Site Lines: Affordable homes-on-sea

Lee Davies of architects Conran and Partners explores how an East Sussex council’s initiative produced an exemplar partnership which employs an innovative design solution to tackle the local housing crisis

Last year marked 100 years since the introduction of the ‘Addison Act’, the legislation that paved the way for councils to build homes at scale, and established the principle of state-funded council housing set at low rents.

Yet, the challenges of meeting housing needs in the UK continue a century later, requiring local authorities to seek increasingly progressive ways of tackling the issue. Brighton & Hove for one has devised a particularly innovative approach through its ‘Homes for Brighton & Hove’ initiative. Created from a partnership between the council and the Hyde Group, the initiative seeks to grapple with the local housing crisis, and address the need for truly affordable housing within the city by creating 1,000 new homes for rent and sale for low income households.

Crucially, what defines this enterprise compared with other ‘affordable’ schemes is that instead of linking rents to a percentage of the local market rent, all the homes delivered will have their rents set at 37.5 per cent of the gross income of a household earning the new Living Wage.

Councillor John Allcock, chair of the Council’s Housing Committee, described Homes for Brighton & Hove (which he also chairs) as a “key part of the Committee’s plans to increase the supply of genuinely affordable homes that the city urgently needs.” Hyde’s Group business development director, Guy Slocombe, also recognised that although there is “no single answer to tackling the housing shortage,” this project will provide a boost to affordable housing delivery in the city, while also contributing to the regeneration of the harbour area.

St James’ Square

Conran and Partners are architects for St James’ Square, one of the leading sites in the initiative and the former location of Belgrave Day Centre in Portslade, west of Hove. The practice recognised that close collaboration between ourselves, the council and the developer was essential to achieving a scheme best suited to the needs of those who will live there. This kind of close involvement is an approach that we apply across all of our projects. These include the redevelopment of the Green Man Lane estate in Ealing, West London, where our recent work with the local authority and developer enabled us to transform an adjacent school (St John’s Primary) for the community that went well beyond the original project brief.

Through close consultation with Hyde and Brighton & Hove, we developed a design for St James’ Square that fulfils the aims of the initiative by creating a welcoming, community-focused environment in the city. For instance, we have been able to incorporate spectacular views of the sea and the surrounding South Downs for residents. In other hands the scheme could have otherwise easily become luxury apartments for the private market, had it not been for the council taking the decision to allocate this site for 100 per cent affordable housing.

Delivering truly affordable housing poses challenges in terms of costs and viability. From an architectural perspective our challenge is to design economically and efficiently without compromising on quality and successful placemaking – spending money where it makes the most significant difference. At St James’ Square we have created a set of buildings that are formed of robust, simple forms with carefully considered and efficient floor plans that don’t compromise on space standards or the character of the spaces we create. Driven by the mantra that ‘good design improves the quality of people’s lives,’ we design with people at the core of our design decisions.

Dividing the site in two creates a new pedestrian-friendly route connecting the sea front to local shops, amenities and good transport links, as well as reintroducing a reimagined courtyard that recalls the former St James’ Square that once used to occupy the site. Pulling the building line away from the southerly edge gives further generosity and improved public realm to create a ‘green corridor’ populated with elm trees, hedges and native planting.

The new courtyard space will be filled with trees and overlooked by generous windows and balconies. All front doors are accessed from the square, invoking a neighbourly, intimate space that fosters a sense of community, while also being sheltered from prevailing south-westerly sea winds. The architecture and materials choices reflect the site’s industrial past; a refined palette of brick, glass and steel enhances a design with simple geometries and proportions.

The scheme’s recent planning approval also forms the first stage of a wider ambitious zonal masterplan delivering regeneration and associated infrastructure within Adur & Worthing, Brighton & Hove and Shoreham Port Authority. This Joint Area Action Plan (JAAP) sees further collaboration between these authorities to create a shared vision of the port and this stretch of the coast.

We have provided a design which greatly improves connectivity, enabling a robust framework for the delivery of additional buildings at a later stage within the JAAP.

Furthermore, St James’ Square attests to the increasing importance of joint ventures, and how close collaboration between architects, housing associations and local authorities is fundamental to creating schemes of lasting impact.

Conran and Partners also recently achieved planning permission for 255 new homes within the same JAAP at Kingston Wharf, Shoreham-by-Sea, on the bank of the River Adur. This project will see the introduction of flood defences for Shoreham and the surrounding area; a publicly accessible and attractive river walk along the entire southern river edge of the site; and the widening and greening of the busy A259 Brighton Road to the north to provide space for a planned cycleway, a more generous pedestrian footpath and soft landscaping.

Council approval for our scheme at St James’ Square not only marks the beginning of a vital strategy for Brighton & Hove – one which offers a forward-thinking solution to affordable housing – but also initiates the area’s wider masterplan and provides a catalyst for positive change locally.

Lee Davies is a partner at Conran and Partners