The Times: If we want homes for all we have to build tall

The following article is writting by Alice Thomson of The Times…

The solution to our housing crisis is to copy the Victorians and increase density in areas where people actually want to live

‘Grenfell Tower was once a good place to be,” says Mike Long, minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church, which lies in its shadow. “Many residents valued it, it was too run-down and shabby but they liked the size of the rooms, their views, the central location and the community. Many survivors don’t want to be rehomed in poky new houses with tiny windows far away, even if they have a garden.”

After the devastating fire last summer there have been increasingly vocal demands for an end to residential buildings that are more than a couple of storeys high: blocks on the scale of Grenfell are now seen as ugly, claustrophobic, brutalist. But we need to build up, not out, if we want to help the young to get on the property ladder and the elderly to clamber off it.

Rachel Sylvester and I have spent two months looking at housing as part of a series that begins in The Times today. The decline in property owning, particularly among the young, has become critical, with the number of homeowners dropping from a high of 71 per cent in 2003 to 63 per cent last year. Britain could give up on being a property-owning democracy but both council housing and the private rental system are inadequate substitutes.

Building extensively over greenfield sites would be too controversial and new towns, proposed regularly over the past few decades, are rarely built. Equally important, the under-35s don’t usually want to be stuck in the countryside. They aren’t very keen on the suburbs either. Property developers know that they can’t sell that many expensive four-bedroom rabbit hutches built on grass, particularly outside the South East, because there isn’t the demand, which is partly why they often buy the land and hang on to it, developing it slowly over many years.

Building up is one answer. Well built, cheaper city flats make more sense. Many of the young don’t own cars any more. They want to spend any spare change not on stuff but on experiences so they are happy to be in small homes — the new pocket-size flats where communal facilities are shared — if they are in central locations near their jobs. That way they can bike or walk to work and spend their evenings going out to theatres and cafés, rather than commute for hours on unreliable trains with escalating fares.

As James Murray, London’s deputy mayor for housing, points out, London is half the density of Berlin and Madrid. Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool are even more spread out. Most houses in Britain are two or three storeys; our visual references still hark back to the Middle Ages when the church spire dominated the humble dwellings. Now skyscrapers do that instead, but we have enough of those in the pipeline: the number of towers over 150m high is set to double this year.

What our cities and towns want is another few floors. We need to look up and use the sky, build on more roof space, car parks, shopping centres, offices and flats, while building fewer squat new developments.

There is a precedent in central London. In South Kensington and Chelsea, Victorian squares such as Cadogan Square were built up to six or seven floors around communal gardens. The beautifully proportioned mansion blocks surrounding the Royal Albert Hall are a similar height, as are the homes around Battersea Park, now sought-after flats or maisonettes, a terrible word for a clever solution. Edinburgh’s New Town and Bath’s Royal Crescent aren’t limited to three floors.

Tall buildings can provide successful vibrant communities such as in King’s Cross, where development mixes residential and commercial properties, offices, bars and shops. Flats are not just for the young, they can become family homes; lateral living can be more communal than vertical. The elderly also want to be able to downsize near amenities, with many preferring to live more centrally in retirement. They could benefit from living in flats with shared facilities such as lifts, a communal garden and a porter.

Adding height in towns and cities is better than building on distant green spaces. Some greenbelt land near stations and motorway exits should be used but more of it needs to be enjoyed as shared amenities for family excursions, children’s sport and dog walking if towns and cities are to reach upwards.

The Tory MP John Penrose has been calling for developers to build up rather than out, asking for them to be allowed to be more imaginative and extend the height of some properties to match the existing area. This would help smaller housebuilders to find plots that don’t cost a fortune. As one chief executive of a small company explained: “We can’t look at brownfield sites with blocks of 100 units, but we can go along to an existing building and say, ‘There’s value in that, we can build another four units on top’.” Mr Penrose has been backed by almost all the housing associations from G15 to Placeshapers, Orbit and Places for People.

New homes in the countryside tend to cost more to heat and need new utilities, infrastructure and amenities. Unless they are near a station, occupiers also need cars.

Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago and Tokyo’s residential towers are too giddy for our towns and cities but we could build more areas like Bloomsbury, made up of Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian-style terraces and garden squares. The new Accordia development in Cambridge and Trent Basin in Nottingham Waterside are great examples of beautiful but dense new green housing developments, as is the new council-owned Goldsmith Street development in Norwich.

“Buy land,” said Mark Twain, “They’re not making it any more.” But air is still free so we should look up before we look out.

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