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Why are we still housing people in rabbit hutches?

Paul Finch

Minimum-space housing standards should be adopted nationally, says Paul Finch

It is hard not to have some sympathy for Theresa May as she sees out her failed premiership with speeches at this and that event. However, it doesn’t excuse her apologias for washed-out policies pursued by successive governments with which she has been involved.

Her address to the Chartered Institute of Housing last week was a case in point, attracting headlines about how she would end ‘rabbit hutch’ housing with minimal storage space and mean accommodation standards. She could easily have quoted a colleague of hers who, back in 2008, attacked precisely the same rabbit-hutch standards, and who pledged to do something about it.

That other politician was Boris Johnson, who promised in 2008 to introduce minimum-space housing standards to London, bringing back the spirit of Parker Morris standards, established in 1961 – but disgracefully scrapped by fake national treasure Michael Heseltine in the early 1980s. Johnson delivered on his pledge to re-introduce (enhanced) Parker Morris standards. This should have led to his standard being adopted nationally, but the Conservatives (a) watered them down, then (b) made them advisory rather than mandatory.

Mrs May has noticed that, because they are not a legal requirement, those watered-down standards are only being applied ‘patchily’. Whose fault is that? What did she expect?

And what about permitted development, which allowed some of the meanest units ever seen to be created within former office buildings (pictured: Newbury House, Ilford, east London)? Why don’t minimum space standards apply to them also? This would not abandon the principle of permitted change-of-use, but would clean up what has become a dubious sector of the market.

Newbury house

Newbury House, Ilford, east London

Style is not a frivolous matter

A stimulating discussion at Donald Insall Associates’ office on the topic of ‘style wars’ was ably chaired by Tim Brittain-Catlin, who noted a revival of interest in the teaching of architectural history in general, and about styles in particular. Palladianism came in for some side-swipes as a very particular style from a narrow period which had somehow become dominant.

Charles Holland noted the dubious claims of some tutors to teach without stylistic prescription, when in reality their charges all ended up drawing in the same way.

In the past, style battles tended to be binary: Classical or Gothic, Traditional or Modern. That came to an end, one might say, in 1980 when Paolo Portoghesi curated the first Venice Architecture Biennale under the title ‘The Presence of the Past’. His ‘La Strada Novissima’ installation heralded the dawn of Post-Modernism as an architectural style, as opposed to the (lower-case) post-modern condition in which we now all find ourselves.

Actually, the splintering of Modernism into a gallery of styles, or at least categories, has kept architectural journalists busy ever since, especially following the Prince of Wales’s speech in 1984, which set the cat amongst the pigeons, creating an artificial binary style war of ‘moderns’ and anyone else.

The real battle, of course, is between good architecture and bad architecture, but the internal conversations of architectural culture have little interest in this prosaic matter. Attention has instead focused on a host of styles including Metabolism, Rationalism, Brutalism, Post-Modernism/Post-Modern Classicism, High-Tech, Deconstruction, White Modernism, Late Modernism, Neo-vernacular, Bio-climatic architecture, Eco-architecture and so on.

How are students supposed to learn about and understand this stuff? Simple: keep reading the magazines, both today’s and from yesteryear.

The power of architecture

You might think, given almost every planning policy going, that it would be impossible to build a significant housing development in London on Metropolitan Open Land, the capital’s version of Green Belt. Yet a scheme in Bromley, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects, has just been approved on appeal, in what must be some sort of speed record for the planning inspectorate: a decision was issued two weeks after the end of the inquiry.

The inspector made the point that ‘the finesse of the design and detailing, particularly the extensive use of glazing, combine to create a development of exceptional architectural placemaking quality that has a lightness of touch and appearance’.

You can only build on MOL in what planning law describes as ‘Very Special Circumstances’. Quality of architecture can be part of that story.

634 dylon phase 2 walkthrough 3 (copyright) 2mb

634 dylon phase 2 walkthrough 3 (copyright) 2mb

Source: Ian Ritchie Architects

Proposal for Dylon 2 site, Lower Sydenham, by Ian Ritchie Architects


Readers' comments (2)

  • To put it cynically, if you're a Conservative (in this case) government minister, you don't bite the hand that feeds you.

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  • Quite, it’s difficult to have any sympathy for the Maybot, and the sooner she robot dances off the stage the better. As for architectural styles they are a thing of the past, as a younger generation so without hope for the future of humanity that they plan not to have children, segues into robust instruction in ‘Carbontecture’ at the schools, and forges a new role as Ecotects. They will also be well versed in fire engineering after the Grenfell and Lacrosse building fires (the latter in particular due to their legal liability) and other technical and practical skills. We don’t need another ‘glasshouse’ in greenbelt.

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