live in entirely separate geographical areas only began to apply in our Victorian cities and did not become the norm until the mass housing programmes of the mid-20th century.

Not only did people of different economic and social status live in the same street in medieval England, they often lived in the same home, with a few animals as well…

And it has led to some unhappy consequences, with many areas of social housing stigmatised because of the concentration of poor and disadvantaged people in one location. At the other end of the spectrum, this social stratification has encouraged the unsavoury behaviour of wealthy homeowners taking legal action to stop social housing tenants being allocated homes in their areas (6 March, page 20).

Over the past decade, with a great deal of encouragement from the government, the concept of mixed-tenure developments has begun to gain ground. Homebuilders, who in the nineties were vehemently opposed to a mix of tenures, have come to recognise that well-planned and well-managed mixed-tenure developments can prove successful in economic, social and environmental terms.

In current circumstances, when funding for social and affordable housing may be the only hope of keeping particular schemes afloat, the temptation may be to put all the eggs in the social housing basket and so lurch back towards single-tenure schemes. This would be a mistake. Even if there are difficulties in securing buyers, developers should be exploring creative ways of keeping tenure diversity, including providing intermediate tenures, such as market renting, shared equity and rent-now-buy-later schemes.

Although longer-term planning may not appear a priority, we will do ourselves no favours if we fail to heed the lessons of the past and slip back into patterns of development that are simply not sustainable.