Housing families in tower blocks does not work. 40,000 families live in such developments in London alone. I argued this week at the London Assembly’s Housing and Regeneration Committee that housing associations and councils should end the practice of putting families in high rise developments.
Why do I believe this? The answer is simple, tower blocks are not conducive to community living. The decision in the 1960s and 1970s to replace traditional terraced housing with new high rise developments was a mistake. For many years I have lived in the East End of London, where historically there has been a real sense of family and community, where you knew who your neighbour was, could swap gossip over the garden fence and look out for each other. Being able to converse on the same level, in the environment of the garden, meant people communicated for all sorts of reasons, and not just complain about noise from above or below, on the landing or on the stairs.
The introduction of tower block estates destroyed a lot of that community, and smaller flats meant the practice of extended families living together broke down. In a tower block people do not usually know their neighbour, have little or no private garden space, and blocks are constructed in a way that invites crime. Dark stairwells and isolated landings offer hiding place for muggers and an ideal location for drug dealers to loiter.
The Government’s decision to allow local authorities to keep the cash in their Housing Revenue Account to invest in new stock is an ideal opportunity to make the commitment to only use that money to build low rise and terraced housing. The retention of HRA monies has the potential to fund 10,000 new homes in London.
Critics of my position will say “there are not enough low rise houses to stop placing families in tower blocks”, and they would be right. But that isn’t an excuse to shy away from this commitment. All the time we accept the status quo, and deem it acceptable to put a couple with two children on 12th floor of an estate block, councils and housing associations will continue to build tower blocks. It will not be easy to overturn 40 years of poor housing design, but we need to take a principled stand.