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What sort of London are we building?

This is the question at the heart of a debate on recent landmark developments.

Hardly a day goes by without an article either on the army of HNW foreign buyers snapping up London real estate or one on the unaffordability of basic accommodation to city natives. Several factors compete to stoke the fires of these debates – chiefly planning restrictions (in the green belt and inner city) and the sheer demand for London’s residential addresses. Decades of government over-control – from multiple layers of administration – have fuelled a nightmarish imbalance of supply and demand.

A global city requires liquidity in its housing market – but London’s feels a lot like treacle. Thick treacle.

London is a top global city with excellent services, amenities, and resources. No development policy would be worthy of the name without acknowledging that the maintenance of London’s position as the key centre of global finance, business, and culture is paramount for its prosperity and future. But this cannot be maintained without action being taken concertedly across the board to liberalise construction and free the leviathan of residential construction from the callous shackles of planning control. A global city requires liquidity in its housing market – but London’s feels a lot like treacle. Thick treacle.

Innovation is not a likely outcome from a process that is widely regarded as the most Byzantine in the world

Hank Dittmar of the Prince’s Foundation recently called, in addition, for renewed focus on the dimension of aesthetics. He complained in an article for bdonline.co.uk of standardisation in new developments, the commodification of construction, and the ubiquity of major cities everywhere being buried under a forest of uninspired medium rise tower blocks. Just as with the identikit suburban estates of recent generations though these blocks are the inevitable result of over-regulated professionalised planning where an army of architects, surveyors, and lawyers working to a single stultifying model are required to initiate any building work more significant than a conservatory. Ad hoc innovation is not a likely outcome from a process that is widely regarded as the most Byzantine in the world. Instead, a dry monotony in production is effected, punctuated by the occasional outrageously self indulgent design of an architectural megastar.

Many of the problems thrown up by planning liberalisation result not from liberalisation per se, but from the partial application thereof. Why preserve suburban gardens when it is impossible to expand a city footprint? Why save a listed building when the value of the land is greater than the beauty of the ancient structure on it?

Is such an approach feasible in 21st century Britain? It is not only feasible – it is sensible.

The cost savings from dropping the immense baggage of planning control plus the instant uplift to the treasury from a boom in construction would be a welcome shot in the arm to our flagging economy. A return to the entrepreneurial and diverse developments of times past would both address the dire state of the property market and make way for a new age of classic British architecture; led, as it should be, by public demand rather than bureaucratic conditions.

This article, by Edward Keene, first appeared in PrimeResi on 15.08.13.  To view the original article please click on the attachment below.

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