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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)

  • 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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