Do you like the Boris Johnson columns in the Telegraph? If so, you will love the new report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It’s full of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and quotes from other long dead people. It feels like a blatant attempt to curry favour with our wannabe PM. But when you scratch below the surface this is a velvet glove masking an iron fist. The commission, set up by the government to promote high-quality housing design, hates just about every building put up after the second world war. This is the sort of ‘it was all better in the good old days’ way of thinking that led us into Brexit. Of course we built lots of council estates after the war. You start to wonder if this is a dog whistle attack on working-class housing.
The Tories say they want to see more beautiful homes. But what do they mean by this? Is it simply a case of giving Mr Brokenshire more and more ovens in his kitchen?
Let’s go back a few years and look at the think tank Policy Exchange’s report on ending ‘expensive’ social tenancies. It opened up with pictures of some of the most beautiful council homes in the land. As you would expect they were twee old classics. What did Policy Exchange want us to do? They said we should sell them all off and build more new homes. And where should those homes be? They should be in cheap areas, not top-notch post codes. Yes, that was the sort of bigoted tripe you could get away with before Grenfell.
The argument that this agenda is all about beauty falls at the first hurdle. Take a walk round the Barbican. It is uncompromising and brutal. Yet no one complains. Luther throws people off the balconies of every estate in London but comes to the Barbican for a very different reason as it is the lair of the wealthy Alice Morgan. There you have it. No one bats an eyelid because the ‘right sort’ of people that match the post code live there. This is the same old bigotry. But written in a more subtle way for the post-Grenfell era.
Has anyone ever suggested putting cladding on the Barbican? Don’t be daft, that’s never going to happen. But the commission would have done us all a favour by trying to get to the bottom of why that is. And I am troubled by this myself. I honestly did think that Grenfell and the Chalcots in Camden looked better with the cladding on. Who was the beauty for – the people living in the flats or the people looking at them?
So I am in the same boat as the rest of us who got this wrong. We have a duty to be wise after the event. I’m pleased to see the work that Dame Judith Hackitt, with her independent review of fire safety, and others are doing to make sure we keep people safe. And I am right behind the commission in its attacks on the stingy housebuilders. What’s the betting that the new homes being built on the site of Holloway Prison will be smaller than the old cells?
But the commission gets things the wrong way round. It should see buildings from the eyes of tenants. It needs to go from the inside out. Reading the Grenfell survivors’ statements is so moving. Those folk loved where they lived. They were friends with their neighbours, they played football with them, they helped each other do the shopping and they laughed together. In the same way the tenants of the Seven Sisters tower blocks in Rochdale love their homes too. That’s why there is an argument about the best way to keep the estate in good nick. You see this all over. I live next to quite a big estate. When I went to buy the house the agent said think of it as being in tree-lined crescent. And he was correct. Where the commission see a Leviathan many of us see our home.
The commission’s focus on the buildings leads them into a blunder. They honestly think that people object to new buildings due to bad design. That’s an inverted pyramid of piffle as someone once said. At a meeting in the North York Moors locals objected to homes in a village without ever once looking at the designs of the earnest young architect. “We don’t want dysfunctional families from Northallerton moving here!” was the cry. Bigotry is at the root of it and that is what we must stamp out. I’m pleased to say the homes did get built in the end. Sometimes the good guys win.
So what’s the answer? You can find it in Cook’s Camden. It tells the story of how Sydney Cook, Camden Council’s borough architect, found a way to build fantastic homes in great places within tight cost yardsticks. He didn’t pull it off every time. The giants never do. But take a look at those wonderful flats in the Brunswick Centre near King’s Cross. A two-bed will set you back more than a million today. They knock the spots off any other flats from any era in the area. Nothing but the best is good enough for our tenants. That’s the attitude we need to bring back.
The commission is wrong about post-war housing. And Policy Exchange was wrong about selling off the family silver. When Corbyn gets in he should give a copy of Cook’s Camden to the mandarins and tell them to get on with it.