Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Paul Finch returns from Venice to find a bucket of cold water being poured over housing and planning
David Chipperfield’s Venice Biennale, with the theme of Common Ground, is a hit, not least because it provokes all sorts of questions as to why certain subjects have been given scant attention - for example architectural education. And, needless to say, one could look at some of the works on display and think that, far from showing shared concerns and approaches, they simply emphasise the differences: uncommon ground.
There was plenty of discussion, of which more next week. My favourite moment was prompted by the intervention of a UK student at an event on diversity and compatibility, hosted by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. ‘This is all intellectualism,’ he declared. ‘Why can’t we just do things? This is all bullshit!’ The panel, which I was moderating, took this in good part. It fell to Sir Peter Cook to make the classic rejoinder: ‘If you don’t like bullshit you’re in the wrong city!’ For Peter, the whole point of the biennale is to be provoked, stimulated annoyed. That is why we keep going back.
Returning to Britain at the weekend was a slightly surreal experience, greeted as one was with big headlines about (a) the need to do something about housing and (b) the importance of building all over Green Belt to achieve economic recovery.
It now appears that the National Planning Policy Framework has already lost the confidence of the chancellor and the secretary of state for business before it has even had a chance to come into effect.
Here are some simple pointers as to how we might help to house-build our way out of recession, without any need for further meddling with the planning system, and also bearing in mind that the desire for instant planning permissions directly contradicts the commitments to ‘localism’ much trumpeted by politicians who have deluded themselves into thinking that more consultation equals speedier planning.
- Introduce immediately as-of-right planning permissions for conversions from offices to residential, excluding the City of London for the sake of peace and quiet. This is a good example of a sensible policy that was almost adopted by government and then dropped for no good reason.
- Reintroduce municipal mortgages as operated in the 1960s and 70s to great effect, to provide a source of finance for mainly first-time buyers, with options to pay off at a lower rate in the early years of the loan. Councils could lend on homes outside their own area.
- Reintroduce ‘council housing’ - no doubt with a trendier name - as a matter of urgency in those areas where housing shortage is most acute.
- Stop penalising private house-builders with demands for affordable units which simply represent a tax on production. (We don’t force bakers to provide subsidised loaves but, funnily enough, there is no bread shortage.)
- Require all owners of public sites to sell them for housing development on the basis of their book cost, - ie pre-housing permission. Those sites to be sold to consortia proposing the best developments and the land sale only completing after scheme delivery.
- Don’t make a drama out of a crisis. In London, if every borough enables 1,000 homes a year, we will build 330,000 over the next decade. That will be helpful.
None of the above is particularly difficult. It is important that we approach this problem using multiple measures, not a non-existent magic wand.
As for infrastructure, the existing arrangements are perfectly adequate if pursued with political will and vigour. If we want an estuary airport, or an extra runway at Stansted linked to Crossrail, we can do what the Victorians did - approve them via Act of Parliament