“It can be instructive to look at how past Londoners have imagined the city’s future”: on unbuilt London

The Barbican Estate: not the future of London, but quite popular nonetheless. Image: Riodamascus/Wikimedia Commons.

The years prior to 2012 saw a stream of criticism surrounding the plans to host the London Olympics. The costs of pulling everything together; the impact on the Lea Valley; the displacement of small local businesses; the prospect of security missiles on east London roofs; the security miscalculations (troops were eventually brought in alongside G4S); the unsightliness of Anish Kapoor’s Orbit; the fast lanes to the site for grandees... All this, and more, led to predictions that Londoners would leave during the games and reduce the city to a ghost town.

But once the gold medals started rolling in, the concerns dissipated. Today, we are more likely to remember the games as an expression of the UK as a multicultural, modern, open, and sportingly successful country.

To plan for future triumphs often requires us to be blinkered. Faith in an idea for the future can demand tunnel vision. The German-born economist, Albert O. Hirschman, who died in 2012, liked to tell the story of the 19th-century construction of the railway line connecting Boston and the Hudson River. Laying the line required tunneling through a mountain, something planners assumed would be relatively easy.

But the project was much more complicated and difficult than anyone had imagined, and cost ten times more than expected. If the designers and planners and construction companies had known how hard it would be, no one would have committed to it; yet in the end, the result immeasurably improved the economy of the region.

Hirschman developed the principle of the Hiding Hand, a play on Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, which argued that humans have a natural propensity to underestimate the difficulty of preparing for the future. This leads, on the one hand, to ingenious problem-solving of a kind we wouldn’t willingly embark on if we knew what was coming, and on the other to unintended consequences and perverse outcomes.

As London tries to think itself into the world of the mid-21st century, to assess what will be required in 10, 25 or 50 years’ time, it can be instructive to look at how past Londoners have imagined the city’s future. In a previous issue of London Essays, the Centre for London journal from which this article is an extract, Geoff Mulgan suggested that the city is full of membranes into the past. Arguably, the grand projects of London’s past offer a membrane of sorts into the future, even if the future for which they were built never truly materialised. They act as monuments to our ideas of how we thought we could shape things.

The modernism of the Royal Festival Hall, for example, tells of a brief exciting moment amid post-war austerity when the Festival of Britain celebrated the country’s modernity and energy – although its attendant monument, the Skylon, was famously dismantled and sold for scrap.

Further down river, Canary Wharf suggests a less communitarian, more Thatcherite free market vision of the future. The Barbican offers up a utopian democratic vision, although its brutalism can also sometimes be uncomfortable: it turned out that Londoners were less keen to learn a new way of using urban space than its architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, anticipated. The elevated thoroughfares and areas originally intended for shops remain deserted. But the Barbican continues to thrive, as a visit any weekend will attest. And an apartment, if one ever becomes available, is well out of the price range of most Londoners.

At least as instructive are the plans that never materialised. In 1855, Joseph Paxton proposed the Great Victorian Way, a ten-mile glass loop circling a portion of central and west London: a spectacular arcade of glass-covered streets, roadways, shops, railway stations, and three river crossings. New technology would enable the use of glass strong and cheap enough for the project, which received the backing of parliament.

In the event, the cholera epidemic of 1858’s Great Stink meant funds had to be diverted and the plan shelved; ultimately, London’s sewer system was created instead. The unbuilt loop is said to have provided the basis for the route of the Central line.

In 1909, the writer Ford Madox Ford published an essay titled The Future in London, offering a provocative vision of a planned city circumscribed by a 60-mile sweep of a compass point set in Threadneedle Street. As Iain Sinclair has noted, this anticipated the vision of Britain’s most famed town planner, Patrick Abercrombie (the moving spirit behind the M25 and the green belt) in reading “London as a series of orbital hoops, ring roads and parkland”.

Bizarrely, in the 1930s, Charles Glover proposed turning King’s Cross into an airport with eight runways arranged in an octagon on stilts. Later, he suggested planting a heliport on the roofs of Covent Garden. These plans didn’t take off, so to speak, though in some respects London City Airport is a descendant.

There were other attempts to elevate the city: during the postwar reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s, the City of London Corporation proposed a network of elevated walkways between the buildings of the Square Mile. These “pedways” would take pedestrians off the street and give them their own walkways on higher ground. Some were built, albeit in a scattershot manner: the plan only really found expression in the Barbican (with limited success), and elsewhere, the pedways ran into dead ends, or failed to join up with each other. The Corporation eventually abandoned the policy. Fragments stand today as small glimpses into a planned post-war future that didn’t quite come to pass.

In 1954, Geoffrey Jellico, Ove Arup and Edward Mills devised a scheme to demolish Soho bit by bit and replace it with several large towers sitting on top of a platform, below which gardens and canals would have traced the shape of former streets.

In the late 1960s, a scheme was hatched to build the London Ringways – miles of elevated motorways encircling and crossing the city. Thousands of people would have had to be moved and entire districts of the capital disrupted for this to come to pass. Public resistance, the first stirrings of the road protest movement and high costs brought the scheme back down to earth.

The ringways, as planned in the 1960s. Click to expand. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1982, there was an idea to pedestrianise Oxford Street by raising the cars onto a flyover running the length of the street, about two stories above the existing road. Escalators would allow pedestrians to access buses above. The whole thing would have been encased in glass (the Great Victorian Way lives on), effectively creating a shopping mall out of Oxford Street. After initial interest in the plan by architect Brian Avery (who would later design the BFI Imax and the London Transport Museum), the project ran aground on questions of cost, logistics and fears over pollution.

Muddling through

Giant malls to rival Oxford Street would follow later. Attempts to “fix” Oxford Street would continue, as would the pollution. These wacky schemes do little to moderate the cynicism that is often expressed when our own sense of the future is articulated. But too much scepticism can be unhelpful, inducing helplessness: we do need to plan in some way for the future. And the future can be bright, and much-loved: the Barbican and the Southbank Centre now feel as indelible to London as Hyde Park and Regent Street.

In his 1959 essay, ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”’, the American political scientist Charles Lindblom made the case against too much theory when it comes to future planning, and for “building out from the current situation, step-by-step and by small degrees”.

The problem with grand visions of the future, Lindblom argued, is that “on many critical values or objectives, citizens disagree, congressmen disagree, and public administrators disagree”. Schemes that start as if the present were a blank slate, proposing their own fundamental values, are almost invariably doomed to failure: “A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. If he proceeds through a succession of incremental changes, he avoids serious lasting mistakes in several ways.”

Adapting to fast-moving times with gradual incremental changes can feel like playing catch-up. But it has often been London’s way. When John Nash designed Regent Street in the early 19th century, he imagined a long straight boulevard like those of French cities, running from Portland Place to Carlton House Terrace. Private ownership of land put paid to this design, as did St James’s Square. Instead, his street had to curve to avoid some places along the route, although various streets and buildings were still demolished, whether people liked it or not.

The 1813 plans for Regent Street.

The street also had to be moved a little further west. To get down to Pall Mall, Regent Street takes an awkward hard right at Piccadilly. Towards the end of the street’s development, a separate plan to construct Piccadilly Circus was added into the mix. And the buildings were rather soon redeveloped, some of them as little as 70 years later: little of the original remains beyond the shape of things.

A dose of scepticism is a useful asset when it comes to envisaging the city of the future, as is an acceptance that divergent interests and demands will force upon us awkward turns here and there. But ambition and vision are important too. Big ideas have shaped the city and will continue to do so. From Regent Street to the Olympic Park, Londoners’ visions of the future are all around us, muddling through and showing off their optimistic futurism.

This is an extract from London Essays, a journal published by Centre for London and supported by Capital and Counties Properties PLC. The full collection of essays are available here.


To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.

But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.