Housing isn't just a battle between terrace and tower

There's far more options available than Policy Exchange make out.

Policy Exchange's report calling for tower blocks to be demolished and replaced with streets of terrace houses and low-rise flats "that people actually want to live in" has made a rather big splash.

My initial reaction was that the report was unfairly slanderous to the reputation of vertical living. Conclusions about tower blocks from the 50s, 60s and 70s are generalised to be about all such buildings, while the worst of terrace housing is overlooked. It is true that many of the post-war towers are in dire need of refurbishment, and it may well be better to tear them down and start again. But their failure has as much to do with being built on the cheap, abandoned by councils and then unmaintained for half a century as it does to do with them being tower blocks.

And there is an element of expertise in building tower blocks which should not be overlooked. Quite simply: we've got better at it since then. Whereas terraced houses are much the same as they were 100 years ago, even affordable high-rise living is nearly unrecognisable compared to that practiced post-war.

But more, I want to highlight the false dichotomy that the report creates. Arguing about tower blocks versus terraced streets ignores the fact that there are a huge number of alternative styles of living.

For instance, most British cities are alarmingly low rise. That's not just that they have no tower blocks or skyscrapers, though; it's also that whoever decides the number of stories a building should have seems to count like Terry Pratchett's trolls (one, two, many, lots). There's room for buildings which aren't the tower blocks of yore, but do still fit a huge number of people in a small space, allowing more than just the rich to experience the benefits — walkability, culture, shorter commutes — that inner-city living offers.

And take a look at places like the German town of Vauban, which houses 5,500 people in a square mile — with no cars allowed. That's not terraced living as Policy Exchange would imagine it, but it mixes some of the best aspects of tower blocks (high density, big shared spaces, and not having to walk particularly far to reach transport links) with those of terraces (like being relatively flat and open).

The Swedesh village of Jakriborg does this even better. It houses over 1000 people in an area a third of the size of a Maryland park-and-ride car park, by mixing the small streets and car free living of a town like Vauban with houses which are five or six stories high.

There's been a lot of changes in city and suburban living since the 1950s. Treating town planning as a battle between 1950s-style homes and 1900-style ones ignores that there are more options available than ever before in the year 2013.

Jakriborg. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.