Ken Livingstone ushered in a new skyscraper era during his time as London mayor. But the dash for height has continued under Boris Johnson. Most of the 20-plus towers being built or breaking ground are of inferior quality and fail to meet guidelines, argues our architecture critic. What has happened to the planning system… and where is all the money coming from?
There is no nice way of putting this, but the skyline of London is being screwed. There are now, built and in the pipeline, at least 30 towers, typically in a height range of 150-200 metres (or 490-650 feet. The BT tower is 177 metres high and more slender than anything now proposed). They are the fulfilment of the desires of investors and of the policies of Ken Livingstone, pursued with equal vigour by Boris Johnson, even though he once promised to take a tougher line on height.
With minimum discussion, proposals are being waved through the planning system – and while both the mayor of London and the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, have the power to intervene in major decisions, neither has done so. A decade ago, plans for buildings such as the Shard and the Gherkin were widely publicised, provoked debate and were the subject of public inquiries. Now, developers and architects hold modest public exhibitions in the immediate neighbourhood of their proposals and are not overanxious that they should be more widely known about.
Developers have long represented their projects with flattering, shiny visualisations that greatly over-estimate the seductive power of their cladding systems, which are bathed in an eternally golden glow. Now some of them have a new strategy, which is to act is if they are not there at all: sometimes, on their websites, you get views of plazas strewn with café tables, and pastel-coloured ground plans, and little clue of the large objects that will rise over their heads. If many of the proposals shown on these pages are new to you, that could be because their makers are so reticent about designs which, when built, will be anything but.
Last month, another clutch was approved. Almost all forms of resistance, such as the statutory bodies that are supposed to guide the planning system, have been neutralised, leaving only little-heard neighbourhood groups to voice their protests. All of which, if these tall buildings were making the capital into a great metropolis of the 21st century, might be a cause for celebration. Towers can be beautiful, and part of the genius of London is its ability to change, but what we are getting now are mostly units of speculation stacked high, garnished with developers’ ego. They are invitations to tax evaders to park their cash in Britain.
What is happening now is the culmination of 15 years or more of gathering pressure to build high. In the 1990s, plans were first unveiled for what would eventually be the Gherkin, controversially built on the site of the Baltic Exchange, a building that was listed but also damaged by an IRA bomb. It was eventually decided that, if this building were designed by a celebrated architect, such as Lord Foster, and were an exceptional work of architecture, other planning issues could be overridden.
When Livingstone was elected mayor in 2000, he enthusiastically supported tall buildings. He dined with developers in private, at a huge property junket in Cannes called Mipim, and publicly announced his grand bargain with capital: they should be allowed to build as big as they wanted, as long as he could take a tithe of the proceeds to spend on such things as affordable housing.
He produced a London plan, which encouraged, among other things, building high around major transport interchanges, so as to encourage the users of these buildings to use public transport. It was all part of Livingstone’s then vision that the future of London lay in the never-ending boom in financial services, with which a socialist mayor could cut a deal.
It was repeatedly said that, following the precedent of the Gherkin, tall buildings should be of the highest architectural quality and also in “the right place”, two principles that would turn out to have flexible meanings. The Shard was proposed, and being by the celebrated Renzo Piano and having a certain classiness in its form, was approved following a public inquiry. It has a substantial impact on St Paul’s Cathedral, when seen from Hampstead Heath, a view recognised by planning policy as significant, but not seen as reason enough to stop it. In 2005, Lord Rogers, once a business partner of both Piano and Foster, won permission for the 225-metre Leadenhall Building, or Cheesegrater, in the City of London.
Encouraged by these precedents, further proposals popped up, with increasingly tenuous claims to be of the highest architectural quality or in the right place. They were not just in the City of London, but also south of the river in Southwark, Waterloo and Vauxhall. The 180-metre Vauxhall Tower (the St George Wharf tower to its developers) was proposed, smack in the middle of a view from Westminster Bridge, officially deemed to be important and requiring special care.
There was not much evidence of special care in the design. It went to a public inquiry, in which the inquiry’s inspector concluded that it should not be built. John Prescott, however, who was then the minister responsible for such things, used his powers to overrule this advice. This tower is now being built, its exterior nearly complete.
In the City of London, planning officer Peter Rees long treasured the idea that tall buildings should be in a “cluster”, collectively forming a roughly conical shape that would rise to its peak close to the Bank of England. But then came the “Walkie Talkie”, officially called 20 Fenchurch Street, an office block designed by Rafael Viñoly, whose brilliant concept perfectly captured the money-worshipping zeitgeist of the pre-crash years: it gets fatter as it rises, to reflect the fact that floor area becomes more valuable the higher you go. The Walkie Talkie, whose frame is now rising, is by no stretch of the imagination inside this cluster, but Rees somehow persuaded himself that it is in the “right” place.
On the South Bank, the 140-metre Doon Street tower was proposed. Another public inquiry was held and refusal recommended. Hazel Blears, who by then had inherited Prescott’s mantle, like him decided she knew better and approved it. Construction is under way.
In Elephant and Castle, the 148-metre Strata SE1 was built, which would be the winner of the 2010 Carbuncle Cup, awarded by Building Design magazine to the worst building of the year. Another view considered worthy of protection by planning policy is of the Houses of Parliament seen from the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park, its gothic spires framed by trees and water. Here, Strata waddles into the background from stage left, like SpongeBob SquarePants in a production of Hamlet. It is not in the “right place” either.
There was a pause following the crash and the election of Johnson in 2008, whose mayoral campaign had included promises to be less tower-friendly than Livingstone. However, although he has the power to refuse significant planning applications, he has not once done so. Rather, he chose to approve the 237-metre Columbus Tower in Canary Wharf, reversing the decision by the London borough of Tower Hamlets to reject it.
A new wave of proposals has come forward. An application will be submitted shortly for new towers next to the Shell Centre, near Waterloo station, with every expectation of being successful, and two more are planned at Elephant and Castle. Several have been approved near to the Vauxhall Tower, which a few years ago was considered impactful enough to require the inquiry in which the inspector found against it. Some of its new neighbours will be higher and not obviously more beautiful, while their collective effect will be much bulkier, but neither Johnson nor Pickles is using his authority to give pause to the process: at least half of the developments we picture in our gallery have been approved in the Boris era.
And so it goes on. Policies are framed that, generous to start with, are then stretched far beyond any reasonable interpretation of what they might mean. Rules are made, then broken. It is doubtful, for example, whether Vauxhall is a major transport interchange of the kind that the London plan thinks is right for tall buildings, but it is becoming a mini Dubai nonetheless. Developments in the same area are supposed to follow a masterplan drawn up by Sir Terry Farrell, but when he pointed out that two proposed towers by Michael Squire broke its principles, they got permission anyway.
Notions such as “the highest architectural quality”, to quote Johnson’s version of the London plan, are rapidly debased. At one point, tower proposals felt the need to proclaim their sustainability, with ostentatious wind turbines included in the designs for the Vauxhall Tower and Strata (where, to be sure, they are almost never seen to turn). Now, developers don’t even bother with these.
Older applications, including the Walkie Talkie, proposed viewing galleries that, although they would actually be privately controlled, were called “public spaces”. Again, these are no longer on offer. Recently, the developers of the 163-metre One Blackfriars successfully applied to have their once-promised viewing gallery omitted.
London has a multilayered planning system, in which borough councils make decisions and the mayor and minister can then overrule them. Bodies such as English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) advise and public inquiries can be held. Yet these layers, while retaining the ability to complicate and slow things down, no longer do their job of revision and review. Willingly or not, they have been disempowered.
English Heritage has opposed several tower proposals, but after many losing battles (which, due to the cost of planning lawyers, were also expensive) its objections are now reduced to demoralised bat-squeaks. Although, for example, it thinks that proposals in Vauxhall will cause “substantial harm to the setting of the Westminster world heritage site”, it did not even issue a press release on the subject.
Cabe, a watchdog ever fond of nuzzling the developers it was supposed to be watching, has been shrunk and further enfeebled. Even when it summons up the courage to state the bleeding obvious, such as the fact that the Quill, a risible block of student housing next to the Shard, is poorly designed, Cabe is ignored. At the relevant meeting of Southwark council’s planning committee, an officer reported that Cabe supported it, even though it had said it did not. This provoked guffaws from the public gallery.
It doesn’t help that boroughs such as Southwark and Lambeth are unlikely to be tough on new towers, as they can order developers to contribute “planning gain”, which is money to be spent on affordable housing elsewhere in their territory. Livingstone liked them for similar reasons, as well us for the special delight that skyscrapers seem to have for mayors. Johnson is likely to be influenced by the community infrastructure levy raised on new developments, which helps pay for the Crossrail project. Of course, affordable housing and public transport are good things to have, but thoughtless plunder of the city’s airspace is not the way to pay for them; by the same argument, we could build on parks or on the river.
The results of these shoddy processes will be visible all over the capital, in the background of famous buildings, from hills and parks, down the ends of streets. They will change the Thames, bringing a completely different scale to its banks. None of which need be a problem, if they conformed to the official planning line that tall buildings should be well designed and in the right place. Or, to quote Johnson’s policy, that they should form “cohesive building groups”, “contribute positively to the image and built environment of London” and be “resisted in areas that will be particularly sensitive to their impacts.” What is a world heritage site if not the latter?
On the question of being “well designed”, the supporters of these towers will produce the well-worn arguments that design is subjective, that St Paul’s was derided in its day and so on. One could, however, look for what might be thought qualities of good design and usually they will be hard to find.
Do they, for example, show consideration of scale or proportion or try to make a meaningful relationship with their surroundings? Is there anything special about their detail? Is there consistency or integrity in their overall concept? Do they create handsome new public spaces at their base? Does their internal planning produce the best possible living or working spaces, which are well laid out and make good use of daylight?
Failing all the above, do they have any worth in the rapidly debasing currency of iconicity? Are they, in other words, exhilarating to contemplate or innovative – do they transmit some sort of buzzy excitement about London being a dynamic world city? I would suggest that, if that’s what you want, Shanghai and Dubai do it better.
The Shard and the Gherkin, conceived early in the current tower boom, are impressive, going on magnificent, albeit with major defects – I defy you to stand at the base of either and say that you are in a world-class public space. But it turns out that they were as good is it gets.
To take the Vauxhall Tower as an example, it makes no apparent effort to form any kind of relationship with its surroundings, neither a Georgian house behind it, nor even St George Wharf, an existing development by the same architects as the tower, Broadway Malyan, and the same developers, St George. It does not relate to the river in any particular way or, in longer views, to the Palace of Westminster. It is just there, sullenly uncommunicative.
It seemingly wants to be a slender cylinder, but contradicts itself with a sawtooth plan. At the top, it changes its mind again and adopts a stepped, zigguraty form. At the bottom, it is something else again and there is little attempt to reconcile the various elements. Its cladding is an ordinary-looking glazing package. Around its foot is precisely the sort of shapeless, windswept, nothing place that we were supposed to have learned not to do in the 1970s.
There are some honourable exceptions, with purveyors of rectilinear dignity doing better than those attempting artistic flourishes. Allies and Morrison’s 100 Bishopsgate is an example or David Chipperfield’s Elizabeth House at Waterloo station, the result of a rare occasion on which the developers were pushed to improve their initial ideas. They would have every right to be furious, having made an expensive effort with this project, at the easy ride given to other proposals. Others – Strata, the future towers at Vauxhall and Nine Elms – tend to follow their own, similar patterns. They offer a paltry “public realm” of Chinese granite and Costa coffee, standard glazing, a few loops and convulsions, like a dad at a disco, suggesting that they are bit on wild side. They don’t bother at all to work with their neighbours to make a three-dimensional entity.
There is no vision, concept or thought as to what their total effect might be on London, except that it will be great. In planning a kitchen, it is usual to envisage the totality before you start, but a great city has not been granted this courtesy. The onus should be on those who want to make such large changes, and to profit from them, to demonstrate their quality – the more conspicuous a building the more important it is that it is well-designed. As it is, they would rather we didn’t notice them until it’s too late.
British Chambers of Commerce says promised investment in infrastructure is delivered too slowly
The British Chambers of Commerce has called for urgent action to kickstart transport projects that could boost the economy by billions of pounds.
The body’s report on transport priorities, which tracks progress on 13 top projects, argues that £30bn of spending on plans ranging from Crossrail to the Forth replacement bridge would generate £86bn for the economy. However, the BCC argues that successive governments have damaged business by being slow to invest.
Adam Marshall, the BCC’s director of policy, said: “Transport infrastructure is critical to business growth but progress on the investment promised by successive governments continues to be too slow. Whenever key decisions to improve capacity on the country’s rail, road and air networks are delayed, our businesses and economy are missing out.
“We need bold action from the government to improve the UK’s transport infrastructure. This kind of investment is insulated from global uncertainty, and it creates short-term confidence, jobs in the medium term, and improves the UK’s competitiveness in the long term.
“Ministers must use all the powers at their disposal to kickstart these projects. In some cases, that will mean using the government’s balance sheet to unlock private funding, and in others, it will mean using planning powers to overcome objectives and speed the process of construction.”
The transport minister Norman Baker countered that the government was embarking on a “massive programme of investment – the biggest since the 19th century”. He said: “Making sure that the country has the transport network it needs to deliver economic growth is a top priority for us. That is why – despite the economic challenges we face – we have committed to building High Speed 2, a hugely ambitious infrastructure project which will support and sustain long term growth across the whole country.”
Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, argued: “[The BCC] report is further evidence of the government’s failure to deliver the infrastructure investment we need to create jobs and growth and strengthen our economy for the future. This dithering, delay and lack of leadership in the Treasury has led to widespread uncertainty for investors.”
A survey by the accounting firm KPMG found that tax incentives for capital investment in infrastructure are seen as a key driver of growth among big businesses.
Chris Morgan, head of tax policy at KPMG in the UK, said: “Our survey suggests that such a move would have a real and lasting impact on jobs and capital investment in the country.”
Among the stalled projects the BCC report highlighted are a third Heathrow runway, cancelled by the coalition government, and work on the A14, which is not due to begin until 2018.
Six other projects are on hold or under discussion, it said, including improvements to the M4 in Wales and key stations on the east coast mainline.
Your article (Bonfire of the building rules, 27 October) shows the deadly nature of this government’s neoliberal obsession with slashing the regulations that protect us all, claiming without a shred of evidence that it is “health and safety gone mad” and “strangling red tape” that is killing jobs, rather than their wrong-headed economic policies.
Even construction companies do not think this is a good idea. Morally and practically allowing shoddy, unsafe buildings that will leak energy, be fire traps and inaccessible to disabled people to “stimulate the economy” is insane. It is a bizarre move after the success of the Olympics that gave the economy such a boost, the building of which was accomplished without any deaths due to ensuring strict compliance with construction and health and safety regulations, brought about by co-operation between unions, construction companies, and the HSE. The construction industry still has a very high rate of worker deaths at almost one per week, and also kills a number of members of the public, and cannot be trusted to self-regulate. This government’s deadly obsession with deregulation is shameful and mendacious, and likely to lead to many more disasters such as Piper Alpha or Lakanal House, without creating a single extra job, boosting house building, or kick-starting the economy.
Greater Manchester Hazards Centre
• No one is suggesting homes be allowed that are structurally unsound or energy inefficient. What is proposed is a sensible roll-back of the excessive regulatory burden that has been progressively heaped upon the construction industry over the last 15 years to the point where it is no longer worth building. Many of the latest requirements are unnecessary, absurd, complicated and hugely expensive out of all proportion to any long-term gain. The worst excesses of these unbridled obligations in the building regulations, and more particularly the planning system, must be curtailed. Otherwise there will be no mass housebuilding programme by the private sector and consequently no national economic recovery.
• We have building regulations for good reason. The first unified system was the London Building Acts of 1667, drawn up after the Great Fire to prevent the spread of fire and the untimely collapse of buildings. Administered by district surveyors, subsequent acts lasted until 1986 when Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC. Self-regulation, which appears to be proposed under this new review, has, as the past has shown, brought disaster after disaster, from Aberfan to Ronan Point, from the Summerland fire to the Kings Cross underground tragedy.
Health and safety in the building industry is there for a purpose. Building is a very dangerous trade. Until the construction, design and management regulations 2007, there was no obligation for any building firm to provide the welfare facilities that any office worker takes for granted. Ricky Tomlinson, Des Warren and the Shrewsbury pickets were jailed for campaigning for those basic standards 40 years ago. Does the government really intend to take us back to the good old days of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists?
• It is less than two years since the government undertook an identical review. Similarly, the initial review sought evidence on ways to improve the building regulations, on reducing the regulatory burdens and on delivering rather better levels of compliance. The results of that investigation, published in December 2010, can still be found on the Department for Community’s website. This states clearly that “the key theme to emerge has been that the regime is generally fit-for-purpose, but that there are things that can be improved”.
A new programme was introduced with “a particular focus on deregulation and streamlining of the technical and procedural aspects of the regulations”. The same response undertook to confirm detailed proposals to improve the energy standards both for new and existing buildings by the end of October 2012, with a view to their coming into force next April. There is as yet no sign of
RIBA commission pushes for council workers’ retirement savings to be invested in 20-year ‘surge of quality home building’
The retirement savings of more than four million council workers should be used to fuel a surge in house building in every city, town and village in Britain, an investigation concerning the quantity and quality of new homes has concluded.
Six million new homes, the equivalent of 600 new housing estates a year, should be built over the next 20 years using £10bn drawn from struggling local authority pension funds, according to the Future Homes Commission.
The commission, a national inquiry established by the Royal Institute of British Architects to investigate the housing crisis, says that investment should be pumped into high-quality designs to end the construction of what have been described as “rabbit hutch homes.
The programme would produce a better return than shares and bonds and would drive the wider economy back towards steady growth, the commission claims.
New national minimum standards for internal floor areas, storage, light and noise insulation are needed, the commission says, adding that the huge acceleration in house building would require land “in or close to virtually every city town and village”.
The idea adds to growing interest in Whitehall and in town halls in using the assets of council pension funds, worth more than £120bn, to help Britain’s economic recovery by bankrolling infrastructure projects.
However, a survey of 100 local authority funds published by the Smith Institute, a left-wing thinktank, found none of the funds was prepared to accept a lower return in exchange for achieving social benefit.
The greater Manchester pension fund last month announced a £25m investment in 240 new homes on sites presented by the council, in a scheme that is thought to be the first of its kind. But most funds have been wary.
Ian Greenwood, chairman of the Local Authority Pension Fund forum, said: “This is people’s pensions we are talking about, and if this goes wrong and the councils are called on to provide more money, it will ultimately affect retirement incomes.”
The commission was formed in response to growing concern that ministers in the last two governments had presided over a decline in house building, apparently powerless to increase construction.
Last year 113,340 homes were built in Britain, less than at any time since 1923, despite 230,000 new households being formed each year.
There is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction among homeowners over design standards. A quarter of buyers are refusing to buy new-built homes, mainly because they are too small, an Ipsos Mori poll has found.
New homes in Britain are the smallest in Europe with one bed-flats 20% smaller than equivalent flats in Germany and three-bed houses 16% smaller.
The factors causing most dissatisfaction are the lack of storage space, an absence of outdoor areas, the internal layouts and finishes, and the size of rooms, the commission says.
The commission took evidence from 140 experts and organisations including councils, Barratt Homes, NatWest bank, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and the Royal Town Planning Institute.
Half of the homes that need to be built every year should be for sale, while the others 150,000 should be for rent, says the report.
Sir John Banham, a former chairman of Whitbread, Kingfisher and Tarmac, said: “I don’t think people have comprehended the scale of this. We have got used to moaning about the scale of the crisis that we haven’t realised that this represents a huge opportunity.”
The commission found that only 1% of institutional property investments were linked to homes in the UK, compared to the equivalent for the Netherlands of 47%, while France notched up 15% and Germany 13%.
The report claims that further investment is undermined by the lack of in-house expertise. It believes the largest 15 funds could pool 15% of their assets (at least £10bn) in an independently managed “local housing development fund” which would finance the construction of swathes of new housing for rent and sale.
The commission argues that a greater emphasis on well-designed housing would reduce local “nimby” opposition and cites a 2011 Policy Exchange survey that found 69% of people saying the quality of homes built in their area was more important than the quantity.
Attempts to kickstart housebuilding in Britain have been numerous but unsuccessful. The commission report identifies inter-connected issues that hold back house building, ranging from a lack of mortgage finance for buyers and British pension funds’ reluctance to invest in property, to “onerous” planning conditions on house builders, and concerns about the design quality of new homes that puts off buyers and leads to planning objections from communities.
According to Peter Williams, director of the Cambridge centre for housing policy, the “sponge effect”, whereby homes are used more intensively, for example, with more adults living with their parents, means the real crisis could be deferred a couple of years. “If we don’t turn the corner in three to four years, we are going to see a sharp rise in levels of homelessness,” he said.
Designs on a home
The award-winning design of Mike Hammerton’s newly built £300,000 home in Osbaldwick near York has eased some of the pressures of modern family life.
The 51-year-old civil servant moved with his wife, Lorraine, son Chad, 14, and 20-year-old daughter, Claire, from a 1950s semi which they had outgrown.
“We were getting on top of each other,” Hammerton says. “We felt we needed the kids to have more privacy and this new development has a dining room on one floor and a living room on another which helps.
“There are three bathrooms too so if our daughter can’t afford a house she can have her own floor here. We have to look to the future. There are big rooms, plenty of storage and high ceilings.
“If we become disabled we can fit a lift shaft and the rooms are made so you can get a wheelchair in and out. They have thought of all that.”
The three-bedroom home in the Derwenthorpe development was built by David Wilson Homes for the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust as part of what will eventually be a 540-home development.
In a contrasting case, Sarah Althorpe, 35, moved into a new four-bedroom house in Corby in 2007 and was left very dissatisfied.
The design of the house, which, she says, has thin walls and bedrooms too small to use, leads her to describe it as “slap and dash”.
She moved in with her partner, Aaron, daughter Olivia, two, and son Reece, six. “There were damp walls that they’d covered with paint, window panes were scratched, and the front door dropped on its hinges.”
It was difficult to get the builders, a British residential properly developer, to rectify the problems, she says.
There were design faults too. “The only storage is under the stairs so everything gets shoved in there. The smallest bedroom you can barely fit a single bed in. We had my daughter’s nursery in there but she had no room to play so we moved her out.
“My son’s bedroom is above the garage and is cold in winter and summer. The walls are paper thin and you can hear the shower upstairs when you are in the downstairs living room.”
Britain is desperately inefficient in its land use, and there are still no measures to bring empty property back on the market
The government’s learning curve on planning is like an ant climbing a mountain. Desperate for someone to blame for the lack of growth, David Cameron has fallen back on the Margaret Thatcher’s old bogey, local government, and the bugbear of planning control. Last year he tried to nationalise development control, in the most cack-handed fashion, and was
Poor Nick Clegg has come out badly from the reshuffle and is now demoted to be minister for extensions (Growth plan gets an extension, 6 September). Is this government really serious that as we are not building enough homes, the answer is to allow people with money to build bigger extensions?
The logic is this will lead to work and jobs for local builders – the reality is those that want to and can afford to extend also have the wherewithal to find cheap foreign builders. It sounds like a script from Little Britain.
Sometimes even governments need to recalibrate. Daft as this policy might be, what it does signal, finally, is the government’s acknowledgment that judicious spending is the way forward. As usual, however, they want us to spend and to take the risk, but give them time and it will eventually dawn on them that it’s government spending that will make the difference.
• Those householders who are awaiting an outbreak of unregulated extension-building enthusiasm from their immediate neighbours would do very well to acquaint themselves with the provisions of the Party Wall etc. Act 1996.
This legislation extends certain rights to building owners in respect of potential development adjacent to or on the boundary between their own and their neighbour’s property. It also confers certain important rights on their neighbours, designed to protect adjacent buildings. These rights particularly cover activity on the mutual boundary or in connection with party walls. They further encompass activity in the nature of deep excavations within three metres of the neighbouring foundations. Householders can require the developer to issue formal notices in respect of works covered by the act and, as I can attest, really focus the mind of developers on the appropriateness of the work in hand and the manner in which it is carried out.
Additionally householders should be alert to potential right of light scenarios. The common law provisions may be antiquated but are still applicable, and, should the rights have been legally acquired, a development likely to breach those rights can be challenged at law.
• Eight whole metres allowed for an extension. That will allow me to double the size of my ordinary semi, virtually obliterating my back garden, no doubt to the chagrin of my neighbours. And all to save a £150 planning fee (presumably I will still need building regulations consent), minimal in relation to the cost of building.
It would probably take nearly a year to get any project completed, by which time the existing rules click back into place. Fewer applications for the planning officers to deal with, but a vast increase in complaints from neighbours wishing to object, which planning enforcement staff will have to deal with. And an increase in the number of “garden sheds” for use by immigrant workers in London boroughs.
• What happens when you try to sell the property and you have no planning permission?
Hove, East Sussex
• So, there is a great shortage of homes, which problem can be solved by removing the requirement to build “affordable” houses and allowing developers to put up only those which are, presumably, “unaffordable”. What could be wrong with that?
Barnard Castle, Durham
• Cameron and Clegg have forgotten why we have residential planning controls. They are for the protection of citizen rights. They help stop our homes being blighted by couldn’t-care-less neighbours building overbearing, even ugly, extensions. Blight us today and we’ll blight them in the next election.
• Does David Cameron now plan to rebrand the Tories as the Conservatory party?
Politicians have to accept there is no quick fix to the problem – and getting it right will take an attitudinal shift
Housing is at the heart of the economic crisis, and getting housing right will be part of its answer. It is also one of the toughest of political quandaries, one whose obvious answer is so unpalatable that no government has had the courage to face it. The quandary is this: housing costs too much, but for millions of people, security depends on the value of their bricks and mortar.
A generation are being priced out of homes so that their parents keep the value of their principal asset. It is not surprising that the politicians’ solutions – whether it’s the hints this weekend from the prime minister and the chancellor of easier planning laws, or the implementation at the end of last week of a law that criminalises squatting – are little more than populist window dressing that will make no real difference to the fundamental problem. And while attempts to magic a simple answer are rational short-term politics, they risk damaging the prospects of a realistic debate and ultimately a long-term solution.
Plainly, more homes are needed, particularly in the south-east. But the reason for the catastrophic decline in the number of new ones being built is not only the tight planning regulations or an overprotected green belt. Builders aren’t building on land for which they have planning permission now because they can’t sell the houses they’ve built already. They can’t sell the houses because mortgages are still hard to come by and people are still fearful of getting into more debt. So lending is still two-thirds below its 2007 peak. And builders won’t bring down their prices because it would compromise their investment in expensive land and expensively built homes.
The shortage of homes people can afford means young couples are delaying having children. At the current rate, one in four will be priced out of home ownership by 2025. To fill the gap, the private rented sector is expanding fast. But it needs better, longer-term tenancy agreements in place if it is to become a valid choice for families, and it needs to find ways – as the government’s Montague report suggested last month – of persuading pension funds to invest in the housing market when relatively low profitability makes the idea unattractive.
In this context, criminalising squatting can be seen for the irrelevance that it is. It is true that there have been cases of homes left briefly empty for sale or renovation being taken over by squatters. These get lots of publicity and rightly make people angry and also disproportionately fearful. But it is not hard to prosecute them under the current law (as 160 practitioners pointed out in a letter on these pages last year). Research from the housing action charity Crisis suggests most people who squat are vulnerable and homeless, and squat because they can see no alternative. It is a welfare and housing issue, not a criminal one. At the same time there are at least 700,000 empty homes in England and Wales. But bringing them back into service is not easy. Most are for sale or awaiting repairs or renovation. Less than a third have been empty for more than six months. Everyone knows this is daft, an affront to those desperate for somewhere to live as well as to those who have to live next door to boarded-up, often vandalised properties, but it is no long-term answer to the housing crisis. Meanwhile, the consequences of policy failure mount up in soaring private-sector rents and the cap on housing benefit, plans to sell off high value social housing and reinvigorate the right to buy.
Politicians have to accept there is no quick fix for housing. More than that, there is no obvious, tried and tested route out of the current crisis. Getting it right will take an attitudinal shift. It is no longer possible to leave it to the market. Housing policy cannot be constrained by the desire to maintain and enhance voters’ assets, nor the need to protect the construction industry’s profits. Nor, important as it is, should it only be about providing jobs. Housing is a public good, and that is how public policy must treat it.