Housing Blight

I live in a historic City, well I live just outside it in a rural hamlet with no local amenities other than street lighting. If I were to write this piece next year I would have to say I live just outside the city in a once rural, now urbanised suburb. Over the past twenty years the greenfield ‘strategic gap’ between the city and the villages has been built upon and intruded upon so heavily that once neighbouring small towns are very much in danger of becoming our suburbs. We are told we have a ‘housing crisis’. That may well be true in many of our large cities and it is certainly true of London but we are a small island with big aspirations and our politicians, who seem continually short on imagination and vision think that when in recession the only viable answer is to literally ‘build’ our way out of it. Visitors to the UK are often amused when they find themselves travelling through our post-war suburbs; row upon row of largely identical houses. It is immediately apparent to the foreign eye, I am told, where the poor people were expected to reside – and indeed, if you take time to study the historical architecture of our towns it is obvious that new housing was built to echo a supposedly defunct social strata . We have not done ourselves proud in our town planning, and we continue to fail our country in this.

When I lived in the City, the biggest issue was whether Mr and Mrs So and So were going to build their garage or extension in a style in keeping with the rest of the street, or in a way that it didn’t put a neighbouring house in shadow and block out their light, or whether the extra parking was going to overburden existing provision, it was all so simple back then…. Except it wasn’t really – a walk from our railway station into the city centre confirms the lack of thought given. All sorts of planning scams have been going on for years – lovely old buildings were allowed to stand empty, in disrepair – owned by someone on the local council, or in ‘the know’, who might sit with bare-faced cheek in planning meetings as it was reported that the owner of the property couldn’t be traced via some off-shore company in Jersey (or some such), counting the years and seeing the pound signs, until they could bull-doze it and build a cheap concrete money spinner on the site.  An industrial estate was built in the wrong place in the face of fierce opposition because local landowners made sure it wasn’t built in their back-yard, thank you very much! A ring road designed to ease the flow of traffic through the city met a similar fate – great idea but the local land estates weren’t going to let a road be built through their property and in the end the council planner got his calculations wrong and the ring road was set to go right past the historic cathedral, ergo it isn’t a real ring road as one part didn’t get built and the whole thing was a colossal compromise, knocking down Victorian housing that would still be standing today and looking a good deal nicer than some of the cheap housing now built on either side of the ring road which in effect as the city has grown, still takes traffic through the city not around it. Many towns and small cities will have similar stories I’m sure. I cry when I go through Guildford and wonder what must the local planners have been thinking or not thinking) to allow the roads through it to be built in such a way, that the High Street is under siege from elephantine concrete buildings and stands alone, an echo of an architectural heritage with people at its heart.

Now I live more rurally and am at the mercy of extreme weather and the seasons I appreciate far more fully, the need for building with nature and in a way that encompasses our rural heritage and needs.

No doubt many of our government have shares in development companies, or familial ties or perhaps are being blackmailed by them because why else would they allow such appalling deconstruction of our heritage on the scale that they do? It would seem our current government mandate is to use the UK as some kind of monopoly board; land is money, money is King! Developers of large housing projects are simply doing it for one reason – profit. None of these companies have any real philanthropic committment to society, to community or to people other than their own families* are aided and abetted by the greasing of palms, their expensive lawyers and deep pockets to build where they want, how they want and what they want. Protest as we may, developers know that they have enough money to throw at their projects and that they will get their way in the end – by hook and more often by ‘crook’.

We don’t build communities rather, just like a board game, houses are placed arbitrarily in order to meet housing quota and gain the greater profit.  We don’t build houses designed to last in terms of materials and quality, and in some cases we dont build houses that are fit for purpose with bedrooms for instance, that would fit a standard sized bed in them. We have energy standards but no-one builds beyond the minimum standard required, everyone cuts corners. The old adage ‘don’t buy the house that was finished on a Friday’ still holds true. New home-owner still have nightmare experiences of doors that were fitted back to front, boilers where the registration number has been filed off because the plumber fitted a cheap one instead of the one paid for and saved some money, or pipes that leak and windows that don’t close – floors with holes in them, drains that lead to nowhere, there’s a long, long list. Houses are built for profit and profit alone. Rarely is it otherwise.

New housing estates usually come with the promise of ‘community’ assets ie. if you let us build on your doorstep we’ll install a school, a play park, a community space, a shop…’ and in my experience in every instance these promises are rescinded on, it is only where communities stand together and chase, beleaguer, nag and threaten long legal battles that these promises are ever finally met and always compromised.  We should know better, we have enough examples of villages and towns that were built for people to live and work in – it’s just too expensive to follow those models and therefore not enough profit.  Even housing hero’s such as Wayne Hemingway can’t stem the tide of Noddy Town housing estates and sprawling connurbation. Little boxes designed for anything but living in, the barest nod given to the well-being of its occupants.

We build on flood plains, we fill in thousand-year old field drains, we build on green fields because it would cost too much and take to long to clear up the disused industrial sites and brown field sites available and produce lengthy statistics from experts to say that all this is fine but it never is. I think the rule should be that a new housing estate can only be built if the developer and a member of parliament or the local council also live there for a minimum period of five years. Unworkable! I hear you cry, possibly but no less unworkable than allowing them to build in the first place. I predict that in only ten years time we will be facing the backlash of all this irresponsible building and it wont be pretty. Thing is the people responsible wont be around to face the music – they’ll be sunning themselves abroad – after all once they’ve ruined the UK why would they want to live there? They at least can afford to leave. Housing blight is the greatest disease of the new millenium.

*I would love to hear of a large development company that was genuinely philanthropic