Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets not multi-storey buildings. 

It is excellent news that Eric Pickles announced this week that he is looking at how post war estates can be more comprehensively and coherently redeveloped into “traditional streetscapes.” In his interview in the Evening Standard he got it absolutely right:

“Completely rebuilding traditional streetscapes can provide more housing and commercial space using the same amount of land,” said Mr Pickles. That could mean blocks of homes standing five or six storeys high mixed with traditional terraced streets.

“The result will be more homes that are highly valued by residents,” he went on. “This approach can also increase the value of land in a way that is not possible with the incremental building-by-building regeneration that has been favoured in the past.”

Well done Eric!

Create Streets exists to achieve precisely this. But let there be no doubt that this is not what we are doing today. Our pre-budget research note, published last month, shows how the regeneration of London estates is creating a second generation of large multi-storey blocks. Our research of 18 schemes shows the density of housing increasing by 171 per cent from 72 units per hectare to 195 units per hectare. The average increase in height of the buildings was 227 per cent. Only one development studied had no new buildings above 10 storeys. Though there have been great improvements, we are repeating too many of the errors of 40 years ago. Some multi-storey blocks in East London, less than 15 years old, are already becoming dense repositories for the unintentionally homeless (see p. 120 of this book).

Does this matter? Well yes. Despite the Herculean labours of Richard Blakeway and the excellent strategic direction of the Mayor, development in London is trapped in a vicious circle of public mistrust, limited supply, ultra high land values, the need for 20 per cent returns and a fast payback and an inappropriate regulatory regime which makes it much too hard to build spatially and economically efficient terraced houses and medium-rise flats. It verges on the Kafkaesque, that the forms of house, street and flat which sell at a premium so popular are they with the public are so hard to build under the current rules.

Despite great intentions, our rules see nothing more important in our streets than their compliance with 200 pages of Priority 1 and Priority 2 Standards. And the consequences are that right now, today, comprehensive regeneration remains too hard with insufficient focus on the long term.

The London Plan estimates an annual need of 49,000 new homes. However in the year ending in September 2013 only 17,950 homes were started and 16,240 completed. In the previous twelve months only 15,380 were started and 17,530 finished. In other words, London is normally managing to build about forty per cent of the homes needed just to stay in line with population increases – let alone try to reduce sky high rents and purchase prices.

In consequence, Boris Johnson’s position on tall buildings has evolved. In 2008 he ran fairly unambiguously on an anti-high-rise platform, condemning Ken Livingstone’s encouragement of towers as a “phallocracy” and promising to maintain the city’s viewing corridors: “London’s skyline is precious,” he said. “It is hugely embarrassing that . . . Unesco considers two of London’s greatest architectural triumphs, the Tower of London and the Palace of Westminster, potential candidates for the endangered list of World Heritage sites.”

Today however, Ken’s liking for tower blocks seems rather timid, more of an amuse-gueule than the tower block terror we are getting under Mayor Boris. London’s skyline is changing faster and more profoundly even than in the 1960s – with remarkably little public debate. New figures last month revealed that 236 towers are currently being built or have recently been given permission in London.

Maybe a second generation of large multi storey buildings is what people want to live in ? In fact, not Normal streets with normal houses and low or medium rise flats are infinitely more popular. In one 2013 national poll, only 3 per cent want to live in flats with over 10 units in the buildings. In an older survey 89 percent of Britons wanted to live in a house on a street, 0 percent in a tower block and only 2 percent in an apartment. Improved recent design is having a positive impact but (even excluding those aged 65 and over) a very clear majority of Londoners still don’t want to live in high rise. (see p.25 here).

Is this a naïve British desire for cottages and country roses? Far from it. People are being deeply rational. Living in big tall buildings tends not to be good for you. The vast majority of controlled studies show that the residents of large multi-storey blocks suffer from more stress, mental health difficulties and crime, that children do less well and that communities are less strong. This data takes account of socio-economic status.

To cite just a few examples, among many, a study of British military families randomly assigned to houses and low-rise flats found those in flats suffered from about three times the rate of neurosis as those in detached houses whilst also being 57 per cent more likely to need to go the doctor and 63 per cent more likely to be referred to a specialist. A 1978 study of socially similar residents of the Bronx in New York found ‘vast differences’ between those living in high-rise and low-rise buildings.

Those in high-rise had less social support, a lower sense of control over their lives and felt more crowded than their sociologically identical neighbours in low-rise buildings. UK researchers have found that mothers in flats are more depressed and lonely, that rates of mental illness rose with floor levels, that psychological symptoms increased in high-rise buildings and that those moving out of high-rise became happier and less depressed.

A study that controlled carefully for age, education and occupational level found that husbands in flats rather than small houses had a greater incidence of psychiatric illness, that fathers had worse relationships with their children (hitting them more often) and that marital discord was higher. Recent academic articles state it as an established truth that, for example, ‘high-rise housing is inimical to the psychological well-being of women with young children.’ And so and so on. You can read a good summary of many other studies here.

The good news is that there is an answer. Streets are not just popular but practical. Terraced streets can be very high density. They are higher density than most post-war estates. If we built enough, they could solve the South East’s housing crisis. By making redevelopment more popular, by giving local people more control over what happens, when and how, we believe that redevelopment of more land would be popular.

Streets also have excellent very long term returns due to higher long term value appreciation. For example, data from the Halifax, Savills research, Space Syntax (a spin off company from University College, London) and the Brookings Institute all indicates that, quite apart from the social benefit, the long term returns of developing low density post-war estates as attractive, high-density ‘normal’ and well-connected terraced streets of houses and medium rise flats could be fantastic.

The problem is that their short term returns for immediate re-sale can be less good than maximum density high-rise due to lower square footage. However, these higher returns appear typically to take longer to feed through. The additional premium that streets can generate over time seems to be a simple function of the fact that people like them more and are prepared to pay more to buy or rent places to live in them.

To make it easier to focus on long not short term value appreciation, our pre-Budget report (published in March) called for four steps to move from providing insufficient and less popular homes to providing more and more popular homes.

Ending the regulatory bias for high-rise and against conventional streets

Empowering local people to take a more active and important role in the regeneration process

Improving the focus on the long term via a revolving fund for estate regeneration. This could build more homes for London at no ultimate
cost to the taxpayer.

Piloting a Social Impact Bond helping regeneration to be more sharply focused on good social outcomes

We were delighted that the budget announced a £150m fund to kick start estate regeneration (Section 1.143, p. 40). The fund should also only be available when there is genuine and very real local support for regeneration. Our modelling shows that often if density could be sufficiently increased, the income from rents and sales could pay back the loan from central government within the timeframe of the loan.
Meanwhile all existing social housing could be maintained. There need be no additional cost to the taxpayer.

It is now great news that the Secretary of State wants to examine how to do this in a popular street-based way. This is the right answer for residents, for the city and for taxpayers. Next up, we must strip away the rules that make this hard to do. But that’s for another day . . .