Letter from London: It has been a year of triumphs, but also of missed opportunities, writes Paul Finch
As usual, architecture and design scarcely got a look-in during the celebration of sports celebrities on the BBC – except as superb backdrops for their exceptional Olympic achievements.
Abroad, it was the organisation and delivery of the Games, and the weirdly creative opening ceremony, that improved our standing as a serious country which knows how to get things done.
Reviewing what happened in the built environment over the past 12 months is instructive as, compared with the achievements in Stratford, much else must be considered close to failure. Having seen through a major reform of how we think about planning, via the National Planning Policy Framework, the government then set about discrediting it by declaring that the ‘growth agenda’, which became a coded phrase for ‘more housing’, could only be achieved by ignoring its provisions about green belt, and by ripping up codes and standards covering both minor and major issues.
We can only hope that the latter will be handled rationally by the review team, which includes Andy von Bradsky from PRP, an experienced and wise architect who sees the review as a way of setting new minimum standards, much as Boris Johnson’s minimum housing dimensions did. This is one to watch, because there is a Conservative Party ur-belief that if only you get rid of regulation then the world will become more wonderful. These people can’t yet explain why the banking crash happened when regulation was of the lite variety.
None of this deals with quantum, and the continuing failure to ensure enough homes are available, especially now that census statistics have confirmed what New Labour denied for a decade: that inward migration has profoundly changed requirements for housing and other services. In some ways this is the last chapter of the Blair-Brown government. At least Blair backed (eventually) our Olympic bid, after Ken Livingstone, now written out of the script, realised that the only way to regenerate East London was to go for it.
The delivery of the Games should offer an object lesson in how we deal with the housing shortage. First, put a heavy hitter (ie not a minister) in charge of the programme and put time frames on everything. Second, provide significant on-going finance, with contingencies (at least Gordon Brown got that bit right). Third, use a development corporation model to ensure timely planning procedures. Fourth, use compulsory purchase ruthlessly to create the necessary sites. Fifth, ensure that sites and permissions are accompanied by the necessary servicing, without which the permissions are meaningless. Sixth, as with the Olympic Village, ensure that there is a social mix in much of the development, and that people who live in this new housing do so out of choice not necessity. Seventh, use strategic demolition as a last resort, having properly examined if existing stock can be brought back into productive use. Eighth, ensure either that the banks start mortgage lending without absurd demands for unrealistic deposits, or offer some carrots for other financial institutions to get involved. Ninth, insist that new housing is built to high standards, in terms of space, volume, materials and environmental design, with decent urban design and landscaping. Tenth, make positive planning key to all this, engaging properly with the planning profession instead of insulting it as merely providing bureaucrats.
This can all be done because we did it at the Games. Instead of ducking the issue, as we did this year with aviation, let’s treat it with all seriousness. That would be a decent aspiration for the New Year – which I hope will be more prosperous than 2012.
In the meantime may I offer seasonal greetings to AJ readers. See you next year.
10 ways the Olympic spirit can help solve our housing crisis