Mind your language

1 - 3 December 2021, Lisbon

Mind your language

12 May 2021, Paul Finch
 
Looking at the flyer for a forthcoming built environment conference, I was struck by the following phrase: ‘If your development doesn't serve women well, it doesn't serve anyone well’. Is there some woke hq churning out this weird stuff? It is on a par with that other meaningless slogan: ‘Unless everybody is Covid-safe, nobody is’.
 
The problem with these little mantras is their abuse of language and their promotion of a form of dishonesty which makes you wonder about anything else the originators have to say. As far as the first one is concerned, it is a logical nonsense to say if a building or space work well only for some people, then it doesn’t count. It undermines a perfectly reasonable aspiration, to give everybody as much benefit as possible, by telling an untruth. There is a real problem when a building or space work for some (perhaps most) people, but not for everybody, especially if the satisfied customers are the ones making the decision about the future. The problem needs to be addressed honestly.
 
As for the Covid comment, it is meaningless because it leaves vague what is meant by ‘safe’ and ‘everybody’. It also implies that until the whole world is vaccinated, we cannot possibly live anything approaching normal lives here in the UK, despite our own successful jab programme. Why not?
 
My own favourite meaningless nostrum is trotted out regularly by the opponents of road travel. ‘There is no point in building a new road because it just fills up with traffic’. This mind-numbing proposition could be applied to any situation involving an excess of demand over supply. Why extend an Underground line if it simply results in more people using it? Why re-open abandoned railway routes if it means that trains will fill up with passengers?
 
You get the point. The real failure would be to build a road which is empty of traffic, suggesting something had gone awfully wrong with the planning analysis.
 
This brings us to the question of public policy in relation to provision of almost anything. The old Whitehall motto, ‘predict and provide’, which served us well for much of the 20th century, was casually abandoned by the political class. This is the fundamental explanation for our housing shortage – an attitude that there is no point in public housing provision because it will simply be filled up with tenants, just like useful roads and beneficial infrastructure.
 
It is mysterious that we continue to believe in predict-and-provide in respect of public transport, but do not extend that thinking to housing, even though the latter can reasonably be regarded as infrastructure – a view adopted by Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, but which he never used to generate a building programme.
 
However, the old Conservative instinct, that home-owners are more likely to vote for them, seems to be galvanising public policies in respect of both housing and planning, broadly aimed at encouraging the private housing sector to let rip. I wonder if opponents of such a policy will argue that ‘unless everybody is well housed, nobody is well housed’. The stupidity of such a proposition does not alter the fact that a significant minority of the population, for all sorts of reasons, is unlikely to want to become (or is capable of becoming) a conventional owner. Any proper housing policy needs to take this into account, requiring the public sector to become a provider of new-build accommodation for rent, without falling into the trap of such development becoming the sort of monoculture which made the phrase ‘council estate’ something to be worried about, rather than proud of.
 
In short, the political class needs to end its quest for the single magic bullet to ‘solve’ the housing problem, and instead embrace a pluralist range of approaches, taking into account eternal truths about the relationship between land, finance, planning, design and delivery. We have waited long enough.
 
Profits of doom
People who dislike commerce, offices and office architecture suddenly get a fit of the vapours if there is any suggestion that said offices could be converted into housing. They also start fretting that if more offices are built, places like the City of London could have a vacancy rate of 10 per cent. What is the matter with these people? A vacancy rate of 10 per cent is no bad thing; if it is any lower, tenant choice is limited and rents will inevitably rise. Much higher and the development market seizes up. So 10 per cent sounds about right.
 
As we come out of the pandemic lock-down, the office market is likely to split in two: at one end cheap-as-chips, no sophistication but plenty of opening windows, with short-as-possible leases appealing to small firms and start-ups.
 
At the other end of the scale will be the super-sophisticated modern workspace, touch-free technology to the fore, cleverly ventilated, and designed to provide a lifestyle not just work-stations.
 
In the squeezed middle, the question will be whether owners upgrade or convert. Either way it sounds quite good news for architects.
 
Role reversal
 
Interesting to see the story about the regeneration specialist looking to buy an architectural practice. It reminds me of a yesteryear competition for headlines we wish we’d been able to write. The winner? ‘Football club buys property developer’.
 
 

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