May 18, 2016
Policy Exchange hosted an event entitled “The City and the Citizen”, bringing together a range of expert commentators to discuss urban design and planning. With the BBC having recently hosted a day of coverage linked by the theme of people “on the move”, this lecture and panel event focused on the places where people choose to stay. This means the buildings, streets and settlements which provide fixed points for human societies, how they should be designed and preserved, and how the city and the citizen can be brought closer together.
Setting the tone for the event, the audience were joined by architect and author Marwa Al-Sabouni via a video-link to Homs in Syria. After years of brutal civil war, it may be difficult for those on the outside to conceive of a brighter future, let alone those living within the conflict. However, Al-Sabouni offered a perspective full of hope. For a city where, even before the war, the buildings and streets were to some extent failing to meet the current needs of its people, a focus on how the city, and indeed the country, might one day regenerate itself offers the sort of vision that will be vital for Syria moving forward.
Discussion then moved to the panel in the room. Philosopher Roger Scruton made the observation that ultimately buildings are not constructed solely for the people who live in them, but also for the people who live around them and experience them. Architecture critic Rowan Moore compared the various social, political and legal processes which have generated some of London’s most distinctive architecture (for better and for worse), with the zoning laws of Manhattan, whose stepped profile represents one of the world’s most distinctive skylines. Discussion also turned towards familiar policy areas, with Sir Stuart Lipton and Create Streets’ Nicholas Boys-Smith taking on London’s “sink estates” – how redevelopment disrupts communities and how they can be brought back on board. They were aided in this by former Downing Street adviser Alex Morton’s impressive grasp of planning processes at local and national levels under the current and previous UK governments.
The wisdom of building on the Green Belt was another issue that was addressed, with the important insight that despite the name, the Green Belt is not always green, and is sometimes of variable quality. Above all there was a consensus on the need for a clear and holistic vision for London’s urban planning, and how it can best serve the city’s residents.
Introduction: Dean Godson (Director, Policy Exchange)
Welcome to this seminar of the Capital City Foundation, which is our dedicated London unit here within Policy Exchange. The start of this entire exercise, as I’m sure many of you know, was Roger Scruton’s brilliant piece in The Times Saturday about a month ago or so which highlighted the work of Marwa al-Sabouni, who’ll be joining us on live link from Homs in a few minutes’ time, will be interviewed by Roger. We’re privileged to have a set of panellists who reflect on many aspects not merely of the situation there in Syria and the destruction of the Levantine city as described by Marwa al-Sabouni and in Roger’s work as well, but also its relevance and its lessons for the broader urban space, even in our country today, and the range of panellists reflect that. Roger obviously; Rowan Moore, the architecture correspondent ofThe Observer, whose own wonderful work Slow Burn City is available at the back on sale, along with Marwa al-Sabouni’s work; Nick Boys Smith of Create Streets, whom we’re delighted to be able to welcome back onto a Policy Exchange platform; Sir Stuart Lipton of Lipton Rogers; and we’ll be welcoming in a few minute as well Alex Morton, previously Head of Housing here and then thereafter recently retired as the Head of Housing and Planning Policy in the policy unit at Number 10 Downing Street. So thank you all very much for coming, and if I can now turn over to Roger to say a few introductory words and commence proceedings, the formal intellectual proceedings of tonight.
Roger Scruton, FBA, FRSL Author of The Aesthetics of Architecture
Yes, I’m just at this moment going to introduce Marwa al-Sabouni, whom I’ve known as an e-correspondent, not personally, for the last two or so years, she having taken up some of the ideas that I put forward in my book The Aesthetics of Architecture, and wondered about their relevance to the situation in Syria, and we’ve corresponded over a couple of years and recognised common interests and common values, and to my surprise she then wrote a book about her experience during the course of this civil war and prior to that, and in this book she makes a really interesting case for the conclusion that architecture has a part to play not only in the disintegration of communities but also in their reintegration, and that it’s a duty of an architect to think this through.
I’ll just read one small passage here from her book so you’ll see the kind of angle she’s coming from.
Carless expansion and so-called renovation has torn all the Syrian cities apart. Homs in particular suffered the consequences of building new suburbs based on sectarian differences, whether relating to class, creed or affluence. New Homs’s were built, each one for a group of non-urban newcomers from the surrounding lands. Nothing could unite these mutually antagonistic neighbourhoods. Parallel lives were already being lived and this continued with more severity when the city died and the urban segregation turned into sectarian conflict. Zooming in from the urban to the architectural level, the same tale can be told. The building of concrete blocks lacking the least aesthetic sense or architectural vision denies the city its character and deprives its citizens of a congenial environment. Those new suburban Homs’s failed massively in social integration. Indeed, they enhanced social stagnation and introversion, since they created no shared identity or attachment to a place, and this architectural failing helped to inflame the civil war.
Now that’s obviously a very severe judgement on architecture and its affects, and I think it’s Dean’s idea to summon Marwa up and for me to ask her questions over SKYPE, just to see whether she can cast some more light on our situation here. Marwa is a very shy person I have to say, so don’t expect her diatribes …
Are we getting there? We’re just plugging it in.
As you can imagine, connections to Syria are not 100% reliable.
Ah, hello Marwa. Great that you could join us. Is she up there on the screen? No? Oh dear.
You’re with us now, Marwa. Thank you very much for joining us. Many of us have read your book and as you know I’ve read it, and we’re obviously extremely interested in the situation that you describe and the role of architecture in civil conflicts, both creating them and healing the, and I wondered if you could just say something about what you think the contribution of a city is to the resolution of conflicts and to encouraging people to settle side by side? Is that clear? Remember to look at the camera if you can.
Yes. OK. The Levant has a story of coexistence between different religions and backgrounds and the first moral code or [7:30] coexistence goes back to when [7:33], basically Muslim ruler entered Jerusalem and set this code of coexistence, visiting the church and refusing to pray inside, rather in the near court. So it avoids setting a path of [7:54] or disturbing the rights of the place. Then going up to the Jewish sacred site, the site was neglected so he Omar cleaned up the place himself, [8:11] laid the very first foundation between the different religions and setting the principle where a city contains spaces that are sacred to other religions and should be [8:28] as such. So –
I think it’s a very interesting observation that a city is a place of sacred places, within it, sacred precincts, and the idea that you respect them regardless of the religion that created them is obviously a wonderful accomplishment. Do you think that is special to the Ottoman idea later or the to the Levantine city rather?
I think this idiom has been perpetuated for the built environment up until the Ottoman period where we can see it in our cities, the remains of our cities, for example the old Homs and old Damscas and old [9:16]. I’ll speak for my city, old Homs had churches and mosques built just back to back, sometimes a shared [9:27], interwoven inside the urban fabric, so it’s not outside the urban fabric; rather it’s interwoven with it. It’s present right there in the urban environment and the consciousness of people there.
That idea of the urban fabric is to me really important. Can you say a bit more about how mosque and church are connected and how people connect with each other, for instance in markets and so on?
Yes. This is something that I argue in my book, that the fabric of the city, the urban fabric was made of three main things I think: the religious aspect, where sacred places like mosques and churches are built within the urban fabric, and with the right amount of people, not in a way to suggest ostentation, it’s not ostentatious; rather it’s another building next to the Homs, they live with it, and the sooq for example in the cities that we had, the sooq was a place for people to come and to share, live and work with each other, and they shared also more inside the configuration of the place, where even the principle that the shops are arranged in a certain way and in this sooq people have this idiom of [11:24] and they know they have to live with each other and [11:28].
That’s a really interesting thought, because most of us who visit a Middle Eastern town are impressed by the sooq because everything there has to fit in, doesn’t it? Not just aesthetically but morally so to speak.
These observations, I’ve learned from your book, The Aesthetics of Architecture, about what you are saying about aesthetically and morally, the architecture that gives people pleasure and the morals that are embedded in every detail, into that environment, and the life that was shared inside such places as the sooq has exhibited this, but what I argue in my book is these places are [12:27] because they had given new sense of identity. People have found themselves there, and they felt that this is their accomplishment, and through this accomplishment they are [12:41] to belong and they agree to share. So these places are very important.
One last question. How do you think architects should respond to the situation now in your country. Have you got any clear advice?
Yes, I think the recommended answer would be integrating present with past, but I think that we are the past of the people who are coming afterwards and the people who were in the past also were the present of people before, so I think we should learn from earlier experiences but to learn what was important, we should ask ourselves as architects what was important in those places, why certain things have been done in certain ways, and also importantly if we will learn something from the past, it’s that the governor or the government, they were[13:56 IA] of people for them and their environment and architect was only a servant to the citizens, rather than now the architect is acting as a star, as a creator, and that should be I think [14:13].
That’s a very good point on which to end. Thank you very much Marwa. We will now continue the discussion among ourselves and thank you.
Roger, anything more you want to add to that?
That last observation is so relevant. Essentially architects should be servants but have taken it upon themselves to be leaders and controllers of our environment, and I think the Levantine city as it was recorded by Edward Lear and people like that was so much an organic outgrowth of the settlement of people side by side, as Marwa was saying, and I wonder whether that can ever be recaptured there, but even if it can’t be I think that we need to learn from that too. Let’s go on with it.
Rowan Moore, Architecture Critic, The Observer; author of Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century
And that is the definition of a hard act to follow. An amazing person in an extraordinary and terrible situation.
We’ll come back to this, but we all know what we mean by the arrogant egocentric architect, but I know an awful lot of architects who are extremely serious and dedicated and committed to what they do and are very badly rewarded for it. So I take exception to that and I’d like to discuss that further.
This is a very interesting yoking of Homs and London this evening, which is on the face of it not a very likely comparison. However there was something that struck me in Marwa’s book, where she said that Homs was this kind of organism that worked well and then it fell apart among other things because of the pressure of expansion, which added to the existing fabric in a way which didn’t work with the existing fabric. And that probably is something of relevance to London because I think London is a city that has an amazing quality of absorbing people. I think the ideal of London and indeed of all cities, is it should be a place where absolutely anybody can find their niche, form their identity, have the opportunity to make a life, a home, a career, a job, a business, whatever they want to do, and London’s very good at that and possibly precisely because it’s so good at that, it’s coming under a lot of pressure both in terms of numbers and also just this year cost of living here, which is very well known.
To talk more about architecture, I think we can agree about a few things. Streets and terraces and squares are good. We all like them, we all think they’re good ways of building cities. The more extreme examples of modernist visionary planning that Le Corbusier and others did were not so good. However I think there’s a danger we can make a kind of caricature of those two examples and miss out an awful lot in between which is important. To talk about London, I think this characteristic I’ve just described of openness to everyone is also reflected in an incredible diversity of building stock and also tenures and levels of affordability, which again is being squeezed, so it’s not just a city of streets and squares; it also has mansion blocks, it has early LCC housing estates, it has modernist housing estates, it has suburban semidetached, it has things like converted warehouses, idiosyncratic one-off houses, and it has a very small smattering of self-build houses, of which I will talk some more.
What’s happening now is the model of the street is coming under certain kinds of pressure, some of which is being made into headlines. There’s the well-known iceberg house where a terraced house, because of constraints on altering it above ground, is expanded massively underground. This is an image. And because of the high property values that becomes an economic proposition to do that.
At the other end of the market we have houses like this one, the one on the right in Newham, which got into the newspapers because it had 26 people living in a two-storey, three-bedroom house. I’m not quite sure why they picked on this one alone because there are quite a lot like it.
We have the famous beds in sheds, where people put sheds in their back gardens and also house usually migrants in them. So someone from Brazil once said to me why are there no favelas in London and it’s a difficult question to answer, and I think the answer that we have quite an efficient enforcement regime and at that point there wasn’t the same sort of external pressure of population on London that the US and Brazilian cities. That’s now changing and we are getting favelas but they’re kind of hidden favelas.
If you want to talk about the urbanistic threat to London now I don’t think it’s from Corbusier and modernism. That’s long gone. Nobody’s trying to build Ville Radieuse anymore. What we are getting is speculative towers and not just towers but especially towers all over the city, which are about building the maximum number of units for the maximum profit with a minimum degree of consideration to what the experience is at street level, what they contribute to the greater urban life of the city. This is a tower in City Road, and there is this vestigial gesture of public space so it comes with a lot of metal bollards and I don’t think that’s a really adequate way of making a city.
That’s Strata SE1 in Elephant and Castle and again there’s a very vestigial empty attempt to make a public space around it. It doesn’t feel, to me, like a piece of city where real interactions can happen.
As I say, I think we need to remember that there’s a huge range of building stock in London and it’s not always a case of streets good, modernist estates bad. This is Churchill Gardens, very close to hear, built by a good Conservative council, City of Westminster, in the late forties and early fifties, and it has a communal space which has some relationship to Le Corbusier’s ideas but it’s a place that people genuinely inhabit and can share and be together in, and I would rather live in one of those than in one of those little two-storey houses in Newham, even if I wasn’t sharing it with 25 other people.
That’s Lillington Gardens, also near here, where a Victorian Neo-Gothic Church was added to by a modern building that’s trying to work in the same style.
Central Hill in Crystal Palace, which the London Borough of Lambeth wants to totally erase. There’s a later period of modern architecture when they were trying to achieve the same sort of levels of inhabitation with lower-rise buildings.
An important factor is they quite often have rather good interiors that are better than the interiors now being created in new housing, well lit. So I get a bit troubled when David Cameron talks about sink estates and wanting to clear them all, because I think you have to differentiate between what are sink estates and what are not.
It’s partly a question of the fact that these things were well designed, but also a factor of the fact that people have lived there for forty, fifty years and when people live in a place for a long time a culture grows up, people form connections and I think there is some danger of making the same mistake that was made when Victorian terraces were swept away and seen as automatically terrible things, and I think there’s some danger we’re going to make the same mistake in reverse.
I’ve probably said enough for now. I have some ideas that are in my book which I might get the opportunity to discuss later, about what we can actually do at this point, but I would just like to end up with one idea, which is self-build, which came out at the end of the 1970s and early eighties, the architect Walter Segal came up with a concept whereby people could build their own houses using materials readily available from builders’ merchants and with a minimum of expert help. He built two very successful developments in the London Borough of Lewisham on spare bits of land belonging to the Borough. Politicians right and left ever since have said what a marvellous thing self-build is. It gives people an opportunity to really engage with where they live, the satisfaction of building their own home. It’s almost never happened since. The reason it hasn’t happened is because self-builders can never compete in the market for land. Walter Segal’s housing only happened because Lewisham made it available to him. And I think one interesting thing to look at is how can government help people to self-build, rather than just saying it’s a good idea? Plenty else to say but there’s a lot of people on the panel and I don’t want to take up any more time.
Thank you very much.
I think since there’s no particular running order now, but since Alex Morton when he was at Number 10 addressed the questions of communities and integration as well as your regular brief. I think I’m [26:30 IA] providing the self-[26:32] debate when you were here at Policy Exchange but also obviously the references that were made to sink estates. Perhaps it’s you for an alternative perspective.
Alex Morton, Former Advisor to the Prime Minster; Director, Field Consulting
I’ll restrict myself to two areas. So this is a debate that could rage for hours. I know all the estate [26:54] and [26:55 IA] and I’ll give you the bit I think I agree with most. I think that custom self-build in this country is a massive untapped resource. I think it’s something that in most other parts of the developed world the local councils make land available for people who want to do custom build, a reasonably small amount of town planning and then people can build their own designs. The attachment that we give to places and the [27:23 IA] I think is also a much higher quality of build. I think it’s one of the reasons that other countries get to build more particularly on contentious green build sites because people know what’s going up is going to be built with care and attention, not tick-tack boxes. I think the government’s made big steps in this area and it’s trying to turn, exactly the point that Rowan made, around getting land in the hands of self-builders. It was one of the least talked about bits of the Housing and Planning Bill, it’s one of the bits that I’m personally most proud of in the two-and-a-half years I was at Number 10, trying to get something through on. There is going to be a requirement on councils that they have to provide land for people within a set period of time. The key question will be the sanctions and penalties for councils that do not provide land for people to do their own self or commission build project. Self-build is always going to be a reasonably niche part, the idea you can do the whole thing from start to finish is beyond most people’s capacity. Most countries don’t have that [28:22]. It’s much more along the lines of commission build where you have a small architect, you have modular housing, you have other things where you go, you basically get a framework, you then put the façade on that you like, you mix and match the core and the product is cheaper to build, it’s much nicer design and it’s a bit more idiosyncratic but councils in lots of parts of the world do say, ‘You have to build something with some windows’. There was the famous Almir example I think of a big black box. In some [28:53], I think they had a glass roof top. But in general commission and self-build I think is a huge opportunity and I think it’s one of the things. One of the problems with a two-party system is the bit that’s not controversial doesn’t get talked about whereas the bits that are controversial, like right to buy or several [29:13] did. I know [29:17] is passionate about this agenda, as is Number 10, my successor, and I think hopefully both parties can get behind it and actually just try and make this happen and put in place a series of penalties for councils have to give land to these people. As you say, otherwise the [29:32] will never compete. So that’s the bit we agree on. I think we’ll get on very well on that.
The bit where I think it’s not, and there is more of a divide though I would argue there shouldn’t be, is estate regeneration, which is a controversial topic, understandably in some ways. It’s about demolishing people’s homes, homes that they care a lot about, and actually it’s one of the interesting things that if you go to estates, the care that people have for the inside of their homes is often much greater than the care for the outside. The outside has become part of the dilapidated public realm, and this is often accused of cuts in the eighties and it all started with Thatcher, which is blamed for everything. These estates were falling apart by the seventies. They were not built well, they were built often, particularly towards the end, built cheaply. They were using innovative products and they were foisted on people who were largely seen as powerless, although in fact the reason we stopped doing tower blocks was more to do with power shifts in the Labour party, where basically Labour voters rose up and said we’re tired of having your middle-class fads inflicted upon us. Get stuffed. And quiet right too. Basically they took power back and said we’re not having this built anymore – these big, sprawling estates that have been foisted on us that have many problems that Marwa was talking about. They don’t connect well to the surrounding community, they are inward-facing, they don’t … you walk through them and in many of them you don’t always feel safe. Now there’s a question about how you treat tenants, which is entirely separate question, and the government, I think, needs to be much more robust in saying that there is a minimum below which it is not acceptable if you’re taking away people’s homes, they have to be rehoused, it has to be an equivalent property. But actually that will allow people to return back to their homes. I think you can keep the community together. Now a community will then have an extra group of people because obviously 1) [31:33 keep all the] houses in London, and this is probably one of the best ways of doing it, and 2) you’ll end up having to build lots of private housing to pay for this, but if you rehouse the existing community back as part of an estate regeneration, the fact you have additional private houses being built, to my mind is a good thing. It means that you basically are building on brownfield sites, you are removing areas … there is, and I’m sure Nicholas, and i don’t want to take all his best lines away from him so I won’t –
Nicholas Boys Smith
No do, I have no lines!
There is the interesting space thing about timings about the London riots but places that had riots there was a strong correlation between high streets near large estates. Most of the high streets that were targeted were targeted by people coming from large nearby estates because in those estates, where you don’t have private gardens, they aren’t very safe, gangs do form more easily. This is not a determinist argument. Just ‘cause you grew up in big slab estate somewhere in South London you are not going to necessarily join a gang; but are your chances more likely? Yes. Do you have a private garden space where you can play as an 11-12-year-old? No. Is this a bad thing? Yes. Should we do something about it? Yes. And I think that’s what drives the Prime Minister’s commitment to this agenda. He’s saying this is an area where we build more houses and make a social … do something that is part of his social reform agenda, and I don’t think it should be as controversial. I think it should be something that the Labour Party should feel free to critique and attack and say you should fight this, but actually in terms of built form of the city, what we could replace this with is something that most people would agree, including many of the tenants themselves, is a better built form and more like the rest of the city, less alien, less disconnected, and while we should have a political debate about some of the ways in which it’s done … obviously people should always feel free to throw bricks because that’s what results in better policy, I think it’s something that all parties … almost like self-build and custom build, should get behind, which is estate regeneration is one of the main ways that we can [33:45 IA] and it will result in both more housing, which we desperately need, and a better built form and a better city at the end of it.
Thank you Alex. Nick Boys Smith please.
Nicholas Boys Smith, Director, Create Streets
Thank you. I was very struck by what Marwa was saying. Two things, which I think you picked up as well, Roger, a city of sacred places and a city of urban fabric, and I think if you look at cities, all cities in every continent over the centuries, over the millennia, a city as an emotional place is there, and if you look at the advertising for buying houses, I was at a new development in Kent yesterday, it was talked of in terms of heart, home, nature, emotion, and if you look at the psychological data on how we buy homes, how we choose places, it is actually, for what is for most of us the most commercially important or the most financially important decision we ever make, it is a deeply emotional decision driven by feelings of self and community and links to the past, links to the present. If you look at this city, if you look at Paris, if you look at Barcelona, if you look at Homs, if you look at Levantine cities, if you look at Chinese cities, they have the same pattern of conventional blocks, green spaces within a fabric, human scale, and I’m going to come to more of that in a moment, and the philosophical conservative approach to that would say that the past has revealed to us the truth of how humans seem to want to live, and the case I’d make, which is responding I think to both Rowan and Alex, is that actually if you then start looking at the data on where people are happy, on the types of places that go up in value over the long term the most, then you get an incredibly consistent story. This is quote from David Halpern whom many of you will know. He runs the Cabinet Office Behaviour Insight Unit, it’s little known he actually wanted to be an architect when he was a young man. One of the things that stopped him becoming an architect was some of the sociological research he was doing and there’s one famous piece of research, that means that people have to listen to me too much, where he was asking, he was researching what impact repeated exposure to the same image has on your perception of it. And he was doing it on faces and he was doing it on buildings and he was using students ‘cause they’re cheap. And what he found was that essentially we all had the same predictable spread of responses to comeliness of faces, but on buildings there were two completely dichotomic responses: there was group A and there was group B. And group A’s favourite two buildings were buildings 1 and building 2 and group B’s were buildings Z and H, and their least favourite buildings were the opposite. They were polar opposite groups. One of those groups was all the architectural students and the other group was everyone else.
And he also found that that on page 162 of Better Bricks or Mental Health and Better Environment, he also found that the longer students had been architecture students, the more disconnected they were with the rest of the student population. So data, what people think and why they think it and where they’re happy, we need to bring into this debate far more strongly than I think we have to date. The good news is there is a data revolution happening at the moment, as Policy Exchange [37:14] are responding to, the ease, the cheapness, the speed with which we can get information on where people [37:20] is exploding, and we see … I should say I run a very small social enterprise called Create Streets, the way we make what modest money we do make is by working with councils and with community groups actually on urban design and community planning, but we find some of these same meaningless phrases, sustainable development, walkable development, open space, innovative design … I was at a thing today, everyone was talking about place-making with the design and no one actually defined it. There was no empiricism as to why that was the case. People don’t talk about beauty. They don’t walk about popularity, they don’t talk about hard data about where people are happy, where they know their neighbours better.
Coming back to towers and the built form, this is the only survey that we’re aware of into the sustainability of big buildings as they get higher. It’s based on Hong Kong data. There’s some other research happening at the moment, but what it shows you is that the higher the building, per square foot the more energy they use. To the best of my knowledge, other than the stuff we’ve written, this survey hasn’t been used once in the debate on what we should be building in London. All sorts of people will tell you that towers are sustainable, but this doesn’t come into it. There is one piece of similar research done by the LSE which was done on modelled data, it wasn’t actually observed energy usage; it was just modelled. That’s used to make the case for towers but it’s an irrelevant data point.
I think that the next slide, which will hopefully magically appear in a moment, it’s a lovely picture of Shakespeare Tower in the Barbican Centre. The service charges of Shakespeare Tower in the Barbican Centre are I think it’s £8,800 per year, it may be £8,000, I forget, but the slide will reveal how true I’m being.
There it is. The service charge of living in that is £8,000 per year. That is not a sustainable way of living. The data is that the service charges of big buildings and very high buildings are not only higher per square foot, but they go up more over time. The older they get, the more that becomes the case, and there’s good reasons for that. You’ve got more communal areas, things get harder to fix, embedded technology fails. I was giving evidence to the Mayor’s Design Committee a few months ago are talking about some of this data and the architect who shall remain nameless said, ‘But that won’t happen this time. We’ve just been building a tower. The windows self-clean’ and this is a direct quotation, ‘and the technology won’t fail.’ But the technology will fail at some stage, and we’re just not considering, once you get into a very big built environment, we’re not at the moment properly [40:30] with some of the pension funds, who are good, well-informed people, one particularly, I don’t think are properly considering long-term differential running costs in built form as they get out beyond 10, 15, 20 years. Certainly the models of quantity surveyors that we’ve seen, we don’t think properly do it.
You can’t read this so you’ll just have to trust me, I’m very sorry. This is a snapshot of some research which I’m publishing, among others, with Dean in a few months’ time. This is an academic literature review we’ve done taking further some work Professor Robert Gifford in Vancouver, looking at correlations between wellbeing and living in very big buildings. 78% of the peer review research we can find shows that when you live in a very big building, particularly if you’ve got family in there, you tend to have less good wellbeing outcomes. Children tend to do less well, people critically know fewer of their neighbours. That’s one of the key ones that comes out. It’s worth caveating, quite a lot of this research is quite old, but it’s all peer reviewed ,so it’s all adjusted, so it’s not comparing bankers and bin men, it’s all either comparable groups such as first-year students where very often you get good comparable data. So the argument, let’s come back to London for a moment. At the moment the London we’re building, despite some very good things in the Mayor’s Design Guide, per force, due to a very historically and internationally comparatively strange planning system, and due to sky-high land values, we’re building bigger and bulkier, and we would argue far less well-correlated with good wellbeing outcomes or indeed with popularity, which just decreases support for development.
Two or three more quick points and then I promise I will be quiet. One of the things that we encounter very frequently in our arguments with architects and landscape architects is that greenery is good for you, which is true. Greenery is good for you. We all like to look out on trees and on lawns. One of the fantastic pieces of research was first done on this, was done in 1983 I think, where they did a brilliant piece of social research where they … I apologise, this was done for a smaller audience and it’s been retrofitted into this room in a few seconds before we started, but was looking at how patients in two different wards got better, and it was done with enough patients where they could get a sufficient number of patients with comparable situations, comparable health conditions, and comparable health backgrounds. Two wards, one of which looked out on a brick wall and one of which looked out rolling parkland or the like, and the comparable patients in the second ward got better faster and more profoundly than in the first. So there is good data that greenery is good, but there’s also good data that greenery can be scary if it’s not well-policed, if it’s not well-managed, and there is also data that in order to have a wellbeing impact on you, you need to see it, you need to walk through it, it needs to be something that impinges on your daily life. So the case that starts emerging, we’d argue, from all of the data, and I’m not going to go through more of it now as I probably don’t have time, is that a conventional built form, an urban fabric, streets, squares, small communal, well over-looked squares, small private gardens which you actually get to use, living at human scale, which can get to incredibly high density, you can get up to about 250 units per hectare on a conventional historic urban form; you can’t do that with planning and housing regulations but you can historically, is off the scale clear better correlated with more support for building, and with better wellbeing outcomes.
One more point if I may, which is about beauty. I often when I’m talking to architects, that’s not fair just architects, planners and some developers, toes coil at the word beauty. ‘Subjective, what does beauty mean, your beauty and my beauty are different.’ No. Beauty is incredibly predictable and aesthetic attraction of built form and other things is actually well-correlated with satisfaction with where you live. And there’s been subsequent work done since. This was done by an Israeli academic in the US. The blue spots, I think this is the right way round, the blue spots are where people report feeling good about where they are and the red spots are where they report feeling bad about where they are. Most people’s responses are incredibly predictable and this has been properly regression analysed and their social background, their age, their sex, doesn’t determine it, it is the place that is the key determinant of people’s response to it. And there’s been more recent research on this as well. But then the fascinating thing is, I forget if I have a slide on this or not, another poor slide, I’m sorry sir, is that in recent research on how much people like the attraction of where they live is one of the most highly correlated things, how much they like where they live and how satisfied they are with large elements of their lives. So what architects, what town planners do, the city that we build is incredibly important in actually people’s life satisfaction. It is not a secondary or tertiary factor and we would argue in Create Streets that this is the right way for London to go.
This is an experiment done last year. These two buildings are in a comparable part of Vancouver. Volunteers posed as lost tourists in front of both of them and got very different responses in front of the two facades. So 10% of passers-by on the left offered to help the apparently lost tourists, 2% on the building on the right. Seven times as many on the active site offered to let the lost tourists use their phone, versus on the right. So people’s behaviour, increasingly evidence is showing, isn’t [46:30] by but it can be influenced by the built environment.
But to come back to what Rowan and Alex were saying, and to what Marwa was saying, London faces an enormous challenge in terms of its required density uplift. We’ve got a very strange planning system when you compare it to pretty much every planning system in Europe or the US, it doesn’t well link what people most want in the built environment with what we build, or it insufficiently frequently does, and it doesn’t well take account really of what people like. And too frequently, as we can see in much of the political debate over the last 20 years, leading to a ludicrous degree of opposition to new housing, which doesn’t need to be there, wasn’t historically the case in the British character, isn’t there in most other countries and is not a consequence of some British weird love for cottages and greenery. Our love for greenery is just as great as it is in France of Luxemburg or Holland. People in France or Holland or Luxembourg actually want to live in suburban houses far more than the British do. So it isn’t that we are different that is leading to our different politics. It is that we have a different planning system and very different land values that’s leading to very different outcomes. And now I will shut up.
Thank you Nick. Last word from Stuart Lipton of Rogers, one of the leading voices amongst –
Sir Stuart Lipton, Partner, Lipton Rogers Developments LLP
Interesting questions here. First question is what kind of city? So to me self-build implies some planning but I’m not aware there is a plan for self-build. How will it fit? So if we look around us, do I see self-build here or –
There is a GLE register which will, the GLE can [48:14] land for people who register within a broad area within a certain period, regulations still to be determined, but essentially speaking there are enough random sites in London, there are provisionally acts to make or go after those [48:30], there are provisions that will allow areas to derogate [48:32] if they are under particular housing strain. So if London tries to say, ‘We can’t find any sites for any commission or self-build,’ quite rightly the government will turn round and say, ‘Get lost. I’m sure there are sites.’
Sir Stuart Lipton
So I’m with Nicholas on this because if we look at planning for decades, in my book it’s failed. Unplanned London was very successful, whether you like Nash, [49:00] or whoever, there seems to be a straightforward vision there and there were principles of streets and spaces, dare I say it, sky? No one’s mentioned sky. To me, looking out of the window here what inspires me is sky, and the actual opportunity of light and shade. So I think if we were to look at the places which we probably all find agreeable, Cathedral towns, market towns, university towns, they’re all rather successful at the moment. What is the ingredients? They’ve all got town squares, village greens, amenities, church halls, cinema … so they’re successful too. They’ve had investment. High streets have had no investment for decades, so is it any wonder that Mary Portas wanders around trying to revive poor traders? She might be better with a tank of oxygen, pumping it in and trying to keep them alive. I don’t quite know how many of these things are done but shouldn’t we start on London with thinking how to involve the community? It’s been disenfranchised and the more planning rules we get, I don’t know if you might agree, Nicholas, the more we get the worse it gets. They’re all well-intentioned, but they’ve actually done nothing. You might like towers or not like towers. Personally towers, to my mind, actually are demonstrating our lack of ability to find a way of buying a home. If we’re to be aged 36 on average before we can actually buy anywhere, is it important, does it matter? I don’t think it actually does. I often wonder if governments of both colours have thought more important to keep up values so that 80% of the population are happy than worry about the other 20% who are never going to have a home. It does appear that way. Because if it hadn’t been that way, people would have done something about it. It hasn’t been important and suddenly it is important, so we could produce better, we could produce a system where we demolished all the sink estates. Alex, I’ve spent 18 months in Tottenham. Anybody who thinks that you should keep sink estates, come with me to Tottenham and you will find absolutely appalling conditions, the interiors I’ve found in many estates remarkably poor, the aspiration of people, forgotten people, people who are in the too-difficult class because for decades they’ve just been left, and as a result their health, their education, their crime just becomes standard. I have a different version, Alex, of these estates; if you’re not in a gang, you’ve gotta be in one. And if you’re in a gang and you go to another gang’s territory, you have a good chance of being killed, knifed as a minimum. So I wonder if we should start writing some new rules of what kind of city we want to be in.
Is it to be beautiful? Well, what does that word mean? So probably here Georgian architecture is beautiful but twentieth century isn’t; that’s a good area to debate.
What are we going to do about spaces and green? Most people know that if you live near a square it’s interesting if you live on a street it’s harder, but I’m not really sure where this conversation is going. A desperate shortage of homes, aspirations of low-build, low density, self-build, cost doesn’t seem to matter in terms of individuals, and yet if we look back, just to finish, Victorian schools, completely [53:34]density, much loved, all there, turn of the century department stores, much hated, now much loved and most listed. 1930s telephone exchanges, one sort of government vocabulary, brick, stone dressings, all out of scale, all still there. So this is a complex issue and I haven’t yet heard any solutions.
We were looking to you to provide them!
Sir Stuart Lipton
I don’t have any.
You’re going to have to build them!
Roger, did you want to just say …
Well I haven’t really said anything on my own behalf yet and I just wanted to say a few things, which I think come a little bit out of what Marwa was saying. The first and most important thing is that a house is built not for the person who resides in it; it’s built for all the people who have to pass it by. You’re always building for the public, whatever you do. The other is just as important as the client, and I think this is something that our ancestors understood very well. You take a place like Bath, it was of course a collection of streets and houses for individuals, but they all of them were in the business of conforming to a pattern of recognising this as a public space that they shared, and therefore that things should fit in. I think there’s a great contrast between architecture which is conceived as fitting into a fabric and that which is conceived, like the building opposite, which is fortunately concealed by a tree, as standing out from everything and drawing attention to the ignorant person who built it. I think this kind of contrast is absolutely fundamental to the way we experience buildings. It’s what underpin’s Nicholas’s empirical data, that we recognise when things fit in to each other, when we can fit in with them, and that’s really the point that Marwa is trying to make about the Syrian city, that it ceased to be a place which fitted into itself and ceased to be a place which in which separate communities could fit in and live peacefully side-by-side, and I believe that ultimately it is things like shared grammar, detail, light and shade and mouldings, the things that make this building fit in to its surroundings but that building opposite not. That’s the thing that matters. And once you get that right, it doesn’t matter how dense the building is.
Any questions? Just give your name and organisation please.
Katherine Drayson, Greater London Authority
In the context of the London Plan Review, I’m quite interested in the fact that no one has mentioned the thorny issue of the green belt in the context of housing demand and shortage of land and land prices. I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Yes, I think in terms of the pressure on London Housing, we need to consider every tool in the box and that includes tall buildings, estate regeneration, densifying those parts of London that are two storeys, densifying outer suburbs, brownfield land and the green belt. The area of the green belt is many times larger than the area of London, it was invented as supposedly an asset to London but it’s not really performing that role except for people who live on the very edge of the city. And I don’t see why that should be excluded, I don’t see why we should be telling residents of council estates in London, those ones who like where they live, not sink estates in Tottenham which I completely agree should be regenerated, I don’t think we should be telling people in council estates in London who like where they live, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got to move out because we’re rebuilding, we’re densifying your neighbourhood,’ and at the same time be completely afraid of any development in the green belt. Or equally when a tower, this literally happens, when a very tall tower is proposed on the Thames, of luxury housing, the argument is used, ‘We need to do this so we don’t build on the green belt.’ Frankly I think wrecking the scenery on the Thames is a more serious issue than affecting a field that may not be very special in Surrey.
I grew up in Sussex, outside the green belt but I care about the countryside. But what all these options need is they actually do need planning and design. We can argue about what good design and what good planning are but building on the green belt can be sprawl it can be a garden city. A tower can be a landmark or it can be an eyesore. Density can be over-crowding or it can be vibrancy, and the difference between those good and bad descriptions is design and urban planning, and of a positive kind, not just saying no to things; actually constructing a positive idea of what the future could be like. And it’s not an alien to British culture. Britain has led the way in planning in a lot of different ways in the past.
Nicholas Boys Smith
I agree with the point that all tools in the kitbag need to be used, but I think it’s incredibly instructive that both of the two frontrunners to become Mayor of London felt that it was politically ineluctable to say no building on the green belt, so I think it’s too easy to criticise the new Mayor or didn’t become Mayor for saying that, and the right answer is to change politics, and from our analysis there are two ways to do that. This isn’t a quick way, we should get to that point but it’s very hard to do that right now. One is by making new development more popular and the other is by changing the way in which people engage with the planning and design and development system. Based on the work that we’re doing I think it is too easy for consultation to be an ersatz, faked, post hoc exercise that leads to embedded and justifiable public cynicism – I’m not saying all developers do that, there’s some very good ones, but enough don’t to justify that cynicism – so 1) it’s about the confidence in the quality of what will get built, 2) it’s the confidence in the quality of the process. And certainly based on our[60:39 IA], in brown field sites off the scale, I think it is harder on greenfield sites, if people have confidence about the quality and the urban fabric and the historical reference and the detailing, the look and the form and the behaviour of new build, you can double their propensity to support it and halve the resistance. Interestingly, just one example, we’re currently working with a neighbourhood forum in [61:08 xxx], I should have probably say scratch for the record where it is, a neighbourhood forum in London. I think it’s fair to say when we started working with them they were resistant to any new development in their neighbourhood area, full stop, no ifs, no buts. It was a remarkably easy process in one evening, with two people from Create Streets and a dozen local residents, to turn that into strong support for formally allocating three or four places in their neighbourhood plan if, and here’s the if, if they could put in some sort of form-based design code which could be ensuring what got built there fitted in with their bit of London, which is now what is happening. So I’m not saying that was solving the green belt, because I think you’ve got other, greater complexities, but it’s to that greater confidence of the quality of the built form is the ultimate answer, but it’s not easy to get there.
Sir Stuart Lipton
Well, we do need a 2020 plan in 2017. It goes back to the question of what is London going to like. I personally think that I agree with the comments about using it sparingly, if I could edit it that way, but shouldn’t we designate it? If some of it’s really important, shouldn’t it be first, second and third grade, shouldn’t we start defining what we really mean by green belt, because there’s so much of it which isn’t really green at all. It’s just green by history. And secondly, if we are going to use it, shouldn’t we insist that the quality of design becomes paramount, that it isn’t just a density or a new town; it’s something quite extraordinary, so that the values that one puts to using the green belt are special? But do include it somewhere in the parameters of the new plan.
The green belt, I think the thing that’s interesting about that is the Conservative manifesto committed us to local control and planning to protect the green belt. The bit that I think you’re not going to get a major push from the centre on this, but I do think there is a space for delivery left in the manifesto for what neighbourhood plans in particular can do on the green belt. Neighbourhood plans are basically parish-level planning and at the moment they cannot reallocate greenbelt. So you could be a small village in commuting distance of London that wants to build 50 homes but only under very certain conditions, only if they meet the design criteria, level of people. I think it’s absurd that the neighbourhood plans at this point in time cannot allocate sites within that parish boundary, within that area. I think there would be enough places now, housing prices have got to such a point that people would say in some areas, and it would start to make the [63:56] of the green belt is variable, because it’s very hard to explain to people … It’s easy to conceptualise the green belt as varied quality, but then saying you’re going to control it and design it, who gets to decide what is that quality? It’s going to be a planning bureaucrat who’ll get training for an hour and then go and report back to London. It’s always going to be politically difficult.
Neighbourhood plans should be able to allocate land in the green belt and I think there will be places where the parishes will say none of our children can afford houses, let’s build a small amount of attractive housing, and that’s something the government should, given that we now have the Neighbourhood Planning Infrastructure Bill, revisit. There was a discussion about it last year I think, something that [64:36 IA].
All I would do is endorse what Nick said, that all these oppositions to building in the green belt and building in beautiful places in the countryside and so on, they would all go away if people didn’t fear what was going to be built, and the whole idea of including people at the beginning, saying, ‘Here is what we might do,’ using the tool kit that the Prince’s Foundation has developed, this BIMBY thing, beauty in my back yard, getting people to join the process at the very beginning and recognise that they might actually be improving their neighbourhood and not ruining it by choosing the right forms.
Sir Stuart Lipton
Just a quickie. If we separated the re-designation of green belt in planning terms from design and had two stages, we could have at least a chance of dealing with quality. At the moment along comes house-builder Fred, presents a very sexy drawing and when the reality turns up it’s awful. Why not separate them?
I am fascinated by this debate and a key word has not been mentioned by any of you is the greed factor. We are up against big amounts of money here and I can assure you from having been dealing with Westminster City Council over the Chelsea Barracks Development, which I fought and only thanks to Prince Charles did we win, that it was the £78 million that Westminster City Council were given so that they could not put social housing on the 13.5 acres of the Chelsea Barracks site. It was iniquitous. We couldn’t appeal to our MP, Mark Field, ‘cause he’s not interested. We couldn’t appeal to our councillors, the council itself is gagging for the lolly and frankly at the end of the day all we had was Prince Charles supporting us. But the fact of the matter is that the greed then goes further down the line where West Grosvenor Estates then refused our area the neighbourhood forum because we were going to be then commenting on their future development of the Victoria Coach Station which will be coming up for grabs soon, the Cundy Street rather attractive 1930s flats and actually even the Peabody Estate. These people are unstoppable. It is like a fast train moving down the track and the local people don’t count for a fit. And this is the main problem. Since we lost the GLA there is no overseeing body for architecture in London. There is nobody controlling about how our capital city will look except for the money of the Qataris et al. and with due respect … As you know we sat next to each other at a fundraising for David Cameron and it is I think the government who are just as knee deep in this reversal of the planning laws that we’ve seen in the last year-and-a-half to two years that has left London exposed.
What is our question?
My question is, how do we return power to the people so that they have a comment because I don’t see it anywhere in London.
Sir Stuart Lipton
One thing surely that ought to be considered is to forbid the foreign ownership of land in this country. Return England to the people.
Here here. [68:42] <Laughs>
Sir Stuart Lipton
This is normal, before the European Union this was quite normal for countries to do this, to say to own land here you have to be either a citizen or part of some organisation which is locally based, and this has disappeared and people don’t seem to have any conception as to why that was a good idea.
Can I ask a question? Who refused your application to create a neighbourhood forum?
Robert Davis, Head of Westminster City Council refused. I don’t know whether it has anything to do with this foundation linked with Sir Simon Milton, donation he made to it, but all I can tell you is that very undemocratically it was carved up. Basically the council estate [69:33 IA] has now no neighbourhood forum because they’re not considered worthy and an area of land that belongs to Grosvenor has been included in a neighbourhood friendly area to them.
Just to cut up your very important question perhaps sideways, you may like the answer or not, two quick thoughts. One, I don’t know the details about the way the government create neighbourhood forums. So much as we may want to criticise David Cameron, without David Cameron there would be no neighbourhood forums or neighbourhood planning of any kind.
Georgine Thorburn[70:05 IA] in control of Grosvenor Estates, I [70:05] asset.
Nick Boys Smith
Just to broaden out the point about neighbourhood planning, I think there is a genuine issue which we’re certainly seeing which is that it has proved much harder to get neighbourhood planning up and running in cities than in the parish system of the countryside. That is something that I think does need addressing. I would agree with that. I don’t know the details in your area. 2) Just on money. We’ve got several things happening. Due to constrained land supply, due to the attraction of London as a hub for international safe bet investment. A property investment since the 1950s essentially if you make it for long enough has been a complete one-way bet. That didn’t historically used to be the case. Go back to the nineteenth century, people who would now be desperate to get on the housing ladder as soon as they could, sociologically, back in the 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, would quite often all their lives rent their house. It was quite a normal thing to do because that one-way bet of investment on property wasn’t there. Since we’ve constrained supply, there are other things going on in London, London has other issues and central London even more so, but the problem is if you can take an economic model where you have to pay a huge amount of money, that forces you to try and get your return on equity far more quickly, i.e. to max up on density. Density is well correlated with maximum value returns in the short term. Over the long term, outside arguably very central areas, it’s much less well-correlated with returns. So a rational pension fund investing in land over 50 years wouldn’t maximise density. They might in very central London but other than that they wouldn’t. And the problem we’ve got, particularly in central London is that values have got so sky high that it is impossible for a PRS, a private rented sector investor, to get a look in essentially because they just cannot make the return on capital. We’re involved with several sites. It’s just very hard to fix that until the supply of land and prices come down, so half-answer to your question.
Sir Stuart Lipton
There are a number of points here. Firstly, developers and land owners are different. So if you own the land you are the beneficiary. The developer is just, if you like, in a process of building. To support Nicholas’s points, if you look at real returns the numbers are that commercial is minus 2% on a long-term basis in real growth terms, which may be surprising because people think offices are terribly successful, so they’re actually unsuccessful. Residential is plus 5 in real terms. Why is that? Very simple, there just isn’t enough of it. And the conversation tonight, is the London plan going to produce more housing units, ‘cause if it isn’t, values will be as you say a one-way bet. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to do.
When you talk about neighbourhood plans, there was a huge neighbourhood plan effectively in King’s Cross for about 20 years. It stopped anything happening for at least 20 years. Now King’s Cross is regarded by many as a very good example of decent development. It has a combination of conservation, low-rise, high-rise, place making, [73:28], but it stood still for 20 years. One of the things I think we need to address is where does the money go from development, which you highlight. So in the main it sits in the bank. It’s probably sitting in Westminster City Council’s bank account, not doing a lot. So we need a new recipe.
Georgine Thorburn[73:53 IA]
There are other people who want to ask questions. Sorry. Gentleman there and then at the back. Can we have them as a clutch of questions please? Name and organisation please.
Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor on the Sunday Times
Just a point really and then a question. The point is someone was talking about why don’t we have favelas here as in Brazil, and in South London I’d argue that you’re beginning to see that emerging in the form of beds in sheds, so around South London there’s been an enormous number of very large sheds built in back gardens which are basically being used for residential purposes as in migrants or[74:41]. And it’s a real growing phenomenon so watch that space.
My question is about the idea of trying to force planners and the like to create buildings that look … and my question is how do you do that? What would the legislation and the mechanism be that could actually enshrine the idea of incorporating beauty and aesthetics of buildings, because I can’t imagine quite how you might impose it in principle.
I’m a veteran of estate regeneration, having done rather a lot of them of every conceivable architectural style. My question is not directly related to that but we make a presumption that these are fertile places in which we can put more homes and effect urban change, but there are lots of other places which are equally dysfunctional and [75:50 IA]. There’s urban high streets that have lost their original function, so why don’t we look across this map, all kinds of different [75:59 IA]?
We’ll take it in order. Alex first and then we’ll move on.
So the question about how you get policy to take account of good design is something that I think the debate’s been going about 2010, I think Policy Exchange has been influential on that, I think neighbourhood plans were a … a key point of neighbourhood plans to some extent was referenda, there was before there was a point where there’d just be vague consultations, it was the fact that there’s a vote on them … they have not … they’re a push for getting people to 1) accept that beauty is not subjective. People do not say, ‘Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are a subjectively speaking good looking couple.’ They are a good looing couple. Most people have a similar enough concept of what is good looking, what is attractive, that there are broad swathes of London that are attractive and broad swathes that are unattractive. However, that argument is resisted at a local, national, at so many levels that this is basically a fundamental attempt to try and rewire the planning system to say that what is built should be attractive. And the way to do that is to give more control to local people. And of course there are huge numbers of vested interest, whether that’s planners, developers and others, that have got used to a totally different system which is very legalistic, very much about money, very much about hard indicators, and trying to rewire that entire system is difficult, but other countries do have something that’s more similar to it; they have much more emphasis on design codes; they have much more local involvement; they don’t have a system where you basically have to say it’s much more yes or no. It’s to some extent, you’ll get this much development – where should it go and what should it look like? And I think that’s a much more healthy debate around planning to have, because it means you do give much more control to local people. So I think we are moving towards a different system at a speed that’s slower than many of us would like, but it is an attempt and it’s partly linked to the housing crisis and the fact that if you have everyone fighting every single house that’s built in this country, you’ll never get to the number of homes that we need. So almost watch this space. I think it’s one of the most interesting areas of politics and policy, and it will continue to be over the next ten years.
Sir Stuart Lipton
Alex, I chaired the Commission for Architecture. I started it with three people. When I left it after six years it had a hundred. Jeremy Hunt abolished it because he couldn’t find £3.5 million to keep it going. Government didn’t like CABE because it criticised government and it was a forum for not just architects, there was a minority of architects involved, it was quite a wide forum. But government doesn’t like criticism.
But part of the problem, the approach that was taken under the government before 2010 and part of it did feed from the policy advice it was getting and the infrastructure that was behind it, was that if we created a series of rules, this will mean good design. So you have a density rule, everyone should build to this density; you have minimum car spaces; you should not … And actually it led to, in many ways, some of the weirdest development, where it’s basically suburbia squashed in, because people still wanted to build particular things, so they were just constrained by lots of rules, and there is, even the built form that we have now is still constructed by lots and lots of rules. So you could not build most of the attractive parts of London today because of rules around light, because of rules around overlooking, because of rules around access, and the list goes on and on and on. Now at the end of it you’ve got a perfectly attractive building that most people really want to live in, but because we have had, for so long, a formalised system, that has mitigated against the one thing that … people want a planning system for one … well, infrastructure, speed of build and making sure people don’t back out. And the third most important thing is that they get to control the feel and look of development, and that’s the one thing that the planning system for a long time has just not been interested in.
I think the planning system has been interested in the look actually and it’s dealt with it in different ways, not always very successfully. I think the best kind of visual guidance is the kind of guidance that does set some simple rules that everyone knows what they are but also allows freedom of variation within it. And for me one of the best design codes in the world is not specifically a design code, it’s the zoning laws in Manhattan that were brought in to stop too much cutting out of daylight from one big building next to another. Superimposed on the grid plan that Manhattan has, it gives the stepped shape of Manhattan skyscrapers that made it into the icon that the skyline of Manhattan became. And the great thing about that is it contains an idea of what the city is, what a street is, it has a very simple basis in something tangible, which is light … tangible’s not the right word, but anyway knowable. But it also has incredible freedom for people to do what they like, so people could do all sorts of different decorative treatments. If somebody wanted to come along and cleverly reinvent the codes to do a different kind of building, they could, but there was always a framework. I think there’s a danger … it’s always a balance between the individual and the general and I think a good code sets out general principles but not to the extent that it actually stifle’s people’s ability to do their own thing and also express themselves.
Well, I would say what I think Nick will say better, which is that even if philosophically you might thing that the concept of beauty is difficult to define, the actual opinions of people do converge and what we need is templates we show to people and say, ‘Look, here are the kind of things that architects can do,’ and as Nick has said, his research shows that people’s opinions converge naturally on the street, on alignment of buildings, vertical emphasis, classical detailing and so on, and why not … just accept this. That’s the best that we have and we just have to therefore keep people … put it before people at the beginning of the process. ‘Here are the possibilities. Choose one.’
Nicholas Boys Smith
I’d say vernacular rather than classical. The data on what people like is off the scale clear. Just two quick thoughts ‘cause I think we [82:45]length. I think the image or the vision we would have for the planning system say 10 or 15 years hence is one where the politics that underpin it have fundamentally changed, it’s far harder to object to the fact of building, it’s far easier for communities to have an influence on how it behaves urbanistically and how it looks. And that, by the way, is how increasingly America does it and how much of the rest of Europe does it. In the German constitution land owners essentially have a continual right to develop as long as they jump through a few hoops. I’ve read the Code de l’habitation in Paris. There was in every Mayoralty in France. Essentially, it’s not always well done but in each bit of France there is a definition of what development round here looks like, how far back from the pavement it is, how high it can be, what building types. You can go beyond that. You can break it, but you just have to go through a more complicated process so to do. We don’t have that distinction and I think we need to get to that distinction and I think we need to recognise the fact that democracy on this has either failed or got too shouty, whichever way you want to look at it. Thankfully technology, changes in culture are making it far easier to understand what people want and to feed that constructively into the development control system. That’s where I think we just need to get to.
Just very quickly on Stephen’s question, which we’ve all ignored and I apologise on behalf of the panel for that Mr Hill, Stephen is a marvellous man who does great work all over London and I commend him to all of you. I think you’re absolutely right. There’s an interesting piece of work done some months ago called Supurbia by Ben Derbyshire who runs the architecture firm HTA Design. The problem I think he’s faced, ‘cause he was saying something similar to you, which is that if you’re talking about densifying suburbia you’re right up into the politics, so you need to get to something like that by approaching the less attractive, less loved bits of say high streets. We wrote a short paper a month or so back called Create Boulevards in which we were proposing community-led intensification and beautification, not for profit companies but find areas where high streets can be taken up, where new apartments can be brought in that set design codes that work with TFL. So I think we have to get at things like … politics on that are hard but they can be got at. We have to unlock that public cynicism, rather than just saying we’re coming to tarmac over your suburbs, ‘cause that ain’t gonna go down very well in swing marginals.
Sir Stuart Lipton
I’d like to look at combining planning and infrastructure. We haven’t spoken about infrastructure, a vital ingredient to allow us to define some areas of high density, low density, but to actually look at what can be achieved and also to separate the granting of consent from a design process so that design has a priority.
Thank you. Admirably succinct. Can I thank you all for coming. Can I thank particularly Roger for organising everything with Marwa al-Sabouni and extend our thanks to her for her appearance. So thank you to our panellists.
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