A few weekends ago I had a bad day. As a Blackburn Rovers loving family we had driven down to Cardiff to watch them lose the FA Cup semi final against Arsenal. I don’t like driving at the best of time unless there are fantastic views and something good on the radio. This particular morose journey was made worse by a biased southern media on Radio 5 Live having an unfounded go at Rovers so called “bully boy” tactics and views of something that drives me to despair (despair is a destination that I often end up at when I drive), dozens of soulless new housing developments set in seas of black tarmac.
To cries of “Dad cant we just go straight home? We cant go anywhere without stopping and looking at housing”, I pulled of the M4 to get a closer look at some large scale housing developments in Swindon. I’ve seen some bad stuff over the years but Barrett’s Swindon efforts go straight to the top of my “Crap Housing Estates” league table. This is jaw droppingly bad, even my kids were animated. The two eldest said it was worse than uni halls of residence, my youngest daughter said she would never live in that. I explained to her that unless parents help their kids out (and the Hemingway kids reluctantly understand that their parents believe that their kids should be given a chance to make it on their own) then this, in general, is what this country is offering to first time buyers. She said that she’s going to live at home rather than live in this kind of housing. As parents, rather than designers we have a real incentive to try and deliver something better!
Its easy to have fun with pictures of housing like this. By the time we had got home my eldest lad had transferred the digital pictures onto a laptop, combined them with some photos of a prison and created some funny but telling images. The “courtyard” image is witty but looking deeper its clear that felons do actually have room to exercise and play sport. The “inmates” of new housing developments like this only chance of exercise within the development is a 10 metre walk from car to their front door.
This kind of housing doesn’t come cheap to the purchaser with 1 bedroom flats approaching £150,000 so forsaking design and amenity for affordability is not an argument. But it will come cheap in years to come because this estate and hundreds like it around the country are far worse than problem developments like Park Hill , Sheffield and the pebble dash council estates in NE Lancs. and look at the prices there. The problem is that even if there is a fall in house prices it will be blamed on economic reasons rather than policy, planning and delivery.
This prison style housing is far more than an aesthetic issue. I could go on an on (in fact I will) about consigning those with lower disposable incomes to a life indoors watching some brain rotting soap or coma inducing reality TV programme. Is it any wonder that Britain has such high levels of clinical obesity (8.5 million and counting) when we are designing environments that encourage a sedentary life? Is it any wonder that Britain tops Europe’s anti social behaviour and youth crime charts (16.8% of the prison population are under 18 in the UK ) when we are providing housing developments devoid of decent play and amenity spaces. Some of that pent up energy released in Yates Wine Lodge and Wetherspoons on a Saturday night is attributable to the housing industry from policy makers to planners to architects and to the developers.
When I first started criticising the housing industry in the late 90’s I was having a go at the ugly identikit 2 story housing that was creating permanant blots up and down the country and ignoring all the principles of community infrastructure. However much stronger voices were calling for change, change in terms of higher densities to cater for housing shortages and higher densities to protect open space. There can be little doubt that these needed and need addressing but the resulting “solution” that is being provided is not a the solution.
In the rush for the European densities espoused by Richard Rogers and The Urban Task, two erstwhile enemi, housebuilders and planners, have had legislation presented to them that has allowed them to have a common goal ..high density. But rather than looking at how our European neighbours achieve their eminently liveable high density environments, an under resourced planning system have allowed housebuilders to simply build higher and closer together..a recipe for high profits but bloody awful housing estates.
Many of those that promote a “European style of living” do actually “live the dream”. They live in high density blocks without communal gardens but they are likely to have concierges, secure parking, gyms and swimming pools , views over The Thames , a guaranteed table at a local Conran restaurant and weekend retreat with a garden all perks that a first time buyer hasn’t got access to in their unsustainable developments in Swindon, Stockport, Portsmouth, St Helens.
The house buying public themselves are telling us that they are not happy. From the research carried out by CABE, What Homebuyers Want and The Housing Audit: Assessing the Design Quality of New Home, through that carried out by planning guru Peter Hall to In House research’s “Living with PPG3” there is a clear message… the vast majority of us want a garden or at least access to outdoor space where we can have a little privacy.
Looking back at the environments that my wife and design partner were brought up in NE Lancs. its not hard to spot a solution. My family’s first home in Blackburn was in a tower block Queens Park Flats, we didn’t have a private garden but I had access to a wonderfully landscaped park that surrounded the tower blocks. My memories are of playing footy, cricket and “cardboarding” down steep man made mini hills. Meanwhile my wife’s family’s workers terrace in Padiham had a tiny back yard that opened on to the communal “reccy” where today the community still play, celebrate birthdays and sunbathe on leap years when its hot!
When our company was invited by George Wimpey to design the kind of environments that I had been calling for in my press mouthings we toured the world and found dozens of well designed high density housing developments from Kronsberg in Germany, to Malmo and Hammerby in Sweden, to Leidsche Rijn in Holland, to Perth in Australia (where we bought an apartment!!). Are we so different in the UK that we can’t live like our neighbours? Can we survive on small back gardens with gates that can be left open onto communal gardens with the opportunity to use a communal barbeque or even take part in a bit of communal veg growing? Can we survive by squeezing our cars into tighter parking courts releasing space for streets to walk, cycle and play?
If the Germans can do it then so can we and we are proving it at The Staiths South Bank in Gateshead.
Gardens, communal space, the ability to get outside are more than part of Britain’s heritage its part of our human right and we must fight a planning system and housebuilding industry when it fails to deliver. The best way to fight would be for housebuyers to keep their wallets closed but when there is a clear housing shortage that’s not going to happen.
We need more housing, we need them built quicker. I urge everyone whos reading this to bust a gut, forsake a lunch break or two, get into work earlier , put your finest thinking caps on.
For the sake of our kids we must do everything we can to deliver better homes and environments than we are currently doing.