The normally mild-mannered Dickon Robinson peers sternly through his round tortoiseshell glasses as I enter his office. He feels that he has been getting more media coverage than he deserves lately and is concerned about overexposure. For a moment it looks like the interview is off – but then he relaxes, his conscience perhaps mollified by the outburst of modesty. He sends for a pot of tea and I switch on the tape recorder.
Immediately, he is off and away, explaining his latest visionary project with schoolboy enthusiasm. “We’re doing an exercise to see what would happen if we were to re-roof our whole portfolio with photovoltaics, to see how much electricity we could generate.” As director of development and technical services at London housing charity the Peabody Trust, Robinson’s portfolio consists of 17 000 homes.
“Everyone says the problem with photovoltaics is they’re too expensive. They’re too expensive because the demand isn’t great enough, but if the demand was there, the price would come shooting down. So, one of the questions we’re asking is, could we be a big enough client to do that?”
As usual, there is impeccable logic behind Robinson’s ambitious idea. “Energy costs will rise in time, probably in unpredictable jumps. It’s no good waiting for energy prices to double before we do it, because it would take us 10 years. Our tenants are the least able to sustain sudden increases in energy costs and if we have a mechanism for generating solar electricity, we have a safety net.”
A concern for the needy is at the heart of everything the trust does. It was set up in 1862 with a £500 000 bequest from American banker George Peabody, the founder of Morgan Grenfell bank. Dedicated to housing London’s destitute, the trust’s early estates were models of urban design, offering well-ventilated, sanitary homes as an alternative to the capital’s appalling slums.
But, by 1988, when Robinson left Camden council’s housing department to join it, the trust’s building programme had stagnated.
Setting the agenda for government
Since then, the charity has re-established itself as one of the most innovative clients in the country, with an uncanny knack of being one step ahead of the game. With its pioneering modular apartments at Murray Grove, its high-density brownfield schemes, its zero-energy village at Sutton and projects to house key workers, the trust is usually on hand to offer a working example of John Prescott’s latest big idea.
“Governments can only move very slowly, but organisations like ours can move quickly,” Robinson explains. “All the time, there are some of us here thinking: What’s going to happen next year? What’s going to happen in five years’ time? What are the emerging trends, pressures, and opportunities?”
For example, the trust plans to build a home for rough sleepers in Pimlico. “We got involved at the beginning of the rough sleepers initiative because people working for the trust said: ‘We didn’t see all these kids on the street five years ago. We ought to be doing something.’”
The trust also spotted the difficulties that key workers such as nurses and teachers were having finding affordable homes in London, long before it became a hot political issue, and is already providing accommodation for them.
Where design and architecture work well, it’s an incredibly good long-term investment. There are not many organisations that have that daily reminder
“We were saying there is a whole sector of people who are crucial to London’s economy and clearly not able to house themselves easily in the London market. That’s just an appalling situation. We have to create new forms of housing for them,” says Robinson. “You start thinking about what you can do about it and government catches up with you.”
Robinson, a modest and gentle man who is nonetheless unafraid of speaking home truths, is rapidly becoming a reluctant hero of the urban renaissance movement. Recently appointed a commissioner at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, his vision and honesty make him the star turn at dull regeneration conferences.
Yet he attracts attention partly because there are so few organisations pursuing this agenda. Robinson is outspoken in his criticism of many housing associations, which he believes have become lazy through dependence on government funding. “There are some people in the housing association sector who feel they are a kind of arms-length delivery agent for government housing programmes. I don’t agree with that. It makes a profound difference to the country whether those organisations are in passive mode, saying: ‘Tell us what do to and give us some money and we’ll do it,’ or whether they’re in proactive mode, saying: ‘There’s a big problem out there, let’s get on with it.’”
Innovative design pays off
A striking characteristic of all Peabody Trust developments is their use of contemporary – often cutting-edge – design. Robinson, who trained as an architect himself, puts this down to the trust’s 140-year legacy of architect-designed properties. “People are still living in those early estates, and they’re very popular. We are reminded every day that where design and architecture work well, it’s an incredibly good long-term investment. The fact is, there are not many organisations that have that daily reminder.”
He is sharply critical of social housing providers that scrimp on design. “There are plenty of housing associations that do use architects, but there are plenty that don’t, and that’s because they’re not taking the long-term view. I think there’s a slight sense of dumbing down. The view has been expressed that if speculative housebuilders can sell their product, then it’s obviously popular; so if [housing associations] provide the same thing, that’s going to be popular too. That’s an abdication of responsibility.”
Robinson confesses to a prejudice for using London consultants, saying he likes to be in constant contact with his designers and engineers. But he is increasingly looking further afield for new ideas. He plans to employ Dutch architect West 8, which has developed an approach to regeneration based on providing “serviced plots”.
“It’s not been done at all in this country,” says Robinson. “Instead of a housebuilder buying the land, building the apartments and selling them, they create lots of individual plots that would be sold to people who would then build their own homes. There would be various rules about the form and the height of those homes, but every one would be an individual creation. They’ve done an absolutely fascinating waterfront development on that basis in Amsterdam and it looks stunning.”
How to beat the skills shortage
Robinson is also experimenting with building techniques from around the world, believing that increased industrialisation offers the construction industry the only route out of its recruitment crisis. “The skills shortage is going to drive everything. We’re very heavily involved in lots of training programmes on our estates, and if you give an unemployed person the choice between being trained to get a job that is indoors using IT skills, or being trained as a bricklayer, they’ll go for the IT job every time.
“Society has moved on, and most people don’t want to work out of doors on dirty, dangerous building sites. I’m sure the answer is factory-based construction. Things like Egan and some of the work we’ve been doing is helpful because it gives some ideas about how the industry can respond to the skills shortage. But it will be the push of the skills shortage rather than the pull of Egan that will actually bring about change.”