So the government and the wider planning community have realised that our town and cities have become awash with apartments. With the FTSE 100 performing better than its done for 5 years, investors who have been piling their cash into apartments are returning to stocks and shares, and the “buy to leave empty” brigade have found new pastures in Estonia and the Baltic states. But streets full of apartments with “To Let” and “For Sale” outside, and fully sold apartment blocks with a hardly a light on in the apartments in the evening hadn’t been enough to inform decision makers that our rush to follow the Urban Task Force mantra to “live more densely like our European neighbours” hasn’t been a success. Its taken the housebuilders to moth ball their sites after even failing to attract “bulk buy” investors to buy unsold units at cost, to explain to planners that the industry needs to change its approach to the kind of properties being delivered. As long as we don’t allow them to deliver their standard soulless estates then we have to listen.
There can be little doubt that our recently derided suburbs should retain the ethos of what makes suburbs so popular and comfortable. The Garden City qualities of leafy green streets of spacious homes with private gardens all within reach of corner shops and recreation is a lifestyle choice developed over decades that we shouldn’t be deprived of. Many of our suburbs have been scarred by dull, high density apartment infill and the once the inherent qualities of the suburb have been destroyed its unlikely that they will ever be reinstated. Delivering housing is not like delivering clothes or furniture in that if you regret your decision to purchase a blouse or a pouf you can at least take it down to Oxfam.
However there is much more to this than numbers of bedrooms. We are only just scraping the surface in terms of a return to town and city centre living. I feel however that the concept of “living” hasn’t been fully thought out. Living to me is about place first and the physical home second. Town and city centre living will always attract more young, childless people than families for reasons of proximity to bars, nightlife and likeminded people. But this demographic is not one dimensional, they too want access to kick a football, throw a softball, sunbathe and sit and chat under a tree. Our European neighbours who provided the inspiration for our town and city renaissance understand this and deliver this far in advance of what we have been doing in the UK.
We shouldn’t discount families either. Many city centre dwellers choose to move out of the centre not because “it’s the done thing” to move on to a house with a garden when you start a family but because there is better access to childcare, activities and most importantly decent schools, way from our town and city centres. From dense urban, flatted developments like Hammerby Sjostad in Stockholm, BO01 in Malmo, Ijberg in Amsterdam and East Perth in Western Australia (where we spend 5 weeks a year in the city centre with our 4 children) the world is providing exciting and liveable central places that appeal to all stages of life. We spent half term in Hammerby Sjostad and even with a foot of snow families are spoilt for choice in terms of recreation (indoor and out), visitor attractions, shopping and eating. Apartments are spacious, with winter garden balconies allowing light to flood in, and communal gardens.
With Ryan Air, Easy Jet et al offering us all ridiculously cheap options to learn from our European neighbors maybe its time that planners, housebuilders, HA’s and central government went on little charabangs.