Azara Blog: "Building Britain" debate in New Hall

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Date published: 2007/06/21

It is Architecture Week in the UK and as part of that BBC television ran a programme on Monday night in the East region called "Building Britain" featuring Germaine Greer giving her views on housing in East Anglia, and in particular in Cambridge. Germaine Greer is not an architect, she is not an urban designer, and she has nothing to do with building, but because she's outspoken and a minor celebrity the BBC gave her some free air time to spout her stuff.

Her fundamental premise was that "suburbia is a bad idea". So apparently the only places people should live are in cities or in rural areas. Well needless to say there is no firm boundary between rural and suburban, or between suburban and urban, so this kind of cheap sloganisation is meaningless. Greer herself lives in a rather anodyne village called Great Chesterford about ten miles south of Cambridge. And what she doesn't like, in common with much of the comfortable middle class, is that more housing is being built in her back yard. How dare anyone else be allowed to aspire to live in a village in East Anglia.

Funnily enough, she talked with a pub owner in Great Chesterford on the programme and tried to goad him into saying how horrid London commuters were (Greer is only a Cambridge commuter, so that is ok). But not only did he not take that bait, he even said that he would prefer for the village to grow (more bums on his seats, of course).

Greer then proceeded to conflate this issue with several others, without bothering to even blink in between. So she then denigrated the quality of new builds, which is a completely separate issue to *where* houses are built. She then visited Wells on the Norfolk coast to complain about second home owners, with a mandatory interview with a local complaining about being priced out of a home by the non-locals, which again is another issue completely. (And she managed to rather sink even this part of her argument by claiming that the fishing industry in town had seriously declined. So it's just as well that someone else wants to have a house there.)

She then proceeded onto Cambridge specifically. Her brilliant idea here was to put half a dozen 75-storey tower blocks on Cambridge airport to "solve" the housing problem and minimise the amount of land used. (The airport is earmarked for housing in the local plan.) Greer believes that housing land is some sort of wasteland (except for her boutique cottage, no doubt), so wants to minimise this footprint on the ground. Well, it is only a wasteland when it is built to high density, with no allowance for gardens. So suburban housing is (or can be) green, and urban housing usually is not.

Greer even managed to rope in Ted Cullinan ("an old friend") to enthuse on camera about the scheme. But she talked with some Cambridge architecture students and they all said it was a stupid idea. At which point she bemoaned that the youth of today are so against "new" ideas. Well, the ideas are not new (Le Corbusier and others were already promoting tower blocks before the war). And it's possible the students weren't against "new" ideas, they were just against crap ones. One of the students even pointed out that "hi-rise living has never been a problem for the rich" (but of course are usually a problem for the poor).

Greer didn't leave it at the tower blocks. She also insisted that none of the tenants could have pets, and that they also couldn't have cars. Well the pets issue is bizarre (maybe Greer hates animals), but the car one is just the typical attitude of the academic middle class. She doesn't use cars so nobody else should be allowed to. (Or perhaps she does use cars and is just a hypocrite, you can never tell with the academic middle class.) The people living in these tower blocks would supposedly get into Cambridge by using some raised walkway (or transit line?). More expense for no great reason. And what if they wanted to go somewhere besides Cambridge city centre? Tough.

The whole point of this wacky proposal seems to have been to generate publicity for her programme. And BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and RIBA responded by sponsoring a "debate" on the programme this evening in New Hall. Much of the audience were the usual suspects (e.g. planning bureaucrats). Most of the audience was old (i.e. over forty, even over fifty).

The chair for the debate was a BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter called Christopher South. He started out by joking that these proposed towers were so tall that they would even be seen in Great Chesterford, so it showed Greer was not a NIMBY. But of course she is a NIMBY, the whole point is that she wants to force the peasants to live in a tower block in Cambridge, not in her back yard.

South then introduced the panel: John Oldham (from Countryside Properties; several others claimed they were a good developer, but one has to wonder if that was out of politeness), Peter Studdert (ex-director of planning at Cambridge City Council and now working for the quango Cambridge Horizons, responsible for making sure that all the new houses and infrastructure supposedly being built over the next decade or two works), Wyndham Thomas (supposedly responsible for building much of post-war Peterborough and now with the Town and Country Planning Association), Simon Ward (representing some organisation called the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists), and Greg Luton (from English Heritage).

All the panellists belittled Greer and her tower blocks. For example, Thomas called it a "flight of fancy" and "not practicable" and "not new", and that it "runs against the wishes of a huge majority of people". And Luton and Oldham both said the key to tower blocks is where you put them. They might make sense in London. They don't in Cambridge. Luton also pointed out that Greer was in fact very conservative and middle class. Studdert said that her ideas were "completely off the wall". Ward did a quick calculation of housing density for Greer's tower blocks. Assuming four flats per floor (a reasonable enough assumption given what was shown in Greer's programme) and assuming six tower blocks (as shown in the programme), this gave around 6 x 4 x 75 = 1800 units. Well, the low-rise solution that will almost certainly be built would be expected to have around 10 households per acre on the 600 acre site, leading to 6000 units. So Greer's high-density housing is not any more efficient. You would have to have 20 tower blocks.

Only one person in the audience supported tower blocks in Cambridge. She said that she had seen some great tower blocks in the woods near Helsinki many years ago. Wonderful, that means we should have them in Cambridge as well. (And the questioner lives in a typical two-storey house in Cambridge.)

There was some discussion about "high density" housing. John Hipkin (ex-Lib Dem and ex-mayor of Cambridge) managed to sing the praises of the relatively high density Accordia (a new development off Brooklands Avenue) and denigrate the lower density Arbury ("boring housing"). Well it's bizarre that Accordia gets so many complements. It was at least designed by architects, not (just) developers, but it's not that great. Indeed it is rather boring, considering how new it is. And the next person in the audience had a good riposte to Hipkin, because he lived in Arbury and he liked living there (and his house had a garden, unlike most of the Accordia housing).

Sian Reid (a Lib Dem politician) asked the panel how high they would consider building on the airport site. Oldham jokingly said no more than 12 storeys because that is what Ralph Erskine said (apparently that is how far you can shout). But the consensus seemed to be that the airport would be built at a height of all the other new developments on the edge of Cambridge, i.e. mainly three storeys but perhaps five or six in some "core" area. Reid also liked high density development. Funnily enough, she lives on Millington Road in a big house with a huge garden. But obviously there is one rule for the elite and another for the peasants.

Thomas was perhaps the most sensible of the panellists. Several times (including at this point in the proceedings) he said "give people what they want: a house on the ground with a garden". But of course the urban planning elite (and most architects) don't like this. Heaven forbid that people get what they want. Funnily enough, the urban planning elite (and most architects) consider themselves to be socialists. But evidently socialists who think that the working class are scum and should live where the academic middle class think they should live.

Thomas also pointed out a couple of times that in fact there was no land shortage. Currently around 9% of East Anglia (?) is built up and even if we expanded the housing area by 25% (and that is not happening) then that only gets us up to 11%. Oldham agreed and pointed out that the British (or at least the academic middle class) have an obsession with land and the alleged rural idyll (so Greer fits this description completely). There is plenty of land.

A young person (one of the few in the audience) complained that young people might like to live in tower blocks and didn't like gardens and wanted to be close to the centre of Cambridge. Studdert pointed out that in fact plenty of flats have been built in Cambridge recently near the centre of town. (Well, they are extortionate in price, not surprisingly, and mainly aimed at London commuters. So not that affordable by people in their twenties.) And while perhaps people in their twenties want to live in flats, by the time you have a family, most people do not want to live in flats. So that is a minority interest.

One of the claims of Greer were that her tower blocks would promote biodiversity. But one of the audience pointed out that in fact suburban gardens have much more biodiversity than agricultural fields (or indeed of public parks). So biodiversity is in fact improved with suburban living. (They were not called "garden cities" for nothing.) Some architect said we should concentrate on developing brownfield sites before we move onto the greenbelt. But in Cambridge there are not many brownfield sites (unless you want to claim that back gardens of houses are brownfield, which is how they are currently ridiculously classified), because Cambridge never had much industry. Perhaps this is why the Cambridge government has pretty much had no opposition to the plans to build on the greenbelt right up to the city boundary (except off Trumpington Road towards the Cam, where the rich people who live nearby have stopped it).

Another young person complained that he couldn't afford a house on his salary. Well this is nothing really new, young people have been complaining about this for years. (And it is not any worse now than it was in the late 1980s.) On this point, Thomas said that forty or so years ago there were around 350000 houses built per year and now only around 150000 (and the size is smaller, because households are smaller, so in terms of population it is even worse). And Thomas also said that forty or so years ago the land would typically make up 15-20% of the cost of a house and now it is over 50%. It is a question of supply and demand. It is criminal that the British ruling elite have allowed the situation to get this bad.

A couple of subjects did not come up. One of the problems in Cambridge (as in Great Chesterford) is that London commuters have driven prices up. And a lot of the new housing in Cambridge is aimed at them, not at people who work in Cambridge. So building new housing does not necessarily solve the housing problem.

And it was not discussed why Cambridge wants to build houses on the airport in the first place. The airport is one of the town's largest and best employers. The airport site is an economic use of greenbelt land (the airport, as well as being classified as brownfield, is also greenbelt, which shows how silly it all is). Most of the greenbelt near Cambridge is not economic. That should be built on in preference to the airport site.

Interestingly the debate showed that a large number of people in or around Cambridge are actually fairly sane. The worst people were the architects.

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