Magazine article The Spectator

Let Them Build Houses

Magazine article The Spectator

Let Them Build Houses

Article excerpt

When President Chirac criticised Britain's cuisine we could afford to smile. Not only does London boast a greater variety of first-class restaurants than just about any city on earth, but the last decade has seen a blossoming of interest in both cooking and the quality of the food we eat. Brits may not have as illustrious a culinary tradition as the French, but there's no doubt that we're catching up.

If Jacques Chirac had really wanted to induce a cultural cringe, he should have asked the question that highlights a much bigger blot on our quality of life: why is it that one of the most affluent countries in Europe has some of its worst housing?

The average home in Britain is more expensive, smaller and older than its Continental equivalent. Expensive? Prices in the South have risen faster than earnings, which means that millions of people are unable to afford the standard of housing their parents could, even though they are wealthier. Small? We have the third smallest dwellings in Europe. While other countries are increasing the size of their newly built dwellings, our new homes are the smallest and getting smaller. Old? Nearly 40 per cent of our housing stock was built before 1945, with Denmark and Spain our only European neighbours with older homes.

So why is this? We are building far fewer homes than there is demand for - at our current rate of building it will take 1,200 years to replace our housing stock. Because the supply of land is highly constrained and there is enormous pressure to build on brownfield sites, those dwellings that are being built are increasingly being provided in blocks of flats. As recently as 1990 only about an eighth of new dwellings were apartments, but by 2004 this figure had risen to nearly a half.

But is this what we really want? According to a MORI poll in 2005, 95 per cent of those questioned favoured a house of some kind and just 3 per cent wanted to live in flats. Another survey, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found in 2004 that, when asked about development in their area, people preferred houses to flats. The type of housing people disliked most was blocks of flats of four storeys or more, yet this is what's being built.

For many years there has been a consensus that the building of high-rise housing estates in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies was a huge mistake. Not only are they unpopular, hard to maintain and breeding grounds for crime; there is also a broader critique which argues that residential accommodation of this size and scale is dehumanising. Recently, however, the tide has started to turn. There is a new vogue for commercial skyscrapers in London, energetically promoted by Mayor Ken Livingstone who, with characteristic understatement, describes opposition to these new towers of commerce as the 'biggest threat to the economy of London since Adolf Hitler'. Already there are indications that an unholy alliance of developers, politicians and architectural trendies is seeking to extend this fashion into the sphere of housing provision, in clear contradiction to the wishes of the public.

None of this inner-city megalomania troubles most of the defenders of the status quo - owner-occupiers, conservationists, nimbys. They are all too happy for the tower-block Utopians to provide an intellectual justification for this development craze, giving cover to their own rather more selfish arguments against building on greenfield sites. …

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