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Why Patrik Schumacher is wrong about housing

Paul Finch
  • 11 Comments

We tried ditching standards and counting on private housebuilders before, and it became a race to the bottom, writes Paul Finch

I admire Patrik Schumacher as an architect and I applaud his bravery in sticking to his guns in respect of unpopular arguments he has espoused, for which he has been subjected (by some) to abuse rather than reasoned argument.

However, I have never found his propositions about housing provision very convincing, and reading his long essay for the Adam Smith Institute, ‘Only Capitalism Can Solve The Housing Crisis’, reminded me why.

Like all polemicists, he tries to convince us of the validity of his views by stating some truths, then throwing in an enormous falsehood or non sequitur which we are supposed to regard as just another fact. Thus, for example, his claim that the present shortage of homes in London is a result of ‘socialism’. Since when did London have a socialist housing policy, providing truly affordable (and decently designed) homes based on need, in appropriate quantity? Probably not for five decades.

The former housing minister, Nick Raynsford, has pointed out that the last time the UK produced a sufficiency of housing for anticipated need was in 1978. At that time, there were four chief sources of supply: housebuilders and housing associations (then as now), local authorities and new towns, this latter pair now generating almost non-existent numbers.

Patrik fails to mention, in the course of an essay of several thousand words, the historical role of the public sector in supplying housing for those not earning enough to hoist themselves onto the housing ladder. A thumping gap in his argument is why, when the public sector was actively engaged in building homes, we did not have the sort of crisis of supply he now rightly complains about.

Funnily enough, and here is the second thumping gap in the thesis, we had a very similar planning system, and for a respectable period had minimum sizes in the form of Parker Morris space standards, when supply and demand were in broad balance. Far from ‘socialist’ policies resulting in a shortage of housing, what they did was create a civilised context in which private housebuilders could not engage in a race to the bottom over design and construction quality: to an extent they had to match public standards. It was the world of 1978.

When that cut-price national treasure Michael Heseltine scrapped both local authority housing and Parker Morris standards, he created the conditions which according to Schumacher should have triggered a perfect market response to a new world in which the poor could not expect to be housed in the same way, or to the same extent. (Except where, via subsidised purchase, they reduced the available public stock.)

When Heseltine scrapped local authority housing and Parker Morris standards, he created the conditions which according to Schumacher should have triggered a perfect market response

Heseltine’s policies prompted big housebuilders to cut sizes and standards, focus on land speculation rather than quality of construction, and consistently opposed measures designed to improve quality, including energy and fire regulations – an attitude which persists. They were honest enough not to claim that they could house poor people decently – but then, why should they have?

So the third thumping gap is the absence of suggestion as to why or how the private sector will provide for the relatively poor. There is scant mention in Patrik’s essay of the following: children, families, communities. He seems to think that the world consists entirely of ‘young professionals’, mentioned more than once, who spend most of their time away from their home, which can therefore be kennel-sized.

Schumacher seems to think that the world consists entirely of ‘young professionals’ …  for which read: ‘the sort of people my practice employs’

A final thumping gap in the Schumacher proposition concerns inward migration to London since the 1980s – not discussed. Reading this hymn to the joys of capitalism, with its silly and insulting suggestion that the poor should live in the housing equivalents of Subway, McDonald’s and EasyJet, you wonder why Patrik fails to analyse a huge reason for the housing crisis in London: the addition of more than two million people over the past 30 years, increasing the city’s population by a third to its current record levels, with plenty more predicted to come. And they are not simply those ‘young professionals’, for which read: ‘the sort of people my practice employs’.

Obviously the capitalist class likes the population increase, because additional folk represent cheap labour and a bigger economic market; hence the CBI’s role as cheerleader for tired old Remnants masquerading as supporters of the dignity of labour.

But you can’t successfully accommodate huge population increases without planning, whether in respect of housing, schools or the NHS. That is precisely what we haven’t had, and if you assume, like the Adam Smith Institute, that planning is a dirty word and a doomed philosophy, then you will end up with our current ‘crisis’ condition.

By planning – and here I agree with Patrik – I do not mean development control; I do mean ‘predict and provide’.

  • 11 Comments

Readers' comments (11)

  • Chris Roche

    Paul Finch provides a reasonable critical response to Schumacher's arguably naive interpretation of the housing crisis. It is a response limited by it's length, and presumably by the time made available to write the article within the economic constraints of his weekly column. Nonetheless it is a valuable critical view - when such views are in short supply, both in politics and architectural journalism. Society is facing an unprecedented crisis regarding housing supply and cost, and capitalism is the root cause not the solution. As a profession, architects need to lead and be part of the solution, and this can begin in schools of architecture which promote scholarship and intelligent analysis over fantasy and "fetishistic form making". Affordable homes and social housing are not the responsibility of the private sector house builders - nor should they be. As Paul Finch points out in the relatively recent past of the late 1970's we not only did not have a housing crisis but we also had some world leading social housing designed by leading local authority housing departments such as the GLA and Camden Council.
    Fantasy pronouncements, such as Schumacher's, are not going to improve the situation for either the profession of the wider public - but informed, intelligent debate, led by leading schools of architecture may just begin to turn the tide.

    Chris Roche / 11.04 Architects

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  • John Kellett

    Well said Paul and Chris. The bubble London members of the profession live in is frightening. To be refused work in London because I live outside the M25, just an hour from St. Pancras, yet they claim the Country is short of architects from the EU is even odder. This silly claim from Patrik about housing is another example of the London bubble.

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  • Schumacher gets abuse instead of reasoned argument because his opinions are childish. There's a minimum threshold of stupidity that needs to be met before people become bothered enough to engage in reasoned argument, and rebutting Schumacher's panegyric to a subject he doesn't understand requires such herculean efforts that it's not worth it. As an architect who studied economics before switching careers, Schumacher has the blind faith in capitalism that can only be sustained by a total ignorance of it, and his usage of terms like 'socialism' shows that he hasn't even bothered to read the wikipedia page on what socialism is. The man should be assigned a reading list for homework and then completely ignored.

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  • When I first read Patrik's article I was outraged that, in today's diverse society and ever-widening gulf between rich and poor, a hi-profile architect could still believe that unfettered capitalism and de-regulation of space standards could solve the housing crisis. There has to be a balance between available space and quality of life and neither shoe boxes nor tower blocks is the answer for those most disadvantaged. The private sector has huge responsibility unrecognised by Schumacher to share its development gains; only regulation can achieve this and the necessary balance by integrating housing design with a social planning policy. Ian Harper, RIBA

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  • Schumacher is surely only 'hi-profile' because he was the late Zaha Hadid's bagman, and has continued to run her office.
    In this role he appears to have been highly competent, if a touch authoritarian, but whether his more recent work is architecturally of the same quality as Zaha's creations is a moot point.
    As far as I'm aware Zaha Hadid has no significant track record in the provision of affordable housing, so it's all the more surprising that Schumacher is promoting himself as some sort of messiah.

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  • Patrick is devoid of understanding the basic principles of London's housing stock and it's history , that most suburbs north of the river were created from the underground railroad system of late Victorian - early Edwardian , or south of the river with the overground railways. Our current housing stock is much the same as it has been since this massive increase in stock at that time. Suburb density and suitable accommodation is needed not glass towers with luxury apartments. The man is in another world of ignorance and lack of understanding on everyday life. Comes with the territory of luxury architecture one must assume ?

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  • Paul, if you read my article again you find that the ongoing trend to agglomerate in major centres is my starting point and that this makes sense in terms of productivity/prosperity. That smaller units are cheaper and allow us to pack more people into a squaremile is obvious. This also supports walkability. So urban densification is the premise we all share. What i am calling for is more creative freedom to explore this premise. This is not a race to the bottom but a chance to optimize individual balances between size, centrality and expense. Where else do you see that markets deliver deteriorating levels of quality? EasyJet and MacDonald deliver great value for money. There is nothing silly about these offers. Do you want to bann them? Another premise we probably share is functional mixity. Here too we need more degrees of freedom for entrepreneurs competing in the market process to explore and find the best synergy potentials for each site. We come to the city to co-locate. Don’t prevent this! Predict and provide is precisely what entrepreneurs do and if they get it wrong the profit and loss system signals and corrects this.

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  • @patrik schu McD's? Really? That's the best you can do? Lol! This is a very dangerous man

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  • ON BEHALF OF PAUL FINCH

    I repeat my dislike for criticism from some respondents which is personal, not about the issues under discussion. I agree with PS about the need for greater density and mix in cities, promoted 20 years ago in the Richard Rogers Urban Task Force report for government. Nor do I have any problem about letting the private sector get on with what they do for a living, which is to build for the market. I dislike the ‘affordable’ housing strategy because it involves an abuse of language and has been proved not to work. However, I have no faith in a policy which assumes that the private market can or will provide what all sorts of people need, in terms of both quantity and quality. Young professionals are not the only people on the planet. The reason I hold this view is because space standards and public-sector housebuilding were scrapped, and things left to the market, in the 80s, and continued in that vein for three decades. The result is the mess we have at the moment. The experiment failed. Why should we repeat it?

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  • Thanks for writing this important response Paul.
    Patrick, I have just read your Adam Smith essay. The economics that you haven't explained is that house prices are high due to low interest rates. Everyone can borrow more on the same salary, so the same property swells in price. All this extra value has gone into the land, as you rightly point out, and as we are not spending any more on build costs, we are not improving the appropriateness and generosity of the homes that we build. The affordability crisis that you talk about is caused by this under-taxed disconnect between land value and salaries. The reason this is not going to be impacted by increasing supply, as you suggest, is because you have not explained the locational factor in the value of land. Land value is increased by the proximity to transport infrastructure, industry and communities of workers - what Henry George called the “collective” efforts of the increasing population. I would strongly recommend you read ‘Rethinking the economics of land and housing’, an excellent book by Toby Lloyd et al. which succinctly captures these uncomfortable truths.
    As James Murray explains, 80% of the homes we build are affordable to only 8% of Londoners, and we can no longer expect the existing housebuilder land-banking model to deliver housing that is affordable to the majority. The answer has to be to tackle the land issue, and to do this we need to look to long term investment structures, with patient investors and landowners, looking for returns over longer time periods collaborating to create communities, and well-designed places people want to live.
    The last time we built lots of housing quickly, and of dubious quality, we ended up pulling lots of it down again.

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  • Dear Patrik.S

    In an age where sustainability includes spacial standards and how architecture affects the mind, of which a great example of modern living cells is student accomodation of barely legal and damaging size, I can assure you Patrik that giving young people or anyone for that matter shoeboxes to live in for their working lives just to be in London so your property developer can make a nice buck, of which is a current huge problem we are all trying to deal with, is not the way forward. Honestly comparing mixed use affordable for 20k-40k a year workers or couples in cities like London to Mcdonalds or easyJet in totally different economies not building regulated at all is just insulting. I would like to see yourself live in a extremely cramped space of which cannot even fit a spacious rest/living space or toilet.

    City centre living is dense yes, but good design comes from these challenges of space v density, not current scenarios where small spaces are sold off for large sums to overseas in towers of glass. All to make a profit for developers, short term thinking is a failure before it's built.

    I advise you read some more books, before using your influence incorrectly like a Trump.

    As a student it is worrying that a head of architectural practice of such stature can bounce about such a lack of understanding on a subject so easily, as a student I would personally love to challenge your thinking.

    Paul is correct in being able to successfully have a vast knowledge on such a subject through reviewing countless projects. I welcome this critical analysis.

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