Friday 26 January 2018

Guest Post: A Call to Alms

Here's a guest post from loyal commenter Loondon Calling to lead you interestingly into the weekend...

There is a case to be made for the ITBBCB? being renamed ATBBCAGB? - Are the BBC and Guardian Biased? After all, they seem to share a single brain. That’s my excuse for bringing this recent Observer/Guardian article ‘A blueprint for British housing in 2028’ by Rowan Moore to ITBBCB? readers’ attention.

First of all, the sub-heading …. ‘Imagine this: in two years, riots force the government to transform planning, design and building’… sounds like the output of a warped imagination - even a call to arms, especially from an architecture critic. Aren’t they expected to celebrate the ‘firmness commodity and delight’ of architecture? This would be the sitting Conservative Government he is referring to?

The essence of the article deals with the age-old theme of state-sponsored development of housing stock. Within Moore’s model, eco-friendly, zero carbon dwellings can be built in low rise comfortably-sized clustered arrangements of streets or squares with ample green spaces, in car-free zones with good walking routes or new public transport connections. Families and community life would be at the heart of the concept. Rowan Moore has to his name a book title ‘Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century’, published in March 2016. Clearly the choice of title ‘Slow Burn City’ is a bad one, but as this book came out fully twelve months before the Grenfell Tower fire, it might have been thought appropriate at the time. Here is the blurb:

…London has become the global city above all others. Money from all over the world flows through it; its land and homes are tradable commodities; it is a nexus for the world's migrant populations, rich and poor. Versions of what is happening in London are happening elsewhere, but London has become the best place to understand the way the world's cities are changing.
Some of the transformations London has undergone were creative, others were destructive; this is not new. London has always been a city of trade, exploitation and opportunity. But London has an equal history of public interventions, including the Clean Air Act, the invention of the green belt and council housing, and the innovation of the sewers and embankments that removed the threat of cholera. In each case the response was creative and unprecedented; they were also huge in scale and often controversial. The city must change, of course, but Moore explains why it should do so with a 'slow burn', through the interplay of private investment, public good and legislative action.
Fiercely intelligent, thought-provoking, lucidly written and often outrageously and uncomfortably funny, Slow Burn City is packed with fascinating stories about the physical fabric of London in the twenty-first century. But by seeing this fabric as the theatre of social and cultural struggles, Moore connects the political and architectural decisions of London's enfeebled and reactive government with the built environment that affects its inhabitants' everyday lives. In this urgent and necessary book, Moore makes a passionate case for London to invent new ways to respond to the pressures of the present, from which other cities could learn….

From Moore, here we have an example of BBC/Guardian groupthink. To harp back to recent posts about Mark Easton’s view that London is the UK and the UK is London, it becomes clear from Moore that London’s identity in his eyes is also an example for the world to copy. How arrogant.

There is no single answer to the housing crisis. At its heart of the problem is the paradox that until corporate house-building firms can see a sure-fire profit in a development, then sites even with PP will remain undeveloped. Making land available and granting PP does not in itself produce more houses. This is the way in which house-building works. Developers wouldn’t flood the market in a way that might drive down house prices. Profit motive and the market dictate whether or not development progresses. This paradox is especially acute in London, where the scarcity of available land leads to houses that are unaffordable to all but the very rich. Equally, in rural areas, villages and market towns throughout the UK, house building fails to address the issue of affordability.

Far from being the beacon of success as Moore would have us suppose, London’s experience should serve as a dire warning to other cities in the UK and elsewhere. By extending the London model to the rest of the UK, Easton “there’s plenty of land available” and Moore are condemning the rest of the country to a dystopian future where only the rich and privileged can survive in comfort. There is a bitter irony here whereby the London leftist elite have themselves become the rich and privileged in direct contradiction of their would-be left wing socialist credentials. Most are attracted to work in the arts, journalism, PR, publishing, broadcasting, political lobbying, charities or the public services. In contrast, others who have made their money in private enterprise or by other means have no such ambitions to overturn the status quo of home ownership, or the buy-to-let market. A precarious balance exists between the two schools of thought ie pro and anti property ownership - of independence or dependence - broadly equivalent to the split between left and right. However, it is the trends which will affect this balance that we all need to address.

The website tells us that the population of London is set to increase over the coming decades rising from 8.2 million in 2011, to: 

9.20 million in 2021, 9.54 million in 2026, 9.84 million in 2031, and 10.11 million in 2036. The greatest increases are anticipated to be in the North Eastern part of London from Tower Hamlets outwards.

Here is a salutary tale, an example of a mass-housing scheme built with socialist-minded good intentions to provide larger scale housing close to a city centre for working people and their families, but which failed spectacularly:

The Hulme Crescents development close to Manchester city centre, which was being constructed during the 1970s was designed as a series of high-rise crescent shaped blocks built from the most uncompromising grey concrete. Many old terraced houses, identified for ‘slum clearance’, but which had housed close-knit communities, had been demolished to make way for this estate. Entire streets with their corner shops and pubs, symbols of a strong community, had been compulsorily purchased and then simply swept away, leaving residents who may have referred to themselves as ‘locals’ without anywhere to call their own. Housing managers reported that in consultations, they found that re-housed families wanted to be located away from their now destroyed community, and people they may have known as neighbours. They didn’t like what was on offer, but they had little choice in the matter. The construction techniques which built them had seemed to promise mass housing on a scale and at a pace which would finally eradicate the scourge of the slums.
These designs were probably the manifestation closest to Le Corbusier’s Modernist dream, Ville Radieuse, to be built in the UK. From my student accommodation I could see these monstrous beasts during their construction. Prevailing opinion, even as the development was taking place, was that the construction techniques were outdated, the model of high-rise concrete towers was discredited.The scheme Architects, Wilson Womersley had an impressive history in this type of building. The Hulme Crescents were conceived the best of modern social housing, designed to house some 19,000 residents.
The Crescents’ system-built engineering was a disaster. The blocks were erected too quickly and their construction inadequately supervised, and corners were cut. Problems of condensation emerged from poor insulation and ventilation. Vermin spread rapidly through the estate’s ducting. The Crescents, named after famous architects, Adam, Nash, Barry and Kent, were intended to recreate the fine proportions and lawned frontages of Bath, Buxton or Harrogate. Womersley said: ‘We feel that the analogy we have made with Georgian London and Bath is entirely valid’.
Found in the end to be totally unsuitable for families to live in after the death of a child falling from a balcony, the Crescents became ‘for adults only’. This in turn led to poor occupancy levels, alienation between the residents and their landlord, and eventually a complete breakdown. In 1984 the Landlords stopped accepting rent from the scheme, in a policy of retreat and abandonment of their asset, thus allowing anyone who wished to live there to occupy the homes rent free, and with utility services still connected. Changes in the power base of the Manchester City Council had labelled the Hulme Crescents concept as ‘too paternalistic’. The Architects Journal described the scheme as: ‘Europe’s worst housing stock’.
The dystopian look of The Hulme Crescents held some sort of attraction though, and acted as a magnet to a counterculture, groups of travellers, drop-outs, punks, photographers, artists, poets, musicians et al. The design with its concrete architecture, interconnecting walkways, with few through routes gave a fortress-like feel to the place.
As post-war modernism at its most brutal, The Crescents represented many of the aspirations that Le Corbusier may have held dear. He said: ‘Space, light and order, those are the things that man needs just as much as bread and a place to sleep’.
During the 1980s an informal vibrant community emerged from the dereliction of the Hulme Crescents. There was The Kitchen, an illegal nightclub which had been made from three knocked-through flats. A space was made that was unplanned in the architectural sense, being of random size and shape. If more space was required, there was no need for seeking permission from anyone, a hammer was all that was required. Graffiti on the walls declared: There ain’t no Government like no Government.
The lack of ownership enlivened this disparate community with their own anarchic lifestyle. The drab appearance of the grey concrete was enriched by graffiti and street art. A second club, the PSV Club, was set up by a group of Afro-Caribbean Public Service Vehicle (PSV) workers. Reputedly, in an atmosphere of lawlessness, the ceilings in the club were bullet-marked.
By the mid 1980s Hulme had its own clubs, arthouse cinema, and its residents had developed their own style of dress. Hulme had its own Carnival. Amongst the artists who passed through are Nico, who, through her association with Warhol’s Velvet Underground, would have a direct link back to the pop-art movement of the 1960s, the Manchester poet Lemn Sissay, Kelzo, whose graffiti coloured the grey walls of Hulme, film critic Mark Kermode, Mick Hucknall, and Alain Delon.
In what once was hailed as the future for local authority housing, this scheme, being the largest single housing development in Europe, had problems that were so bad that the huge scheme was demolished in 1991 - a mere 19 years after it was constructed. 
Is this the multiculturalism that Moore sees for London and the UK - on the edge of lawlessness, anti-capitalist, non-inclusive, but vibrant, self-governing, and capable of nurturing talent in music and art? Moore needs to tell us of his reasons for imagining ‘in two years, riots force the government to transform planning, sign and building’. On the face of it, he seems to be advocating lawlessness as the first steps towards a solution to the housing crisis.


  1. I think the housing crisis is much worse than we so far realise (well certainly in London and the South - there is a lot of regional variation).

    The principal cause of the UK's housing crisis is previous and current mass immigration which is resulting in an annual population increase of about 500,000 - meaning we have to build the equivalent of a city the size of Liverpool once every year, or a city over half the size of London once very decade. Except we don't.

    The BBC and the Guardian refuse to accept this is the real cause.

    So far the crisis has been masked by young people staying in education longer, living in their parents' home into their late 20s or early 30s, taking long breaks abroad in their late 20s, living in multi-occupied properties with other young people and young families trying to raise children in pokey prviate sector flats. But these are not long term solutions and the crisis is now really beginning to bite.

    Don't be fooled by new builds in London - many of them are sold immediately to the rich from overseas who use them as an investment and a kind of hotel accommodation for their extended family and friends. Remember, millions of people get entry to the UK every year as "business visitors" so they can live semi-permanently in London if they wish. But they might only occupy their properties for a few months in the year. You will find huge numbers of flats in London underoccupied - lights out, no one at home.

    Another element in the crisis is that about half the migrants to this country are low skilled or unskilled. No doubt they work very hard, but they don't earn enough to buy housing in London. As soon as they start families they rely on the state to provide them with housing, through the housing benefit system. They also have the larger families, so this makes the problem worse.


    Number one, obviously, is to stop mass immigration, particularly low skilled immigration. Then we need to stop overseas sales of properties and ensure non UK citizens who come to live here pay a levy to support housing supply to compensate for their occupation of valuable housing units.

    But we need some emergency solutions that improve supply and access to the housing market. The state, of necessity, will have a big role to play here. The solutions should include a mix of:

    1. State organisations (government, local authorities, NHS, quangos etc) releasing land at no cost for housing properties.

    2. Cheap starter homes. There are prefab assembly houses and flats that can be provided relatively cheaply.

    3. Starter funding for housing co-operatives. This is a bit like equity sharing for home owners but without all the complications of equity sharing. Co-op members pay their membership fee and gain proportionate shares in the Co-op depending on how long they have been in the co-op, which they can sell on in the future.

    4. Incentive schemes for older people to move out of larger properties and for properties to be extended/converted into two or more units.

    5. New Council and social housing - probably a vast new programme of council housing blocks in urban areas is required as the only solution for addressing the housing needs of the low skilled low wages migrants.

    6. Mortgage tax relief for first time buyers (once you've improved the supply).

    7. Increased stamp duty to help fund the programme.

    1. There is insufficient land available in London to build the necessary number of houses for the projected increase in population. The only solution would be to increase the density of housing within existing urban structures.

      I agree with MB that the housing crisis is much worse than we are led to believe. Rowan Moore's dream of ... eco-friendly, zero carbon dwellings that can be built in low rise comfortably-sized clustered arrangements of streets or squares with ample green spaces, in car-free zones with good walking routes or new public transport connections... is pie in the sky, especially in London.

      The more likely outcome of the increases in population is that house prices will continue their upward curve, and occupancy levels within existing dwellings will increase regardless of any house-building programme.

      This is a recipe for a dystopian future for London. The mistake that the London elite make is to believe that the UK is proud of the Capital and envious of their cosmopolitan way of life. Think again! To most of the UK population, London is an unwelcoming alien place, where traditional values have been abandoned.

    2. Yes, increased urban density is definitely the only reasonable solution. That's what the UK electorate have consistently voted for,by supporting mass immigration, so they have to live with the consequences.

      You could concrete over half of southern England as an alternative but I don't see why we should reduce our agricultural output, put our balance of payments in crisis and destroy millions of ecosystems just to satisfy the whims of those who claim they believe in mass immigration.

      "To most of the UK population, London is an unwelcoming alien place, where traditional values have been abandoned." You couldn't be more right Loondon Calling! :)

      I couldn't count the number of times I have heard such sentiments from ordinary non-political people who would never bother with a site like this.

      Personally, speaking as a Londoner born and bred, I am used to it and it still has a lot going for it as a world city but in terms of being somewhere you can actually imagine living, a lot of people of limited means reasonably think they are being offered a place in hell. :)

      I have no idea how this will play out... the danger is that the crisis will reach its peak just as we are are out of the EU and the Tories are in...people might be seduced by the easy "solutions" of Corbynista Labour - which will still be committed to a no borders policy.

  2. I work a lot in London, money’s good, but who would want to live there? it’s far too expensive.

    The issue is that salaries haven’t kept up with prices. When well qualified professionals on £40k to 50k a year, twice the national average, aren’t paid enough to get on the property ladder and own something what’s the point in being there?

    1. Where I live in London I am seeing more and more professional couples with young children living in flats. That would never have happened 15 years ago...they would have found a house by now. As you say, salaries haven't kept pace with house prices.

      But the problem is that people who earn that sort of money can't move away from London...well very few human beings can do more than 3 hours' challenging commuting on top of an 8-10 hour job.

      Lots of middle class people in London are in a real job trap - that is part of the housing crisis.

      It's horrible! Life was supposed to be getting better. From 1950 to 1975 the population of London was going down and that was probably when London's reputation was at its height around the globe, as a cultural centre. But the globalists like the Great Khan want us to believe that the only way London can be a success is by adding a 100,000 people to its population every year.

    2. High density housing requires willingness from its landlords and its residents to make it work. The building is only the start of the solution. High-rise mass housing in the past has always been mistakenly thought of as a low cost quick-fix solution. The opposite is true.

      To make a success, residents' associations as well as landlords need to continue to invest heavily during the life of these schemes, otherwise they fall into disrepair and thus begins a downward spiral of alienation, antisocial behaviour, benefit-dependent tenants, more damage and disrepair, vandalism and so on.

      There is nothing inherently wrong with high-rise, high density housing as long as it is to good design, built to high quality standards and with sufficient amenity attached, and also, crucially, well managed. Failings in the past have been due to inadequate investment both in the built fabric and in the on-going management of such blocks.

      If such developments are to go ahead, and the expanding population of London and other cities is to be housed, then it will require a huge investment - and this in turn requires a strong and strengthening economy. History has shown us that the Labour utopian dream turns quickly into a nightmare as the money runs out.


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