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Article
6 January 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Who's afraid of the Thames Gateway?
Why government proposals to build 200,000 new homes in London and Kent are causing a stink in certain circles.

by James Heartfield

Britain's Tory MPs are accusing the Labour government of building its new homes on the Green Belt, threatening the countryside. Meanwhile, Londoners and suburbanites both are more than a little apprehensive about the prospect of moving into a flood plain. Is the government's affordable housing plan destined to fail?

The wise owls at the Institute for Public Policy Research have been asking Londoners from Lewisham and suburbanites from Bexleyheath whether they want to go and live in the Thames Gateway. 'What's that', asked one, 'a bridge over the Thames?' It is not entirely surprising that people have not heard about the ambitious plans for new building along the banks of the Thames, between London and Kent (1). And that is because no sooner are they announced than they provoke widespread fear and condemnation from an army of professional naysayers.

From the Urban Task Force and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England through to the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Campaign for Architecture in the Built Environment, all of the lobbies are dedicated to stopping new building. Only Shelter, the homeless charity, and the right-leaning Policy Exchange have put in a word for more rather than less housing, but their voices are drowned out by the professionals, jealously protecting their patch.

One line of attack that has wounded the government's plans is the propagandistic repetition of the mantra that mass building is poor building. By mass building they mean the sorts of repetitious private sector suburbia that people want, but which architects do not design, rather than the professionally designed 'mass housing schemes' that characterised the postwar period of public sector comprehensive redevelopment. Understandably, deputy prime minister John Prescott complained recently: 'Architects think if they are not on board, it's a lousy design. All that's professional crap.' (2)

The architects dread private sector mass housing because it suggests that their monopoly over building will be undermined. Having given up on the challenge of building mass housing in the Sixties, they prefer the idea of custom-made unique commissions, where their talents are rewarded and showcased. That is also why architects like 'sustainable development', because it is a way of reinventing a role for professionals in mass housing provision that allows for the reinvention of higher-density building types that were typical of public sector provision. But low-density mass housing that people want - spacious, with gardens and usable space - is exactly what is needed.

In the IPPR's survey, respondents say they distrust developers and are worried about samey and substandard houses. No doubt their fears are real enough. But the professionals are overcomplicating the problem. Since house purchase is such a big expense it is not surprising that people express a lot of caution over it. All the same, how much time do you really spend looking at the outside of your house?

Respondents understand that 'affordable housing' is code for mediocre housing
Respondents to the IPPR's survey might resist uniformity, but they would be disappointed to be housed in teepees, homes made of straw, or anything too unfamiliar (3). Uniformity is only apparent in suburbia. People know where they live at a level of intimate knowledge that no professional can compete with. People can change gardens, build sheds or more permanent extensions, and redevelop their plot of land entirely. They can do so relatively easily, which is why there is such a business at builder's merchants and why most of the construction industry is fragmented (4).

Perhaps this is not a very efficient way to redevelop long term, but that is not what professionals are objecting to. Suburbia at 25 homes per hectare or lower - which is what is needed for gardens and parking - hardly requires consultants. Whereas the professionalised walkable 'Garden City' or New Urban village of 30 to 50 homes a hectare is less flexible and professionally 'design coded'. The 100 home a hectare plus impositions of the Urban Task Force require a degree of expert cramming that calls for the employment of designers obsessed with making their 'urban design' distinctive. That is supposed to give the public 'a sense of identity', when all they wanted was a bit of privately owned space to do something with in privacy.

Unfortunately, the government's response to pressure from the Urban Task Force and others has been to promise 'affordable housing'. This is all based on a confused idea that housing need is all at the lower end of the market. But this has the effect, noted in the IPPR's survey, that people expect the new homes in the Thames Gateway to be sub-standard, even to turn into ethnic ghettos. As the report's authors say, people want affordable housing (which is something of a platitude, anyway, since nobody wants not to be able to afford a home), but they do not want to live in something called 'affordable housing'.

Respondents understand that 'affordable housing' is code for mediocre, sub-standard housing. Better to build good homes, and many of them, so that undersupply stops pricing people out of the market.

James Heartfield's interview with housing minister David Miliband is published in this month's AD Magazine.

(1) See If London is so great, why not build more of it?, by Ian Abley; and The gateway to the New Venice, by Vicky Richardson

(2) Guardian Diary, Hugh Muir, 21 December 2005

(3) Debate: The Nature and Future of Cities, James Heartfield and Terry Farrell

(4) Ian Abley and James Woudhuysen, Why is Construction so Backward? John Wiley, 2004

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