Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Make yourself at home

Smugness is not attractive so like everyone sensible I try to avoid it. But if I were to be smug about anything it would be about where I live. My small, not terribly convenient flat is in an inner London suburb where, if I were buying now, I would not be able to afford to live. There has been a ripple effect in London where successive waves of buyers talk wistfully about areas that their elders found barely acceptable. Now it has reached the point where first-time buyers, even in well-paid jobs, cannot afford to live in the capital at all unless subsidised by serious rich parents.
Housing starts are at an all time low, much of which is built is ugly and cramped because housebuilders can build anything they like, knowing it will sell. This despite the fact that potential buyers still find it hard to get loans, and even those living in social housing in London are being priced out. There was a touching interview on Radio 4 yesterday with a woman who is working part time and having her benefit cut. She is looking at moving to Birmingham or Glasgow but this would mean giving up her job and becoming even more dependent on the state. In The Guardian yesterday, Steve Rose wrote a feature headlined 'Squatters are not home stealers,' saying that the government has misrepresented their position in order to pass its laws on squatting.
In fact everything the government is doing in regard to housing seems to be driven by either rigid ideology or blind panic. Not enough housing? Let's tear up the Building Regulations. Still not enough housing? Let's allow people to build everywhere and disregard the green belt. House builders are not short of sites, and are not prevented from building by Building Regulations. Instead the situation is far more complex, tied up with the market and, it is true, by planning problems in dense areas.
In this dense tangle, what can architects do? According to The Architects' Journal, quite a lot. One of the comments on the launch of its More Homes, Better Homes campaign says that what we need are not more homes but fewer people and a redistribution of employment across the country. Maybe, but that is a big ask. In the meantime what we need are homes built now (or converted from existing buildings) in places where people want to live and, crucially, homes that people want to live in now and in the future. This means decent space standards for activities we can't yet contemplate, higher ceilings to retrofit fans that can cope with climate change, and the creation not just of reasonable individual homes but of proper functional neighbourhoods. It is a big ask, but the special intelligence of architects should help unravel it. The AJ is planning to publish a manifesto. It should be fascinating and, one hopes, influential.

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