Retro first, last and always?

For a decade or more the redevelopment of London’s social housing estates has been a flashpoint. Councillors have lost their seats and council leaders have been deposed. Plans have been challenged in court, in council chambers and on the streets.

Boroughs have pushed forward redevelopment schemes, often in partnership with private developers, as a way of meeting housing targets and avoiding the huge repair bills that have accrued for older post-war estates. Campaigners have countered that demolition and rebuilding disrupts communities, can displace residents and replaces social rented homes with unaffordable intermediate and market housing.

Underpinning these debates are deep-seated issues about community and mobility, trust in public authorities, the roles of public and private capital, and what sort of housing London needs to offer its growing population.

Now, another ingredient can be added to this volatile mix: an increasing focus on embodied carbon generated by the energy-intensive production of materials such as steel and concrete suggests that retaining older buildings may be more environmentally as well as socially sustainable.

The issue is not binary. In some cases, particularly over the longer term, demolition and replacement with a building that uses less energy may make more sense than spending substantial sums on retrofit , even when embodied carbon is taken into account.

But thinking about embodied carbon tends to tilt the balance towards retrofit. At COP26 in November architects, property and construction firms signed a pledge to reduce embodied as well as operational emissions. A campaign led by the Architects’ Journal is championing retrofit and reuse.

So, if retrofit makes sense for people and planet, why are demolitions still taking place? Discounting the possibility that London boroughs actively want to inconvenience and displace their citizens (an accusation that has been levelled at some in the past), I believe that housing targets, financial incentives and complexity work together to push councils towards demolition and redevelopment.

Firstly, demolition makes it more straightforward to increase housing numbers in response to London’s persistent housing crisis and tough housing targets: even if Covid slows or reverses population growth, the capital has a backlog of need and a yawning affordability gap. As big “brownfield” sites become scarcer, boroughs and housebuilders are searching for ways to build more within the capital’s already built-up areas – hence sporadic eruptions of tower blocks across the city. Building denser in privately owned streets is part of the answer, but large post-war housing estates offer the advantage of single ownership, even when this has been eroded by right-to-buy.

Many post-war estates currently under threat are also relatively low rise (though not that low density) by today’s standards. Last week, the redevelopment of Central Hill, a widely-celebrated low-rise 1960s estate designed by Lambeth borough architects Rosemary Stjernstedt and Ted Hollamby, took a step forward when Homes for Lambeth (a council-owned development company) announced a shortlist of firms to prepare a masterplan.

Assessing options for Central Hill in 2017, Lambeth estimated that redevelopment could add more than 500 homes to the 456 already on site. Alternative plans prepared by Architects for Social Housing (ASH), who campaign for alternatives to demolition, proposed refurbishing the existing stock and adding 242 new homes through infill and roof extensions – half the number proposed by the borough.

Refurbishing council housing can also be an expensive process, with limited scope for recovering costs. Refurbishment is funded through the ring-fenced Housing Revenue Account, which relies on rents for income. In 2017, Lambeth estimated that refurbishment costs at Central Hill would be £44,000 per socially rented home, compared to a benchmark of £18,000.

Redevelopment has a different business model. It can be undertaken in partnership with a private developer or through an arms-length housing company with more freedom to borrow and the potential to cross-subsidise, enabling social housing to be replaced by building more for market sale or rent. Lambeth aims for its redevelopment of Central Hill to be cost neutral overall, while its assessment of the ASH plan found no potential for cross-subsidy of refurbishment works. The imbalance is worsened by unequal tax treatment: new builds are VAT free while refurbishment is usually charged at the full rate.

And long-term carbon implications of new build compared to refurbishment are rarely quantified or considered. Even where “carbon costs” can be calculated, local authorities do not benefit from any carbon savings achieved. The government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund has been designed to help improve the energy performance of socially rented homes, but even its maximum grant of £16,000 would not close the funding gap that Lambeth estimated for Central Hill.

Lastly, I think there is a complexity challenge. There is a mature market of developers who can enter into joint ventures with local authorities and deliver a programme of “regeneration” (demolition and redevelopment). By taking control of the site, they can manage risks and adjust the pipeline of development to respond to changing market circumstances and viability reviews. A local authority-owned housing company is in broadly the same position.

But a programme of refurbishment and infill is trickier, particularly where substantial structural work is required. As anyone who has had builders at home knows, refurbishment is disruptive, and budgets need flexibility to cope with unexpected costs, which can rise sharply. Managing disruption to tenants, different teams of contractors and the risks of spiralling costs will sit squarely with local authorities, which have seen their planning and development budgets slashed over the past decade.

Decisions on refurbishment and redevelopment are genuinely complex, balancing the needs of existing and possible future residents, and juggling financial priorities and environmental imperatives. However, despite their declarations of “climate emergency” boroughs lack the incentives and many have been stripped of the skills to invest in and add to their existing housing stock, rather than bringing in the bulldozers again and again.

Originally published by OnLondon.

It started with a Zang

‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles was released in September 1979, a couple of months before The Clash asserted that “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust”. Both songs mark a watershed, but their tone couldn’t be more different. The Buggles song, fronted by producer Trevor Horn, is more playful and ambiguous than The Clash’s tub-thumping anthem – wistful about the past, but also avid for a future “rewritten by machine and new technology”.

The song could be a statement of intent. It sets the scene for a decade in which Trevor Horn’s ZTT Records was a persistent if mercurial innovator, blazing trails that sputtered out or reignited years later.

From the outset, the label (co-founded by Horn, Jill Sinclair and self-described ‘semiotician’ Paul Morley) was deeply “serious about the frivolous and frivolous about the serious” (to borrow one of Susan Sontag’s aphorisms from Notes on Camp). It was a pop label named after the sound of machine gun fire (‘Zang Tumb Tumb’), as transcribed by Italian Futurist (and Fascist) Filippo Marinetti. And one of its first big hits celebrated nuclear annihilation with a catchy but dumb-as-you-like chorus of “when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score” over a Hi-NRG beat, with remixes sampling civil defence instructions for the disposal of corpses.

It’s astonishing to recall now how Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ZTT’s first big success, dominated the charts in 1984. They seemed to come out of nowhere, but their first three singles – tackling sex, war and love – soared to number one, aided by Paul Morley’s marketing talents and Radio 1 DJ Mike Read’s refusal to play ‘Relax’, and selling in numbers unknown to modern popcharts.

Frankie’s success can slightly overshadow other ZTT acts of the mid-80s. The Art of Noise (another futurist reference) and Propaganda, produced machine-music too poised and chilly to fit easily into 1980s compilation albums, but rediscovered and revered since. And Horn collaborated with fellow-Buggle Bruce Woolley on Grace Jones’ magisterial ‘Slave to the Rhythm’.

By the end of the decade, as Stock Aitken and Waterman’s version of electro-pop crowded the charts, ZTT were finding a new musical inflection point, trying to assemble a techno supergroup with Derrick May, and releasing records by Adamski, Seal and 808 State (it was the death of 808 State’s Andy Barker that got me thinking about ZTT). These were pioneering cross-over tracks but not populist novelties, as comfortable mimed on Top of the Pops as they were mixed with obscure Dutch white labels in a warehouse or disused airfield. The grandiloquent Morley/Horn touch can be detected in the spoken word into to ‘In Yer Face’, 808 State’s jackhammer second single, harking back to the Frankie’s riffing on Hitler and Castro speeches in ‘Two Tribes’ (amazing how much more accepted playing with Fascist and Nazi references was in the 1980s).

ZTT’s records pepper the critical touchpoints of 1980s and 1990s cultural history, as does their iconography of logos, Katherine Hammett t-shirts and album cover design, but the label’s legacy seems curiously weightless – compared to Manchester’s Factory Records, for example. Nobody could call Frankie Goes to Hollywood a one-hit wonder, but like many ZTT acts they burned brief and bright, then sputtered or stormed out in personal and legal disputes (808 State are a rare exception to this rule). Paul Morley describes this ephemerality as intentional. Interviewed by Barney Hoskins in 2013, he said:

“I’ve always been a bit pissed off with people like Weller and the Clash and Killing Joke, these people who say there can be some kind of polemic within pop. Well, Two Tribes was trying to prove to people that it’s impossible. I mean, we get to No 1 for nine weeks with an explicit, extravagant anti-war thing with the real government warning on there, and the next week it’s George Michael taking over at No 1, and that’s the end. Nine weeks, and nothing’s happened. I like that in a way.”

Does London really have the lowest cases and lowest vaccination rates?

As autumn sets in and Covid case numbers drift upwards, there is some good news for Londoners. Having been hit hardest by the first wave of infections, the capital now has some of the lowest case numbers. On 18 October, out of 315 English lower tier (unitary and district) councils, the ten with the lowest case rates were all London boroughs (except where indicated, all data in this article have been downloaded from the excellent Government dashboard).

This isn’t to downplay the terrible effect Covid has had on London. The disease has already killed more than 20,000 people in the capital, and has had a particularly brutal impact on poorer and disadvantaged communities. However, unlike March 2020, when cases shot up in the city and widespread urban flight was predicted, today you are safer from Covid living in Inner London than almost anywhere else in the UK.

This is good news, but it’s not immediately clear why London cases are so low. While the capital has the highest levels of antibodies according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, it also appears to have the lowest vaccination rates. The ten English lower tier authorities with the lowest vaccination rates by 14 October were all in London, and are many of the same boroughs that also have low infection rates. I’ve been wondering how we can account for this, without making spurious assertions about vaccine effectiveness.

Vaccination is not the only way to acquire immunity, so Londoners’ early exposure to the virus will have made a difference. London’s cumulative case numbers are equivalent to around 12.5 per cent of the population, which is higher than the other southern English regions, but lower than the Midlands and North. But in the early days of the pandemic, most cases were untested and unreported unless people became seriously ill, so London’s total cases have almost certainly been underestimated. By July 2020, 13 per cent of working age Londoners were already estimated to have been exposed to the virus, twice the national average.

However, there are also issues about how vaccination rates are calculated. Most Covid statistics use the 2020 mid-year population estimates as their denominator, but vaccination rates use the National Immunisation Management Service (NIMS) database. Reputable commentators have suggested that this database, which has been credited for supporting the rapid roll-out of vaccines, tends to overestimate populations of working age adults – particularly young adults and students, who are most mobile. Using ONS mid-year estimates for 2020 rather than NIMS figures makes a big difference to vaccination rates in London, as shown in the chart below, which shows the position as of 12 October.

Richard 2

(A side note: might the ONS mid-year estimates from 2020 also be wrong? They probably are. Most commentators believe London has lost population over the last year, though estimates vary wildly, from Professor Jonathan Portes’ estimate that around 700,000 people may have left the capital, to the GLA’s more cautious projection that around 100,000 people have done so. If we reduced London’s population by a pretty extreme ten per cent, or around 900,000 people, both vaccination and case rates would be higher, but not dramatically so – though the effect would be greater if population loss was concentrated in the Inner London boroughs.)

What does this all tell us? The first thing, which many of us have learnt over the past 18 months, is to be careful to interrogate statistics, asking what story they are being made to tell and whether there are other stories that might also fit, particularly where there seem to be dramatic differences between places. 

The second is to ask why local vaccination rates are being published in ways that seem to make take-up look artificially low in places with younger populations. This might seem trivial, or even a useful nudge for the young and for people in vaccine-hesitant communities to get their jabs, but using questionable data for righteous ends can be toxic. There are enough scurrilous rumours about vaccination effectiveness circulating without allowing people to draw hasty conclusions from the fact that the places with the lowest case rates are also those that appear to have the largest proportions of unvaccinated people.

The figures for deaths in council areas are seven day case rates by date reported, and the deaths attributed to Covid in the capital are defined as those where Covid has been mentioned on the death certificate, as of 14 October. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Careless vistas

So many prime ministers have pledged action on social care before recoiling, that I really wanted to celebrate the PM grasping the late summer nettle of reform. But he seems to have  brushed casually past it while racing after shimmering mirage of making the NHS “the envy of the world”. Providing a ‘cap and floor’ for personal contributions to care is a good thing. It will reduce anxiety and help protect inheritances for many moderately well-off families, though using workers’ national insurance contributions to do so seems pretty well the least appropriate way of achieving that.

Or almost. State-provided adult social care (which London Councils estimate is 65 per cent of home care and 54 per cent of residential care) is currently funded by London’s boroughs, drawing on government grants, and the dysfunctional ugly twins of local government finance – council tax and national non-domestic rates.

Paying for social care accounted for more than 50 per cent of London borough service spending in 2018/19 according to Centre for London analysis (excluding public health, education and police services). London’s older population and younger population with care needs are both forecast to grow over the next decades, so the costs will rise. When he was chief executive of Barnet Council, Andrew Travers drew a ‘Graph of Doom’ showing social care (including children’s services) gobbling up the whole borough budget by 2030. The £3 billion or so (out of a total of £36 billion) left for reform of the system over the next three years would only just close the funding gap in London. It’s pretty thin gruel.

Even putting the matter of funding levels and taxes to one side for a moment, it makes no sense for the service to be delivered this way. People value social care, and see it as a critical service, but also look to councils for housing, planning, waste collection, street cleanings, park, libraries and schools.

The current model also creates an unhealthy tension between the NHS and social services, as older people are shunted gracelessly between home care, hospitals and residential care. I have heard anecdotes about councils employing full time lawyers to argue against hospital discharges into their care, and (full disclosure) I am personally in the middle of an unseemly haggle with the NHS and social services about who should be providing my mother’s care.

The row over the miserly allocation of funding to social care improvement, compared to the sums lavished on the NHS, illustrates the point. It is artificial to distinguish between the care provided to an old person at home and the care she receives on a hospital ward, not least because if you get the former right, you are less likely to have to pay for the latter.

I am generally all for devolution, but I think this may be the exception. The PM announced that the “NHS and social care systems need to be brought closer together” and talks of “integrated care systems”, but we have been hearing soft phrases like that for years. I think we need to be bolder, and nationalise funding for adult social care.

This does not necessarily mean nationalising care homes and care agencies, though in some cases that might be desirable or even necessary. It should mean tighter regulation to ensure decent pay and more consistently compassionate care.  In many cases, services would be provided pretty much as they are now (the NHS is far more used to operating through third-party providers than it was in the past), but decisions would be taken in a genuinely integrated way, where budgets allocations were not the issue.

This is not intended as a criticism of borough social services departments – London has some pioneering boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham, who are I think the only local authority who levy no charges for home care, regardless of care recipients’ savings.

And the NHS is far from perfect; it has a lot to learn from social services about the management of long-term conditions, which often seems to take second place to the more life-affirming business of ‘curing’ people in hospitals. There would still be a role for local authorities, in managing interfaces with housing and other services, in promoting public health and preventative services, and in acting as champions and advocates for their residents – perhaps through continuing to play a part in assessments of need.

There are elements of today’s announcement that should be celebrated, but it is still tinkering with the system rather than seeking to transform and upgrade arrangements that date back 70 years. There has been a lot of talk about better joint working between the NHS and local government, but progress has been limited in London.  I’m afraid that the consequences of missing the opportunity for more fundamental structural change – or at least beginning a debate about it – will become increasingly apparent in the next few years.

Paying the price

Saying that Londoners are underpaid may not win many votes outside the M25, but persistently low pay is a huge problem for the capital and its citizens.

One way of looking at this is to compare Londoners’ salaries to the benchmark set by the London Living Wage (£10.85 in 2020/21), which is calculated as a rate that meets “everyday needs”. The chart below compares this benchmark to London’s 10th and 25th percentile pay rates – that is, the highest pay for the bottom 10 per cent and bottom 25 per cent of earners respectively – for sectors where there are enough workers to enable reliable estimates.

The chart shows where London’s low pay problem is concentrated. Twenty-five per cent of workers in retail, hospitality, admin support (jobs like security guards), social work (bundled with better-paid health jobs above), and entertainment were being paid less than the minimum hourly rate needed to live in London in 2020. Hospitality wages are particularly low: more than 60 per cent of workers in that sector were paid less than the London Living Wage.

There are two other things worth noting. Firstly, low pay may be a national problem, but it is more acute in London. Loughborough University research on “minimum income standards” indicates that Londoners in different household types need between 20 and 60 per cent more than people in other UK urban areas to afford a decent quality of life.

London jobs do pay a wage premium, but this is less than 10 per cent at the bottom end of low-paid sectors such as hospitality, security, residential care work and construction. In other words, the workers who most need the wage premium to live in London are also those least likely to get it.

Second, London’s lowest-paid sectors – industries such as food production (one of the lowest paid manufacturing sub-sectors), hospitality and social care – are some of those with the most acute labour shortages at the moment. (Others shortages, such as of HGV drivers, are complicated by the need for specialist training and licences.) They are also the sectors which have been most dependent on overseas workers in recent years.

The issue of labour shortages is hitting the news – and supermarket shelves – right now,  though some suggest the problem will solve itself over the coming weeks, as the distorting effects of pandemic support measures are removed. The furlough scheme, which has been accused of keeping workers in defunct jobs, rather than pushing them to look for new ones, ends next month. But it has been winding down for a while – the number of furloughed jobs in London halved between the end of February and end of June (though this is a slower rate of decline than other English regions) – while labour shortages have persisted or worsened as the economy has re-opened.

The other element of pandemic support has been the temporary £20 per week increase in Universal Credit (UC). More than a million Londoners were claiming UC in June 2021, three times the number two years earlier. Some of these are people who are out of work, but nearly 400,000 are working Londoners whose pay is simply not adequate to their needs. The removal of the £20 per week increase in UC, also due to take place at the end of next month, might encourage some non-working Londoners into employment, but will also push more working Londoners into poverty.

If people won’t be forced back into low-paid jobs by the removal of state support, can we look overseas instead? As border restrictions relax, London may once again attract workers from around the world, though the new immigration regime will prevent new arrivals for working in some of the city’s most crisis-hit sectors. 

But by debating how we can use imported labour and benefit subsidies to fill jobs that don’t pay enough, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Beyond the question of basic morality, coronavirus has exposed the precariousness of this approach to staffing our shops, bars, restaurants, building sites and care homes. Low pay may even be holding back innovation, as the Resolution Foundation recently observed, and hence productivity growth.

London’s economy is likely to change dramatically in coming years as the long-term impacts of the pandemic combine with the impact of technology and action on climate change. To be ready for these changes and the opportunities and disruptions they will create, London needs to pay workers better (as proposed by my former colleagues at Centre for London) or find smarter ways of doing their jobs. We can no longer afford low wages. 

Originally published by OnLondon.

Commuting again, cheek-to-cheek?

People are starting to come back to Central London, even if caution about rising case numbers, new variants and the onset of summer holidays mean the recovery is slow burn rather than big bang.

The graph below compares Transport for London (TfL) data on use of contactless and Oyster cards to tap in and out of stations on three sample days, according to different types of station (more detailed data and the station typology can be seen here). The days, chosen by me, are the last Thursday in July this year and last year, and the last Thursday in February last year. 

Screenshot 2021 08 12 at 14.14.00

The change between July 2020 and July 2021 is striking. Each group of stations saw around twice as many taps at the end of last month compared to the previous July, when restrictions were similarly relaxed, with a slightly stronger recovery for ‘City’ and ‘Tourist’ destinations, though ‘City’ station usage (which includes Canary Wharf, Holborn and Clerkenwell) remains only a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Comparisons with February 2020 show we are still a long way from business as usual, and it will be interesting to see whether change accelerates in September. But the overall picture looks positive for those who want to see people – the lifeblood of Central London – return to its streets, and is in line with the “organic” return to cities that James Forsyth wrote about in The Times last week.  

However, there could be bumps in the track ahead. One relates to human behaviour. Like many people, I have found my recent train and Tube trips a pretty pleasant experience. I’ve had a seat and not been too close to other people, even if wearing a mask is a minor spec-fogging inconvenience.

The closer we get to pre-pandemic levels of loading, however, the closer we will get to crowding levels that we find uncomfortable. It’s hard to say in advance what these will be – standing room only, shoulder-to-shoulder, armpit-to-nostril? – and tolerances will vary, but I suspect each of us could reach a tipping point where we no longer feel so happy using the Tube, however low Covid cases may be. 

More staggered commuting hours may mitigate crowding. And we can expect some reduction in demand from increased working from home, though if everyone works from home on Monday and Friday it will do little to ameliorate crowding midweek. But I suspect there will be a self-regulating brake on levels of Tube usage over the next few years at least, and that brake will apply itself at a lower level than before the pandemic.

The problem will become a whole lot worse if Transport for London’s funding deal, still being thrashed out with government, forces cuts in service frequency and capacity, as government has suggested it might. A recent national poll suggested that 23 per cent of people anticipate using public transport less, with most of those expecting to use cars more. In London, congestion, the soon-to-be enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone and parking charges may make that less of an option. But squeezing services could increase crowding, and in turn drive more people away from public transport – maybe to walk or cycle, but maybe just to stay away from Central London altogether.

TfL needs a funding deal that recognises how precarious London’s recovery could be, and how easily service cutbacks could push the Tube into spiral of overcrowding, falling passenger numbers and falling revenues. This means looking beyond reliance on fares for the next few years at least, to run the system as a vital amenity for urban recovery, rather than a commercial service to customers. If the government wants people to come back into London and other city centres, it needs to support public transport systems that marry environmental sustainability with economic vitality.

First published by OnLondon.

Bringing beauty back

Sometimes it seems like the government is determined to turn people like me against its planning reforms.

While it is still unclear how the new system will operate in London, planning reform should help with housing delivery. The idea of shifting from “development control” to “zoning” seems inherently reasonable. Too much time and money is spent by developers, consultants, councillors and planners thrashing out permissions for individual schemes, balancing housing targets with local campaigners’ concerns, design considerations, viability assessments and national policy.

Pushing those debates “upstream”, to properly involve local people in preparing local plans and design codes and then allowing councils, housing associations and developers to get on with building, should both empower citizens, and reduce red-tape and delays.

Furthermore, given the shoddiness of some recent housing, the government is right to underline the importance of design quality throughout. Good design will help secure community assent for urgently-needed new development and also create better places, improve everyday life, and ensure that we enhance our landscape with beautiful new buildings that can last, rather than despoiling it with crappy ones which will make future generations scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for Place, secretary of state Robert Jenrick underlined the importance attached by government to design, citing the revised National Planning Policy Framework, which threads “beauty” into policy, and a National Model Design Code, which sets the framework for local codes.

The Office for Place itself, which will initially be based in Jenrick’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and chaired by Nicholas Boys Smith, who headed the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, will support communities and the development industry in creating “popular, healthy, beautiful and sustainable places”.

So far, so laudable. But Jenrick seemed unable to resist lunging for the big red button marked “culture war”, declaring that “Poll after poll suggests we prefer the homes built before planning really began with the 1947 Planning Act, not those that came after,” and decrying unspecified “post-war mistakes”.

This broad dismissal of post-war design and planning prompts questions and concerns about precisely how “beauty” will be defined, especially given extensive press briefing about “traditional architectural styles” and local materials. Is beauty to be defined as traditional, and vice-versa? There seems to be a tide of anti-modernist sentiment. In a recently article called ‘Why is the Modern World So Ugly?’, Alan de Botton asserted that “when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo”.

This seems sweeping to say the least. It is true that Adolf Loos rejected the highly decorated styles of the early 20th Century in his writings, which are often seen as a foundation stone of modernism, and Le Corbusier talked of homes as “machines for living”. But it was gratuitous ornament that they rejected, not the whole concept of beauty. For the early modernists, the beauty of structures resided in the honest and expressive use of good materials, not in applying “lipstick to the gorilla”.

London, like other UK cities, has some great examples of modernist housing, much of it designed by the huge teams of architects who worked for the post-war London County Council, for the Greater London Council and for boroughs such as Camden. Council estates like Lillington Gardens, Alexandra Road, Churchill Gardens, Odhams Walk, Golden Lane and Balfron Tower are very different expressions of modernist style, but all were designed with an eye to beauty in their scale, in the interplay between materials and greenery, in the use of light and shadow.

These schemes are popular with residents too, as shown by recent controversies over redevelopment of Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill in Lambeth. And modernist private schemes such as the Barbican (pictured) and Blackheath’s Span Houses are also highly sought after. “Legions of international tourists normally flock to our market towns and cathedral cities,” Jenrick said. They increasingly flock to the Barbican and Blackheath too.

There are some poorly designed and built modernist housing developments in London –  idealistic vertical villages that now feel neglected and tired. But there are just as many recent horrors that have simply stuck on the coach lights, porticos and ionic columns of “traditional architecture” as lazy ornamentation or that have thoughtlessly and cheaply replicated the glossy glass panels, tiny rooms and appliquéd balconies of so many recent residential towers.

London has a rich modernist heritage of which it should be proud, and the city’s architects – many once again working for boroughs – are continuing to develop an architectural language that incorporates both tradition and innovation. It will be interesting to see how this can be reflected in city-wide and local design codes in coming years.

As Jenrick said, “there is wisdom to be drawn” from past experience. But this shouldn’t exclude modernism. As controversies over redevelopment rage, we need a broader debate to understand and criticise, but also value and learn from, what London’s architects and planners have built over the past 80 years.

First published by OnLondon.

Level 21

There is an argument to be made for regional levelling-up, even in the pages of On London. Poverty and ill-health may be spread throughout the country, but the productivity gap between London and other UK regions and cities is wide and has been growing. In 2018, London’s workers generated an average of £46 per hour worked compared to an average for £32 for England’s other city regions. And that gap is wider than in most other European countries.

This productivity gap results in significant fiscal transfers from London to the rest of the UK – nearly £4,000 per head each year. Building higher productivity in other UK regions should, in the long-term, help rebalance tax and spending across the country, as well as improving the lives of citizens. As the Prime Minister said in his levelling-up speech this morning, making every UK region as productive as London would make a huge difference.

And there are ways of stimulating productivity outside the capital. One is to invest more in research and development (R&D) in universities outside the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge, as was recently recommended in a report for NESTA. Another would be to accelerate development of Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting the major cities of northern England and complementing the north-south connections of HS2.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. One is cost. However much the PM asserts that “this is not a zero-sum” game, commitments cost money. Northern Powerhouse Rail would cost around £40 billion and levelling-up R&D spending would require about £4 billion extra each year. Both projects could generate significant returns in terms of productivity and tax revenues, but over the less electorally-helpful longer term.

That connects to the second problem, which is that both of these projects would directly benefit larger cities, helping to create and connect hubs of economic activity and growth in places such as Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham, which already have strong research universities. But few of these places vote Conservative in large numbers (the West Midlands is an exception, which may explain the choice of Coventry as the PM’s speech venue), nor is building their HE-led knowledge economy guaranteed to secure more votes.

The “red wall” votes that the PM is keen to shore up are from smaller towns, outlying areas, places that feel more left behind. It is true that if investment in cities was successful indirect benefits would spread much wider. Just as towns like Brighton and Basingstoke benefit from their proximity to London, smaller towns and cities clustered around the norther cities would gain.

There would be jobs directly created to support new city enterprises, commuters and hybrid workers spending more money locally, and new opportunities opened up so that, as the PM said, people wouldn’t have to move away from where they grew up (though speaking as someone who grew up in villages and small towns, I can tell the PM that getting away was my priority, not a terrible burden).

But I’m not sure the government is ready to make the case that urban investment helps everyone. The urban-dominated ‘Northern Powerhouse’ didn’t get a mention, nor did investment in R&D, nor did major rail infrastructure. Instead we had a breathless litany of initiatives – Football pitches! New roads! Cycle Lanes! Hydrogen! Will Jennings and colleagues recently described this as “governing as political spectacle”, committing to projects that make a quick, visible and maybe superficial difference, rather than a longer-lasting and systemic one. We’re back to Tony Blair calling, in a leaked memo, for “eye-catching initiatives with which I can be personally associated.”

It was positive that the speech turned to devolution and local leadership towards the end, though galling to hear the PM complain about how centralised the UK is, given how Sadiq Khan has been treated in recent months. It sounds like the forever-delayed Devolution White Paper may yet inform the Levelling Up White Paper expected in the autumn – though talk was of county-level devolution deals where local leadership aligned with government objectives, rather than a new settlement between the centre and localities.

Levelling-up itself remains elusive. There were nods to closing the productivity gap in the PM’s speech, but too much was given over to a generic but worthy list of ways to make places and people’s lives better across the country. These are important, but while they may mitigate regional imbalances, they don’t really address them. We’ll have to wait for the White Paper to see how the PM’s levelling up plans balance the serious and strategic, with the superficial and electoral.

First published by OnLondon, 15 July 2021.

A pretty bleak hope

I have a terrible admission. I suspect the Government has more or less made the right decision in relaxing restrictions from 19 July.

It’s clearly a fraught subject, but I can only take on trust what chief medical officers Chris Whitty said at the press conference yesterday (around 20 minutes in): whereas there was a strong scientific consensus for delay from 21 June, there is no such consensus now, and that there is “extremely wide agreement” that an ‘exit wave’ is inevitable, whenever restrictions are lifted. Those statements make it very hard to argue for continued imposition of some of the toughest government restrictions – on freedom of movement and assembly – that we have seen since World War 2.

The next few months will be bumpy, even if people take it as slowly as the Government is urging. Infection rates are falling in some places: the surge we saw in Brighton last month has subsided, but I suspect that this is a false dawn as students have dispersed (there have been similar slowdowns in other university cities). There have also been sharp drops in places like Blackburn, where this wave started, and peaked around a month ago. But I’d be surprised if cases didn’t go up again in coming months as people start deploying their new freedoms (though I get the impression that restrictions are already being ignored by some of the age groups who have seen most infections).

But I don’t think we’ll be going back into another full lockdown. I can’t see the point. In March to June last year, we didn’t really know what we were dealing with, how to treat it, how to test for it, whether we could inocculate against it. The lockdown bought us time. In January to April this year, we knew we had a vaccine that worked, so it would have been absurd not to seek to suppress cases of a deadly virus while the vaccine was deployed through the population.

Now, apart from younger people and refuseniks, we are as vaccinated as we are going to get. There is nothing new coming to save us. We need to get through the exit wave, and accept that there will be losses and damage (though scientists suggest that the difference will be one of timing rather than scale in response to different re-opening dates). And we need to hope – it’s a pretty bleak hope – that the NHS can cope and that we will be safer the other side. Despite the rhetoric, there have only ever been two strategies for dealing with covid: aquiring population immunity through infection and inocculation, or suppressing the disease. Suppression went out the window early on (and can’t really work long-term on an individual country basis), so we are left with managing the timing and route to population immunity.

The Government’s approach can easily look callous, however. The latest guidance for clinically vulnerable people more or less amounts to ‘Don’t get covid’, and we still lack adequate pay and protection for people forced to isolate because of the illness – particularly those in more exposed professions. I can see the case for replacing precautionary quarantine with a regime based on testing and symptoms, but it can’t make sense for people who know they have covid to be forced to go to work. These blindspots make the Government look at the very least careless about those who are clinically or economically vulnerable. I can’t understand why they don’t see this.

So I’m looking forward to standing near a bar again, to saying goodbye to bossy signage, QR codes and performative perspex, to returning to packed gigs in due course. But I’ll be wearing my mask on the train, and approaching the next phase of the pandemic with trepidation not celebration.

Buy with a little help

Should wider home ownership be a public policy objective? It is one of the big fault lines in housing policy debates. Advocates argue that ownership represents better value than renting, offers people a way to build up capital and creates more stable neighbourhoods. Sceptics say that our obsession with property ownership is diverting investment from more socially useful channels and fuelling a monstrous bubble of unaffordable house prices.

Both arguments are true to an extent. Home ownership has built up capital for generations and supported social mobility, but as prices have shot up more and more people have been locked out. Home ownership rose through the 20th Century, from fewer than 25 per cent of households in 1918 to nearly 70 per cent in 2001, though it has fallen back since then and particularly since the financial crisis of 2008/09. 

In London, ownership fell sharply for 25-34 year olds in the first years of this century. Fifty per cent of that age group were owner-occupiers in 2001, but only 27 per cent were in 2016. The proportion has risen slightly since then (as a result of stalled prices and extended availability of Help to Buy loans), but remains low by historic standards. 

It’s not hard to see why: mortgages may be relatively affordable, but the 2019/20 English Housing Survey, published this week, found that the median deposit for London’s first time buyers was £70,000 – more than twice the median salary. Given that less than half of those renting privately have any savings at all, it is mainly those with family wealth (“the Bank of Mum and Dad”) who can buy a property.

Some buyers have been assisted by the Help-to-Buy Equity Loan scheme (H2B), which was launched in 2013. It allows buyers to borrow a proportion of their deposit from the state and repay it when they sell-up or remortgage. Take up was initially low in London, but has increased since the maximum loan available was raised in 2016.

The scheme has been controversial. By stoking demand while doing to nothing to boost housing supply, it has been accused of pushing up prices. Restricting the scheme to new-builds has fuelled overpriced, poor quality schemes aimed primarily at the H2B market. These is also a risk that both government and house-buyers are left with losses in a period of stagnating prices. And now, the government has started winding the scheme down, restricting it to first-time buyers, and planning to shut it down completely by 2023. They have not said what, if anything, will replace it.

What is to be done? Many would advocate a huge increase in social housing provision and an end to the obsession with the “property ladder”. We certainly need more social housing. But as someone who bought a home when they were relatively cheap, I am uneasy with “Generation X-plaining” to younger people that they should be happy renting and miss out on the security and opportunities that can come with home ownership. And London’s recovery from coronavirus will not be helped if people who want to buy have to move out of the city (or choose wealthier parents). 

Of course, we don’t know what will happen to UK house prices as we recover from the Covid crisis. As the Stamp Duty holiday ends and the recession bites, the market may slow or even go into reverse. London already has the lowest rate of house price growth in England. Market moderation is welcome, but London would need a precipitous and damaging crash in prices (which would freeze the supply of new homes for sale) to bring them in line with wages and savings. Even the government’s favoured solution – discounted “first homes” – would require deposits beyond the means of many Londoners.

There is a powerful moral case for supporting first-time buyers, particularly those without family wealth, and the core of the H2B approach – a state-sponsored loan that is repaid as and when property prices rise – seems sound. But the scheme needs fixing. Firstly, it should not be restricted to new build, thereby tying young people into an expensive and mixed-quality market. Its primary purpose should be levelling the playing field, not “stimulating the market”. And the scheme should be able to run for longer than five years, particularly given the choppy conditions of the property market right now.

Would this simply fuel the speculative fires of the UK housing market? Maybe. But punishing young people from poorer backgrounds for the exuberance of property speculation seems absurd and unfair. So we should accompany support for first time buyers, with reform of the tax breaks that make home ownership so attractive as an investment – for example, the UK’s outdated and regressive property taxes, and even the exemption of family homes from capital gains and inheritance taxes. There is no reason, beyond electoral calculation, that homes and homes alone should allow untaxed capital accumulation. 

Restricting house-buying to wealthy families is a problem. Runaway house price inflation has also been a problem. Both problems have been most acute in London in recent years, and they need to be tackled together if the city is to offer opportunity to present and future citizens alike as it recovers from the pandemic. 

First published by OnLondon.