Debate: “City, Country or Suburb?” at the Royal Academy

Following on from the ’100 Years 100 Buildings‘ display, I attended a lively and vital debate this week as part of the RA’s Future of House season, where a panel of four experts thrashed out exactly where we should be building new houses. Chaired by the Architecture Programme’s manager Owen Hopkins, James Goff (Chairman of Stirling Ackroyd), Loretta Lees (Professor of Human Geography, University of Leicester), David Rudlin (Director of URBED and winner of 2014 Wolfson Prize for Economics) and Shaun Spiers (Chief Executive of Campaign to Protect Rural Britain) were each given five minutes to put forward their views before the discussion was opened up to the floor.

There were a plethora of arguments for and against building on each area: the claim that cities have been over-densified, warping their social diversity and equality provoked the counter-argument that London is currently back at its post-war population and could easily accommodate more; calls to protect the green belt were met with assertive recitals of statistics, that, for example, a new garden city would only be taking about 6% of green belt land; the opinion we should use green belt land to expand current cities not new ones prompted one speaker to say that suburbs were the “slums of the future” and expanding them was not an option. At one point an architect in the audience cried out almost hysterically that building on the green belt would encroach on agricultural land, and where would all our food come from???! (This was quickly stamped on by one of the speakers pointing out how much food we import).

The debate was further complicated by Lees’ assertion that, far from dividing the land into strict zones of city, suburb and country, it is no longer even relevant to see them as mutually exclusive anymore.  The gentrification of urban spaces, in London at least, brings a kind of kitsch ruralising of local areas; suburbs are becoming increasingly urban as residents want the convenience of inner city living without the environment. In fact, how much improvement does gentrification really bring to an area: in London, Lees argued, gentrification of run down areas has merely pushed the original inhabitants out of the price bracket to pave the way for middle classes. However, in Manchester, stated Rudlin, it brought back the middle classes who had left in droves and let the city fall into disrepair.

However, if there was one common villain here, it was the buy-to-let and right-to-buy systems and Cult of Property, which have caused the demolition of council estates, displaced its inhabitants to new towns miles away, and driven prices up for first time buyers, as well as leaving whole new tower blocks standing empty. Quite a list of crimes for the private sector. Sky-high land values were also revealed as a huge problem, and blamed for the poor quality and design of affordable housing in the UK; land in London is now worth 2000% more than it was in the 1970s, and it is easy to see that house builders are having to spend most of their budget on that, rather than the building itself.

So what are the options for mitigating a housing crisis which appears to be at the top of every political party’s agenda in the run up to this election? Planning, it was unanimously agreed, needs to be reformed. The cult of property needs to be undermined and the government needs to start taking responsibility for building decent homes that aren’t going to be demolished in 50 years and stop allowing demolitions that amount to little more than slum clearances. Land needs to be decommodified, and we need to foster growth in the relationship between property and social mobility, which appears to stagnated by at new methods of building such as self-builds. And, controversial though it is, we need to protect the green belt, because it stops the city sprawling out into endless no man’s lands of suburbs with no character or defining architecture.

On one thing we can all agree: we need more housing, and the time is ripe for change.

Click here to see the rest of the Royal Academy’s Future of Housing season.



By Helena Louise Cuss

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