“And they all look just the same”. *
Great cities are defined as much by the architecture of their housing as they are by the people who live there.
For the City of Bath, it’s period of great architecture has long-since passed. Today it has joined the long list of UK cities where functional, dreary, cramped boxes are the norm, places to post people out of the way rather than homes to cherish. Yet until the end of the 1960’s we were still building homes not houses, green spaces and public spaces in which to congregate, socialise and celebrate. Younger people could aspire to own or rent their own homes, older people could be re-assured that their final homes would be places of peace and contemplation.
So what broke it?
The 1970’s and 80′ were a period of brutal deregulation in finance, building standards and green space protections. Prime Minister Thatcher declared ‘There is no such thing as society’ and ushered in the ‘me-first’ ethos to underline it.
For Council Housing ( Local Authority Housing), the killer blow was the right-to-buy policy, not of itself an unworthy aim but coupled with the inability to replace sold-off housing, local authorities lost their role as provider of last resort and their resource to help those with limited means.
Right-to-buy handed owners their rented properties at knock-down prices and, with the availability of unlimited credit, developers swiftly bought up housing stock at below market rates. In Bath this coincided with the rapid expansion of the Universities, and private landlords quickly realised that there was money to be made, cramming 5 students at high monthly rents into the myriad of 3-bed houses that had been the bedrock of young family and starter homes. This was the start of the Homes in Multiple Occupation or HMOs.
And there was another blow to the Local Authority – students don’t pay council tax, so their revenue also dropped.
Meanwhile, the removal of the post-war building standards (‘Parker-Morris’), allowed the major housebuilders to buy up green land and build housing estates that owed more in their design to the 19th century back-to-backs than the post-war vision of fair homes for all. Billboards at the entrance to these estates should perhaps read ‘Building Tomorrow’s Slums Today!’
Getting the most number of ‘dwellings’ onto the least amount of space became the primary design aim, resulting in standardised autocad boxes, with little or no garden space, minimal fittings, lowest standard construction materials implemented by the lowest-skilled people.
At the same time, the house builders were consolidating, setting their own quotas to ensure prices were maintained and buying up land to create the massive landbanks they own but refuse to develop today.
So it comes as something of a shock to visitors to the city of Bath to be faced with the Riverside Development,
a set of buildings so soulless and ugly that they remind me of the tenements I saw in East Germany before the wall fell. This eyesore is visible from all over the city, and in keeping with it’s construction values, is already visibly deteriorating, the faux Bath Stone walls covered in slime, the salts leaching from the structure permanently staining them, oh, and apparently the roof leaks.
The Tufa Field development continues this measly theme, wooden chalets with tiny rooms, inadequate car parking ( yes people own cars and will continue to do so, get over it), unimaginative architecture with a bare minimum nod to low carbon and sustainability. And for this we sacrifice a unique green space.
The irony is that, just a couple of hundred yards away, is the award-winning Moorfields estate, a model envied and copied across the country to deliver affordable, healthy and quality homes in a quiet and personable environment.
As for the ‘affordable housing’! For the record affordable means 80% of the market value ie in this case about £600,000, since the going rate is expected to be £750,000 for these ‘executive’ dwellings. And let’s be clear, when a developer hears the dreaded words ‘affordable housing’ their first reaction is to try and get it changed, their second reaction is to build in phases so the rules don’t apply, and their third reaction is to build the cheapest, smallest, least-appointed boxes they can get away with.
So the least well-off, those most in need, get the worst value, the least home-like living and the largest debts.
What could you do instead? The housing market in Bath does not need more executive homes. What it needs is the ability to move people on from homes that may now be too large for them, and into comfortable final homes, with the emphasis on quality living. In a nutshell, bungalows with decent gardens, and in the area where they have always lived, maintaining social contacts and familiar surroundings. This would free up larger family homes, move everyone up the chain and, as a side issue, release equity that could help in later-life care.
We also need to get students out of homes built for families. This is not a downer on students, more a recognition that the student days of yore are gone. Youngsters expect much better quality now – en-suites, fast broadband, good transport links, and local amenities that suit their lifestyle. Modern students are just as likely to go to the gym as they are to the pub.
So purpose-built student accommodation, properly regulated and preferably on-campus ( guys, you can’t go on save-the-planet marches and then get on a high-polluting diesel bus and chug up Bathwick Hill every day) is the way forward. We need a regulatory framework which favours HMO housing stock being converted back to family housing, and we need to break the power of the house-builders to tell us when we can have homes, how much they’ll be and what quality we have to put up with.
We have to end the ticky-tacky.
* Malvina Reynolds, 1962