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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.