The suggestion that tall buildings cause criminal behaviour is a dangerous error, writes Paul Finch
Every half-generation or so, an organisation with little interest in history makes an amazing discovery: architecture determines behaviour.
So it is with Policy Exchange, the ‘right-wing think tank’. After five minutes of research it has reached the conclusion that because some criminals live, or were brought up, in high-rise apartment blocks, it is the blocks that are responsible for their criminal behaviour. As a bonus, it says tall blocks do not mean high-density living, and that you could get greater density by filling sites and low and medium-rise buildings. The latter was established in the mid-’60s by Richard MacCormac and others in research at the Martin Centre in Cambridge.
There is nothing new in it - Policy Exchange might as well have discovered the sun rises each morning. However, their point about tall buildings causing criminal behaviour is a dangerous error because it has a surface attraction about it, and appears to be endorsed by the fact that the riots in London of two years ago involved a disproportionate number of people living on large council estates. If only they had occupied semis in Weybridge.
There is a simple response to the simple-minded proposition about architecture, crime and causality: the Kray twins. Brought up in impeccably terraced housing in the dense urbanism of East London, and given to visiting relatives in Hadleigh, a Suffolk town untouched by nasty modern inventions like apartment blocks, the twins nevertheless built a ruthless criminal empire. Punishments for rivals included nailing them to floorboards - no doubt showing that traditional construction has its uses.
My question to Policy Exchange is this: did terraced housing push Ronnie and Reggie over the edge or might it have been some other factor? Lead in petrol? Absent father? And what about the biggest financial criminals in the UK today, that is to say certain banks and other financial institutions mis-selling everything from mortgages to insurance policies, to inflation swaps designed to defraud the unwary? Could it be that the people responsible live in, or were brought up in, tower blocks? I don’t think so, although I’m sure an aggrieved Bob Diamond will be the first to say if he was.
The Policy Exchange fantasy secured it a spot on Today on Radio 4, where the opposing point of view was presented by ex-RIBA president Max Hutchinson. He had little difficulty seeing off the pin-prick propositions from the PE junior drafted in for the occasion. But getting an architect to make the response implied the argument was about architecture. Max emphasised this was not the case, but the context suggested otherwise.
What didn’t get much discussed was the idea that all local authority towers should be demolished to make way for exciting, new higher-density schemes on the wastelands created by a mass demolition programme. So nothing about embodied energy or the extraordinary write-offs of long-term loans such a policy would entail. A more productive line of investigation would involve intensifying housing by making use of underused sites on council estates, but introducing private tenants and owners to balance social mix. For Policy Exchange that wouldn’t be enough, because it doesn’t provide hate objects (tall buildings and council tenants, both evidence of Socialism).
Well, everybody has to live somewhere, even policy wonks. What we need is more homes and better homes, as the AJ’s excellent campaign urges. Existing buildings should only be demolished if they are technically hazardous or can be replaced with far more density on the existing building footprint. Policy Exchange needs to do more (to use an apposite word) homework.