The dysfunction, violence and moral decay vividly painted by J. G. Ballard’s acclaimed 1975 novel ‘High Rise’ were celebrated early this year in a cinematic reworking starring Tom Hiddleston. Supposedly influenced by the soaring architecture of seventies London, the painfully accurate future it gazed upon will be familiar to millions.
Less so for its tales of stockbrokers murdering pets or magazine editors eating cat food. More for the squabbling as different echelons of the community inside the high-rise seek acceptance, trying to move up the ranks. The squabbles that break out are driven as much by the social structure as the mechanical failings of the 40-storey building.
With predictable melodrama, citing “pigs at the trough” in a recent conservation newsletter, the heritage lobby unveiled plans by Historic England for a new consultation earlier this year to protect the River Thames from skyscrapers. They warned that we risk creating a canyon through London.
Given the post-Brexit and post-stamp duty hike downturn in prime London flats, it may have to do very little.
Of the 200 buildings over 20 storeys planned, many could still be mothballed. Soaring construction costs and a collapse in investor appetite for posh pads (driven by economic uncertainty and new, punitive stamp duty rates) have taken the bottom out of the market. Many funds are still gathering their energy in the background, but as yet, the big sell-off largely anticipated by the media hasn’t happened.
Yet, with London’s new Great Leader Sadiq Khan vying for greater control over London’s skyline – and a higher slab of affordable housing – it does raise renewed concerns about who has one eye on the city’s future.
When Ken Livingstone was elected mayor in 2000 the shackles around building upwards came off. More than half of the capital’s tallest buildings have been constructed since then, turning the traditional low-rise city into a staple of density. During that time, Britain’s housing crisis has emerged with the rental sector – and house prices generally – doubling in size.
While most people accept the need for new homes, opinions are universally divided on where these should be and what they look like. As we’ve seen with the Shard, Gherkin and recent Garden Bridge proposals, what constitutes great design is hugely subjective. Unless it seems, it comes from the Guardian-wielding, gluten-free bakery brigade. You know the types.
Just as many blame “greedy developers” for scarring the landscape in the hunt of profits (a fair statement given the dismal quality of many developments across the land), equally others are dismayed by the noisy – unelected – minority who often get heard most clearly. The “anti” lobby is typically older wealthier folk; lucky enough to have been alive when you
could buy a house in London for the price of a car.
Although density doesn’t necessarily equal height, if Khan and other politicians still plan to brick wall efforts to open up the greenbelt, then it doesn’t take Mark Carney to calculate we need to build up. And with the modular construction now back in vogue, the potential to do this quickly, using less land and less money is attractive.
However, do we just risk creating future ghettos? Not if we think carefully about mixing up neighbourhoods, blending tenures and designing these schemes with the right mix of amenities. Cross-subsidising housing – as seems to be the only way we can deliver affordable accommodation – shouldn’t mean poor doors in this day and age.
Yet if the new mayor and new prime minister are serious about tackling the housing need, then they need to get a move on and think about how we can use public land and reconsider out dated aversions. Does this mean riding roughshod over democracy? No. It just means we don’t let the vocal few take decisions that affect the majority. What’s always annoyed me the most is how NIMBYs who want to stop something will often cite a very reasonable affordable housing quota, even though their main opposition is predominantly against the affordable element.
Similarly old-fashion outlooks on living in towers also smear people’s views. It’s about time we sent in the window cleaners.