What does @kitmalthouse ‘s ‘British Vernacular’ imply about where Strategic Development should go?

Kit Malthouse speaking at Policy Exchange AJ on the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

 ’It’s totally critical to our mission of building 300,000 homes that we get this design conversation – this beauty conversation – correct. That we get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. That the architectural profession stops being so defensive about the preferences of the public.’

Talking about a ‘British vernacular’ of the mansion block, the mews house, the garden square and the terrace street, Malthouse said this was what the public seeks out and wants to live in ’even when it has a kind of Modernist interpretation’.

He said: ’Somewhere, because of this fractious debate, the profession has retreated from embracing this, and giving people what they want.’

He’s talking about Create Streets style mansion block type densities .  Rarely more than 6 storeys high.  A limit set by the height of ladders on Victorian fire tenders and the London buildings acts.  In London this was the kind of density assumed in the old London Plan density matrix.  That has now gone. It was exceeded too many times.  Tower blocks of 8 storeys or far higher crept into every major scheme where conservation and view constraints permitted, especially in Inner London and increasingly in town centre and main road sites in Outer London.  This of course is what the skyline campaign was founded to stop.

Is the signal now that we shouldn’t exceed 6 storeys?  That we should ‘give the pubic what they want’.  It is no surprise that given consumer surveys more of the public prefer mansion blocks to higher densities, but in London only the very rich can afford mansion blocks.  The case for going higher than six storey’s is one of affordability.  Internationally those cities that have built large numbers of flats in blocks of 6 or more storeys, like Seattle,  have kept a cap on affordability compared to those that havn’t, like San Fransisco and have on occasion seen surpluses of housing.  Leeds city centre is probably the closest analogue in England.  This is not to say the street, and traditional vernacular ground plane need be abandoned; we arn’t talking about Chinese superblocks of 30 storey buildings without traditional streets.  It is perfectly possible to build a base street layer of 6-8 storeys with occasional towers above spaced to avoid a ‘wall’ like effect and overshadowing.   Tower blocks don’t of course imply automatically higher densities if they are located in parkland type settings, but that never now occurs with higher density outbidding lower, and with tower blocks there is the pressure to locate them ever closer together and with ever higher ground coverage.  The Olympic Village and almost every major regeneration site in London now are examples of this.  The second argument for going higher than 6 storeys is avoiding sprawl.  The more higher density you build the less Green Belt you need to use and the less people need to travel longer distances, and/or by car.

There is a risk here of the government sending conflicting signals about the form of development they wish to see in cities such as London.  If as the minister says it is not a reheat of the 80s style wars but about form what form do they wish to see?  If they want to see less tower blocks that implies a lessening of housing targets in London.  However the SoS wants to see the already dramatically (and unrealistically) increased London Plan targets increased yet further, implying a tripling of London house-building.  This implies far far more tower blocks.

There is a certain economic niavity about Kit Malthouses view of architects here.  They don’t sit around thinking ‘hmmmm what does the public want’ , they work to briefs about what their clients want and if they don’t provide the floorspace in their briefs to which the site was evaluated and bought at and if they don’t deliver that they don’t work at all.  Almost every major site is a battle between the developer wanting to increase towers and objectors wanting to reduce them.  In extreme cases such as Bishopsgate Goods Yard the yield has reduced by over 80% from nearly 2,000 units (the capacity assessed in the London Plan and local plans) to under 300, in order to ‘fit in’.    Is the minister wishing to see similar reductions across the board in London and other major cities with concomitant reductions in urban intensification?

These issues raise particularly difficult issues for ministers and groups I greatly admire such as Create Streets.  #MoreBetterFaster in terms of housing- yes.  More Beautiful buildings – yes.  But both are motherhood statements without making the tough planning choices about form of development and location.  If minister are serious that it is not about style but form then it becomes a planning issue about what bulk of development in what forms goes where.  If you avoid crunching those numbers and making those choices you are wishing for two impossible things before breakfast.  You are falling into the Brexit like trap of wishing for conflicting unicorn like objectives then rejecting everything that comes along for violating one or the other and in the end doing little or nothing to alleviate the housing crisis.

forgive me for focussing on London but the issue is most pointed and critical here.  The problem we have with the draft replacement London Plan is it sets now parameters on form and density whatsoever, it just sets numbers and assumes windfalls will make the numbers up through changes to density and small site policy.  Then no-one knows how much to bid for land, so sensible developers are outbid by those who pay too much so affordable housing and other contributions are squeezed out of the system.

One of the reasons I favour a shift to a modern form based zoning system is that everyone knows what you can get on a plot, and incentives can be given to bulk for meeting various planning objectives.  You can zone areas for intensification clearly showing in 3d the envelopes permitted and if people don’t like that bulk you can clearly work out how much bulk needs to go elsewhere – for example outside London into new Garden Communities.  We lack that debate in London and everywhere at the moment because none can visualise housing numbers.  1,000 a year, what does that mean? So instead we have a messy hybrid discretionary-zoning system which satisfies nobody.

Imagine instead the London Plan was only two pages long, one one sheet of paper was a zoning map of London, dividing London and across boroughs into large scale zoning districts where a certain FAR (floorspace area ratio) of development was permitted and it added up to a certain bulk of development in London and per borough on side 2.  The figures would be defined by a GIS based method depending on the assessed capacity and rate of land use change assumed by different typology areas, i.e. cleared sites in outer London, town centres, inner and central London, in and outside CAs etc. and the assessed suitable forms and typologies for each.

Now lets say Hammersmith and Fulham for example complained, no Dawes Road should not be zoned the same as Studdridge Road etc they are quite different, to which the GLA could replay, ‘fine, refine the zoning locally how you like but every FAR you take off one street you must add FAR to another to meet the same targets, but in the meantime these are the zonings that apply, and what is more permission in principle with automatic affordable housing quotas apply’.    Then at lease we would have a proper debate about how much and where intensification is expected to what forms, what typologies and with what design controls.  Don’t expect planning to be any less controversial.  Many of those sites could be proposed with wonderful, beautiful designs and they would be almost as controversial.  Controversy is likely to push further overspill and Greenfield sites will always be opposed by Nimbys whatever the beauty of buildings.  If Bath has never been built there would be strong groups today protecting that they don’t care about the Georgian Squares and circuses they want to protect the valley of the Avon