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Archive for June, 2014

1940's, Residential Flats, High Rise, Buildings, Post War, Social Housing, Photograph

On the 9th of June 2014 I took part in a debate about the current housing crisis at the LSE to be aired on BBC Radio 4 – 8pm Wed 11th June 2014 and then repeated on Sunday 15th June. It was chaired by Mark Easton. I was particularly vocal and political; I hope they don’t cut me too much!

Well designed, affordable homes, in the right locations are essential for a balanced, productive and happy society. By delivering far too few homes, Britain has created a very difficult situation for those wanting to buy and created rentals that are on the whole far too high for those choosing or having to rent. Surely we want a society where the difference between rich and poor is narrowing, but the current surge in house prices is widening the gap again.
These were my research notes for the programme. I attempted to rank the issues and things that need addressing in some kind of order of importance.
There is no single “silver bullet” to solve the crisis, but rather, all or most of the below need addressing.

1. House Builders 

House builders are too often operating in a monopoly situation where they control the speed at which a site is built out. There are a significant number of housing developments in the UK that are in excess of 300 homes (many are much larger). A development of this size often is the only one in that particular district of a town or city. House purchasers sensibly put location above all other factors when considering purchase. It may be a desire to be near family, work, and leisure. It may be about ease of access to public transport, schools, and healthcare. It may be about “brand”, how an area of a town is perceived.

Thus, if a house builder has a large scale scheme in an area, then if on the other side of town another house builder has a site for sale, there is still a quasi-monopoly situation. When a business is in a monopoly situation it is not unusual to restrict supply to force prices up and receive a better ROCE (Return on Capital Employed). This explains why it is the norm for a housebuilder to complete on average 1.6 homes a week per site when they could deliver so many more. Many house builders are recording record annual profits and delivering volumes way below the numbers when they posted previous record results. As well as serving their investors, reducing borrowing risk they are doing what most people would like to do. Do less and earn more!

There is a solution here. All development sites could have to have competition introduced by not allowing a single housebuilder to build, say over 100 and 150 units. This would bring us more in line the Netherlands and some Scandinavian countries where several house builders are selling homes at the same time on one site. By introducing competition, by the simple laws of how business works, there is bound to be an element of the different providers trying to outdo each other through either good design (kerb appeal), better interior fit outs, space standards and of course price and mortgage deals.
In many parts of Europe this competition has led to improved design and less nimbyism. Good design and housing developments in verdant landscaped public space has been proved to lift the price and desirability of areas of towns and cities. This can have a real positive effect on “Nimbyism”.

2. Not in My Backyard (Nimby’s) 

Nimbyism stymies development but if that development is going to be as ugly and inappropriate is some developer’s wont, then how can you blame the Nimby’s?

Nimbyism is only going to be shrunk by house builders delivering a development that rather than screaming “bang goes the neighborhood” screams quality, liveability, desirability.

3. Planners and the Planning System 

There needs to be planners and elected planning committee members who understand good design, are trained in place making, can recognise when they are being hoodwinked or steamrollered and are empowered to stop house builder in their tracks and then work with them to deliver something fit for purpose.

We need a younger profile to our elected members of local councils, anyone can stand – you just need to sacrifice some time, easier said than done when you have family and work commitments. The demographic that is being hit hardest by the housing crisis is the young; they need to find a voice.
It can be too easy for house builders to use their legal and financial weight to overpower the planning system.

We need more political, more skilled and creative planners and we need a career in planning to be considered every bit as desirable as architecture and design when it comes to education. We surely should be shouting more about the importance of place making to the quality of life. There is an argument for making it easier to enter the planning further education.

4. Reduce the Reality

Reduce the reality that getting onto the housing ladder can lead to relatively easy financial gains.

It really is counterproductive to a balanced society when some house owners can sit back and watch their homes appreciate in value every week above the rate at which an average salaried person gains income from going to work for 40 hours a week. This is wrong in every respect and sends out so many negative messages about the value of hard work.

It is human nature to want to earn money for doing nothing and when house price increases are rampant house owners naturally feel good. The demographic of house owners is naturally skewed away from the young and that general election voting has a higher turn out from this home owning demographic. Thus a feel good factor of rising house prices can help win elections, but damage society. In reality don’t we need a slight reduction in house values sustained over a decade to help a generation get a leg up? This could be achieved without throwing thousands into serious debt.

We need the young to come out and vote for a party that is looking towards their future in terms of where and how they are going to live and importantly a party that commits to building large number of homes. With home owning still being at around 65% those not owning are going to all have to vote if the status quo is going to be shifted or nudged.

N15 Courtyard

5. Owning a House

We need to recognise that owning a house does feel good in terms of being able to put your “sweat equity” but offer alternatives that are equally or almost as desirable. Germany is a prime example of a country where renting a home isn’t seen as a poor man’s only choice. Tenants have significantly better rights than in the UK and this naturally leads to a better offer.

We need a growth in institutional and large scale commercial delivery of PRS (Private Rental Sector) homes. The East Village project in the former Olympic 2012 Athletes Village in Stratford is an exemplar scheme of high quality homes and landscape and is popular. I am led to believe that it works financially for the developer and investors.

If only we could divert all the Pension Fund monies wastefully propping up our outmoded High Streets. At the same time we need to recognise some of the worrying statistics about private landlords in terms of incidences of damp and the higher costs of renting than from renting from social landlords. There has to be legislation and monitoring to ensure that private landlords overall standards are increased.

6. Decent Homes

We need to get council’s building again on the land they own, building decent, high quality homes in the right places.

7. We Need to Rethink our Land Use 

a) Make it easier for offices to be designated as possible housing.

b) Look at the not so green sections of the green belt.

c) Work our Brownfield sites hard.

d) Work our town centre first and second floors hard.

e) We need a government and local authorities that are not afraid of CPO (Compulsary Purchase Orders). The French are particularly good at that and last year delivered 342,000 homes – 3 times what the UK built.

8. London

We need to look carefully at the London situation where so many new builds are being marketed (often in roadshows travelling round Far Eastern cities) to the middle classes in Asian counties as investments. We could take a leaf out of The Australians here who have a fluid percentage (depending on local demand) of how many properties in a new development can be bought by overseas buyers.

9. Tax System

We need to put the tax system to better use to help finance council housing. We need to use London’s pull to heavily tax rich foreign investors who “buy to leave” or just buy to use occasionally or just buy here at all. We need to heavily tax UK investors who prefer to buy, leave empty and await capital appreciation so that they stop doing it! We should consider a mansion tax, increase taxation on those that can afford it – it’s a tricky one though.

10. Regions

We need to recognise that there is substantial opportunity and low values in the Midlands, the North, and elsewhere. We need to invest in our regions in terms of job creation and accessibility and take the heat out of the South East. We need a government that is willing to decentralise more of our public service HQ’s.

11. Self-Build

We need to increase self-build and community build from its current very low base of less than 10% – again many parts of continental Europe show’s us the way here.

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Birkenhead Park 01l

*Boat House Birkenhead Park

As with much of our publically funded services these days our parks and open spaces are chronically underfunded. I don’t need to harp on again about the value to our lives in terms of health, social cohesion and happiness and not to say land values, as the past few years have seen a proliferation of research that finally proves this. And whilst it’s important to keep reminding councils and central government about the value of funding open space and parks and the money it can save in health and fitness related areas, nothing is going to change in a hurry in terms of significant increases in central funding.
There is still also an obsession with communities taking control and looking after these spaces but people are under pressure holding down jobs, paying mortgages, making ends meet and the level of community involvement in managing and looking after parks and recreational space has probably plateaued for the time being.

Taking The Lead From The Victorians

Wherever I travel I always take my running stuff and seek out town and city parks to run through. The national legacy of urban parks instigated by the Victorians is one of our greatest urban assets. It often wasn’t central or local government or communities who created or funded these parks but, rather, wealthy local landowners or industrialists often acting, primarily out of self-interest (with a coating of philanthropy) to give them a shiny gloss with the community, local authorities or their workers.

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*Joseph Paxton Birkenhead Park

An example of this would be one of the earliest public parks, Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park, which was part of a residential development scheme to create an attractive setting for new homes and to recoup the costs through the property sales. Flanked on all sides by handsome houses and wide tree-lined boulevards, Birkenhead Park was the inspiration for New York’s Central Park.

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*Central Park, New York

At lunchtime some of us go out from the HemingwayDesign offices for a run or to the outdoor gym in the almost always semi-deserted King Edward VII Park Wembley (it’s a hundred years old in July this year) whilst it’s generally tidy it does feel a tad under loved and lacking in decent seating, interesting planting and has none of the kind of creative touches seen in more central parks or in parks and open spaces in wealthier boroughs. Judging by the hi-visibility vests with ‘Community Payback’ printed on the back, some of the maintenance is clearly done by ‘offenders’ who are being ‘rehabilitated’. Whilst this may have some benefits to society, it doesn’t seem to be resulting in a particularly uplifting finished result in terms of thorough litter collection of creative landscaping!

Potential Modern Day Solutions

On my way back to the office though it isn’t hard to see potential modern day solutions to the ‘self-interest’ model. Over a hill within a few hundred metres, development specialists Quintain have developed The London Designer Outlet, and have created apartments for thousands of people (with more in construction). Surely it would be a selling point for Quintain to promote the park as an extension of the Wembley Park brand that they are investing in so heavily? It should help them attract viewings and buyers.

Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena are two of the nation’s primary sports and leisure venues and hundreds of thousands of people flock to Wembley to attend events. The surrounding residential streets become littered with folk waiting for gates to open, people sit on garden walls or just wander or end up waiting in boring burger bars and kebab shops because there is nowhere to go. Yet, un-signposted and a very short diversion from the route from transport hubs and car parks is King Edward VII Park, somewhere where folk could take their take away and watch a squirrel or two away from the traffic fumes. Surely the Stadium and Arena would benefit in terms of goodwill from having the park as part of their marketing in terms of ‘things to do while you’re here in Wembley’?

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*The London Designer Outlet

The building of large scale student accommodation continues apace in Wembley and some very large hotel chains have and are opening. Surely there is scope for all of these to have a good quality urban green space as part of their ‘sales pitch’ to the public.

So why isn’t ‘self-interest’ corporate funding of parks more prevalent? I suspect part of it is a reticence and fear of linking sponsorship with public amenities. To some this is seen as crass and inappropriate. But there definitely will be ways of ensuring that sponsorship and corporate funding of our green spaces isn’t crass.

Let’s get on and make it happen.

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Hawking

I have always admired Stephen Hawking, a man who has and is achieving so much for mankind despite significant disability. When I heard that he had turned his wonderful mathematical brain to calculate the chances of an England victory at World Cup, and on how to succeed in a penalty shoot-out, I had to find out more about his 19 page summary. 

These are some of his fascinating findings;

England win more playing a 4-3-3 formation and win more when they wear red rather than white.

Happily for the players he says that there are no significant improvements in results when the wives and girlfriends are kept away.

He reveals that a 5 deg centigrade rise in temperature reduces the chance of an England victory by 59% and that the team only wins 31% of matches at altitudes above sea level.

A European referee results in a 63% chance of victory.

Hawking studies every single penalty shoot-out since they were introduced in Argentina in 1978. 

He said success came from giving the ball “some welly”, and that “velocity is nothing without placement”.

He said: “If only I had whispered this in Chris Waddle’s ear before he sent the ball into orbit in 1990. Use the side foot rather than laces and you are 10% more likely to score.

“The statistics confirm the obvious. Place the ball in the top left or right hand corner for the best chance of success – 84% of penalties in those areas score. The ability of strikers to place the ball results in them being more likely to score than midfielders and defenders.”

The study goes on to say that past evidence shows that the climatic and altitude conditions are likely to cause a significant issues against Italy in Manaus.

All fun and a nice bit of statistical frivolity in the days before the World Cup starts or it was until went on to read that this was sponsored by betting company, Paddy Power. 

I find the fact that a national treasure who is renowned for intelligence has succumbed to such a link up with the betting industry, an industry which is destructive to so many lives, as being distasteful. His fee may have gone to charity but by promoting an industry that persuades many who to risk money that they can’t afford to risk the social damage is likely to outweigh any fee.

The gambling industry is like the tobacco industry in its prime when it ignored the damage it caused in the pursuit of rising profits. It is taking advantage of cheap rents to proliferate retail streets with betting shops. It is actively targeting young teenagers by working with race courses to put young dance nights alongside race nights. Chase and Status and the like, do you know what you’re doing? Severe gambling addiction doubled from 2007 to 2013 to over 500,000 people. 

It’s time to tax the betting industry with such punitive taxes that only the rich can afford to gamble. I know that some would say that this will drive it underground well is there proof from elsewhere that this has happened?

And a counter argument is that The National Lottery is gambling and it provides positive outcomes for society. I agree, maybe the Paddy Powers of this world could all become not for profit companies and all profits could go to community causes?

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The word hipster is much maligned. The media has helped turn a sector of young folk who are interested in new things and being a bit different – someone who in the past might have been described as cool and hip – into a caricature.   Its derogatory connotation is impossible to avoid. But the fact is there is nothing derogatory about hipsters when it comes to regeneration as “hipster led regeneration” has and is creating value around the world, often in places where government investment has failed.

Certain people have what I call ‘’the eye’’. “The eye” allows you to spot things and live well without very much money. Being brought up in a creative household where music, fashion, film and making were central to life, my mum, nan and pop bestowed “the eye” on me. It manifested itself from when I was 13 years old and wearing army surplus and second-hand, as new clothes were a luxury not really afforded to me. This enabled me to dress and go out on the cheap. As I got older I could apply that intuition to the business I started with my wife, who is equally creative and able to spot quality in things others might dismiss.

During the building of our first brand Red or Dead we opened a shop in the early 80s on Neal Street – now a buzzing part of fashionable London, but then it had no fashion shops and was a rather dowdy area stocked full of white good repair shops. We took a risk and acted outside of the mainstream. Our “eye”, allowed us to spot a place that city investment and mainstream money wouldn’t go. We grew our business by spotting Neal St equivalents in half a dozen UK cities and another dozen locations around the world.

Here are some contemporary examples of “hipster led regeneration”.

Hackney

Up until not long ago there were a number of failing parts of London, some were considered basket cases. Hackney had some of the highest deprivation indices and many would argue that government money that was thrown into it had little to no impact. But look at it now. That impact did come, but it happened from the people without money, colonising the space because it was cheap. That’s the impetuosity of the hipster – they take risks, often because there is no choice.Hackney

Institutional money is risk adverse. Hipsters tend to be people of a certain age where risk happens. And when a clique of people takes risks together, you can create a self-serving community. They’re almost like pioneers of the west coast of America in the nineteenth century – which led to the creation of LA and San Francisco. Those pioneers were the hipsters of their time. I think the word hipster should be changed to ‘urban pioneer’.

And don’t get me started about the accusation that all this leads to gentrification. Should gentrification be a dirty word?  Many people say that East London has gentrified – because it’s all cafes and interesting little shops. Well if that’s gentrification, bring it on. It’s better than betting shops that just encourage folk who can’t afford to gamble to gamble. And what’s better a greasy kebab shop on every corner or a nice café that happens to have a man with a beard serving you decent hot chocolate and healthy bites? And which of these is likely to grow and create employment? There are critics of my thinking but I can beat their arguments every time!

Mitte district, Berlin

After the Berlin Wall came down, the Mitte district became a place for artists and those on the left field of the German society. For the mainstream the Mitte was often considered a place that you just didn’t go near. To a large extent the new government left it alone. Now it’s widely recognised as the most culturally diverse and forward thinking place in Berlin and has become a significant visitor attraction in its own right.

Williamsburg, New York

Could you imagine Williamsburg having the reputation it has today only 10 or 15 years ago?

When we were doing shows in NY in the 80s and 90s, we never thought about going into Brooklyn. If anyone were to do that it would be the inquisitive design community, and yet it didn’t happen. You never thought about it, as it was dangerous. It certainly wouldn’t have inspired one of the world’s most famous footballers to name his son after it! Hipsters made it cool, simple as that.  Manhattan became too expensive and its values – Wall Street, greed, high rises, just didn’t match those of a the new generation.

Williamsburg-bridge

When we were there recently, we were based in Brooklyn for the entire trip. We were shopping in an incredible market and we asked if there were any decent markets taking place in Manhattan that weekend. The girl we asked replied ‘how would we know, we never go to Manhattan, our life is here, this is our New York”. At first I was cynical, but after a few days living in Brooklyn it struck me that they don’t indeed need Manhattan, they’ve made a better life for themselves in Williamsberg. People who are more sustainable in their thinking, they’re more left of centre. Manhattan is the old way of doing things. In time Williamsburg will also become the ‘old way’ and somewhere else will take its place. And yes you can say that the chains are moving in and it’s losing its edge, but for every shop with an expensive refurb, there’s 6 or 7 done up by mum and dad painting the floors and the siblings doing the walls. People are getting on and doing something, not waiting for you to do it for them. They’re not moaning about the world, they’re getting on and doing it their way.

Margate

A seaside town that again the press often depicts as a bit of a basket case. I have one word for it: amazing! Margate is truly walking with a swagger these days. People are moving from their one bedroom flats in London to a four bedroom house and opening cafes, gallery shops.

margate

Photography Nick Morley

Every time I go there I see more young couples doing something interesting with an old building. There is a cultural institution there, The Turner Contemporary, that has helped to “gild brand Margate“. Margate is not being given a leg up by city folk like in Whitstable.  These are young, often creative, without vast sums of money who are spotting an opportunity that is  relatively  affordable evocative  property, a sandy beach, within reach of London and some likeminded pioneers. My god its exciting there. I look at it as a place full of exciting opportunities. You know that in ten years’ time it won’t be a failed Portas High St – it’ll be a cool town.

Jo-burg

South Africa too many people mean’s one thing: Cape Town. Johannesburg if considered, is often considered a dangerous place to be avoided. While that might be the case for some areas, there are others that are really changing. It’s not changing with thrusting high rises, its hipsters. It’s in the process, Virgin Atlantic are talking about it in the in-flight magazine, go see it happen.

Red October, Moscow

I don’t associate Moscow with areas that are ‘cool’. Yet changes through young artistic types leading the way is even happening here, go check it out.

Detroit

From small shoots and all that – Detroit clearly has a long way to go, but have faith in young people to be creative and to find a way. Humans will always find a way at bringing places back to life. We’re brilliant at reinventing. So don’t sneer. Yes it’s hard to imagine in this economic climate and Detroit does have enormous issues to solve, but all it takes is for pockets of people to get together, and they are doing. It’s the urban pioneer, going out and exploring and finding the new places and saying ‘try it here. Bring your money here’’.

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