Archive for December, 2012

There are a few tonnes of hot air being let off on the subject of the severe housing crisis that we are in. However, a little science would go a long way. What is needed is a thorough appraisal of where we can build and what existing properties can be brought back to life or re imagined as residential properties. London needs mapping in terms of:

The densities of micro areas of the city compared to the access to open space, leisure, education, health and transport to create a accurate picture of what extra population these areas can take to ensure that they remain liveable and not overburdened and under resourced. Only then can we accurately look at where to extend, build on, infill, re-build and assign change of use.

Secondly we need to know how many empty spaces there are above shops, how many empty offices, retail spaces, industrial buildings could provide places for intrepid homesteaders to colonise. Once we know the extent of this opportunity we need legislation that allows change of use without the current prevarication.

Thirdly and perhaps more controversially we need to look at where we should be extending what is considered as London. Particularly east along the Thames there are well connected areas towards Dartford and Purfleet that apart from the excellent transport links, on the whole, don’t feel like they belong to the vibrancy of London and its suburbs. A sea of pylons, scrap metal yards and foul looking faceless housing estates and offices don’t make for happy desirable places. We have a history of building new suburban excellence, from Hampstead Garden Suburb to all the hubs along the Metropolitan line. We can do that again.

Once we have this scientifically researched picture of where the hundreds of thousands of homes that we need can and should be located then we need to do the harder bit. Fund it . The most obvious way has to be to look at the billions that are held in local authority pension funds, pension funds that are often invested in equities overseas and often in equities that do not benefit Londoners. If some more of these billions were invested in council housing, and by gosh is council housing and shared ownership needed right now, then we would be putting money into all our futures and ameliorating the current difficulties that the pension fund generation have put young generations in. Give councils and housing associations access to funds and help them unlock their own assets, and they will build as fast as you like because their goal is also more homes. They will not starve the market like commercial house builders have been known to do. Surely its worth losing a couple of percentage points in terms of pension fund yields to ensure that one of the most important contributors to peoples well being, housing, is invested in?

If we can crack this one with Local Authority Pension funds we could find private pension funds and institutional investors flocking to invest in housing. Currently in the UK only 1% of institutional investment goes into residential. For many of our near European neighbors its 15%. In the UK we invest 3.5% of GDP in new housing in Germany its 6%.

It is shameful that we put housing so low down our priorities. Surely it’s time to realise that housing is so much more important than hedge funds.


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What is luxury?

What is luxury? This is a question I put to my four children, aged 15, 22, 25 and 26, who’d come back to our West Sussex home for the weekend. Their collective answer didn’t include the most fashionable clothes from the most exclusive labels, or exotic holidays, or the most advanced gadgets in the world.

Luxury to them is to be with their friends, in an environment where they can talk and laugh and feel that they don’t have to spend money, because they have each other and they can spend time together.

As I thought about their answer, it occurred to me that one of the most luxurious things in my home is a pizza oven in the garden. It didn’t cost a lot of money. With the help of a kit, we built it ourselves sealing it with concrete. We’re lucky we have quite a big garden with oak trees at the bottom. Every year they need pruning, so we use this to fuel the oven, which takes about an hour and a half to heat it up to temperature.

My children and their friends get great pleasure out of getting an axe out and chopping the wood, and lighting the fire. Then there’s everything else; the dough needs to be mixed and rested for around two to three hours, and we take ingredients from our own garden when we can, like the rocket in the window boxes. We’ve all learnt that when we do it that way, it tastes better. And it feels like it tastes better, because you’ve done it yourself. It’s not just the price. It’s the fulfilment.

And we’re not alone. People are enjoying doing things themselves. That’s why sales of Singer sewing machines have tripled in the last three years.

For decades, luxury was obsessed with conspicuous consumption. Fuelled by easy credit, society was seduced by the image and association of luxury. Luxury was seen as a foreign trip a while ago, but now it might only be travelling an hour to go to a British seaside resort – and a lot of those resorts have really got their act together, with high-quality restaurants and cafés, and clean beaches. It’s a sign that luxury is changing. Making a pizza in a homemade oven in the garden wouldn’t have been regarded as a luxury in the Eighties. People would’ve thought, ‘Oh God, an hour and a half? Let’s go out’. But that hour and a half of being together is re-teaching my wife Gerardine and I about what was valued in our childhoods.

I believe my children’s answer over the dinner table reflects what’s happening in society as a whole. It’s not some starry-eyed idealism; there’s a very real and very positive change going on.

Over the last five years, the label has been torn off luxury. It has been disentangled from the price tag. What matters now is what goes into the so-called luxury product, and the story behind it.

You can’t have a luxury bag just because of its print. But if that bag is made from a leather sourced from a farm that rears cattle ethically and sustainably, from a company that refuses to use fur, that conforms to animal rights, and the company is adamant on treating its workers fairly and paid a fair wage, that’s luxury.

Take Coke Cola. Since 2010, their plastic bottles have been made from a synthetic material that is around 25 per cent sugarcane. If, eventually, it’s completely sugarcane and I can throw that bottle on the compost heap when I’ve used it, that’s luxury.

Seeing as I’m writing in Audi Magazine, it’d be rude not to mention them. Audi is on an efficiency crusade, making each new car lighter than the one it replaces and producing engines that sip as little fuel as possible. Their cars are also full with technology that makes driving easier, and safer. That’s luxury, too.

It all demonstrates how new luxury is a reconnection with human values – it involves an awareness of the human element. People have learnt to rediscover what real luxury is. And showing off what you can afford isn’t one of them.

New luxury is responsible and it’s sustainable, it’s caring and considerate. It’s not just about the high-quality end product or experience, but the means to it, too. It’s also something tangible and concrete – just like the bricks that we built our pizza oven with. Try it. Luxury isn’t just a brand name; it’s what’s within it.

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