25 June 2018

Is beauty the answer to the housing crisis?

By Ed West

Last Thursday in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury a small party was held to celebrate some of the finest architectural designs of the past year. All were by respected specialists in the field and each had been submitted to the Royal Academy for their Summer Exhibition – and all but one had been rejected out of hand.

The common link with all the works showcased at this Salon des Refusés? Membership of the RIBA Traditional Architecture Group, a genre that remains as unfashionable in polite circles as it is popular among the public.

It was back in 1989 that the Prince of Wales issued a manifesto calling for “human proportions” and for designers to “respect our indigenous roots”, only to be met with jeering and mirth by the architectural establishment. Four years later work started on Charles’s Dorset new town Poundbury, which one architect critic called a “Thomas Hardy theme park for slow learners”.

Well, to quote Bob Monkhouse, they’re not laughing now. Demand for housing in Poundbury continues to rise and the village thrives; indeed it is being emulated by a new town in Devon called Sherford.

Traditional architecture has started to become the subject of serious discussion, and indeed increasingly has the backing of the government, for one simple reason – we’re desperate. House prices have risen 259 per cent since Tony Blair’s election, four times as quickly as earnings; the proportion of young homeowners has dropped sharply, while homelessness has skyrocketed since 2010.

Visitors to large British cities cannot help but notice how appalling the situation has become, with the Strand resembling Gotham City and my local railway station now home to a permanent homeless encampment.

The housing crisis is not only one of the biggest problems facing Britain, but an existential crisis for conservativism, since people unable to get on the property ladder are invariably drawn to the radical Left.

And yet it is difficult to expand London, because Tory constituents don’t want new homes near them, or at least that’s what MPs believe. Even Theresa May has helped block new builds in her own backyard, while former housing secretary Sajid Javid has been accused of Nimbyism.

But the extent to which people oppose new buildings may be overplayed, according to a new report by Policy Exchange, which suggests that much of what’s called “Nimbyism” may just be opposition to ugly, non-traditional housing, rather than new houses in general.

Building More, Building Beautiful: how design and style can unlock the housing crisis is written by Sir Roger Scruton and Sir Robin Wales, former mayor of Newham, but perhaps more tellingly also contains a foreword by new housing secretary James Brokenshire.

In surveys commissioned by the think tank it was found that “85 percent of respondents across all socioeconomic groups said new homes should either fit in with their more traditional surroundings or be identical to homes already there”.

Of those polled, only three in ten thought too many homes were being built in their area – hardly insurmountable opposition – although this varies by region. Some 41 per cent of people in inner London want more homes near then, far more than in the Home Counties, but if you wished for personal space you wouldn’t move to Islington in the first place.

Unsurprisingly the polls showed that the most popular types of building were Georgian terraces, with Victorian mansions third and 1960s style concrete blocks dead last – and yet the former can sometimes reach densities as high as the latter. Overall 82 per cent of people surveyed by Policy Exchange “thought architects should focus on designing buildings which are well built, comfortable and beautiful” and just a quarter of “thought new buildings should be adventurous and different”.

Much of this echoes work done by Create Streets, the social enterprise group that campaigns for more vernacular housing as a way of overcoming Nimbyism and easing the housing crisis. Their argument is that most people prefer Parisian-style apartment blocks of between four and seven stories to towers, and among the commandments of the Create Streets manifesto, Love Thy Neighbourhood,
perhaps the most important is: “High density categorically does not require high rise or large blocks”.

Create Streets has done a great deal of research showing that local opposition to new housing drops sharply when residents are presented with traditional, human-scale architecture, and their proposals tend to win huge support, whether it be Empress Place in Fulham, or Mount Pleasant.

It’s safe to say that this stuff is more popular with the public than with architects, yet it is partly because modernist architecture is so widely disliked that it is a high-status marker, just as with many opinions associated with modernity, higher education and openness.

This is perhaps best illustrated by an oft-quoted study by psychologist David Halpern in which he surveyed students about how they rated certain buildings; while pretty much everyone had fairly similar tastes, architecture students favoured the buildings everyone else hated, and the longer they had been studying architecture the more they liked things perceived by the public as ugly. You wouldn’t know my favourite modernist monstrosity, it’s too obscure.

Perhaps support for non-traditional architecture is a sort of positional good, and people adopt these opinions as status signals – the more hideous, the better. Indeed, traditional architecture is a low-status indicator – the Policy Exchange report found that 31 per cent of social class AB liked new buildings to be “adventurous”, compared to just 17 per cent of social class DE.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with architects wanting to experiment with modern forms – they are artists, after all – except that the unpopularity of modern designs makes it even harder to build.

And architects can only work within the British planning system, which is famously difficult, uncertain and unpredictable, making development risky and expensive. Because people do not know what can and can’t be built, this favours large developers who have the time and money to fight legal battles, rather than a humble Englishman wishing to build his own castle.

The Policy Exchange report proposes setting up local design panels, which would include a third of members selected from local architects and a third made up of local people, or people likely to live in new builds.

I’m sceptical about this idea, which sounds like it might slow down an already complicated process, and one which most people don’t have the time or inclination to get involved in (which is why such bodies get hijacked by cranks and extremists). And what if there was only one architect who lived locally and he was a Le Corbusier fan?

But their idea of having a local book of designs would surely make the system more predictable, as would accelerated planning permission for developments which follow local design codes. Already the Draft London Plan, which orders councils to create Design Codes for small sites, is heading in that direction, as is the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

Perhaps instead of complex boards made up of local people the authorities could simply divide cities into different architectural zones. New builds near to Upper Street would have to resemble Georgian squares, for example, while those in Notting Hill would have to be early/mid Victorian white brick and anything near Hammersmith Bridge red brick mansions.

The zones could be very small indeed, such as the little bit of Byzantium in Victoria, and would also allow variety and diversity, since there would be space for every different type of design. Obviously these are not where most newbuilds are situated, but this could be rolled out if we were to build on the Green Belt inside Greater London, which is a necessary compromise; and would certainly be agreeable to Tory MPs if it was agreed that restrictions in the Home Counties could remain.

Policy Exchange’s own polling showed people in Outer London are open to more housing, and since some 22 per cent of Greater London is Green Belt, that means a lot of homes. The next Tory mayoral candidate is under no pressure or expectation to win, so the party may as well go all-out for bold ideas, proposing a number of different housing developments on the outskirts of London, based on various traditional styles.

Why not build a Scandi-style Jakriborg in Hillingdon, or a Byzantine Revival village in Barnet, a miniature neo-Gothic town in Havering, along with a couple of Poundburys.

Sure it would be pastiche, but then there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fake, a term that could equally apply to St Pancras, Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

It’s not enough to build homes people want to live in, we need to build homes they’re going to want to have next door – if the Conservatives don’t, then a Corbyn government will. And we can only imagine how they’ll look.

Ed West is a writer and author