If a building as hideous as the Woolwich Central development (winner of the Carbuncle Cup for ugliest building) can possibly be built in a city with one of the tightest, most expensive planning regimes in the world, then something has gone very badly wrong somewhere. If a planning application (Mount Pleasant) described by officials as epitomising the new London vernacular can receive only 1% support from the local population than something is either very wrong with the people or very wrong with the system.
Not only are new developments routinely unpopular, we are also not building enough in London. London faces a housing crisis unparalleled since the 1940s. Desperate times often call for desperate measures - compromises have to be made. I'm sure that's what went through the minds of the planners when they signed off on Woolwich, and the concrete estates of the 60s too - ones that would end up costing a fortune to repair and renovate, and in short time would end up being demolished and rebuilt.
We're back in the same place. Under the massive pressure of demand, London is now building for the short term. But is much of what's going up really what Londoners need, wants or can afford?
A Divided City, With the Wrong Rules
The reason the American Psycho promo video for Redrow's One Aldgate development proved so controversial was that it brought home just what a divided city we live in. It showed that tall towers are really only for a very narrow (wealthy) section of society who won't be having a family anytime soon and who can stomach the inevitably huge service charges that come with Manhattan living. Sure, there'll be social housing for those that have been on Tower Hamlets' waiting list for fifteen years, but what about the vast majority who don't qualify for state support?
Don't get me wrong, I love and appreciate many of the exciting developments and skyscrapers going up around the city. They in a way epitomise the success of London. But, too many also threaten it. Do we really think boring massively scaled buildings can house the sort of inventive, socially mixed communities and places that most Londoners want? I don't think so. The disastrous post-war model is not the only way, but it is the only way that makes rational sense under the current planning system. As mayor I would change all that.
Firstly there's the current planning rules which have crowded out all but the developers with the deepest pockets at the same time as shutting out the legitimate concerns of local people (there's a housing crisis on, don't you know?)
There are layers on layers of rules ranging from how far off the ground a living room window should be, to a ban on inward opening bathroom doors to an unthinking and blanket imposition of rules intended to help those with mobility issues but which, as the Mayor himself and many architects recognise, are 'very obstructive' to building the sort of efficient narrow-fronted terraced houses that people provably love. Meanwhile critical issues of height, scale and massing are items to horse-trade over between developers and planners whilst everyone else sits on the side lines. Time after time what people most want is just ignored.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Why can't we have a system where local people set down parameters of what is acceptable in their area, and if a development conforms to those parameters then it gets fast tracked through the system? This would put democracy back into the system but also reduce costs and uncertainty for developers, who would benefit hugely from knowing in advance what was allowed. It would also stop the situation where developers push the boroughs more and more, and each new approval ends up escalating land values as expectations for what can be built get ever greater.
Self-Building: Putting Londoners in Control of London's Destiny
The villages of London that give it the diverse identity that people value so much will not be created by parcelling out land between large corporations for the development of blocks the same size and scale as the blattenbau of Belarus. There is a huge pent up demand from people who want to build their own homes, but are priced out because there's always someone who would pay more to try and get away with squeezing a block of flats on the site. It seems daft to impose much regulation at all on families who want to self-build. We've known what's required to make a house habitable for hundreds of years.
Under my system it would be clear from the outset what would be allowed in a given area so land values would be more predictable. Large development sites could be divided into a variety of plot sizes and offered up to the general public or smaller firms. We've got to free up and de-monopolise the provision of housing. This way areas would develop with a true sense of diversity and character, not the depressing homogeneity of some recent developments. There are large tracts of publically-owned land in London that could be freed up for this use. Just look at what has been achieved at the Almere scheme near Amsterdam, where self-builders have been able to construct flats for as little as £69,000 without any subsidy. Now I'm not saying there shouldn't be any large development projects - but they shouldn't be the only show in town.
London's low density estates present another massive opportunity. As the ground-breaking work of Create Streets shows these could provide nearly two decades of housing supply if developed into proper streets; no high-rise required, no objections from irate neighbours as everything would be in scale and appropriate to the local area. Existing residents - including leaseholders, who are currently very badly treated - could be given cast iron guarantees of a new home and would not have to move off site if at all possible.
Some boroughs are already doing this but I would step up the programme whilst putting residents at the heart of the process. The problem at the moment is that, in far too many schemes, we're replacing one ugly twentieth century monolith with a twenty first century one and residents are misled that this is the only viable approach.
In a survey done by Create Streets - architects, investors and developers complained that planning, housing, building and highway rules (and their interpretation by local officials and advisors) prevent them building the sort of high density streets that people provably love. This is insane. In estate regeneration families and residents should be able to personalise and de-scope requirements, including if necessary disabled access requirements, so that they are not trapped into a wide corridor flat in a block when what they actually want is an old fashioned terraced house. There should be no more obstacles in the way of re-creating the streetscapes that were torn up when these tired estates were first built. We need to build places where you don't need a map fixed to a large billboard at the entrance to find your way round.
A Legacy for 200 Years' Time
These changes are just the start. It's clear, the current system is failing to provide the variety and type of housing that Londoners want. It's ridiculous that new housing is normally less popular and less valuable than homes built 200 years ago. As long as the problem of housing is left solely in the hands of planners and large developers, the housing crisis will not be solved.
London is about thinking differently and thinking smart - this is why I have been and will continue to roll out over the coming months my plans for improving London's housing. I've already started to push for Londoners to be taxed fairly, not penalised for where they live. My entrepreneurial approach to being Mayor of London means enabling others to be entrepreneurs too - and housing is just one way in which we can do this. Take the way we govern - last week I laid out the case for a London Powerhouse as part of my approach - empowering the Mayor's office to empower Londoners to control the destiny of it's development.
We need to create housing today that in 200 years are a legacy of a moment when London took the right path, rather than the easy path - where we as a city took control of our destiny.