Category Archives: Housing

Building on London allotments

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a conflict between social housing and green spaces, two of the most important issues facing London today. It concerns Northfields Allotments, a stunning sliver of green space in Ealing that is London’s oldest surviving allotment. I visited the allotments on a gorgeous June morning and was captivated by this secret garden hidden behind ancient hedgerows.

Northfields Allotments - rainbow 2_Credit - Paul Bate

Credit: Paul Bate

Rather than the rather staid lines of vegetables that I expected, the allotment was like 100 completely individual back gardens in one giant field – so some people had turned their spaces into meadows of wildflowers, others had grown small orchards, there were all manner of handmade sheds, somebody had flung a hammock across a makeshift porch, and there were several Wendy houses for the kids. It was an example of the best a city can offer – people of many nationalities and with very personal tastes thrown together and creating something truly magical.

Then I went across the road to meet Robin, who was living in an almshouse owned by Pathways, a local housing charity that also happen to own the allotment following various historical mergers. Robin’s flat was very small and a little rundown, but provided him with a home when he found himself homeless, jobless and unable to support himself. Thousands of Londoners face similar situations, and there isn’t enough housing being built to provide for all of them. It’s London’s greatest failing.

Pathways now want to correct this by knocking down Robin’s block and rebuild it to modern specifications. While that takes place, they will build a new block of social housing on a small strip of the allotment site. This is so they can keep all the residents of Robin’s block together during the rebuilding work. They will fund this – contentiously – by building a small element of private housing, either to rent or sell depending on what they are allowed to do (technically, they cannot sell the allotment land).

View over Northfields Allotments NW to SE_Credit - Nabil Jacob

Credit: Nabil Jacob

Robin argued very persuasively that the needs of vulnerable Londoners are paramount and the loss of a tiny amount of green space was no big deal. Christina and Ian at the allotments argued equally persuasively that green space was essential for London’s mental and physical wellbeing and that once it is gone, we never get it back (60% of the original allotment site was already under concrete following development in the 1970s). They also felt that Pathways would keep coming back for more land, so eventually there would be nothing left. A spokesperson for Pathways assured me they had no intention of doing so, but who is to say how his successors will feel in 20 years time? This is a deceptively large section of land and housing will continue to be a concern for decades. The temptation to repeat this process, taking another 5 per cent here and there, will surely be too great.

As I wrote this story, I found it very difficult to decide where I stood. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the allotment holders because I think there is going to be increasing pressure on inner London green spaces in the next few decades so it’s important to protect what we have – and it won’t just be charities hoping to build on it.

If I had ever been homeless myself, I’d probably feel very differently, though.

We need social housing, but we surely can do better than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reversing the ferret: affordable housing at Battersea Power Station

The Evening Standard, usually a reliable cheerleader of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, reports that the already limited affordable housing commitment is being slashed in half.

The argument appears to be that as the bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because of entirely predictable problems of over supply, the developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually need. The commitment had originally stood at more than 600. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, my book about the history of Battersea Power Station, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Some of these have since been moved to another location – ie, nowhere near the posh flats going up round the power station itself.

The Standard says the developers now want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering. That’s because following escalating costs caused by Brexit, they need to focus their finance on renovating the power station itself and building the new Northern Line extension. It’s the sort of trick used by developers all around the country as they attempt to weasel their way out of already meagre commitments, and at Battersea they can do this without making a new planning application or holding a public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. Conservative Wandsworth Council, whose commitment to a developer-led solution to the power station has been steadfast despite three decades of excruciating and occasional hilarious disappointment, are unlikely to object.

Ah, the irony. When I interviewed the amiable Rob Tincknell, the development’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was only the developer’s commitment to the Northern Line extension  (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units.

Now the argument is reversed. Because they have to build the NLE, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. It’s a classic piece of power station sophistry to match that of the recent decision to transform some planned residential units into commercial, despite earlier assurances that they having developed the perfect ingredients for a mixed use scheme they’d be fools to change their minds.

Tincknell told me in 2014 via email: “BPS makes its section 106 planning contributions in two ways. The first is a £200m plus contribution to the Northern Line extension (NLE), the second is 15% affordable housing or 565 units – the largest amount ever built in Central London.

The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double. Therefore, without the NLE the density at BPS would be about half (like the previous planning consent) and therefore even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30%, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Suddenly, all that has changed.

The developers claim they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Big Capital – Anna Minton

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There is no bigger issue in London politics than housing. It’s probably the most significant reason London voters of all ages and from almost every social background turned to Labour in such numbers in last week’s election, and I wonder if the demographic changes caused by the capital’s out-of-control housing market had wider repercussions, as yet unexplored.

Was it partly responsible for the hollowing out of the Tory vote in Kensington, where the wealthy British are being replace by non-voting non doms? Are suburban constituencies being affected by the presence of recent graduates, unable to afford property of their own, and living with parents in the previously Tory-voting shires? What about those who have been forced to leave London because of prices – are they going to turn the country red wherever they end up? For many people under 50 – as well as older, concerned for their children and grandchildren – it is housing, not Brexit, that is the prism through which everything is viewed.

So how did we get here? Anna Minton’s Big Capital provides many of the answers. A few decades ago, this would have been published with a blue cover by Pelican, one of those great, short, cheap books that simply and effectively explained a moment in society for a wider audience.

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With the minimum of fuss, Minton explores the historic reasons for the housing crisis – right to buy, planning laws, changes in the way benefits are distributed, overseas investment – and then shows how these have affected London. She shows how the luxury housing bubble has impacted Londoners further down the scale and highlights what happens to people and property after councils, frequently Labour ones, elect to blow-up estates and sell the land on the cheap to developers. She even spends some time in the marketing suite at Battersea Power Station, where she discovers the way developers are encouraging people to invest in a lifestyle rather than simply buy a home for their family.

Minton is interested in what this has meant for people, and she talks to renters, campaigners, developers and politicians, as well as those who have been forced out of London by hostile redevelopment.  She wraps things up by looking at a handful of possible alternatives to the mess we are in – the most simple yet impossible of which is that the state starts taking responsibility and builds places where its citizens can live.

There has been a consensus against council housing for decades but as the election showed, there is a renewed appetite for state spending where it’s clearly seen that the market has failed. A national policy of housebuilding should be simple vote-winner but as long as the Conservatives view right-to-buy as the flagship achievement of the Thatcher years, they won’t be able to face up to the continuing disaster they helped unleash in the 1980s, assuming they even want to. Labour under Corbyn do not have such a shibboleth, which goes some way towards explaining their success in London despite any discomfort with the party’s policy towards Brexit.

Big Capital is a short and angry book, filled with data, case studies, interviews and personal opinion. This was a style Minton first used for 2009’s Ground Control, a prescient and important study of New Labour regeneration on UK cities. Minton was the first person to seriously highlight nagging doubts about New Labour’s regeneration policy, looking at the way communities had suffered because of failures of planning, design and basic humanity. Most memorably, she looked at the issue of private control of public space, an increasingly important topic in an age when developers are given larger and larger areas of land with which to do as they please, making their own rules along the way. It was groundbreaking, as so much of this seemed to have happened while people were looking the other way, seduced by the buoyant economy before the crash of 2008.

Big Capital isn’t quite in that category. There’s little here that isn’t already well known or hasn’t been covered many times before. Its value, though, is to join the dots and to gather everything together in one place. As a textbook primer on where we are today, it’s essential.

 

Metroburbia – by Paul Knox

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METROBURBIA: The Anatomy Of Greater London by Paul Knox (Merrell)

London’s suburbia occupies so much space – 695 square miles according to Paul Knox – that it seems ridiculous people even try to summarise it with a single adjective, whether that’s “aspirational” or “banal”. The suburbs contain multitudes and are more like a network of a thousand individual towns then a uniform commuter-ville of identical streets. Knox describes them as “metroburbia”, which he defines as “a multimodal mixture of residential and employment settings, with a fusion of suburban and central-city characteristics”, which is a way of saying that there’s much more to London’s suburbs then large gardens and a fast train to Waterloo: they have shopping centres, office blocks, housing estates, schools, local governments and, critically, millions of residents who never dream of travelling to central London even if they benefit from being within its orbit.

Knox explored central London in his previous book for Merrell, London: Architecture, Building And Social Change, a glossy overview of the relationship between social change and architecture. That book focussed on 27 central districts, looking at how they were originally developed and then exploring in more detail a dozen key buildings. Here he again divides London into sectors, seven of them – Lea Valley, Northeast London, Thames Estuary, South London (all of it), Thames Valley, Northwest London and North London – as defined by the arteries of road, river and rail. Little, though, is made of these sectors once they have been established, with Knox instead taking a chronological overview of metroburbia’s growth and development.

The book is richly illustrated, with the historical narrative interrupted by numerous boxes that focus on individual buildings, trends, regions and housing estates. The story that unfolds is a useful way of understanding how the city has developed. At first, the suburbs were essentially used as a place to put the city’s problems. This is where you could place those big, ugly but necessary things such as cemeteries, asylums, prisons, sewage pumping stations and reservoirs. Housing at this time was just another problem to solve, and in the suburbs there was sufficient space to experiment with both social and private housing, whether in the form of domestic architecture or vast pioneering estates. The increase in population that came with the railways then created a need for further, more localised, infrastructure – libraries, police stations, hospitals, town halls. As a result, one of the joys of this book is the variety of styles it features. There are photos of 60s high-rise towers, modernist mansion blocks, art deco Golden Mile factories, neo-gothic Victorian asylums, Edwardian shopping parades and glitzy suburban villas, with tiny details picked over such as the subtle incorporation of postmodern motifs in domestic housing.

And it’s housing that ultimately dominates the story. The Green Belt is one factor behind this. A crucial reason for the attractiveness of suburbia, it is also a choke on growth with 14 outer boroughs giving more land to the Green Belt than they do to housing. A further complication is the continued fingers-in-ears approach to social housing, something the Government’s recent White Paper on housing suggests isn’t going to change any time soon. Knox picks over all this in a final chapters that analyses the current problem and possible outcomes. What is clear is that the impasse cannot be resolved without direct intervention, and that the fringe land of Metroburbia will be central to any solution.

Buy the book here – http://www.merrellpublishers.com/?9781858946511

 

Brief brutalism

There’s a passion for the architecture of Brutalism right now, as seen by the dozens of books that have recently been published showing erotically charged exposed concrete and right angles.

The Royal Academy has a short but interesting exhibition on the subject called Futures Found, open until the end of May.  This takes half-a-dozen different related aspects of post-war British architecture and investigates them with a mix of photos, books, film and objects – all set against the backdrop of fake concrete panelling.

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My favourite sections explored the architecture of car park and the role of architecture at the University of Essex, which was one of the country’s most radical campuses in the late 60s – and where the Angry Brigade had their roots.

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I liked also the section on an estate at Kennington, which included this example of how renderings and reality never quite overlap.

 

The final section looked at car parks, and also touched on the fetishisation of Brutalist architecture just as much as it has been demolished. Exhibits included a tote bag from Peckham and a certified lump of concrete from the old Trinity Square car park.

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Fiddling with the ingredients at Battersea Power Station

When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, chief executive of the Battersea Power Station development, for my book Up In Smoke, he went to great lengths to explain why the plan would be a success, not just as a business but as a new piece of city.

Well, he actually used the words “urban village”, but let’s try not to blame him for that.

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Tincknell enthused about how carefully they had worked out the exact mix of residential-commercial-leisure space in a way that would create the perfect “place” – a real destination that people wanted to visit. This was the social science of “placemaking” and the developer had published numerous reports and beautiful but boring books to explain their position.

He proudly told me the precise numbers: “57% residential. Of the remaining 43% that’s about 3.4m sq ft, 1.2m retail and restaurants, 1.7m sq ft of offices and the balance  in hotels, leisure and community space.”

These numbers, he insisted, were sacrosanct – they were the recipe that made the cake rise.

“It’s an appropriate density for the centre of the city,” he said when I questioned the scale of the residential aspect. “This level of density has been proved all round the world as a density that works. It creates a critical mass so the shops function, the public transport works, there’s a buzz and that’s what people come for. You create this mix of uses, this cocktail that you really believe in, you have to stick with it, you can’t fiddle with the ingredients.”

Guess what?

That’s right, the ingredients are now being fiddled with. According to an interview with Ticknell in the Financial Times,  the bottom has fallen out of the luxury flat market, causing problems for the power station model. But riding to the rescue are Apple, whose decision to move into the power station’s vast office space in 2021 has undoubtedly been a gigantic coup for the developers. Now, with Apple proving such an attractive hook, Tincknell is talking about turning over more of the residential aspect to offices. He told the FT that at least one planned building in the third phase of the scheme, designed by Frank Gehry and Foster + Partners, was under consideration for a change of use.

“I could easily see us adding another million square feet [of offices],” Tincknell says. “The great thing about a long-term scheme like this is we can adjust with the markets. If there’s no residential market and a very strong office market then we will build offices.”

It looks as if that perfect cocktail is being shaken not stirred.

For Up In Smoke, Tincknell promised me “that we are genuinely committed to creating a brilliant community. We feel very passionate. It will only make the place better. We have a responsibility to London. We are doing things way beyond the remit of the site so it fits in with London and genuinely improve the quality of life. If we succeed in that goal the value of the commercial and residential assets will rise and it will be a great place to live and visit. You can’t just develop it and run away, it has to work.”

On that latter promise, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

 

Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

Waterstones event

I will be giving a talk about Battersea Power Station’s failed dreams on Wednesday May 11 at 7pm at Waterstones in Clapham Junction. Further details here. Please come along and ask questions. It’s free.

A lovely review of Up In Smoke is on Caught By The River and I also wrote a long piece in The i Paper this week, exploring the power station’s history through quotes from those involved in its history. It’s pretty thorough and looks great. You can read that here.

Perhaps I should have asked Brian Barnes to knock up some posters? This is one of us from the 1980s.

BPSCG 1988 from Spectacle blog

Talking power station with Robert Elms

I was invited on Robert Elms’ Radio London show yesterday to talk about Battersea Power Station.

You can hear me here, from around 1 hr 39 minutes. Thanks to Robert’s team for inviting me on, and for Robert asking such excellent questions. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Listening to Robert Elms’s show in the late 1990s was fundamental to developing my fascination with London so this was quite an exciting event for me. In many ways, the nature of my love for London was more influenced by Elms than it was the likes of Sinclair or Ackroyd.

Incidentally, this was also the first time I had visited the BBC at Portland Place since 1999, when I was one of a handful of journalists invited to see a demonstration of TIVO by the BBC’s Head Of Future, who paused and then continued watching a live weather forecast. Many of us believed we had witnessed a form of witchcraft; one reporter even accused him of manipulating a VHS tape.

I also had a piece in Time Out this week, listing ten things you didn’t know about Battersea Power Station. You can read that here.

 

 

 

 

Up In Smoke

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station has a release date of April 26.

You can find out more at this website, which also tells you how to get in touch if you want me to do any talks or events.

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Expect me to be writing about this a lot more in the next few weeks.