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Angela Tilby: Aesthetics of housing matter

27 October 2023

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SIR KEIR STARMER has committed a future Labour government to an extensive house-building programme, promising to change the planning regulations and extend opportunities for development to low-quality greenfield sites, redescribed as “greybelt”. It is a bold promise.

He is right to challenge the nimbyism that makes planning so difficult. No one has a permanent right to a particular view when buying a house, or to guaranteed seclusion from new neighbours.

But there are other issues that need to be addressed. The first is the tedious functionalism of so much contemporary architecture. As far back as 1964, Pete Seeger had a chart hit with Malvina Reynolds’s song Little Boxes, a satirical take on American suburbia. The little boxes were houses “all made out of ticky-tacky”, a reference to inferior building materials; “and they all look just the same.”

Fifty years on, and, across the Atlantic, our new houses are not built to delight, and they are often not built to last. If we have to build with ticky-tacky, and we don’t mind all being the same, we would be infinitely better off with flat-pack houses. Just think, we could pack them up when we wanted to move and plant them in a new location, like mobile homes. Perhaps they are the future.

Meanwhile, we continue to build estates that are simply deserts. I have friends who, relieved to be able to buy a house at all, find themselves marooned miles from shops, with no public buildings, surgeries, playgrounds, schools, bus stops, or other amenities. Builders are known to promise these things and then spectacularly fail to deliver. It is hard not to believe that, having made their profits, they simply move on. Homes are not infrequently badly designed, with poor storage, and flimsy walls and insulation.

Compare them with the cramped, and often condemned terraces that still stand in our inner cities. Or to the sturdy social housing in, say, Middlesbrough or Liverpool. Although sometimes far from amenities, older buildings often have decent lines, roofs, and windows, and even ornament, which somehow conveys neighbourliness and belonging. I would infinitely rather live in a solid two-up, two-down terrace than on a ticky-tacky middle-class estate.

I cannot help feeling that our construction industry is grooming us for a soulless future, in which life is lived online and everything that we need is delivered by drone. But what grinds me down most is the lack of any sense of civic pride about our spaces and dwellings. Blandness rules — or sheer ugliness. The Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, admittedly, has made some attempt to address this, to make builders consider the kind of houses that people actually want to live in; but there is a long way to go. Public aesthetics, in the end, are a moral question.

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