Comment: ‘Why the Swiss Cottage Tower is not the right way for London’
13:00 04 August 2014
Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets not multi-storey buildings.
There has not been such political focus on building new homes since the 1960s when Supermac promised to out-build Labour and Harold Wilson to keep building in the ‘white heat’ of his technological revolution.
This is good. London needs more homes. London house prices rose by 20 per cent in the last 12 months. But it is also risky.
Last time, we got into a government-dominated, political arms race on house-building the quality of our built environment was massacred.
The 1956 Housing Subsidy Act biased the system in favour of multi-storey housing. Flats at fifteen storeys received a government subsidy nearly three a half times the subsidy for a normal house.
The same thing is happening again and it is profoundly important.
Never before have we built at such scale, height and density. 236 towers of at least 20 storeys are being built or have planning permission in London. And Create Street’s analysis of nineteen regeneration and redevelopment sites shows that the typical increase in height is 230 percent and the typical increase in density 170 percent.
Supporters of this second generation of tower blocks (including those supporting the proposed tower at Swiss Cottage which is so unpopular locally) argue ‘we have no choice, we need to build more homes.’ They are right about the housing crisis. They are very wrong about the lack of choice.
We have lots of choices and we are making the wrong ones. A generation ago, so great was the public backlash against the destruction of traditional street-based communities and their decanting into off-street multi-storey horrors that much research was commissioned into what forms of housing were popular and correlated with good social outcomes.
So clear was the evidence, so great the public distaste that the previous revolution of multi-storey housing was stopped in its tracks. These studies have been largely forgotten. More recent ones, which support their findings, are little read.
However, the conclusions are clear. And if we ignore them we are in danger not just of repeating the mistakes of the past but of inflicting misery on future generations.
For the good news is that there is an answer: terraced urban streets with normal houses and low or medium rise flats. In every single piece of evidence, they are infinitely more popular. In the latest national poll, only 3 per cent of us want to live in flats with over 10 units in the buildings. And people are being deeply rational in expressing this view. Controlled studies show that living in big tall buildings is not good for you. The vast majority of studies show that the residents of large multi-storey blocks suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties and crime, that children do less well and that communities are less strong. And this is taking account of socio-economic status.
Streets are also practical. Terraced streets can be very high density. They are higher density than most post-war estates. Southwark saw its density fall by two thirds when streets were turned into post-war estates. If we built enough and regenerated sufficient land (with local support), streets could solve London’s housing crisis – potentially providing over a decade’s supply.
The opportunity is so great that the Government has commissioned Savills to investigate it. By making redevelopment more popular, by giving local people more control over what happens, we believe that redevelopment of more land would be popular.
So we have choices. And we should be backing streets not towers. If not, as the fate of Vauxhall and Blackfriars demonstrates, where one tall building is permitted, other will inevitably follow.
One senior industry insider who has steered though many high rise developments in London but whose family lives in a Georgian terraced house put it to me starkly when he warned of a ‘ticking time bomb’ of high future management and maintenance costs and conceded that, ‘I worry that we are creating ghettos of tall buildings.’ Will this be the fate for Swiss Cottage?