We need a body that can draw everything together - and in particular get a grip on land and site assembly, writes Paul Finch
An inspirational visit to the Veneto, looking at work by Palladio and Scarpa, prompted an after-dinner discussion about which had made the greater contribution to architecture. With grappa flowing, the argument soon descended into the knockabout one associates with fans arguing about the respective merits of football teams.
In truth one cannot compare them in any meaningful way, only wonder at what they produced. Palladio’s reworking of Classicism has affected architects across the world, especially those interested in how one uses history to inform the present. Scarpa’s more particular work is about how the present can inform the past, most notably at Castelvecchio. And, in the case of the Brion Cemetery, Scarpa proved Adolf Loos’s dictum that only in respect of the tomb and the monument can architecture truly become art.
As is inevitable these days, any discussion about contemporary architecture by Londoners eventually turns to the housing shortage. The political parties still seem to floundering, with ludicrous ideas such as the mansion tax masquerading as a construction policy. Beating up overseas investors will simply mean construction of higher-end apartment blocks will cease. Moreover, capital will simply switch to buying existing property, exacerbating the problem.
Promoters of the private rented sector, 99 per cent of whom own their homes, are peddling a quack remedy because it is easier than addressing a real problem. It is good for investors, but a terrible waste of money for people who cannot get on the housing ladder because prices are too steep - caused by supply shortage. Instead they pay as much in rent as they should be paying for a mortgage, the catch being that, having paid for 30 years, they will have no equity stake in anything. This is a big con, and explains why City institutions are so keen on it. It is legalised mis-selling, and you might have thought Labour would have something to say about it. But a headless chicken …
Let us look at the housing problem in a simple way. We have plenty of sites available, many of them in public ownership of one sort or another. We have a construction industry which has proved itself capable of responding well to huge challenges once there is certainty of policy and finance. We have an army of very capable architects who can design everything from infill homes to major new estates and communities.
What we don’t have is a body that can draw everything together - and in particular get a grip on land and site assembly. The London mayor has started to do this, but should go much further and faster. This will require the support of central government, since the most effective way of making available necessary land is to ‘vest’ any land owned by the public in a single body. It could be the mayor’s development corporation, or Crown Estate equivalent. That body should make sites available at existing use value to teams competing to provide affordable homes. They would be awarded land as a result of the quality of their proposal and design, but would not own it until the scheme had been built (as designed). In other words, competition would shift from land price to quality and social usefulness of proposal. It accepts that the cost of delivering housing in quantity is to forego some value in the land price.
Individual public owners would be reluctant to sacrifice value, which is why such a policy needs national backing. And that is why, instead of simple confiscation, the land should be ‘vested’.
It worked for the London Docklands Development Corporation, and it can work again.